By Bookmarked and Brian Bethune - Friday, February 1, 2013 - 0 Comments
The Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, which recognizes excellence in Canadian non-fiction writing, will award $25,000 to the winning author on March 4. Join Maclean’s and the five finalists Feb. 27 for a panel discussion at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto.
Ross King, 50, may have a Ph.D. in English literature, a couple of novels and six critically acclaimed books on art history to his credit, including Leonardo and the Last Supper, nominated for the Charles Taylor prize. But as a boy growing up in Saskatchewan, what King really wanted to be was a political cartoonist. A certain Prairie realism—“I had no ability to draw or paint,” he says—sent him to university for 14 years. Next, unable to find an academic job, he tried his hand at historical novels. They did “well enough,” says King, who has lived in Britain since 1992, but he still wanted to write about actual history, particularly art history. “What I took away from novels were the basics of writing them—plot, character, action, atmosphere. I wanted to put all that into books that read like novels except that everything was true.”
King may not be able to draw, but craft well-researched, beautifully written, novel-like illuminations of key moments in the history of Western art? That he can do like few others. Since 2003, three of King’s books have been nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, with two of them winning it, including Leonardo.
By macleans.ca - Thursday, October 18, 2012 at 9:50 AM - 0 Comments
An excerpt from Alix Ohlin’s novel Inside, about rescue and the importance of trying to help
Alix Ohlin, 40, moved around a lot in her life before she came to rest two years ago as a professor of creative writing at Lafayette College in Easton, Penn. But she was born and bred in Montreal, the city that’s home to many of the characters in her novel Inside, shortlisted for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize (and this year’s Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize). “I feel very rooted there, in a place so particular and vibrant,” she says in an interview. “Wherever I go, I always identify as a Montrealer.” The city, though, took a while to enter into Ohlin’s writing. In grad school, she was reluctant to set a story there, for fear her classmates, mostly American, wouldn’t understand the references. “I used a generic suburb instead, sort of like the one I grew up in, but it felt really wrong. One of the purposes of this novel was to go back to writing about Montreal in a way that felt truer to the memories I have of it, including the way people move back and forth between English and French.” But Inside is far from being a novel of place, Ohlin agrees. “There’s a line in it,” she points out, “that reads that some people are destined to leave a place and keep on leaving.” The book moves from Montreal to New York to Iqaluit to Los Angeles. And to Kigali in Rwanda—the one place in Inside where Ohlin herself has never been—during the 1994 genocide. In a story about therapists and patients, the latter scarcely more psychologically damaged than the former, the Rwanda section is, in some regards, the entire novel writ small. “The book is about rescue and the importance of attempting to help—whether or not the attempts succeed, they’re central to our humanity—and the Rwanda section was a way of writing that theme in an international way, to reflect and underscore how it unfolds in individual lives elsewhere in the novel.” Here is Alix Ohlin on reading (and writing), followed by an excerpt from Inside:
By Brian Bethune - Thursday, September 13, 2012 at 5:00 AM - 0 Comments
The Canadian author has given more than $1 million in royalties to charity
Back in 2000, when she first published The Breadwinner and dedicated the royalties from it to an Afghan women’s group, Canadian writer Deborah Ellis hoped, for its sake, the novel would earn back the entire $3,000 publisher’s advance. Today, after 9/11 and the shift of international focus to Afghanistan, The Breadwinner and its two sequels (Parvana’s Journey and Mud City) are one of the most famous trilogies in recent tween literature, and their royalties total more than $1 million. The money has all gone to causes dear to Ellis—mostly, via Canadian Women For Afghanistan, for girls’ education in the war-torn nation—although Mud City’s returns are dedicated to Street Kids International. “I don’t notice it going,” says Ellis, laughing, in an interview at Pomegranate, a Persian restaurant in Toronto. “It’s all whisked away before I see it, like an automatic savings plan.”
Ellis, 52, has now published 20 books, and even without the financial boost of her bestsellers, the Simcoe, Ont., author was able to leave her job as a mental health counsellor five years ago to become a full-time writer. But long before her writing career began, Ellis was passionately interested in what she calls “peace and justice” issues, from anti-war activism to women’s rights. They all coalesced in 1996 after the Taliban captured Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, and gave free reign to misogyny. “Here I was,” says Ellis, “a woman in Canada, used to doing what I want, going where I want—I couldn’t imagine living under a government that restricted that because of my gender.”
