Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Charles Taylor Prize Interview Series, with Madeline Sonik

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Madeline Sonik

Today is the final instalment of our our series of interviews with the finalists for the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize. On Monday, we will be congratulating one of the talented nominees on his or her win!

Finalist Madeline Sonik is the author of Afflictions & Departures (Anvil Press). She has published in multiple genres including poetry, short fiction and children's literature, and holds a PhD in education from the University of British Columbia. Afflictions & Departures was also nominated for the BC National Award for Canadian non-Fiction.

Madeline talks to Open Book about what she loves about writing non-fiction, some of her favourite non-fiction books and the connection between Margaret Thatcher and her upcoming project.

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.

Madeline Sonik:

The book I was shortlisted for is Afflictions & Departures. It’s a series of short chronologically linked memoir pieces in the form of personal essays. It spans my young life, from conception in 1959 to my mid-teens and makes reference to particular historical events that had occurred or were occurring over this period.

I’ve experimented with a variety of literary techniques in this work. For example, I’ve used techniques of hardboiled journalism, in which I’ve presented bare facts for readers to build their own stories from. I’ve used techniques culled from poetry, such as refrains and incantations, and I’ve used techniques from fiction that allow me to render various scenes.

Some people have asked me how it’s possible to know and remember so much of one’s young life. They wonder why there aren’t more gaps in the narrative. Besides the fact that my childhood is still very vivid in my memory, one technique I employ to fill in gaps is the phrase “I imagine…” It’s a fantastically useful tool that allows the writer to step over into the realms of fiction and to speculate, while at the same time still remaining faithful to the facts.

The way the work is written dislocates time’s linearity. Instead of seeing the past, present, and future as separate entities, the reader should get a sense of time’s interconnectedness. Because the work tends to disrupt conventional perceptions of time, I’ve paradoxically coined this new non-fiction genre a “fracture.”


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


There was much I enjoyed in writing this book. Through research, I learned facts about historical and social events — things that were going on around me when I was a child that I’d been ignorant of. It was fascinating to consider these events and follow their evolution over time. I also enjoyed remembering details of my youth, and through writing, reanimating the past and bringing into sharp focus episodes previously merely remembered. Mostly I enjoyed that “ah-ha” rush every time I could see the past anew from a larger, more holistic perspective.

One of the most challenging aspects of writing this book was keeping its momentum going. The writing was even slower than my usual slow pace of writing, because there was so much research involved. Each paragraph, virtually, would open up the necessity of some kind of research. Also much intervened in my life between the time I wrote the first essay and the last…so keeping the energy high on the project over several years was a big challenge.


What do you love about writing non-fiction specifically?


I love remembering events and specific objects from the past, and I find writing allows me to experience these things much more vividly. For example, I might recall that when I was growing up my father had a certain kind of a car — a brown Ford. Because I’m unsure of the year of the car and the model, I’ll begin researching. I’ll start hunting down this information until eventually I find exactly the car we had. I’ll look for pictures as well as written information, which always leads to other memories — for example, in this instance, the tiny metal car ashtrays and the way I used to play with them and how I always sat between my parents in the front seat on long trips. Besides these kinds of personal revelations, there are also many that have to do with a larger social perspective.

The Ford Motor Company, for example, became such a huge industry, and employed so many workers, that Ford City, which would later become part of Windsor, Ontario, was founded. In my childhood I lived in Windsor, and looking back, I can see now how the automotive industry really shaped the character and the nature of the city and, in so doing, had an impact on the destinies of all of us who lived there.


Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book.


One of my favourite non-fiction books is Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, by Jung Chang. I think her blend of history, biography, memoir, and speculation have really influenced my own non-fiction writing. The author writes about three generations of women in her family, starting with her grandmother. In the process of telling these family stories, she paints the social history of China.


What can you tell us about your next project?


I have a new poetry collection, The Book of Changes, coming out in April. I also have
several other projects on the go — a novel in stories and a short story collection near completion.

I’m finding, however, that I’m still captivated with memoir and drawn to the years I spent living and working in England. I briefly touch on this period in the last essay of Afflictions & Departures.

My mother moved us to a seaside town in North Devon when I was a teenager. I’d dropped out of high school in Canada, and the school system in England was so different that it was impossible to find a way back in. After a very short stint as a waitress in a hotel, I became a chambermaid and then a resident cleaner in a girl’s college. While I was undergoing culture shock and trying to come to terms with the British class system, England was undergoing tremendous economic, political and social upheavals. In 1979 the country was in shambles. The winter of 1978 was coined by media “the winter of discontent.” Everyone was on strike. There hadn’t been anything like it since the general strike of 1926. Apparently, even gravediggers wouldn’t dig graves and the government was talking about disposing of corpses at sea.

Out of this chaos, Margaret Thatcher emerged to become England’s first female prime minister. What’s quite surprising to me, in retrospect, is how a country that hadn’t embraced the feminist movement could produce a leader like Margret Thatcher. In many ways, I think, Margaret Thatcher was the embodiment of a European archetype that doesn’t exist in North America. It was a fascinating time to live in England, and it certainly influenced my perceptions of the world, and I’m learning a great deal working on this book.

Madeline Sonik is a teacher, writer, and editor. Her work has been published extensively in journals, magazines and academic anthologies. Her latest books include Stone Sightings (poetry), Arms (a novel), Drying the Bones (stories) and Belinda and the Dustbunnys (children’s novel). She has a MFA in Creative Writing and a PhD in Education, both from UBC. She has also been the recipient of numerous awards, prizes and fellowships for her writing. She currently teaches at the University of Victoria.

For more information about Afflictions and Departures please visit the Anvil Press website.

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

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