Advertisement

Salted Dark Chocolate and Beowulf: What Fuelled 2017’s Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize Nominees

Plus: the inspiration behind each book, how long it took to write, and why fiction matters more than ever.

by

Literary awards season is on. And to make it even more exciting, the winner of this year’s Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize takes home double the pot — $50,000 — of previous years. We talked to each of the contenders in advance of the announcement of the winner, which takes place on November 14.

Carleigh Baker, nominated for Bad Endings

Bad Endings by Carleigh Baker

What sparked this book?
The book started as a process of healing while I was recovering from a drug problem and a bad marriage. I was doing everything in my power to become a whole person again — therapy, exercise, clean eating, even things some people might scoff at, like taking lots of vitamins and meditating. When I finally felt well enough to think about what I wanted to do with my life, the answer was writing. I’d been writing since I was a kid, but never believed I could turn it into a career. I took a couple of writing courses at Douglas College [in New Westminster, B.C.], which was walking distance from my house. I didn’t write a million stories about divorce, but I did write about apocalyptic relationships, bad decisions, and transgressions.

How long did it take you to write it?
Seven years. Some of those stories required a perspective that only comes with time. So I had to throw them in a drawer and let them sit for a few months before revising. Sometimes longer. Obviously I won’t be able to be as precious about the next project.

What was your favourite thing to eat while writing?
Lindt salted dark chocolate. Hands down. I’m eating it now.

What book would you say has had the biggest influence on you? Why?
Thomas King’s Massey Lectures, The Truth About Stories, A Native Narrative. King breaks down the impact of storytelling on history, religion and politics, but he also shares some valuable insights on common issues for Indigenous peoples. In “You’re not the Indian I had in mind,” King talks about not appearing “Native enough” for non-Indigenous audiences early on in his career, and how a fringed suede jacket and beaded choker helped him to achieve an image that satisfied his critics. This story is told in a context that is humorous, but deeply informed by history. Indigenous identity has been regulated by the Indian Act in this country since 1876. Being considered “not Indian enough” to qualify for status carries devastating social and legal repercussions for Indigenous peoples, particularly women. So while readers may be laughing at the image of King having to dress the pan-Indigenous part in order to be taken seriously, there’s a powerful undercurrent to this story. These are the kind of stories I try to tell.

Why does fiction matter?
What I get most excited about is fiction’s ability to teach and broaden reader’s perspectives in a non-threatening way. I think of it like a crab walk — a sideways approach to the goal — when a story isn’t soapboxing or moralizing, but presenting complex perspectives to readers in a way that keeps them open and receptive. While being entertaining, of course. Fiction is a powerful tool for growth — the kind of growth we might not even realize is happening.

Claire Cameron, nominated for The Last Neanderthal

The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron

What sparked this book? 
In 2010, scientists found that any modern humans of Asian and European descent have inherited one to four percent of their DNA from Neanderthals. Instead of their popular image as hunched, hairy, knuckle-draggers, Neanderthals were people much like us. They had burial rituals, they made beads for jewellery, and they used toothpicks to clean their teeth.

How long did it take you to write it?
I worked with archaeologists and paleontologists, read thick textbooks, and learned more about genetics. It took about five years, including the research. Sometimes I catch myself wondering if someone might like to award me a B.A. in anthropology for all my trouble. Anyone?

What was your favourite thing to eat while writing?
Does coffee count as a food?

What book would you say has had the biggest influence on you? Why?
Right now I’d say Beowulf, the oldest surviving long poem in Old English. My father was a professor of Old English and told it to me as a bedtime story. I’ve loved dragons ever since.

Why does fiction matter?
A novel is a question that takes the length of a book to ask. Now more than ever we need ways to ask ourselves bigger, more complex, and nuanced questions.

