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Creative Nonfiction Prize

Meet the readers: Susan Olding

We're 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.

Today, the author of the award-winning Pathologies on the benefits of reading on the road.

Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write?
I live in Kingston, Ontario, a few blocks from the lake. (But my view is of a brick wall, which strangely doesn’t bother me; it’s a warm, comforting colour that floods my room with a pinkish glow—plus, it’s non-distracting.) 

And I write essays, memoir, and other creative nonfiction as well as poetry and fiction. 

What's your day job?

I'm a writer for Precision Nutrition, a research-driven nutrition coaching company.

What's your literary street cred? 

My memoir in essays, Pathologies, won the Creative Nonfiction Collective’s Readers’ Choice Award in 2010 and was nominated for several other awards. Individual essays have won a variety of prizes here and in the U.S. I’ve also been a finalist in the nonfiction category for the CBC Literary Prizes. 

Why did you want to be a reader for the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize? 
I loved the idea of reading work by writers at different stages of development from all across the country. I was curious about whether particular themes or preoccupations would emerge. 

Besides, I was honoured to be asked. The contest has a distinguished history and writers look forward to it every year. 
What do you like most about nonfiction?
It’s such a capacious and flexible genre. As Annie Dillard has said, you can do anything in nonfiction—or try to. 

Where did you read the entries?

Mostly tucked into a corner of my garret study, with a cup of tea steaming beside me. Once I’d narrowed my list to twenty, I took those entries on a road trip and read them aloud to my family. That was a wonderful experience. We re-read some sentences and paragraphs again and again just for the pleasure of it. 

When you’re reading hundreds of stories and trying to choose the most exceptional ones, what are you looking for?  
Command of the language. Sensitivity to rhythm, pattern, sound. Sharp characterizations, structural integrity, depth of emotion, evidence of original thought.  

Can you describe a couple of the stories that struck you as standouts? 
I loved “Sweetbriar” for the way it made me experience the narrator’s emotion; it was structured as a kind of monologue, circling closer and closer to the core of the issue as it got to the end. “On the Coromandel Coast” stood out for its hypnotic rhythms and its interesting twist on the traditional travel narrative. “Kiss It Better” is a beautifully structured, genuinely reflective, and emotionally compelling essay—one of the few true personal essays I saw. “Train to Buchans” shone for its sharp imagery and its deft and economical characterizations, as well as for its structure. 

What is it about a story that makes you put it in the YES pile?
It moves me. Makes me cry, laugh, think hard, wonder. 

Having read all these stories, do you have tips, any dos and don’ts for story writers?
The only real rule in writing is to do what works—and to keep on trying until it does work.  Persist. Persist. Persist. 

What did you enjoy most about the experience?
Nonfiction writers, in particular, entrust readers with intimacies they might hesitate to share with their closest friends. It was an honour to be the recipient of that kind of trust (even though it was anonymous)—one I don’t take lightly. 

Many powerful stories didn’t make the long list. But that doesn’t take away from their importance as stories. 

Susan Olding's Pathologies: A Life in Essays won the Creative Nonfiction Collective's Readers' Choice Award for 2010. Her poetry and prose have appeared widely in magazines such as CV2, Event, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the New Quarterly, and the Utne Reader. She lives with her family in Kingston.

Photo credit: John W. MacDonald 

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set count down final date: 11/01/2014
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