Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

Special Feature: The 2016 RBC Taylor Prize Nominees on Writing Non-Fiction

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With one of the most exciting non-fiction shortlists in recent years, the 2016 list of finalists for the RBC Taylor Prize for Non-fiction is an embarrassment of riches in the realm of Canadian non-fiction. Memoirs, history and biography all feature, representing some of the most acclaimed writers in the entire country.

Past winner Ian Brown returns with another powerful memoir, while acclaimed fiction writer Camilla Gibb makes a hugely successful jump to non-fiction with a memoir of her own. Biography queen Rosemary Sullivan's incredible story of Stalin's daughter has already captured multiple prizes, while inspiring fan favourite Wab Kinew adds a newly minted (and likely to be stratospheric) political career to his writing life as the prize ceremony approaches. Finally, David Halton connects with history lovers in telling the fascinating story of the life of his father, Canada's greatest war correspondent.

In full, the nominees are:

  • Ian Brown for Sixty: The Beginning of the End, or the End of the Beginning? (Random House Canada)
  • Camilla Gibb for This Is Happy (Doubleday Canada)
  • David Halton for Dispatches from the Front: Matthew Halton, Canada's Voice at War (McClelland & Stewart)
  • Wab Kinew for The Reason You Walk (Viking Canada)
  • Rosemary Sullivan for Stalin's Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva (HarperCollins Publishers)
  • We're thrilled to speak to all five finalists for a brief interview today. Read on to see which finalist chose another nominee's book as an all-time favourite and who would celebrate a Taylor Prize victory with salsa dancing and bubbly.

    The 2016 winner of the RBC Taylor Prize for Non-fiction will be announced at a luncheon in Toronto this Monday, March 7. Stay tuned to Open Book for news on the winner!

    Open Book:

    What do you love most about reading and writing non-fiction, and how do you personally judge the merit of a book of non-fiction?

    Ian Brown:

    What I love most about reading non-fiction is, first of all, the unexpected discovery that I am fascinated by a subject that I never expected to be fascinated by, that I didn't even realize I had an interest in--Stalin's daughter, say, or apes, or hymenoptera and some person who collects them, or the history of oranges, or a memoir of loss and gain, or (maybe) even the diary of some guy turning sixty years of age. That's the greatest thrill of good non-fiction, that it traffics in the other, secret kind of information--not the information we know we need to know, the stuff that lets us live our lives, the data that informs ninety percent of our actions, but the information that we didn't know we wanted to know and are thrilled to learn, the kind that makes our lives worth living, that enlarges our understanding of how other people live and what occupies their thoughts. The second thing I love about great non-fiction is its craft, the sheer inventiveness and pleasure of the writer, trying to give the reader as much pleasure as possible, on the page, in the mere act of reading--and it's nonfiction, to boot. So I guess those are the two things I look for in a work of nonfiction: a book that makes me want to pick it up and read it, no matter what it's about, and prose that makes me want to keep reading it, for the sheer pleasure of the sentences.

    Camilla Gibb:

    This Is Happy is my first experience of writing book-length non-fiction. This might sound strange, but I found it much more akin to writing poetry in its precision and economy; in the way it demanded of me exactly the right word. In terms of non-fiction, I tend to read memoir more than anything else. Good memoir — and I attribute this idea to my editor, Martha Kanya-Forstne — holds up a mirror very very close; uncomfortably so.

    David Halton:

    I prize the kind of non-fiction that challenges the intellect while leaving one with an enriched sense of humanity. As a lover of history I look for a book that rivets attention and rewards the reader with new insights and new perspectives. Solid and original research is a must but so is the literary skill to turn that research into a compelling narrative. In my view, the best non-fiction combines writing that can shake the emotions while being deeply informative. A test for me is the reluctance to finish a book that has captured my imagination.

    Wab Kinew:

    I love the inspiration that can be drawn from the life lessons of real people, for better and for worse. While fiction can inspire us to imagine a better tomorrow or a better world, non-fiction can surprise us what is actually possible. In my own life I’ve benefitted from having strong role models that I’ve known both very well and studied from a far. To have that circle of influence broadened by the ability to read about people I would never otherwise cross paths with is a real gift.

    Rosemary Sullivan:

    In writing non-fiction, I love the process: the research through archives that feels like detective work, the travel, the interviews with strangers. Non-fiction must combine factual accuracy with the narrative drive of fiction. I judge the merit of non-fiction by its capacity to convince me of its accuracy and to sustain my attention.


    Tell us briefly about a favourite non-fiction book you've read.


