Magic 8 Q&A

Why RBC Taylor Prize finalist Max Wallace feels 'sheer terror' when he's done writing a book

The author of In The Name of Humanity answers eight questions from eight fellow writers.
Max Wallace is a finalist for the 2018 RBC Taylor Prize for his book In the Name of Humanity. (Allen Lane/International Photo Imaging)

In In the Name of HumanityMax Wallace unveils the top-secret deal that led to the destruction of crematoriums and gas chambers at Auschwitz in November 1944. Orchestrated by a former president of Switzerland, a Finnish osteopath and a Jewish Orthodox woman, the book unlocks a mystery that has stumped historians for decades.

Wallace's book is a finalist for the 2018 RBC Taylor Prize, a $30,000 award for a work of Canadian nonfiction. Below, he takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A and answers eight questions from eight fellow writers.

1. Tanya Talaga asks, "When you finally first reach that point when you are finished your book, completely done and unable to make any more changes, what thoughts go through your mind? Relief? Apprehension?"

Sheer terror. Will anybody read it? Will the critics savage it? Should I have gone with a different structure? And it's often a long, long wait before those questions are answered. Perhaps I should have chosen a career less fraught with stress, like a minesweeper.

2. David Chariandy asks, "Is writing for you an act of freedom? How or how not?"

The ability to edit my own words is the act of freedom. Frequently when I say something out loud, I find myself wishing I hadn't said it or that I had chosen different words. By then, of course, it's usually too late. But when I write a passage, I can rewrite it to my heart's content or, more frequently, delete it altogether so that the world is blissfully unaware.

3. Cherie Dimaline asks, "When do you feel the most confident and purposeful as a writer?"

When a reader tells me that I changed their mind.

4. Catherine Hernandez asks, "Have you ever been traumatized by what you've written?"

After spending 15 years writing about the Holocaust, it's impossible not to be traumatized on a regular basis, and that's OK because it's what I signed up for. I'm more worried that I will become desensitized to traumatic events.

5. Oana Avasilichioaei asks, "Are there other art forms that have an impact on your writing at a formal, aesthetic or linguistic level and how is this manifested in the writing?"

Music is all about the rhythm and so is good writing. I suspect a savvy reader can figure out what kind of music I was into when I was writing a particular book.

6. Camilla Gibb asks, "What's the best advice you've been given in your writing life?"

Mark Twain once said (but not to me), "The more you explain it, the more I don't understand it." That always sticks with me when I'm trying to convey difficult concepts.

7. Richard Harrison asks, "What did your most recent book (or any of your books) teach you after it was published?"

My last book taught me not to be afraid to question the conventional wisdom.

8. Aviaq Johnston asks, "What is your favourite thing to hear from people who have read your work?"

"That's me on the cover." When I was doing a book signing, an elderly woman walked up to my table and pointed to a photo on the cover of her 9-year-old self with a group of child survivors behind barbed wire taken on the day that the Soviets liberated Auschwitz. It turned out that she lived a short distance from me the whole time I was working on the book, which brought to light new evidence about why she survived the horrors. But it was only when she stood before me that day that the significance of my research was truly driven home for the very first time.

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