Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

RBC Taylor Prize Interview Series: Charlotte Gray

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Charlotte Gray

The subtitle of acclaimed author Charlotte Gray's latest book, The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial That Shocked a Country (HarperCollins Canada), does not exaggerate. The Massey Murder, which involved an 18-year old servant shooting a member of one of Canada's wealthiest families, was a scandal unlike anything Toronto — and indeed the country — had ever seen.

Today we speak with Charlotte to launch the 2014 edition of our RBC Taylor Prize for Non-Fiction interview series. Charlotte, whose non-fiction has been widely decorated both in Canada and abroad and who has served as a previous RBC Taylor Prize juror herself, tells us about how to hook novel-readers on non-fiction, how the Massey Murder became a way into a fascinating period of upheaval in Canadian history and the very Canadian celebration she'll engage in if she is award the RBC Taylor Prize.

The RBC Taylor Prize is a $25,000 award that honours both Charles Taylor's legacy and the finest work of non-fiction published in Canada in the previous year. The 2014 prize will be announced on March 10 and will be selected by a jury composed of Coral Ann Howells, James Polk and previous prize winner Andrew Westoll.

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted.

Charlotte Gray:

The Massey Murder centres on a murder perpetrated on a quiet Toronto street one chilly February evening in 1915. Carrie Davies, an 18-year old domestic servant, shot and killed her employer, Bert Massey, as he was walking up to his house, completely unaware of the danger lurking behind his front door.

The shooting was a huge news story, because the Masseys were one of the most important families in Canada and because two Toronto newspapers went head-to-head on coverage. But this dramatic incident is just the foreground, because I wanted to use this true crime as a doorway into the home front in Canada during the First World War. Toronto, and the whole country, was on the cusp of startling change in the early twentieth century, and the European war intensified everything. Women’s roles were changing; newspapers were manipulating public opinion; the economy was revving up; families were beginning to realize that they were shipping their young men across the Atlantic not to a crusade, but to a brutal war on a scale hitherto unimaginable.

There are many excellent books this year on the carnage in Europe 1914-1918, and the events that led up to it, and the men who triggered the war. But what was it like for the women and families left behind?


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


In all my books, I set myself the challenge of writing about the past in a way that will engage readers who prefer novels, or say, “I don’t read history.” I want them to be enthralled by the story I’m telling — and to understand how it has helped shape our country. I realized that “murder” occupies a far larger shelf space in bookstores than “history,” so I decided to find a true crime on which I could build a social history of a period that has always interested me: early twentieth century Canada.

My first challenge was to find the right crime. Then I had to structure the book in such a way that I could keep the story moving (the crime, Carrie’s arrest and imprisonment, the trial, the verdict) while filling in the background. The early chapters deal with different aspects of society that fed into the final verdict — so I had one chapter describing the extraordinarily powerful Massey family, another on the importance of servants in middle-class homes, another on newspaper wars, and so on. The trial itself, and the performance of Carrie’s clever lawyer, gripped Canada at the time, and it is just as dramatic today.


What do you love about writing non-fiction specifically?


I began my writing career as a magazine feature writer, and various brilliant editors taught me how to pull out the most interesting parts of a story, how to structure my articles, and how to bring people alive in them. My kind of writing often feels like a jigsaw puzzle — I’m constructing a narrative out of different pieces — and I love jigsaw puzzles.

But I also love the intellectual process of constructing a narrative that is solidly based in fact. I can never go beyond what I find in my research: I can’t make things up. I love developing the balance between good research and elegant writing, in which wit and imagination play important roles, but imagination never tips over into invention.


Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book you've read.


Where to begin?! Anything by Simon Winchester, Margaret Macmillan, Adam Hochschild — all authors who do remarkable historical research and then shape a compelling narrative. A book that left a lasting impression on me was Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, about the Belgian Congo in the nineteenth century: he made so vivid the extraordinary cruelty of the colonial administration, and the intrepid reformers and reporters who exposed it.


What can you tell us about your next project?


I’m still developing it, so it is too tender a shoot to reveal right now! But it will likely be another approach to Canadian history. I think we have such a limited approach to our past: we just know about the big names (Sir John A., Trudeau) and events (Confederation, Vimy Ridge, the Vancouver Olympics.) But there is so much more to discover. This country was a collective effort, and we need to get underneath the linear political history and understand how and why we evolved from a threadbare British colony into a wealthy and successful country that handles diversity better than anywhere else in the world. I’m not a total cheerleader: Canada has done some things really badly. Look at what’s been happening to our First Nations. Look at the growing inequality between the richest and poorest people in society. Look at regional tensions, environmental disasters, crumbling infrastructure. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of people apply to immigrate to Canada from their own countries every year — so there are worse places to be.


If you are awarded the 2014 RBC Taylor Prize, how will you celebrate?


I have three amazing adult sons who love outdoor adventures — hiking and canoeing in inaccessible regions, skiing in our national parks, seeing the northern lights. They combine this love of Canada’s vast open spaces with urban lives and a deeply-rooted sense of being Canadian (despite their mother’s English accent.) In the remote possibility that I win this wonderful and prestigious award, I’d suggest that they take my husband and me off to a remote area for a truly Canadian outdoor adventure. I’d pay for the float plane – and they can portage the canoes and packs round the rapids.

Charlotte Gray is one of Canada’s best-known writers, and author of nine acclaimed books of literary non-fiction. Born in Sheffield, England, and educated at Oxford University and the London School of Economics, she began her writing career in England. She came to Canada in 1979 and worked as a political commentator, book reviewer and magazine columnist before she turned to authoring books. An Adjunct Research Professor in the Department of History at Carleton University, Charlotte is the 2003 Recipient of the Pierre Berton Award for distinguished achievement in popularizing Canadian history and is a former Taylor Prize jurist. Charlotte is a member of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. She lives in Ottawa with her husband George Anderson, and has three sons.

For more information about The Massey Murder please visit the HarperCollins Canada website.

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

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