CBC Literary Prizes

Facing terminal cancer diagnosis pushed CBC Nonfiction Prize finalist Amy MacRae to find her voice as a writer

The late writer’s husband, Garreth MacRae, spoke to North by Northwest host Sheryl MacKay about his wife’s CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlisted story, Take a Photo Before I Leave You.
Amy MacRae, pictured with her daughter Evie in 2017, is a finalist in the 2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize. She died on June 1, 2020 from ovarian cancer. (Bright Photography)

The late Vancouver-based writer and educator Amy MacRae made the 2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for Take a Photo Before I Leave You, which deals with her experience as a young mother facing a terminal cancer diagnosis.

Jonathan Poh of Burnaby, B.C., won the 2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize for his story Value Village.

MacRae died on June 1, 2020 at 35 years of age from ovarian cancer. Her husband, Garreth MacRae, spoke with CBC Radio's North by Northwest host Sheryl MacKay about MacRae's shortlisted story and how she found her voice as a writer.

You can read Take a Photo Before I Leave You here.

This honouring of her work, must give [you] rather mixed feelings?

"It's very bittersweet. My family and I feel so much pride, knowing this piece that Amy wrote that was so important to her will be read and will be shared. As my daughter grows up, she will be able to find it and know that her mother had many talents and many passions, and writing was one of them. 

As my daughter grows up, she will be able to find it and know that her mother had many talents and many passions, and writing was one of them.- Garreth MacRae

"In Amy's final days, she was reminding us to look out for the result of the contest. It's unfortunate that she is not here to know, but I'd like to think in some ways, in some part of the universe, she is aware."

Amy MacRae surprised her family with a vow renewal ceremony in Oct. 2019 in Whistler. (Tara Lilly Photography)

Tell us about Amy.

"Amy was a very warm, caring, generous person. Always taking care of others. She took great care of my daughter and myself. She would define herself as a mother first — the most important thing to her. She also was a kindergarten teacher and a very passionate educator. When she was on mat leave, she pursued a masters in education just out of personal interest.

"In her last few years, since her diagnosis, is when she really found her voice as a writer. She went on a memoir writing retreat in France and came back and was completely inspired, and just started to document real raw, autobiographical things having to do with her diagnosis with cancer and what she was going through. I think that really comes out in this particular piece."

Had she been wanting to write for a while?

"It's something she enjoyed doing. She took great care when writing essays for university in her masters degree and great care when writing personal correspondence to people. To write more creatively was something she really wanted to do. It took her diagnosis and the realization that there wasn't much time left for her to focus on doing it. She rapidly improved in terms of her skill, so it was obviously the right thing to do and she derived a lot of pleasure from it in her last couple years."

Garreth MacRae discusses his late wife Amy and her story, Take a Photo Before I Leave You, which was shortlisted for the CBC Nonfiction Prize, with Sherly McKay on NXNW. 11:46

What was it like for you watching her bloom like that as a writer?

"It was incredible for me because I used to be the 'writer' in the family. She would always have me edit her work or have me draft things and then, all of a sudden, her skill level surpassed mine many times over. I'd be reading her work and saying, 'This is hard for me to edit. It's so good. It's beyond my scope.' 

It's another way to revisit Amy and have her back in our lives, to go through her thoughts and the final things that she wrote- Garreth MacRae

"It's so unfortunate that she passed away because I really think I'd be looking at — in the future — a published author, a playwright. She started writing a play as well that she hoped she would be able to finish and perform in. I just think, what could have been? That's why this contest is so beautiful because it's so fitting that other people recognize what I recognized in her writing and her potential, and now my daughter will grow up and know that too."

Did she talk to you about her idea with this story?

"No, she didn't initially. She did a draft and then had me read it. I think some of the rawness and emotions in those pieces, she almost hesitated to show us because in a way she is showing us certain things that are her discomfort and certain parts of her emotion that she probably would want to keep hidden and say, 'Oh, I'm okay. I'm doing okay. I'm optimistic.'" 

Amy with her husband Garreth and daughter Evie at a wedding in Halifax. (Dorothy MacRae)

Is there enough material from Amy that you could publish more of these stories?

"There are several more and I think we would love to find homes for them. It's something that we want to do over time. It's still a bit raw right now. I think we'll definitely come back and revisit that. It's another way to revisit Amy and have her back in our lives, to go through her thoughts and the final things that she wrote." 

Garreth MacRae's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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