Anne Giardini is a force. President of forestry giant Weyerhaeuser until last year and now chancellor of Simon Fraser University, she has published two novels and is working on three more books – including a book of writing advice from her mother, Carol Shields, to be published next year.
Ms. Shields, the acclaimed author of books such as The Stone Diaries and Larry's Party, died in 2003.
In addition to all this, Ms. Giardini has served this year as one of the jurists for the B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction (along with journalist and writer John Fraser and Globe and Mail arts editor Jared Bland). The $40,000 prize will be awarded Friday.
The finalists are Karyn L. Freedman for One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery; Chantal Hébert with Jean Lapierre for The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day That Almost Was; Alison Pick for Between Gods: A Memoir; and James Raffan for Circling the Midnight Sun: Culture and Change in the Invisible Arctic.
The Globe and Mail met with Ms. Giardini at the Vancouver Club earlier this week.
With all of your other commitments, how do you find the time to read 134 books?
I'm a big reader; I've always made time to read. I realized years ago that if you give up television you gain a lot of time. And I love television. I can sit in front of it drooling like anybody else, but I just realized I had a choice to make between books and popular culture. And from my mother I learned the trick: you can dip into popular culture through your children or at a dinner party and know kind of the 10 buzz words and you can sound moderately not stupid, whereas you don't really need to spend all those hours actually viewing it. I made the vote in favour of books. And the analogy I made reading the books [for this prize] was: it's like chain smoking. You had to light the next one on the embers of the one before it. You really had to finish the one, and immediately pick up the next, in order to make the chain.
I can't imagine you have much leisure time.
Well, there's time. My mother had this expansive sense of time which I have inherited from her. My father was an active student of time as a concept, a collector of clocks. And my mother had this enormous belief that we think of time as a scarce good, but in fact we have oodles of it and we have to be – this is her phrase – partners with time, not victims of it. So I'm trying to be a partner of time and walk in solidarity with it rather than fight it or feel a victim of it. It's a mindset. I prefer always the mindset of abundance over the mindset of scarcity. So there is abundant time to read 134 books. There is. You have it and I have it too. Yes, I'm a quick reader. But that's a muscle. We do have time.
You grew up with this amazing writer of fiction. What role did non-fiction play in your own literary awakening?
Of course, in those days homes were not stuffed with books; even the homes of writers. Books were expensive and scarcer. And so we would have had 200 books in the house – I'm just guessing – and we read all of them without any discernment. And I remember reading non-fiction mixed in with the fiction and I didn't really distinguish between them. There was a book called We Took to the Woods about a family that went and lived in the woods, obviously, non-fiction. The Little Locksmith, which was a very famous book, must have been from my mother's mother's library, was non-fiction. We had encyclopedias so we dipped in and out of that. And those annual yearbooks that used to come out. And there were books about science and Farley Mowat non-fiction and what there was in a house. So I don't think I was raised to make much a distinction, although, of course, when I picked up Pride and Prejudice I realized I had entered a whole new level of reading that maybe fiction only could occupy. And I've continued to be a lifelong reader of non-fiction, particularly reading about the brain and consciousness and ideas of self and economics. We shouldn't restrict ourselves to one or the other; you're impoverished if you do.
The same principles apply anyway to fiction and non-fiction.
Telling a compelling story. A page-turner. Having a voice. Making a specific universal. To some extent seizing what's in the zeitgeist and either advancing it or creating it. So it was very interesting to see the kinds of books that were submitted. There were some very common themes that were obviously preoccupations of the chattering and reading people. Because of timing, reading in 2014, there were lots of books about World War I. Lots of books about climate change. Lots of books about the brain, consciousness, and a few about how social media changes consciousness and community. Books about happiness, living in urban environments, geography. Books about culture, specific cultures in different places in Canada. Books about flawed political institutions and ways to remedy them. Books about health; we're an aging population. It's like putting a dipstick into the collective consciousness and seeing what we're thinking about, writing about, talking about.
What were you looking for in awarding this prize?
The key criteria that kept coming back to me [were] that there had to be a contribution to a dialogue of national importance. Excellence in writing, intelligence. I think I sought intelligence above all. And a kind of commitment to the ideas being advanced that carries the reader along with it. The books that made it onto our long list and our shortlist fulfill all those criteria.
I'd like to ask you about the shortlisted books, beginning with James Raffan's Circling the Midnight Sun. It fell into several of those categories that you just mentioned: culture, Canada, climate change.
It rang all those bells. And it had a lovely slow build to it which I thought was sort of marvellous. It started out questioning and seeking and then built I thought in strength and voice throughout the entire book. You had the sense you were on the journey with him, starting at point zero in the Arctic Circle not knowing what he would find, and open to the journey. And then building in collective story and collective awareness of issues and community as he made that journey. I felt that he did that very successfully.
Alison Pick's memoir Between Gods – what was it about that book that struck you?
I loved how honest it was. And unprotective of self and community. She embraces the Jewish community, warts and all. It's funny and I don't think very many books on the short or long list are funny. It asks some of the bigger questions about belief and community, how we want to live our lives, how we want to raise our families, about marriage and about commitment to something in a light but intelligent way. So I found it delightful and it's quite a page-turner. It reads a lot like fiction. You just want to know what happens next all the way through to the end. She's a great storyteller.
We all know what happened the morning after the 1995 Quebec referendum but this book –
What a phenomenal premise. By Chantal Hébert asking herself what would have happened if the Yes vote had prevailed in Quebec and then talking to people directly involved we gain probably the clearest insight into that event that we've had in the years since. And it's not a reassuring one, at all. We collectively were unprepared for the potential of a Yes vote and maybe that's a good thing. Maybe being collectively unprepared made it less likely to happen in a kind of wish fulfilment kind of way; who knows? This is an important book and should be required reading for anyone interested in Canadian politics; really in the state of Canada today.
I wasn't aware of Karyn Freedman's book, One Hour in Paris, until it made your list. Is part of the joy of doing this job bringing to light books that maybe have been overlooked?
Yes. I've always thought there should be an award the year after from publishers that say which book last year was overlooked and should not have been? [Because] of timing or the reviewer got sick or the paper didn't have space or the cover was ugly – something didn't find its audience. Who doesn't love a quiet contender that suddenly comes to the fore? That's what every Rocky movie is about. So yes all of us were struck by this book and it's a powerful, searing is an overused term, but it's appropriate in this case, look at an issue that is of national importance and of course beyond national importance. It asks and strives to answer questions about violence and sexual violence in particular that confound us as right-thinking people. Confound us about how this can exist in a well-meaning society. And also how you put your life together after the kind of event we all spend most of our time trying to avoid.
You yourself write fiction. Do you still?
Yes, I have a very overdue novel. But I'm also working on two books of non-fiction. One is a collection of my mother's writing advice, which my son Nicholas and I are working on. Random House is going to publish that. It'll be the first Carol Shields book in years. And Claudia Casper and I are editing a book of essays on death. And I have a well overdue third novel, which HarperCollins is waiting for.
Do you know how bad you're making me feel about myself right now?
But I only do things I like to do. If I find something I don't want to do I find a way to make someone else do it. That's my engineer father – that's what engineers do; they engineer solutions. So I think I've adopted that. There's lots of things I don't do.
My husband can give you a long list.
This interview has been condensed and edited.