Hilary Weston Prize nominees explore memory, loss, heartbreak and hope

Delving into the past to discover or define a new truth are at the heart of all five titles vying for the 2013 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for nonfiction, but each book does so in a distinctive and compelling manner. The 5 contenders talk to CBC about their books.

$60K prize to be awarded Monday in Toronto

Five authors are nominated for the 2013 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for nonfiction: (from left) Andrew Steinmetz, Priscila Uppal, Thomas King, Graeme Smith and J.B. MacKinnon. (Writers' Trust of Canada)

Delving into the past to discover or define a new truth are at the heart of all five nominees for the 2013 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for non-fiction, but each book does so in a distinctive and compelling manner.

Whether it's a journalist recalling the charred human flesh he found in his boot treads after a suicide bomber's attack, a woman's painful exchanges with the mother who abandoned her as a child or an accomplished storyteller luring readers in with dark humour that underlines the horrors native people have faced, this year's finalists lay everything out in precise prose — moments of heartbreak, joy, atrocities, enlightenment, regret, connection and hope — bolstered by incredible research.

CBC News asked the five nominees about their books ahead of Monday's gala in Toronto, where the $60,000 winner will be announced. (Interviews have been condensed)

The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King provides an overall arc of North American native history over the past few centuries. (Writers' Trust of Canada)

Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America

Q: Tell us about your book.
A: It’s a book that deals with the arcs of Native and non-Native history in North America. Not so much the individual pieces of it – there are a great many history books that do that job fairly well… Most of those books don’t deal with the overall arcs, the pattern that forms around that history, and so what you wind up doing with a great many histories is you get a very good look at the trees and not a look at the forest. I’m more concerned with those overall arcs: how did we get to here?

Frankly, most North Americans do not know their own history, let alone native history. We’re overall as a society pretty ignorant of history. We know little bits and pieces of it, but we really don’t pay a lot of attention. Part of it is we’re just busy. I don’t think it’s something that catches us, unless we see it on TV. If there’s a program on TV, oh the War of 1812, we’re all happy to watch that. We get a little bit smarter, but we don’t know what comes before or what comes after or how the two influence each other. My book, I suppose, is a cook’s tour of those historical arcs.

Q: The Inconvenient Indian has the feeling of a wide-ranging, accessible lecture. How was it to write and did it differ from your past writing?
A: If I had to write a standard non-fiction book, it would be a god awful thing. If I had to use the strategies that you normally find in non-fiction — there are people who can handle that academic voice; I cannot. I always sound like I’m a pompous ass when I try to work my way into that. And so, my method is to tell stories or at least to handle my material as a storyteller rather than as a historian or an academic. I try to employ the storytelling strategies that I know from writing fiction and try to apply that to non-fiction.

II think it’s the only way to tell this story with any kind of efficiency and with the aim to hold your reader in place, not having them just turning pages and skipping large sections because it’s so dry and so dull and so boring. Traditional oral storytellers understood that you have to hold an audience. Whether it’s an audience I can see or an audience I can’t see, I try to use the same techniques.

Q: The undercurrent of mischief in your storytelling voice makes the book very approachable historical account. Who did you have in mind as your reader?
A: The person I write to, if I write to anybody, is my partner: Helen Hoy. The fact of the matter is that the one person I’m most concerned with for an opinion is her. I try to write a book that I think will be engaging for her.

Outside of that, with this book in particular, I’m writing for native and non-native readers. It goes without saying that many native people don’t know their history any better than non-natives do. In order to catch an audience as wide as I possibly could, I had to figure out some way to get past, in some cases, the horror of the history itself because that can put people off.

I don’t think many people can go to the residential schools experience and not come away feeling beaten up a little bit… If you do that straight, I don’t think you keep your readers. A little bit of humour allows the narrative to get to the reader before they realize it’s not the pleasant thing they thought it might be. It also gives you a chance to pause and take your breath. I have learned that over the years that a little bit of humour for the serious stuff is critical, especially for getting people to read and hopefully understand what’s going on. Now, some people can look at it as being flip and dismissive and there’s always a chance if you overdo it, then that happens. It’s a fine edge that you walk, as a writer, as a storyteller.

