Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Shaughnessy Cohen Prize Series, with Noah Richler

Share |
Noah Richler

Today we speak with Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing nominee Noah Richler, whose What We Talk About When We Talk About War (Goose Lane Editions) has opened an engaging, important and heated dialogue by challenging Canada's long-accepted identity as a nation of peacekeepers. A book that takes a hard look at the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, it is no surprise that What We Talk About When We Talk About War has popped up on multiple prize lists, including the Charles Taylor Prize for Non-Fiction longlist and the Governor General's Literary Award shortlist in addition to the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize shortlist.

It will be lucky number thirteen for one writer this year, with the thirteenth iteration of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, presented by the Writers’ Trust of Canada. The prize rewards the year's finest book tackling a political subject of interest to Canadian readers.

The winner of the prize, who will receive $25,000, will be announced at Ottawa's premiere social event, Politics & the Pen on March 6, 2013. In addition to the finalists, the event draws hundreds of politicians, staffers, diplomats and philanthropists as well as playing hosts to dozens of respected Canadian authors.

Noah talks with Open Book about the paradoxes of war, why the before is more fun than the after and how life necessarily interrupts writing.

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted and how the project came about.

Noah Richler:

Back in 2006 I was listening to Shelagh Rogers interview a soldier, Master-Corporal Paul Franklin, who had lost both his legs after the car he was driving in Kandahar was blown up in the explosion that killed the diplomat Glyn Berry, the beginning of a very tough year for the Canadian Forces. The inference of Franklin’s conversation with Shelagh was that if, subsequently, Canada pulled out of Afghanistan then he would have lost his legs for nothing. It occurred to me then, as it would have done to many, that while that may have been true it was not a sound argument for staying on. This is but one of the many paradoxes of war but it was the one that invited me in, so to speak, to writing a book that allowed me to discover just how upset I was with the proponents of Canada, the so-called "warrior nation."

Canada, under the Harper government, has undergone a radical change that has been shrewdly pushed forward by a manipulation of views about our history. This project is deliberate, and ongoing, and was hugely facilitated by the way the war was promoted. My book, however, is neither a judgment of the Canadian Forces nor even a judgment about the validity of the war. But it is a judgment concerning the language, stories and many self-deceptions that Canadians have either supported or not objected to, ones that have been used to enable our new, apparently jingoistic self and to do away with the better, more generous Canada that I grew up in, a Canada that I believe still exists.


In your opinion, what qualities or characteristics signify that a book qualifies as political writing?


Well, something that is broader than, say, writing about public policy. Anything about the polity, really — and, just as with the arts (their political value often discounted), the good stuff should surprise, make us self-conscious and unsettle us.


The prize is presented at an evening event in Ottawa called Politics and the Pen. What are you most looking forward to about P&P? Have you attended before?


I did attend, last year, as a guest of the Writers’ Trust. Very august company it is. I suppose that I am looking forward to the tension of not saying all the things I’d like to say when the opportunity is so ripe though, damn it, the temptation just may be too great.


If you were to recommend one past finalist or winner of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize to readers, which title would you choose?


Daniel Poliquin’s short biography, René Lévesque, is, to my mind, a wonderfully elegant, distilled and effective piece of writing. It was short-listed in 2009.


If you win the prize, how will you celebrate?


Oh God, better to ask me how I shall celebrate if I don’t, as is four times more likely, though I imagine I shall celebrate the same way in both cases, which is to say beforehand. I like the beforehand. The afterwards fills me with dread.


What can you tell us about your next project?


That I’ve started. And that even this short Q&A, along with a zillion other things (cleaning, cooking, shovelling the walk), is interrupting it. Hooray!

Noah Richler made documentaries and features for BBC Radio for fourteen years before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been books editor and literary columnist for The National Post and has contributed to numerous publications, including The Guardian, Punch, The Daily Telegraph, The Walrus, Maisonneuve, Saturday Night, The Toronto Star, and the Globe and Mail. He is author of This Is My Country, What's Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada. He lives in Toronto.

For more information about What We Talk About When We Talk About War please visit the Goose Lane Editions website.

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

For more information about the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, please visit the Writers' Trust of Canada website.

Related item from our archives

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications


Open Book App Ad