Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Charles Taylor Prize Interview Series, with JJ Lee

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JJ Lee

JJ Lee is the author of The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son and a Suit (McClelland & Stewart). In Vancouver, he helms not one but two columns on men's fashion and style (one print, one radio). The Measure of a Man is based on a prize-winning radio documentary JJ wrote and broadcast in 2007.

JJ talks with Open Book as part of our series of interviews with the finalists for the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.

Read on to hear from JJ about his approach to writing memoir, the books that inspired him while writing and his feelings about Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Stay tuned this week to hear from all five finalists. The winner of the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize will be announced on Monday, March 5.

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted.

JJ Lee:

The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit recounts my attempt to understand my relationship with my late father. He died an alcoholic and broke. When I received the news, I hadn’t seen him in a year. He lived only ten minutes away.

One of the few things he left behind was an old suit, not a good one, especially when compared to the ones he owned in his heyday as a charismatic manager of the Kon-Tiki, an iconic Polynesian lounge in Montreal. The suits he wore then I loved but his last suit failed to compare.

I took that last suit and began to alter it. I used it as a jumping off point to explore my life with my father and the strange psychological burden of suits, the sine qua non of menswear. We all have strong feelings and hangups about suits and fathers. In the book, I try to unpack some of the baggage.


What were some of the most challenging and most enjoyable elements of writing this book?


I’ve always had the tendency of a gathering magpie. I’m polymath. I like learning about weird stuff. Writing about Victorian tailoring felt natural. What surprised me how much I liked writing about the first time my mother and my father met as teens. It’s surprisingly sensual yet it also brings to life, after much heart-ache and loss, a hopeful and romantic moment in our family history. I’d really like to write more about my mother if she’ll let me.


What do you love about writing non-fiction specifically?


First, I’m by nature not a memoirist. I think engaging others and hearing their stories and reflecting on their experiences is far more rewarding. In the book, I speak with many tailors. They do their trade and elevate their art but they don’t necessarily frame their work and passion within a narrative. Their lives, as is everybody else’s, are incohate. I was thrilled to share their stories in a way they never thought possible. I felt I was able to pin down aspects of the tailoring life that were previously amorphous.

Second, I’d like to tell you what I hate about memoir writing (and this is what makes writing it so fascinating). Memoir, like all writing, locks down thoughts and feelings. But memory, remembering and memoir are separate things. Recalling the past, for normal people, is a flexible activity. You shape the rememberance as the situation dictates. Writing a book fixes remembrances. This can be uncomfortable. Writing the memoir has taught me that real memory is fluid and never truly sets.


Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book.


I’d like to tell you instead about the books that were influential for me during the writing of this book, for structural reasons, for voice reasons and because they inspired me: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain taught me that one didn’t need to be too precious about a topic. Restauranting is a business and so is fashion and tailoring. From Bourdain, I learned how important it was to convey the atmosphere, tone and feel of a tailor’s shop.

Julie and Julia by Julie Powell made me comfortable with the idea that one’s personal projects and passions have validity, and helped me believe they may be of interest to others. Plus Powell likes Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so she’s my peeps.

Finally, Guitar: An American Life by Tim Brookes provided me with the solution of how to weave social history together with a personal journey. I want to mention them now because they all helped and I’m not into hiding or swerving from my influences.

Also I can’t go without saying I read Alan Flusser’s Dressing the Man and Russell Smith’s Men’s Style with Talmudic intensity years before the book came about. Thank you, sirs.


What can you tell us about your next project?


I’m writing a novel, even though I promised myself I wouldn’t (really, I feel obliged to continue my research into the meaning of clothes and dressing), but I can’t shake the characters or the story. I’ve set some of it on the Sunshine Coast, where I wrote a part of The Measure of a Man. The novel involves songwriting, the luthier’s art, the awesomeness of Joan Jett and Jeff Tweedy, and the ability to use a knife or blade well in tight situations. I am not joking but I’m not entirely serious either. It is completely autobiographical.

JJ Lee writes about menswear for The Vancouver Sun and presents a fashion column for CBC Radio One in Vancouver. Lee’s book was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 2011. It has also been selected as one of the best books of 2011 by the Globe and Mail,, and Kobo. Prior to writing The Measure of a Man, Lee worked on a number of CBC programs including Sounds Like Canada and Richardson’s Roundup. His radio documentaries have aired on Ideas, The Current and Out Front.

For more information about The Measure of a Man 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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