Q: All five nominated books involve digging into the past. Did you learn anything new, about yourself for instance, during the writing process?
A: I’m 70 years old, so there isn’t much to find out….This book, I’ve been sitting on it for most of my adult life and it’s a conversation — I think I said in the book — that I’ve been having with myself most of my adult life. There wasn’t much new that I discovered, although some bits and pieces of facts when I did the research for it.

What it did was shine a light on areas that I’d forgotten about or shine a light on parts of me that I’d forgotten… It was a refining if anything. It wasn’t an easy book to write. It took me six years to write this thing. There was a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over how to do it, what to put in and what to leave out. I knew I couldn’t write a 600-page book and, to do this topic justice, it would have to have been multiple volumes. But no one’s going to follow me down that path: our attention span at this point is just too short. We live in a world where we have an attention span of one hour with commercials.

The Once and Future World by J.B. MacKinnon looks at how nature has changed over the centuries, as has our perception of it, and considers how we might encourage a "rewilding" of our planet. (Writers' Trust of Canada)

J.B. MacKinnon, The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is and As It Could Be

Q: Tell us about your book.
A: My book travels back in time to look at nature as it was in the past and what that tells us about nature today and in the future. It’s an attempt to help readers see the natural world with new eyes, and through that experience to raise the bar on what we consider the “normal” state of nature.

Q: The Once and Future World contains vast amounts of fascinating info and incredible details in your explaining of concepts and history. How was your experience writing this book?
A: This was a wonderful book to research and a difficult book to write. It was amazing to read old explorers’ journals and sea captains’ logbooks and find a world so different from today’s — buffalo in Florida, wolves in Japan, grizzly bears in Saskatchewan, and so on. I found myself constantly plunging into the material…Yet my goal all along was to write a short, accessible book of ideas. I had to control the desire to turn the book into the literary equivalent of a moving truck, with knick-knacks wedged into every space.

Q: What feedback have you received from your readers? Has anything surprised them?
A: People are surprised that the book is ultimately hopeful. The traditional work of conservation has been to save the few remaining wild spaces, the last populations of endangered species; it’s tremendously important, but it’s also a constant rearguard battle against loss. I’m calling in this book for an age of rewilding, which turns traditional conservation on its head. Rewilding looks at the whole of the messy, not-at-all pristine world, and asks “How can we make it wilder again? What is the wildest world we can live in?” It’s an idea that is still emerging, and it invites imagination and even playfulness.

Q: What did you discover when delving back into your own memories of nature and the natural world?
A: I realized that in many ways our current ecological crisis is a crisis of awareness of nature, and that re-connection to nature is critically important. More importantly, I found myself inspired to get back in touch with nature myself, and it has been nothing less than delightful. I feel like a different person than I was when I began writing this book — more alive to the living world around me. A re-enchantment with nature really might be necessary to remaking a wilder world. It’s easy to want more beauty, but we first have to learn how to see it.

The Dogs are Eating Them Now by Graeme Smith revisits the former foreign correspondent's time covering the war in Afghanistan. (Writers' Trust of Canada)

Graeme Smith, The Dogs Are Eating Them Now : Our War in Afghanistan

Q: Tell us about your book.
A: My book is a lament for our lost ambitions in Afghanistan and a grisly examination of how things went wrong with the NATO surges in the south. It's focused on Kandahar, because that's the only part of Afghanistan I can describe in any detail — by transcribing audio and notes from my years in the southern provinces. I want you to emerge from the book feeling a bit uneasy, perhaps a little tainted, unable to shake off the lingering images of war. You need to read about the days when I got the charred flesh of suicide bombers stuck in the treads of my shoes. You need to hear about the night when Canadian soldiers used human bodies as bait for insurgents.

