Hilary Weston Prize: Q&A with Candace Savage

hilary-weston-writers-trust-80.jpgSaskatchewan author Candace Savage has won the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction for her book A Geography of Blood, an exploration of the natural and anthropological history of the Cypress Hills. Savage, who is descended from Canada's early pioneer families, spent a decade researching the area's past, with particular attention to what happened to the indigenous peoples and the eco-system. She chatted with CBC Books after winning the prestigious prize in Toronto on Monday, November 12.

So, how does it feel to win this award?

You might have to ask me in two or three days when I believe it's really happened. It's pretty amazing.

You mentioned onstage that all the shortlisted authors this year were exceptional (Modris Eksteins for Solar Dance, Kamal Al-Soylalee for Intolerable, J.J. Lee for The Measure of a Man, Taras Grescoe for Straphanger). But what do you think the jury saw in your book?

There were five jurors and I have no insight at all into their conversations. Someone told me that Barbara Amiel Black has written a column that she's posted online in which she said that my book made her cry, that she had expected not to be interested -- I mean, why would you be interested in this back of beyond Cactus Hills out there in Saskatchewan -- but the story that's at the heart of the book is very powerful. It is very moving, and it's our story. It's the story of our relationship as Canadians with the land, especially in the West, and with the people who have been living on this continent for hundreds and thousands of years. 

Much of your book is about the glorification of pioneer mythology. You mention that you hope there will be a "new version" of pioneer mythology. What would you hope that new version includes or looks like?

My parents both grew up on homesteads that had been farms that had been created by their parents and their parents' parents. So I grew up feeling like I was one of these great pioneers myself. But of course, that story starts pretty late in the process. It doesn't take into account the ecological catastrophe of the destruction of the buffalo eco-system. It doesn't take into account the displacement of the people who were already there by fair means or foul - often foul. So that has to be part of the way people like me tell the story of how we got to be here.

You've written many books before but this is the first time you've really inserted yourself as a character in the story -- what was that experience like for you?

It was really fun. I've written a lot in what I've come to think of as "close third person," so instead of being there as a character, I'm the eyes for the reader. And that's really quite hard to have a lot of energy. In this book, I've used the first person narrator really as a device. I thought that the story that lies at the heart of the book is a painful story, and it's a story we've put a lot of energy into not knowing, and I thought it's going to take all the charm I can muster to make the unbearable bearable. And I thought that the reader would need company. And also, it's the story of the relationship between incoming people like my ancestors and indigenous people. So I'm telling stories that belong to both cultures, and I had to be there with all my limitations.

The late influential Western historian and writer Wallace Stegner is a prominent character in your book. He lived in Eastend, Sask., and you've stayed at his family home (which is now an artists retreat). You even have a fictional interview with him in which you bring up some of your concerns about his take on the history of settlement. What's your relationship with him like now?

Poor Wallace Stegner. I used him as a very accomplished stand-in for a whole generation telling the story of the settlement of the Prairies. And yeah, I gave him some pretty sharp pokes. But he was constantly himself, trying to tell that story better. And he also said that he was going to haunt the Stegner house in Saskatchewan, so I have a feeling he was there making my hand move across the page.

Related links

The Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction 2012: Explore the shortlist