Q&A: 2013 Weston Prize winner Graeme Smith

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Former Globe and Mail correspondent Graeme Smith spent several years in southern Afghanistan reporting on the war, eventually chronicling his experiences in his thought-provoking memoir The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan. During a ceremony in Toronto on Oct. 21, Smith was awarded this year's Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. CBC Books had a chance to sit down with Smith following the announcement.

Q: Congratulations, Graeme! You recited a few lines of Emily Dickinson during your acceptance speech. Where did that come from?

Graeme Smith: "I had a very inspiring teacher in grades 7 and 8, who encouraged me to write, and encouraged us to read. And it's always helpful to have a little bit of poetry to pull out when you have absolutely no idea what to say."

Q: Who was that teacher?

A: "Deborah Gibson, [who taught at] Forest Glen Public School in New Hamburg, Ontario, which is a small town between Stratford and Kitchener-Waterloo."

Q: Anything to say to her?

A: "Thanks for telling me to write. You were right."

dogs-eating-200.jpgQ: Your book's poignant opening lines are: "We lost the war in southern Afghanistan and it broke my heart." Was there ever a chance to win?

A: "There's still a chance to win. Where NATO failed, the Afghan Security Forces could still prevail. There is still hope. It's tough. It's an uphill fight. They're going to need a lot of help. And really, no one knows what's going to happen next. And that is truly terrifying in Afghanistan. But it's not over ... the Afghan government could still stand. And that's what makes it so saddening, to see the international forces declaring victory and walking away, 'cos that's not what they need right now. They cannot be abandoned again."

Q: You first went to Afghanistan to cover the war in 2005, and as you chronicle in your book, your views on Afghanistan and the Canadian mission have changed during your time there. Have you changed as a person, as well?

A: "Liane McLarty, who is the general manager of the Eyeopener, the campus newspaper at Ryerson who has known me for many years, told me recently that I seemed sadder and slower. And she's probably right. I try not to be a morose person, but I am just a little more cautious than I was, you know. I don't take the same risks that I used to. I don't charge into situations the way that I used to.

I got lucky a number of times; when I was bombed, shot at, rocketed, mortared, RPG'd (attacked with rocket-propelled grenades), chased through the streets of Kandahar city. I'm very fortunate to be sitting here, and I don't take that for granted. I don't assume I'll be lucky again. So I'm pretty careful now when I go out into the world."

Q: As a journalist actually living full-time in southern Afghanistan for several years and seeing the war unfold with your own eyes, how much did the mainstream Western media get right when it came to covering what was really happening?

"It was tough. It was a tough assignment. It was incredibly expensive to run an operation down there. It was incredibly dangerous, obviously. So, almost just because of the circumstances people ended up spending a lot of time with the troops, which costs less. In some ways, the risks were different and were thought to be more manageable. And so you ended up with a large percentage of the reporting being embed reporting. I am a huge fan of embedded reporting, I embedded a lot, I think it's absolutely essential ... don't buy this whole thing about embed reporting warping a journalist's perspective.

But you just can't do embed reporting. You have to get thoughts and perspectives from people in the war zone when you're not travelling with the troops, because they'll say different things to you. So it was a shame it was that heavy on covering the troops' side and not so much what is the effect of the troops in the country. But I can't be too critical of the people who struggled away down there because the Afghan and foreign journalists work incredibly hard. Some were killed and kidnapped, and they put everything on the line to do that work. It's easy to be critical from a distance, to be honest."

Q: Are there any stories about Afghanistan you wanted to tell in this book but didn't get a chance to?

A: "Yes. I deleted a lot of material from this book when I realized I was going back to Afghanistan. That's the nature of working in Afghanistan, if you want to stay in the country, there are some things you can't say."

Q: Can you share some of those stories?

A: "No." (Laughs)

Q: Are you interested in writing another book about Afghanistan?

A: "I still write about Afghanistan quite actively. All of the reports we do for the international crisis group are available online. I don't think I will take on any side-projects as a journalist while I do my day job for a while.

Going through the hell of writing this book made me think I would never ever, ever write another book again. But people seem to like it, and it's encouraged me to maybe take another shot and write another book someday. I don't know whether it'll be about Afghanistan or about something else."

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