By Janet Somerville
RBC Taylor Prize trustee David Staines moderated Friday night’s onstage conversation among this year’s finalists, a diverse group of talented writers, including Charlotte Gray, Thomas King, J. B. MacKinnon, Graeme Smith and David Stouck. The prize commemorates Charles Taylor’s pursuit of excellence in literary non-fiction, and the $25,000 purse is awarded annually “to the author whose book best combines a superb command of the English language, an elegance of style and a subtlety of thought and perception.” Before each author spoke about what drove them to tell the stories they did, Staines read from the jury’s citation, each of which may be found in their entirety at www.thecharlestaylorprize.ca.
Charlotte Gray, about her book The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial That Shocked A Country, said her “ambition is to connect Canadians with their history. There is incredible texture in the past and true crime is a great way to open a door.” Noting that there would be “a tsunami of books” about the Great War on its centenary, Gray added that she “wanted to write about the Home Front.” To bring the teenaged maid Carrie Davies to life was the great challenge of this book, because she was only quoted three times on record. Gray found herself “admiring her in the end because she disappeared from the headlines. Servants are invisible in history.” Carrie never told anyone in her life about her involvement in the 1914 Massey murder. Indeed, she died keeping this secret.
Thomas King never planned to write The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, citing his preference for writing fiction where “I tell characters what to do and they do. I tell them what to say and they say.” However, when he delivered the 2003 Massey Lectures, “The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative,” he had to do quite a bit of research, and when Doubleday approached him with an offer he couldn’t refuse, he decided to give it the old college try. Yet, “for seven years I was trying to figure out ways to get out of writing it.” Then King realized that “it’s been a conversation I’ve had with myself most of my life.” About his decision to use dark humour, King explained, “I knew that the material had the potential to be overwhelming to the reader.” Plus, he’s a satirist at heart.
The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be emerged from J.B. MacKinnon’s desire to show “that we’ve had this problem of forgetting what the natural world can be. We need to realize that we live on a sorrowfully degrading planet. We have a remnant of a relationship to the natural world.”
Graeme Smith’s The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan was “a lament in some ways. I wanted to shine a spotlight because it’s falling out of the news. We made a giant mess. We should feel some responsibility.” Admittedly, part of it was personal for Smith: “I wanted to take some time away from the battlefield. A lot of days I recorded huge amounts of audio. Wind rustling through poppy fields of Kandahar.” And, he noted, “we’re leaving Afghanistan with more uncertainty about the future than it has had in the past dozen years. The insurgency continues to grow. We’re leaving behind an inferno. We’re leaving behind a growing war.”
David Stouck explained that writing Arthur Erickson: An Architect’s Life came to him as a retirement project after having taught for 40 years at Simon Fraser University. However, “the real reason I followed through was because I became fascinated with Erickson’s rethinking of democratic lines.” His vision for a common place on university campuses, for example, anticipated interdisciplinary studies. Plus, he was the first to design a green roof. He was an architect ahead of his time.
At the Gala Luncheon on Monday March 10th, this year’s jury of Coral Ann Howells, James Polk and Andrew Westoll, who all read 124 books, revealed Thomas King as the 2014 winner, chosen unanimously for his book The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. As a result, King has the privilege of choosing the recipient of the first-ever RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writer’s Award of $10,000. The prize will go to a lucky young writer whom King will mentor.
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