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Creative Nonfiction Prize

Meet the readers: Robert Wiersema

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, author, reviewer and adored bookseller Robert Wiersema on what comic books (or Plato) have to teach us about great nonfiction.

Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write?
Having grown up in a small town in BC’s Fraser Valley, I’ve lived in Victoria for the last 25 years. I came here to go to school and never left.

I write a little bit of everything. I’m just finishing my third novel—the first two, Before I Wake and Bedtime Story, were both bestsellers on publication—and last year saw the publication of Walk Like a Man, my first full-length volume of nonfiction. I also do a freakish amount of reviewing, and writing about books and music.

What's your day job?
Writer by night, mild-mannered bookseller by day. I’ve been in the trade for more than twenty years, and have spent the last fifteen at Bolen Books in Victoria, where I do the PR, arrange the author events, and sell books.

What's your literary street cred? 
Given that I don’t even really know what this question means, I’m pretty sure I don’t have any. Which is par for the course… I’m a proud member of what Cameron Crowe refers to as “The Uncool”.

Why did you want to be a reader for the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize? 
Like so many things, it seemed like a good idea at the time…

No, in all seriousness, I’m fascinated by creative nonfiction and its permutations, and I thought the CBC competition would be a good immersion in it. Turns out I was right. Full disclosure, though? It also served really well as justifiable procrastination from the process of novel-writing.

What do you like most about nonfiction?
The same thing I like about fiction: the inherent power of narrative, and the manifold ways to express that force.

Where did you read the entries?
Sitting at one end of my couch, coffee cup close to hand, music on the stereo and various stacks building up around me: to read, to read again, not to read again…

When you’re reading hundreds of stories and trying to choose the most exceptional ones, what are you looking for? 
I’m a firm believer in the pornography rule when it comes to things like this: I might not know what it is, but I’ll recognize it when I see it.

That’s true of the pieces I found exceptional: there was, in every case, something ineffable, some combination of strengths (material, narrative, style, structure, approach, etc.) that set them apart. And each one was very different: there’s no hard-and-fast criteria as to what makes an exceptional piece, except “be exceptional”.

What is it about a story that makes you put it in the YES pile?
It builds off what I said above about the exceptional pieces. I culled those out, and set them aside for re-reading. The YES pile came about after several re-readings; those pieces that stood up to re-reading and re-reading were YESes.

Having read all these stories, do you have tips, any dos and don’ts for story writers?
The one point I would make is that it’s crucial to find balance. If it’s a personal piece, it’s crucial to remember that there is a reader involved as well: make it personal, but not too personal. If it’s historical, it’s important to remember narrative: make it historical, but not scholarly. 

There’s a tremendous amount of freedom afforded by the form, but, as the comic books sort of said, with great freedom comes great responsibility.

Or was that Plato?

What did you enjoy most about the experience?
It made me a raw reader again. I had no idea what I would be reading next; every piece was an unknown, and every opening sentence was, as a result, exhilarating. That sort of joy-of-discovery is too rare a thing, these days.

Robert J. Wiersema is a bookseller, a reviewer (for such periodicals as the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Edmonton Journal, and others), and writer. The author of Before I Wake, The World More Full of Weeping, Bedtime Story and Walk Like a Man: Coming of Age with the Music of Bruce Springsteen, he lives in Victoria, BC.

Photo credit: Duane Prentice

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set count down final date: 11/01/2014
set count up final date: 11/01/2014
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