Why? Because we don't have clean hands in Afghanistan. It's morally repugnant to declare victory at this point, while the war is not over. But that's the message you're hearing from Western leaders: that the job is finished. Troops are withdrawing and aid money is dwindling. It's all too easy for the international community to switch off, moving along to the next crisis without reflecting back on this awful war — and most tragically, abandoning the Afghan people to deal with a mess in the south.

Q: You’re free here to delve into much more detail than in your earlier news reporting. It's quite personal, open writing that seems to reflect you. How was the experience of writing this way and what did you learn about yourself?
A: The book-writing experience was really hard. In the introduction, I describe my process like this: I keep typing curses into the text, streams of invective that I go back and delete, feeling ashamed of my failure to find better words than f-ck f-ck f-ck. But I also need you to feel the profanity, because there is something profane about the errors we committed in Afghanistan. 

So, try to picture me sitting with my laptop and my earbuds, listening to audio recordings from my years as a journalist in the south...I'm sitting there in lovely surroundings, listening to the brilliantly clear sounds of war. I'm having the unpleasant task of hearing my own voice, for hours at a time, as a 26- or 27- or 28-year-old version of myself asks stupid questions and sometimes fails to understand the answers. I'm hearing people who are now dead, remembering painful scenes, falling down the well of memory. I struggle to forgive myself for my mistakes. I reflect on the business of war reporting. Mostly, I learn that I'm not a courageous person. Going back over the moments when I almost ran into trouble makes me more cautious, and perhaps more risk-adverse than some colleagues.

Q: Part of that openness is in your sharing of heartbreaking personal stories and scenes of death and destruction. What did you find the most challenging to convey?
A: How can I rate the awfulness of things? Everybody in the south lost friends and relatives. I was bombed, shot at, rocketed, mortared, hit by a suicide bomber, chased through the narrow streets. My office was raided by masked gunmen. All of the people who lived there, in those years, had scary times. All of it was difficult to capture in words.

Perhaps the hardest part, however, was communicating the dark humour that pervades a battlefield. One minute the soldiers are under fire, and the next they're joking about the marijuana fields nearby. I'd turn away from piles of bodies in pickup trucks and hear soldiers discussing the pornographic merits of naked elves. That sounds weird, right now, but in the context of the war those moments seem ordinary. Maybe it's part of the way our brains deal with these situations. It's hard to understand from afar. So, perhaps the most difficult thing to convey is not the death and destruction, but the mix of funny and sad. 

Q: Those scenes, despite perhaps morbid instances of humour, are in fact quite humanizing and paint a fuller picture of what it was really like on the ground. What else might surprise Canadians about life in Afghanistan? 
A: The war is not evenly distributed in the country. I now live in downtown Kabul, which is well-protected by the Afghan security forces. Attacks have decreased in the capital this year. I'm here with my girlfriend: we regularly attend yoga sessions and host pleasant dinners. Canada was heavily involved with the war in southern Afghanistan, so it's natural that our media focused on the situation in Kandahar — but when I go home, people are sometimes amazed to hear my stories about the comforts of Kabul. Admittedly, we get power cuts. My house is surrounded by high walls topped with razor-wire because it's still a dangerous city. But really, Kabul is nothing like Kandahar. 

Q: Overall, you tell a story that's more negative than the official line touted to us by government leaders. Who would you like to read your book?
A: A key reason why the Afghan war went badly was because the West failed to think clearly. We didn't have adequate mechanisms that would allow the international community to sit down and consider: “What's working? What's failing?” There was an allergy to failure, a refusal to report misgivings and negative outcomes up the chain of command, which is tragic because failure contains useful information. It's only now, after the troops have started returning home, that you're starting to see a public discussion about the failures of counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan. That's too late. We should have been having that conversation years ago. So I'm hoping that the book will be picked up by diplomats, intelligence officers, military leaders, aid workers, and all the other people who were involved in the effort. They will probably find themselves in some faraway place again, someday, and I'm hoping that next time they won't be so hobbled by their stubborn optimism.

