Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Weston Words, with Taras Grescoe

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Taras Grescoe

The Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction is the country's newest and biggest non-fiction prize. To be awarded on November 12, 2012, the prize honours the country's finest work of non-fiction with a $60,000 prize purse. Now in its second year, the prize has emerged as a tastemaker for readers and a career highlight for its winners and nominees.

We launch this year's iteration of our Weston Words series with finalist Taras Grescoe. Taras is no stranger to the Writers' Trust, having been nominated for this prize (in its previous incarnations) in each of 2000, 2003 and 2008, winning the prize in 2008. This year he is nominated for Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile (HarperCollins Canada).

Taras talks to Open Book about Straphanger, the terminology of non-fiction and the perfect drink with which to celebrate good news.

Join us throughout the week as we speak with all five finalists for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction!

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted.

Taras Grescoe:

Straphanger is the last volume in my "angry young man" trilogy, which began with The Devil's Picnic (about the insanity of prohibition), and continued with Bottomfeeder (about the insanity of what our appetites are doing to the oceans). Straphanger deals with the insanity of what we're doing to our cities — and ourselves — by relying on cars as our main mode of public transportation. Starting with congestion, pollution and obesity, but not forgetting sprawl, social isolation and the erosion of public space. Ultimately, Straphanger’s subject is the city, and in a journey that took me from Tokyo to Bogotá, with stops in Moscow, Phoenix, Vancouver and Copenhagen, I boarded high-speed trains and sparking streetcars, and talked to cargo-bike commuters, subway engineers, idealistic mayors and disillusioned trolley campaigners. It was all in the service of imagining a better future for the cities we live in.


Where were you when you received news of your nomination? Did you celebrate your nomination in any way?


I remember it well. I was sitting on the sofa, feeling a little glum about my future in writing, watching my son Desmond systematically pull all the paperbacks off a bookshelf. I checked a message on the phone; it was a fellow from the Writers' Trust, saying he had good news. It was good news. I celebrated that afternoon by buying a few more paperbacks, and my wife and I toasted the nomination that night with a Spritz (a Venetian cocktail made with a mix of Aperol, prosecco, and soda water).


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


I wish we had a better term than "non-fiction," which pervades English-speaking countries. It seems to me to be a label that arose purely for the purpose of market convenience, and precludes brilliant hybrids, like the oeuvre of W.G. Sebald; it is a distinction not much made in French, Italian or Spanish literature. The huge category of English books that are not novels, poetry or short stories contains everything from textbooks and how-to manuals to the most brilliant flights of human imagination. "Non-fiction" includes Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, Henry Thoreau's Walden, Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory. In short: the benefits of "non-fiction" are actually the benefits of literature as a whole.


Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book.


When I was younger, there was one book that made me want to write, convinced me of the urgency of writing, and taught me more about the rhythm of writing than any other book. That was Michael Herr’s Dispatches. I picked it up used, for 20 francs or so, in a bookstore on the Left Bank when I was living in Paris in my poverty-stricken twenties. (Probably bought it, debauched slacker that I was, because of the blurb from William S. Burroughs on the cover.) I read it on the métro on the way back to Belleville, and, enraptured by the prose, missed a stop or two.

Reading Herr, who was a war correspondent for Esquire in Vietnam, was like being buttonholed by a hipster Ancient Mariner. The way he used language, the way he managed to catch his breath and convey the most intense experience of his life in an onrush of language alternately languorous and staccato, made me want to survive my adventures and come back to tell my tales to whoever would listen. (I hoped I would never be as wounded as Herr sounded, however.) I’ve told soulmates and kindred spirits about Dispatches; the ones that got it are the ones I’ve kept close.


What can you tell us about your next project?


It's still in gestation, and at this stage, the embryo is very fragile indeed. I can tell you that it will involve far less travelling than usual — for each of my last three books, I circled the globe. Makes a fellow dizzy after a while.

Taras Grescoe was born in Toronto and currently lives in Montreal. Four of his five nonfiction titles have been nominated for earlier incarnations of the Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, including Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood, which won the award in 2008. His work has appeared in a variety of major publications, including The New York Times and National Geographic Traveler.

For more information about Straphanger, please visit the HarperCollins Canada website.

For more information about the Writers' Trust of Canada, please visit their website.

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

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