Travelling on her savings, she went to an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan the next year, and again in 1999, and did what she could to help, which turned out to be recording the stories of the women in the camps. Ellis collected a depressingly familiar litany of war horrors, and a few stories specific to the Taliban’s rule: girls’ schools destroyed, women beaten for being out without male accompaniment, and young girls working dressed as boys, risking drastic retribution to bring home a little money or food. She put it all into The Breadwinner, about courageous 11-year-old Parvana, who assumes her dead brother’s place after her father is imprisoned in order to provide for her mother and sisters. The response, financially and critically, was massive, and Ellis can expect more of the same now that her iconic heroine is back in her newest novel, My Name is Parvana.
By Richard Warnica - Tuesday, January 10, 2012 at 5:54 PM - 0 Comments
The Charles Taylor Prize always brings out many very good writers. It rarely takes my breath away.
I was at the shortlist announcement for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction this morning. Our regular books writer, Brian Bethune, couldn’t make it, so I got to enjoy the fancy cookies and ogle the book types instead. I’ve always been a bit fascinated by the Charles Taylor Prize—and a little bit confused by it, too. Some of the winners have been very good over the years. (Ian Brown’s book, which won in 2010, was great.) But at the same time I’m never quite sure what they mean by “literary.”
Most years, the Taylor longlist is a big mix of biographies, popular works by academics and assorted Title-Colon-Subhead style memoirs (eg: Golden Forest: A Son’s Exploration of the West Coast Woodlands). There’s usually a lot of good work on interesting topics. But rarely does anything jump out as aggressively new. The focus always seems to be more on the subject than the form.
Partly, I think, this is because Canada doesn’t have the magazine culture the U.S. has. There just aren’t the venues here that compete to develop big feature writers that there are in the States. And, to my mind, anyway, that’s where great non-fiction comes from. The two best non-fiction books I read last year, John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead and The Possessed by Elif Batuman are both collections of, mostly, magazine work. (Sullivan’s in Harper’s, GQ and the Paris Review; Batuman’s in Harper’s, the New Yorker and N+1.)
Competition among the glossies and the literary magazines down south pushes young talent to do new, better work faster. It’s why a new star, like the New Yorker’s David Grann, or Canada’s own Chris Jones at Esquire, seems to pop up every few years. In Canada, even with the Taylor Prize and the lucrative new B.C. national prize, our nonfiction writers just aren’t playing in the same world. They aren’t working from the same kind of tradition, or with the same kind of editors, that produced a John McPhee or a Joan Didion or a David Foster Wallace.
None of this is meant to slight the prize or the books or even the many, many talented Canadian magazine writers out there. People are doing fascinating, wonderful non-fiction in Canada. I think giving them money and national press exposure is an unqualified good thing. But I can’t help wishing, every year when the list comes out, for something with a little more pop, something with a voice or a structure that makes me say: “That’s it. That’s the new thing.” (Obviously, I haven’t read everything out there. I’m no doubt missing a lot of great work.)
All that aside, what struck me about this year’s shortlist was how B.C.-centric it was. It’s tough to argue, after leaving a reception at a Bay Street Bank, that the centre of the Canadian literary world is tilting west. But there’s no doubt that in fiction and non-, B.C. is a power.
Consider today’s short-listed writers:
· JJ Lee, nominated for The Measure of a Man, is a Vancouver Sun columnist and CBC Vancouver commentator.
· Wade Davis, nominated for Into the Silence, is a B.C. native who splits his time between Vancouver and Washington, D.C.
· Charlotte Gill, Eating Dirt, lives on the Sunshine Coast northwest of Vancouver.
· Madeline Sonik, Afflictions and Departures, wrote much of her book as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Victoria, where she now teaches.
· Andrew Westoll, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, lives in Ontario, but has an MFA from the University of British Columbia.
I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say about that fact. But some credit has to go to province’s two big writing schools, at UBC and UVic, not just for shaping authors like Westoll and Sonik (and 2011 Giller winner Esi Edugyan) but also for creating literary communities those cities now enjoy.