Perhaps more importantly, I hope this book gets read by a general audience in Canada, the United States and the other countries where leaders are now deciding what to do next in Afghanistan. We need to keep public attention focused on the difficult issues in South Asia. Hopefully there will be some feeling of responsibility for the mess and continued effort to fix the problems.

In This Great Escape, by Andrew Steinmetz, the author tracks down the story of a distant relative who appeared in the classic POW film The Great Escape and fills in the gaps of his life and mysterious death. (Writers' Trust of Canada)

Andrew Steinmetz, This Great Escape: The Case of Michael Paryla

Q: Tell us about your book.
A: This Great Escape is the record of my almost 10-year obsession to tell the story of my distant cousin, Michael Paryla, a part-Jewish actor who had a bit part in the 1963 movie The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson and James Garner. I never met him. I grew up knowing only two things about him: that he was an actor and played a Gestapo agent in the famous movie; and that shortly after filming, he died from a drug overdose. He was 32 years old. When I started digging around, I learned that Michael was uncredited for his role in the movie and at the same time I discovered a lot of interesting points of intersection between his own life, his family history, the film history and the history of the actual “Great Escape,” which took place in March of 1944.

I realized that less was known about him than about any other actor in the movie and I wanted to correct that. The book is subtitled The Case of Michael Paryla: the documents and sources of evidence relating to his life are laid out for the reader, framed by the overarching themes of escape and identity and by my own quest to find out whether Paryla’s death was an accident or a suicide.

Q: This Great Escape is an intriguing combination of your own investigation with poignant personal reminiscences. How was your experience of writing it?
A: Emotional. It wreaked havoc with my unconscious. Many times I had to stop digging and stand back, and recover my balance. One of the first things I did when I began working on this book is I got a DVD copy of the movie and watched Michael’s 57 seconds of screen time over and over for hours and literally days, fast-forwarding him, fast-rewinding him, pausing him, and putting him on play. I watched and recorded my immediate reactions to what I saw on screen.

The result was a dense cluster of prose fragments, parts of which eventually made it into the chapter “Stop Pause Play.” Writing those parts was exhilarating, but draining. I knew I had hit on the heart of the matter, something very, very vulnerable to the exposure of light and words. It was mysterious.

So I backed away for about two years, and then when I started digging again I went about it in a methodical way: interviewing past acquaintances of Michael, reading history and visiting archives and reviewing documents, travelling to Germany to see for myself his grave and the theatres he had worked at, the city he last lived in. But even with a research plan in place, time and again I was upended by surprise discoveries that triggered feelings and emotions I did not know I had. The process was psychologically exhausting, since from the beginning I identified strongly with Michael’s personality.

Q: Some of the recollections and letters you include are quite moving. Was there anything particularly challenging to write?
A: When it comes to the letters and the recollections from those who knew Michael, I realized that these had a great deal of power and that I had to get out of the way. Sometimes it’s not doing anything, not writing or commenting, which is most challenging. There is a chapter devoted to letters and another chapter devoted to oral history. In these chapters all I do is try to give a little bit of context. I could have assimilated all that emotion and information and “wrote it” or paraphrased, integrating the points of view into an overarching story that might have been easier for a reader to digest. But with the letters and the transcriptions from interviews, I had so much respect for the sincerity of their witness and the beauty of their expression that I thought to re-arrange their utterances into a different format would be to cheapen and disrespect them.  
Q: Is there an audience you have in mind? Who would you like to read your book?
A: Fundamentally, the book has to do with universal themes such as escape and identity. In a multicultural place like Canada, there are plenty of people around like Michael, who come from a mixed background — racial or religious or cultural — who fled one place and have arrived in another. Being of mixed origin means, on the one hand, that because you are part this and part that, you find you have empathy or a natural sympathy for different groups. You are neither one nor the other, but you have a unique perspective on both. That's a good consequence of having mixed baggage. On the other hand, these two sides of yourself may cross each other out — erase each other — and leave a void, an empty vessel, and in that emptiness that you feel rages some kind of unpleasant struggle for identity. I think it's fair to say Michael uneasily inhabited that void.

