Charles Taylor Prize: Madeline Sonik on launching her book


With past recipients including Richard Gwyn, Carol Shields, Ian Brown and Charles Foran, the annual Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction is one of the country's most prestigious awards. The winner of the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize will be announced on March 5. 

From February 27 to March 2, each of the five 2012 nominees are sharing part of their writing experience with CBC Books. We are publishing one essay each day. Today, we hear from Madeline Sonik, author of Afflictions & Departures.


Madeline Sonik is a teacher, writer and editor, who currently teaches at the University of Victoria. Her published works include the poetry collection Stone Sightings, the novel Arms, the short story collection Drying the Bones and the children's novel Belinda and the Dustbunnys. Afflictions & Departures was published by Anvil Press in May 2011.

The mainstay of my audience at book launches has always been four or five devoted family members and friends who'd love me even if my book resembled the "All work and no play" manuscript of the psycho writer in The Shining. The trouble is that most people I know who have a passion for reading are writers, and writers often seem to have an aversion to book launches, including their own.

The launch for Afflictions & Departures was different, however. Amazingly, the Collard Room at Swans Hotel in Victoria, where the event took place, was packed to overflowing, and although I was launching with two other authors, the majority of attendees had come that evening in support of me.

They were mostly baby boomers and all women: a demographic, according to Publishers Weekly, that buys (and one would assume reads) the most books. It's not that these women knew me particularly well; with a few I had only a nodding acquaintance, although many of us had been sweating, grunting and groaning together for over a decade at the same gym.

I'd tentatively mentioned the launch first to Heather, a teacher and counsellor, just retired, who'd asked me what I did besides break my butt in fitness classes. I wasn't prepared for her enthusiasm. Not only was she genuinely excited, but she spread the word in the changing room, and before I knew it, my launch had become the event of the season.

 Madeline Sonik, the author, at a local boat launch.

Shirley, originally from Alresford, England, toned and fit at age 71, said she wouldn't miss it for the world. I knew my only real rival was tennis pro Roger Federer. She'd mentioned in passing that she thought he was hot and I recalled once she'd even missed a step class to watch him on TV.

All of the women who came to the launch bought copies of the book, and what's more astonishing, actually read it. I must admit, in spite of all their positive feedback, I suffered, at first, from a profound sense of exposure. With an autobiographical book, there are no fictional masks to hide behind. In reading about my young life, these women came to know me in an intimate way that our superficial gym acquaintanceship had not organically fostered. I was a little frightened when Linda, a retired English teacher, told me that after reading my book, she'd never be able to look at me in the same way. I wondered if that was good or bad, but soon discovered it was good. I may have sacrificed my anonymity, which is always difficult for an introvert, but the women from my gym spontaneously began telling their own stories.

Anne, a clinician at Vancouver Island Health Authority, arranged for an informal get-together at her home where we could all confer. We talked about the trials and delights of growing up, of relationships with parents and siblings, about having families of our own. We talked about the toys we had and didn't have, about the hard plastic smell of the profoundly misshapen Barbie and her lovable dreamboat Ken.

My Anh, a 51-year-old government accountant, recalled the baby doll she had in Vietnam. Her favourite aunt had given it to her, and because My Anh spoke to the doll, her mother was convinced it was inhabited by demons and flung it into the Mekong River.

It was amazing to me that the book had uncorked so many memories for all of us, and the meetings and memories and stories kept coming. Maria hosted our next gathering and told how, as a young educator, she'd gone to Iran to teach Canadian students. There, she'd become seriously involved with a Persian doctor, and when in 1979 the Islamic Revolution occurred, she was given an hour to evacuate. Because her boyfriend was doing his medical rounds and was out of contact, she didn't leave. Later, it was impossible for her to go. She married her boyfriend, in accordance with Islamic law, in order to keep her passport, but couldn't convince him to escape the country with her, which she eventually did alone. We meet next at Anne's and more anecdotes emerge. We talk about future meetings, of memory marathons, of the possibility of travelling somewhere together, all the while journeying with the stories we share.

"We should write a book!" I enthusiastically suggest, but can't help wondering who might come to our launch if we do.

Related links: