Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

RBC Taylor Prize Interview Series: Graeme Smith

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Graeme Smith

Graeme Smith's The Dogs are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan (Knopf Canada) arrived on the literary scene like a juggernaut, scooping nominations for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction (which it subsequently won), BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, The Writers' Trust Shaughnessy Cohen Award for Political Writing and, now, the RBC Taylor Prize. A harrowing account of Graeme's four years spent in Afghanistan for the Globe and Mail, The Dogs are Eating Them Now has been praised for how it "eschews the ‘official version’ of the war in Afghanistan and instead shows us life on the ground for the soldiers, insurgents, politicians, warlords, and — most importantly — the civilians caught between all sides." (Louise Arbour, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.)

Today we speak with Graeme as part of our RBC Taylor Prize for Non-Fiction interview series.

Graeme, who has recently been appointed senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, tells us why he wants to make readers uneasy, loving multiple genres and how various groups have been problematically lumped together in a post-9/11 world.

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.

Graeme Smith:

This book is a lament for all our lost ambitions in Afghanistan, and a grisly examination of how things went wrong. It's focused on the dangerous south, where I lived as a journalist for three years, and where Canada and NATO fought their biggest battles. To be honest, writing the book was incredibly hard. The introduction describes my process like this: “I keep typing curses into the text, streams of invective that I go back and delete, feeling ashamed of my failure to find better words than f*ck f*ck f*ck. But I also need you to feel the profanity, because there is something profane about the errors we committed in Afghanistan.”

I want you to emerge from the book feeling a bit uneasy, perhaps a little tainted, unable to shake off the lingering images of war. You need to read about the days when I got the charred flesh of suicide bombers stuck in the treads of my shoes. You need to hear about the night when Canadian soldiers used human bodies as bait for insurgents — which resulted in the title, The Dogs Are Eating Them Now. Why? Because we don't have clean hands in Afghanistan. It's morally repugnant to declare victory at this point, as the war gets bigger and nastier. But that's the message you're hearing from Western leaders: that the job is finished. Troops are withdrawing and aid money is dwindling. It's all too easy for the international community to switch off, moving along to the next crisis without reflecting back on this awful war — and most tragically, abandoning the Afghan people to deal with an enormous mess. The book concludes with a plea for continued engagement. Our troop surges failed to bring peace and stability, but we need to stay involved with Afghanistan and find better ways of helping the country.


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


Most of the process was challenging. The daily job of collecting the news in southern Afghanistan, tallying up the awfulness and stupidity, tested my sanity. The task of re-digesting all of those experiences was almost as hard: sitting in cafes, staring out the window, listening to my audio recordings, writing the book. The most enjoyable part was working with smart editors — Louise Dennys, Diane Martin, Anne Collins, and, especially, Paul Taunton. It was fun to watch my clumsy words take shape into chapters.


What do you love about writing non-fiction specifically?


I don't feel overwhelming affection for any particular form. Fiction helps us understand things just as well as non-fiction. I've taken photographs that stick in my memory better than any particular words I've ever written. I love the quality of radio, the way a human voice carries meaning beyond the words spoken. Probably my best-known work was a video series about the Taliban. What's special about all of these endeavours is the struggle to put together a coherent view of the world. What's happening? What should we do about it? Those are tough questions, and any effort to answer them is worthwhile.


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


I'm a huge fan of An Enemy We Created, by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn. It's not an easy read, but it strikes at the heart of the madness in post-2001 Afghanistan. The book argues that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are different groups, and should not have been lumped together after 9/11. The authors make a simple point with an overwhelming amount of gorgeous detail.


What can you tell us about your next project?


I won't tackle any side projects for a while, because my new job — senior analyst for the International Crisis Group — is demanding, in the best possible way. It gives me the luxury of researching in depth, and writing for an audience that likes footnotes. Another important thing about Crisis Group is that the organization publishes all of its reports at, making some of the world's best conflict research available at no charge to readers. This is great, because it contributes to the public understanding of what's going on.


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


I'd pay off my mortgage. That sounds boring, but a bit of modest financial security would allow me to take greater risks as a writer and researcher.

Graeme Smith is a Senior Analyst for the International Crisis Group, the world's leading independent, non-partisan source of analysis and advice to governments and intergovernmental bodies like the United Nations, European Union and World Bank on the prevention and resolution of deadly conflict. He covered the Afghan war for the Globe and Mail from 2005 to 2009, spending more time in southern Afghanistan during that period than any other Western journalist. The winner of many awards for investigative reporting — including an Emmy Award, the Amnesty International Award, three National Newspaper Awards, and the Michener Award for public service granted once annually by Canada's head of state — he lectures widely and served as an Adjunct Scholar at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Based in Kabul, he travels frequently to Washington and Brussels.

For more information about The Dogs are Eating Them Now please visit the Knopf Canada website.

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

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