Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

CBC Canada Reads Interview Series: Charlotte Gray

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Charlotte Gray

We've talked to the CBC Canada Reads authors, and now we will hear from their champions — the panellists who will debate until one book emerges victorious.

Panellist Charlotte Gray knows a thing or two about books — she's an acclaimed author herself, with eight award-winning titles of literary non-fiction under her belt. She will defend Jane Urquhart's Away (McClelland & Stewart) during the competition.

Charlotte tells us about what makes Away such a wonderful read, the literary character of Ontario and a possible celebratory séance.

Hosted by popular CBC personality and author Jian Ghomeshi, Canada Reads pits five fantastic Canadian books against one another in a (mostly) friendly competition, with each book championed by a Canadian celebrity in a series of broadcast debates. For more information about CBC Canada Reads, please visit their website. The 2013 debates run from February 11-14.

Stay tuned to Open Book: Toronto for interviews with more of the Canada Reads panellists this week!

Open Book:

Tell us three things that make your selected book the best on the list.

Charlotte Gray:

Jane Urquhart’s Away is an important book because it takes one of the great narratives of Canadian experience — a multigenerational saga rooted in another country — and lifts it off the page with imagination and wit. So Away’s first great strength is that it speaks to the experience of so many Canadians in a way that sparks our own imaginations.

Its second strength is that it is beautifully written. Sentences and images linger in the mind: Mary, Brian, Liam and Eileen are beguiling characters who are, at the same time, engagingly realistic and almost mythical. Who can resist a cow called Moon and a speaking crow who finds gold?

Finally, there is mystery. This is not the exquisite but motionless product of too many Creative Writing Courses, nor is it a novel written with an eye to a screenplay (those slim volumes are all dialogue, no physical description — so that Angelina can decide for herself what she wants to look like.) Away is set in both the present, with a little girl asking questions, and the past, as the Irish immigrant family arrives in the New World in the mid-nineteenth century. The action sweeps you along. Only in the final pages do we learn the answers to those questions.

No wonder Away spent longer on the Globe and Mail best-sellers list than any other book so far.


What makes you particularly qualified to defend this title?


I’m not sure that I am particularly qualified to defend this title. My main justification would be that I love Away, and that it reflects my particular interest — how history has shaped the Canada we know today.

For Canada Reads, Away is the Ontario book and I represent Ontario among the five advocates. I’m happy to do that as I have lived in Ontario ever since I came to Canada, and I know the landscape that Jane describes in Away. Moreover, in my own non-fiction books, such as Sisters in the Wilderness, I’ve written about people in similar circumstances as the O’Malleys. I know about the chilling cold of the first winter in the woods, the flickering light from oil lamps, the sinister glitter of Lake Ontario. But Jane gave me fresh insights into what it must have been like. Any immigrant, from any country, would recognize the painful mix of nostalgia and liberation that expatriates share.


Where were you the first time you read your selected book?


I wish I could remember! Away was published almost 20 years ago, when I had three young sons at home and was scrambling to balance family life and my own writing career. Novels were then (and are still) my relaxation and escape. I probably read Away at night, in bed, during the precious hours when nobody was fighting over Lego.


How would you describe the literary culture of the region you're defending?


Diverse! With a population of 13 million, Ontario has so much talent and so many traditions and communities to draw on. How can I find one word that captures the books of Alice Munro, Joseph Boyden and Dionne Brand? There is frontier realism in the north, and urban angst from Toronto. Ontario bookshelves are packed with fiction deeply rooted in the Canadian Shield, and with novels haunted by the insecurity of new arrivals. So many books… and so little time to read!


If your writer wins the competition, how will you celebrate?


I’d order champagne for all the advocates and authors, and hope that the ghost of Hugh MacLennan would join us to toast Jane Urquhart!

Charlotte Gray one of Canada’s pre-eminent biographers, has won many awards for her writing, including the 2002 UBC Medal for Canadian Biography, the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction and the CAA Birks Family Foundation Award for Biography. She has received the prestigious Pierre Berton Award for a body of historical writing. She is the Chair of the National History Society. Visit her at

For more information about Away please visit the McClelland & Stewart website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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