As I say in the book, he is really not German, not Canadian, not really Jewish, not really Protestant, not from here, not from there. A lot of people in Canada and around the world find themselves in the same situation. So I hope this book would appeal to people from around the world, whose particular situation has little to do with Michael’s circumstance, but who have suffered and hopefully triumphed from that ordeal of the birth of the true self, in spite of familial and historical pressures.  

In Projection, Priscila Uppal recounts her 12-day visit to Brazil and attempt to reconnect with the mother who abandoned the author as a child as well as her brother and father. (Writers' Trust of Canada)

Priscila Uppal, Projection: Encounters with my Runaway Mother

Q: Tell us about your book.
A: My memoir tells the story of reconnecting with my runaway mother, a woman who abandoned me, my brother and our quadriplegic father when I was eight. After finding her, 20 years later and completely by accident on the Internet, I contacted her and met her and other extended family in Brazil, the land of her birth. We spent 12 days together, which I analyze in excruciating detail, in an effort to figure out what kind of relationship might be possible between us and if our imaginings of each other for the past two decades are anywhere near the truth.

Q: Projection tells an unvarnished and complicated tale — it’s not a "happy ending" kind of story. How was it to write?
A: I spent 10 years writing this book, which means I learned a lot about myself in the process. I found that writing about your mother is not always good for your health, so I started literally running across the city after a long day of writing to erase her, and the complicated emotions associated with retelling our story, from my mind. But I also learned that I am extremely resilient, not just in real-life confrontational situations, but also in terms of my imagination and my sense of who I am and what that means about how I choose to live my life. Taking the kind of word-by-word care that I took with this story, over several drafts over several years, I interrogated and analyzed every sentence, every metaphor, every claim and I can say with conviction that I am true to myself and to my experiences in this book.

Q: Some revelations about your mother, the things she admitted to you, are not at all what we expect from a maternal figure. You're also very open about your conflicted feelings. What was the hardest part to share?
A: I think the hardest part was to simply write as honestly as possible about the complexity of our relationship, to be fair to our dreams and desires, but also to represent the painful disappointments and the harsh reality of our personal limitations. It would be too easy to represent my mother as a sort of monster. Or to dismiss her by simply labelling her as mentally ill. I didn’t visit my mother to accuse her or blame her. I reunited with her in an attempt to understand her. I spend 10 years honing that understanding.

Q: You've said your book is for people whose family reunions are not like TV's Oprah moments. Who do you think should read Projection?
A: I’ve already been receiving lots of emails from men and women, children and parents, who can relate to the story of being abandoned by a parent or abandoning a child, who tell me that this is the first book they’ve read that has dealt so honestly with the emotional consequences of such abandonment. This gives me a tremendous amount of satisfaction.

In addition, I am receiving emails from those who simply have difficult or complicated relationships with family members, estranged or not, who also appreciate my attempt to chart the reasons why some relationships simply cannot be mended and why this is not necessarily a tragedy, how it can be a form of liberation. To me, this book is for anyone interested in a detailed account of how we deal with the death of dreams.

Q: What would winning the Hilary Weston prize mean to you?
A: To me, winning the Hilary Weston Prize — beyond all the wonderful things such a prestigious and lucrative prize can do to help writers find a wider readership — would affirm my unconventional approach to this subject matter. In our culture, we mostly sentimentalize the mother-daughter relationship. Or else, we turn inadequate mothers into monsters. Both are usually at the expense of the truth. The truth that I present in Projection is sad, painful, sometimes infuriating, but it is also funny, absurd and redemptive. Just not in the ways we have come to blindly accept.

The winner of the 2013 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction will be announced during an evening gala in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario on Monday. The $60,000 prize represents the richest prize for a single Canadian book of nonfiction. Each remaining finalist will receive $5,000.


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