    I admire so many works of nonfiction that it's almost impossible to choose. But one I go back to all the time, that I reread every couple of years, is Ian Frazier's Great Plains, which is both a history of the Great Plains, and a travelogue of a part of the United States (and Canada) that everyone drives through, but rarely visits. And of course Frazier, one of the pre-eminent reporters and writers of his time, finds vast riches there. He writes not just about the incredibly rich aboriginal history of the Plains, and the harrowing history of their white settlement, but also about the way they find and distribute water, and about the condition of the roads, and about the many kinds of dry you find there, and about what it's like to listen to bluegrass on his truck radio under that big plains sky, and about Crazy Horse, and about the astonishing range of people who live there. And that's just for starters. And all of this is wrapped up into this completely captivating story, all of which is true. I gave it to my late father-in-law, a guy who wouldn't have read a book like that in a million years, a guy whose two consuming passions were the Philadelphia Eagles and machining He couldn't put it down, couldn't believe he read the whole thing, and couldn't understand why either of those things was happening. But he re-read it too. That's a good piece of nonfiction.


    The pain and courage of Ian Brown’s The Boy in the Moon


    My favourite non-fiction book is The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes. It is the epic story of how Australia was founded as a prison colony for British convicts. The research is staggering in its depth; the writing enthralling in its brilliance. Hughes describes the brutal transport of men, women and children from Britain into horrifying penal colonies where many were starved, some were executed, and most were tortured. He answers the questions of how such inhumanity could occur in the context of a supposedly civilized Georgian England. It is history that reads like a novel, heart-rending in parts but always richly informative. I have read it three times and would happily read it again!


    I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X at a formative period in my life — when I was a teenager struggling to reconcile the pride I felt at my Indigenous identity with the racism I had experienced growing up in Canada. The way I interpret the book is reflective of my growth as a person. Back then I was a little disappointed that Malcolm X mellowed out a bit near the end of his life, but now I see that he was moving closer to the true life of a spiritual person and drawing closer to the universal human value of love.


    One of my favourite books is Wade Davis’s One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest. As I read, I felt like I was traveling with him through Ecuador, Peru, Columbia, Brazil. I shared his pleasure, as an ethnobotanist, as he recounted the indigenous peoples’ sophisticated knowledge of the chemistry of plants; his endless fascination with their different visions of space and time; and his reverence for the Rain Forest. He made me more curious and attentive to the wonder of my own world.


    If you are awarded the 2016 RBC Taylor Prize, how might you celebrate?


    If I win the prize, I will take my wife and daughter out to a fantastic restaurant for lunch on a Saturday, and then afterwards we'll go to a really great bookstore, and we'll each buy a book — nonfiction! — that we want to read, and that we want each other to read. Then we'll have endless conversations about the books. That's often what passes for a good time in our house. We're wild types.


    I dare not even imagine.


    I would break open a bottle of champagne and raise a toast to my father for providing me with the extraordinary saga on which Dispatches from the Front is based.


    Typically I celebrate with food, so perhaps a night out with friends and family at a great steakhouse like 529 Wellington in Winnipeg.


    I will go to the Lula Lounge and dance with family and friends over champagne. And then I will think of my next book.

    Ian Brown is an author and a feature writer for The Globe and Mail whose work has won a total of nine Gold National Magazine and National Newspaper awards. He is the host of CBC Radio's Talking Books, as well as the anchor of TVO's two documentary series, Human Edge and The View from Here.

    Camilla Gibb is the author of four novels — Mouthing the Words, The Petty Details of So-and-so's Life, Sweetness in the Belly and The Beauty of Humanity Movement — and has been the recipient of the Trillium Book Award, the City of Toronto Book Award and the CBC Canadian Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Camilla has a Ph.D. from Oxford University and is an adjunct faculty member of the graduate creative writing programs at the University of Toronto and the University of Guelph-Humber. She is currently the June Callwood Professor in Social Justice at Victoria College, University of Toronto.

    David Halton’s career in journalism spanned more than forty years. He has been the CBC’s correspondent in Paris, Moscow, London and Washington, interviewing presidents and prime ministers and covering wars and insurrections in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. From 1978 to 1991 he was the CBC’s Chief Political Correspondent in Ottawa. In 2005, he was the winner of a Gemini Award that cited his “well-deserved reputation for integrity and responsibility in reporting that brings credit not only on him but also to the entire Canadian television industry.” He lives in Ottawa.

    Wab Kinew was named by the National Post as “an aboriginal leader seeking to engage with Canadians at large”. He is the Associate Vice-President for Indigenous Relations at The University of Winnipeg and the author of the Number 1 national bestseller The Reason You Walk: A Memoir. In 2014, Wab successfully defended Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda on CBC’s Canada Reads literary competition. His hip-hop music and journalism projects have won numerous awards. He is completing a Masters degree in Indigenous Governance and is a member of the Midewin. Wab is also an Honourary Witness for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

    Rosemary Sullivan, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, is the author of 14 books. Her latest book Stalin’s Daughter has been awarded the Hillary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize, the BC National Non-Fiction Prize, and has been shortlisted for the American PEN prize for Biography and National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography. She is an Officer of the Order of Canada.

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