Feed Your Mind: Kamal Al-Solaylee

hilary-weston-writers-trust-80.jpgTo celebrate the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction shortlist, we've teamed up with the Writers' Trust and Loblaws to bring you the Feed Your Mind contest. We've been asking readers which nonfiction writer they'd most like to dine with, what they'd serve and what they'd ask them.

The shortlisted authors have gotten in on the fun as well! Here is what Kamal Al-Solaylee, author of Intolerable, had to say:

If you could invite any memoirist, non-fiction writer, or biographer (living or dead) to dinner...

I have to fall back on my roots as a PhD student of 19th-century literature and invite not one but two biographers of my favourite Victorian writer, Wilkie Collins. My first guest will have to be Catherine Peters, who, in my opinion, wrote the definitive biography of Collins in 1991, The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins. My second has to be Peter Ackroyd who this year published a short, popular bio of the same novelist simply titled Wilkie Collins. What can make this meeting more interesting (or tense) is that Peters has recently written a review of Ackroyd's book for the U.K.'s Literary Review where she found a few "minor factual errors." How delicious is that?

kamal-200.jpgAnd, of course, if I could, I would invite Collins himself, but I realize I'm already pushing my luck with two guests. I mean, wouldn't it be great to ask him if their biographies are even remotely true to the life he remembers leading? Although all that opium that Collins consumed would make him a less-than-reliable witness to his own life.

I'm a lousy cook so I'll just take them out for dinner. Given the very English nature of this encounter, I guess we'll have to meet at a pub and order some traditional British fare: fish and chips, or steak and kidney pie and wash it all down with a pint or two. I'm largely a vegetarian, so that limits my own menu options but as long as I can order chips and gravy, I'm satisfied. Mind you, if neither fancies a pub meal, our next best British option would be a good curry. I've lived in England long enough to know how the Brits love a good Indian meal. It's the real national dish there, I think.

I want to ask Peters and Ackroyd about the private life of the author of The Woman in White (1860), The Moonstone (1868) and my favourites, Basil (1852) and Armadale (1866). He never married and kept two separate households with two women who knew about and accepted each other. In her review Peters writes that such arrangements weren't all that uncommon back then despite what we think of when we say Victorian morality.

I'm interested in how socially progressive Collins was -- in his life and in his fiction. His fiction displays a profound understanding of, and sympathy with, mental illness that anticipates our own thinking in this century. I think we can all learn something from him now, nearly 150 years after his death. Families, relationships and love come in all shapes and sizes. (And no one was more oddly shaped and minutely sized than Collins, a man whom Peters describes as ugly in the above-mentioned review.) Because Ackroyd also wrote a biography of Dickens, I'd like to ask him about the tension between the two novelists that led to their estrangement in the latter part of the 1860s after such close friendship and (literary and dramatic) collaborations in the 1850s.

It was my interest in Collins, as a man and a novelist, that kept me going on that six-year life project called the PhD, which I only started in order to buy myself some time to avoid going back to the Middle East and plan what to do next with my life. Soon after I defended my thesis, in 1996, I moved to Toronto. As years went by, my love for Collins was all that survived from that phase in life. I re-read The Woman in White recently and couldn't put it down, even though I've read it at least 10 times before.

It'll be wonderful to talk Wilkie for an hour or three with the two people who know him best, so to speak.

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