Creative Nonfiction Prize
Matthew Hooton on snakes, lies, and storytelling
There are five names on the shortlist for this year's CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize. Before we announce the winner, we want to introduce you to the finalists and their stories.
Matthew Hooton talks about writing, lying, and traveling, and his obsession with Bruce Chatwin.
Tell us about yourself.
I live in Victoria, BC, where I write (primarily fiction), teach writing part time at the University of Victoria, and sit on the fiction editorial board of The Malahat Review. My first novel, Deloume Road, was published in 2010 by Knopf (Canada) and Jonathan Cape (UK). I’ve written nonfiction for venues such as Geist, Reader’s Digest and the CBC, and have worked as an editor and teacher for several institutions and companies in Canada and South Korea. What else can I tell you? I love traveling and travel writing, and am (maybe) obsessed with Bruce Chatwin (both the man and his work).
How do you decide if you're going to write fiction or nonfiction?
I’m compelled by story, not by genre. I understand why publishers and librarians and booksellers need to distinguish between genres, but I don’t pay much attention to these imaginary labels. Chatwin didn’t think much of such distinctions either, which is perhaps why I find his work so fascinating. Fiction/nonfiction? Why does it matter? Aren’t we looking for a good story? Don’t we want to be entertained, inspired, lost? Ironically, a lot of us feel a very odd desire for fiction to be “believable,” and nonfiction to be “incredible,” and I’m not sure why this is, exactly, but I wonder if it speaks to the fundamental silliness of our desire to categorize art. That said, as a writer, obviously I respect any publisher or venue enough to play by their rules (coughs as he backtracks so as not to piss off the wonderful people at CBC Radio), but it’s not something I worry about while I’m writing stories, while I’m in “process.”
What made you write this story?
This story started as a series of letters home. I spend a fair bit of time reviewing my own correspondence (is that weird?), and, in this case, I started to see patterns in sections of emails (all those snakes), which I compiled and edited/rewrote.
Why did you choose to write about lying?
I suppose, as a writer of fiction, I’m comfortable with the fact that I essentially deal in lies, in falsehoods and omissions. But of course this is pretty much true of everyone, of our own memories and the way we think of our lives as stories (don’t get me wrong, this is mostly a good thing, and healthy). Any narrative structure is an imposition on “real” life, a human creation. So all storytelling is, in that sense, manufactured (whether you believe it to be “factual” or not), which is a nice way of saying that we’re all lying about everything all the time, even when we don’t mean to. Not that I think being wrong is the same as lying, exactly, but we construct our own personal narratives as we see fit, and, in doing so, we engage with that ancient serpent in the Garden, we listen to that soft, hissing fiction formed by a forked-tongue (read: I don’t know, I just write stuff and see how it goes). I suppose I could also write about the importance of recognizing both memory and imagination as creative processes, but maybe I should leave it there for now.
What made you break the story into five sections?
Because the Lord created the Snake on the fifth day of creation. Kidding. Well, that is the story, but that’s not why there are five sections. So tempted to write something entirely false about numerology and the significance of groupings of five here, but, honestly, I have no idea—it just seemed tidy.
How does it feel to be shortlisted for this prize?
I’m pretending to be nonchalant about the honour, but really, I’m thrilled. Thrilled to be listed next to these excellent writers, thrilled to have my story chosen from so many that were no doubt equally deserving. And, as all writers know, it’s just so damn nice to receive anything other than a rejection slip. Congrats to everyone on the list, and thanks for reading.