 

David Chariandy, nominated for Brother

Brother by David Chariandy

What sparked this book?
One of the earliest inspirations for writing my novel wasn’t a theme or issue, but an image. I “saw” two brothers, then very young, discussing between themselves the possibility of climbing a hydro pole for no better reason than seeing their neighbourhood. I wanted to capture, in the right words, how the older brother would warn the younger one of the dangers — of the live wires, for instance. I wanted to represent how the younger brother, still on the ground, might remember or imagine this crazy plan actually happening — his brother climbing into the sky.

How long did it take you to write it?
It took me 10 years of constant, daily work. I wrote thousands of pages to distill the story down to 180 pages. It’s a short novel, and if I had another 10 years to work on it, I’d maybe be tempted to make it even shorter. But I like the length it is now.

What was your favourite thing to eat while writing?
I don’t eat while writing. Although I guess I do “chew” very thick coffee.

What book would you say has had the biggest influence on you? Why?
I think different books have influenced me at different times of my life: James Baldwin’s collected essays The Price of the Ticket when I left home for the first time; Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, and N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn when, two decades ago, I was first imagining the idea of writing. Most recently, I’ve been profoundly struck by Dionne Brand’s forthcoming The Blue Clerk, the most powerful book on writing I’ve ever read.

Why does fiction matter?
It matters, at least in part, because it allows us to engage life with newfound attention and energy, newfound feeling and commitment. Fiction rivets us to what we otherwise would have ignored — what we’ve failed to “read,” in the broadest sense.

 

Omar El Akkad, nominated for American War

American War by Omar El Akkad

What sparked this book?
I have a very vague recollection of watching a foreign affairs expert on some cable news channel many years ago, discussing the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, and how sometimes the U.S. special forces would conduct nighttime raids in Afghan villages, looking for insurgents. Often these raids would involve ransacking the villagers’ houses and holding the women and children at gunpoint, he said. And then he helpfully added, “You know that sort of thing is considered very offensive in Afghan culture.” I remember thinking, Name me one culture on Earth wouldn’t consider that sort of thing offensive. It was then I first started thinking about writing a novel that takes the daily indignities of wartime life and brings them a little closer to home.

How long did it take you to write it?
I started the first draft of the manuscript in the summer of 2014 and finished it almost exactly one year later. I spent another year editing it, but the narrative itself is largely unchanged from the first draft.

What was your favourite thing to eat while writing?
I was living in southeast Portland at the time, and there was a food-cart plaza across the street from my house. The folks running the Thai cart make an incredible pineapple fried rice.

What book would you say has had the biggest influence on you? Why?
A Death in the Family by James Agee. I read it not long after my father died, at a time when I needed to know I wasn’t alone in my grief — that others had experienced these things and come out the other side, if not undamaged, at least intact. But regardless, I do think it is, sentence for sentence, the most beautiful book I’ve ever read.

Why does fiction matter?
How else to order the lies that make living bearable?

 

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, nominated for This Accident of Being Lost

This Accident of Being Lost by Leanne Betasmosake Simpson

What sparked this book?
My life, as an Nishnaabekwe in 2015, sparked this book.

How long did it take you to write it?
In some ways, it took my whole life to write it. In other ways, it began where Islands of Decolonial Love [Simpson’s 2013 short story collection] ended. The most creative phase of this was writing between 2013 and 2015.

What was your favourite thing to eat while writing?
Coffee was my favourite thing to eat while writing this book.

What book would you say has had the biggest influence on you? Why?
Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. Because it is a beautiful, unapologetic intervention into the world and a simultaneous celebration of Black genius. I’m also extremely privileged because, for the last few decades, Indigenous writers, particularly Indigenous women, have been building a community where none existed before. They have worked so very hard on mentoring us, building writing schools, publishing houses, editing our work, and organizing gatherings so emerging writers feel supported in spite of the racism of the publishing industry, and my generation of Indigenous writers is benefiting from that unseen, and often unappreciated, work that took time away from their own writing. That’s probably the biggest influence on me. I am so grateful for that. The most beautiful thing is seeing how that holding up and giving back is so very much a part of our artistic community now.

Why does fiction matter?
Fiction matters to me because freedom exists in the space where I can say things, critique things, and imagine, create and live in other words.