Creative Nonfiction Prize
Meet the readers: Marian Botsford Fraser
For the next two weeks, we'll be introducing you to the 10 talented Canadian writers who helped narrow down the 2,300+ entries for the 2011-2012 CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize into the longlist.
First up: Author and National Magazine Award-winning journalist Marian Botsford Fraser.
Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write?
I am a freelance writer, critic and broadcaster, living in Toronto. I used to do a lot of radio work (for CBC's IDEAS and other shows) but now I mostly do freelance journalism. However right now I've got two book projects on the go.
What's your day job?
Writing, trying to earn a living writing. I've never held a real job, other than contracts for radio or government communications consulting work. But I haven't done one of those for more than ten years.
What's your literary street cred?
I've written three nonfiction books, I've won awards for nonfiction magazine pieces, and reviewed books for many years. For the past five years I've been the Books Editor for MORE magazine; this was a great gig, because I got to choose all of the titles, and I aimed for a mix of first-class fiction and literary nonfiction.
Why did you want to be a reader for the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize?
Having entered the contest many times, and won in 2009, I was curious about the nature and calibre of entries, and also interested in what it was that people really wanted to write about.
What do you like most about nonfiction?
I like the immediacy and freshness of it. I like to observe a writer in the act of finding his or her own voice. It's a tough craft; people go at it as if all they have to do is get in touch with their memories and then lay it all out, but that's only the first step. Memories are just raw material. It's called "creative" nonfiction for a reason!
Where did you read the entries?
I was travelling a lot during the months I was reading, so I asked for all of the manuscripts to be sent to me electronically. Once I figured out that a "Zip" file actually had to be "unzipped," not just opened, I read the entries on my iPad and laptop. Funnily though, I kept my notes on the pieces I read in a red Moleskin notebook.
When you’re reading hundreds of stories and trying to choose the most exceptional ones, what are you looking for?
I want to open the door, which is usually the title, and walk into someone's world, someone's imagination. I want the writer to take me through a very clear story and then release me at the end. It's not a long journey; the writer has to get my attention in the first paragraph and then be completely in control of the material. I'm looking for a strong narrative, a definite voice, a real place, a tone.
Can you describe a couple of the stories that struck you as standouts?
"Monkey's Wedding," about growing up in South Africa, is rich with beautiful words like shongololo and hadedas and tokoloshe, which give it a lovely rhythm. The childhood memories start warm and sweet, and then become dark, endangered, cold. "Almost Home Again" is about a man going for a walk and ending up in his childhood house. The fall of an apple, a King, takes him into that house... One of the striking things about the piece is how the writer manages the pace; leisurely, contemplative, as he walks around the bay, and then quickening when the apple falls and he finds himself inside the house which is almost claustrophobic with memories. The main action begins, and ends, with an apple.
What is it about a story that makes you put it in the YES pile?
What makes this so interesting is that I can't actually say exactly what works. Something has to stick. It might be the incident, it might be a particular character, an unexpected detail... it might be words that just jump off the page. It's something that I pause over, and reflect on, and then remember. It's not that it is "perfect" because even many of the YES pieces have flaws and wobbly bits. But the overriding impact will somehow be original and memorable. (I can still taste and see that apple in "Almost Home Again"!)
Having read all these stories, do you have tips, any dos and don’ts for story writers?
A superb first sentence is essential; you've only got 2,000 words. Detail, detail detail... smells, sounds, tastes, colours. A beginning, a middle, an end, but not necessarily in that order (meaning it has to be shaped and polished). Something more original than easy sentiment. If you're going to tackle death, birth, illness, you need something more than just your immediately available emotions. And you cannot "write" a life story in 2,000 words; choose one incident, one day, or two, and bring that to life. No polemics, no lectures... something that feels authentic, and that a reader will connect with. Dialogue is really hard. Don't use a fancy verb and adverb when you just need, "he said." (Not "she warbled, cheerily.") Humour is hard. Trick endings should be avoided. Always read your piece aloud.
What did you enjoy most about the experience?
Coming upon something that worked, and knowing it was good.
Marian Botsford Fraser is a freelance writer, editor, critic and broadcaster. She’s the author of three acclaimed nonfiction books: Walking the Line: Travels Along the Canadian/American Border; Solitaire: The Intimate Lives of Single Women and Requiem for My Brother. She’s written for GRANTA, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus and The Literary Review of Canada, and produced documentaries for CBC Radio's IDEAS. Marian has been Books Editor for MORE magazine for the past five years. She was the 2009 winner of the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize and won a National Magazine Gold Award in 2011. Marian is Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International.