To 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 Taras Grescoe, author of Straphanger, had to say:
If you could invite any memoirist, non-fiction writer, or biographer (living or dead) to dinner...
"If you don't have anything nice to say, then come over here and sit right next to me." There's wisdom in that old quip, especially when it comes to choosing dinner companions. Problem is, almost all the non-fiction writers I've met are, by temperament, listeners, observers, and questioners. (At least, that's what I've heard and observed. Any time I bothered to ask.) A real master of the form can get you to spill your guts, all the while taking mental snapshots of the size and colour of your organs. It can be cathartic, sure. But it can also make for an exhausting night.
Which is why the non-fiction writer I'd most like to have sitting next to me would be Jessica Mitford, the second youngest, doughtiest, and by far the reddest of the fabulously glamorous Mitford sisters. "Decca," who wrote The American Way of Death and dug up the dirt on Bennett Cerf's Famous Writers' School, may have been a self-made muckraker, but she was also the best kind of raconteur: one with ample adventures, all of them true, of her own to recount.
First, though, there's no way I'm fussing over sauces when I'd rather be conversing. (For a primer on why writers shouldn't cook for other writers, look up what happened when Paul Theroux invited Anthony Burgess home for prawns.) We'd go out for dinner, my treat, and, if Decca were still alive, I'm sure she'd consent to something old-time and Southern California. Musso and Frank Grill, on Hollywood Boulevard, with its Gin Fizzes, Au Jus sandwiches, and octogenarian waiters would suit the occasion nicely.
I'd have so many questions for her. First of all, what does a 14-year-old girl pack when she's running off to join the Loyalists fighting Franco in Spain? What was it like knowing she could have altered the course of history by killing Hitler, as she considered doing when visiting her über-fascist sister Unity in Germany? How does the product of one of England's wealthiest and most eccentric families end up working as a bartender in Miami? And (this of selfish interest to me) how do you balance being a parent with writing thousands of letters, hundreds of articles, and nearly a dozen exposés and memoirs?
As the gin flowed, and Decca declaimed her far "L" opinions in the finest "U" English, I'd definitely be sweating over my Welsh Rarebit. Because I'd be saving my best question for last.
Whipping out the kazoo I'd secreted in a vest pocket, I'd ask the lead vocalist of "Decca and the Dectones" (the name of the band when she founded when she was in her 70s) if she would honour the room with her rendition of Maxwell's Silver Hammer.
Believe me, I'd be taking mental notes the whole time.