Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Weston Words, with Graeme Smith

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Graeme Smith

Today we wrap up our interview series with the finalists for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. The prize winner will be announced at an evening event in Toronto on Monday, October 21, 2013.

The final writer we are speaking with is Graeme Smith. During the four years Graeme spent in Afghanistan covering the war for the Globe and Mail, he spent more time in the dangerous southern region of the country than any other reporter. His resulting book, The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan (Knopf Canada) is a raw and uncensored account of the war, how it went wrong and what the experience was like for both Afghan citizens and the soldiers, journalists and humanitarians in the region. Graeme, who won an Emmy for his video series "Talking with the Taliban", has earned a reputation as a fearless correspondent who digs into corruption, foreign policy and social movements with equal insight.

Today Graeme speaks to us about finding burned flesh from suicide bombers stuck to his shoes, what needs to happen next in Afghanistan in the light of so many failed efforts and assembling a makeshift celebration for his Weston nomination.

The Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction honours the finest works of non-fiction published in Canada each year. The winner will receive $60,000. The Writers' Trust of Canada also creates teaching resources for senior high school educators based on the shortlisted titles.

Check out all of Open Book's interviews with finalists through our continuing Weston Words series and stay tuned for the announcement of the winner!

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.


Where were you when you received news of your nomination?


I heard the news while doing research in Faryab, a border province in the northwest of Afghanistan. I was staying at the best guesthouse in the provincial capital — but the plumbing didn't work, my room had no functioning lights, and there was no Internet connection. That made my celebration a bit modest. I ate a protein bar, drank a few cups of tea, and gave myself a break from the boring task of transcribing my notes. If that doesn't sound like much of a party, you don't understand how much I hate typing up notes.


What unique experience or benefit does non-fiction provide for readers?


I read a lot of fiction until my teenage years, when I started to get interested in reality — or, at least, the confirmable reality that we share with each other. In this era of media fragmentation and downsizing, of a billion shouting voices on social media, of corporate and government spin on a massive scale, the simple task of figuring out what the hell is going on? becomes more important. Non-fiction books are part of the noble, poorly-financed effort to answer that question. For a change, these books offer readers a body of research that took years — not minutes — to assemble. They are refined sweat, a whole lot of raw labour purified into sweet storytelling.


Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book.


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.

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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