Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Hilary Dean

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On Writing, with Hilary Dean

Toronto author and filmmaker Hilary Dean is the Grand Prize winner for the 2012 CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize. Her story, "Holy Bald-Headed," was selected by Canadian writers Charles Foran, Charlotte Gill and Marina Nemat from over 3,000 submissions. “Holy Bald-Headed breaks your heart," remarked the jury. "Written with great economy and direct, unsparing prose, the story is in equal parts tender and brutal, an inspired portrait of the sadness and outrage of life.”

Hilary Dean receives a prize of $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and a two-week residency at The Banff Centre’s Leighton Artists’ Colony. "Holy Bald-Headed" will be published in the August edition of enRoute Magazine. Open Book is proud to publish this teaser from the opening of Hilary's story along with her answers to our questions about vulnerability, style and documentary.

from Holy Bald-Headed, by Hilary Dean

I am sitting in the backseat of my grandparents’ car holding a glass jar very tightly. Inside the jar is a humongous cicada, its beetle-body is so pretty and green like melted emeralds. I hold onto it super carefully so my cicada won’t get bashed all around, even though it’s been dead forever and the science fair is over. I won second prize in the primary division and they gave me a blue ribbon and announced my name on the P.A and now everyone thinks I am a genius. You can ask me anything about the life cycle of the cicada and I will tell you, I am an expert on it.

The backseat of this car is giant like a church bench and I’m sitting in the middle so I can hear my grandma talking and when she stops I will ask her for another candy mint. She has the exact kind like they give you at restaurants and there’s like a million of them in her purse so I don’t get why she’s so stingy about them.

“You shouldn’t eat too many candies, Adrienne, you’ll start to put on weight.”

“She’s tiny like a bird, Peg,” says my Pop. “Put on weight, holy bald-headed.”

Open Book:

Tell us about your essay, "Holy Bald-Headed".

Hilary Dean:

“Holy Bald-Headed” tells the story of being sexually assaulted by a stranger in a car that had belonged to my grandfather. It’s about family and memory and shame, expressed through the life of that car.


How did you (or do you) deal with the vulnerability that comes with writing non-fiction, especially in this essay on the experience of sexual assault?


The exposure has definitely given me some anxiety. Some reactions to the story have been emotionally complicated, or internetishly hateful. But most people have been very kind and some have written to me saying that they relate, and have stories of their own. In a documentary I made, “So You’re Going Crazy…”, Prof. David Reville says, “I think it’s very dangerous to have taboo subjects, because it leaves people feeling like they’re out there on their own.” So I try to think about that and write what I want to write, and try not to think about what jerks say.


You use a very direct, matter-of-fact and immediate style to tell this story. Why do you think this style works for "Holy Bald-Headed"?


I wrote the first draft of this story in Lynda Barry’s workshop “Writing the Unthinkable”, which was focused, in part, on safely immersing yourself in the memory images that your conscious brain tends to keep beneath the surface. The assignment was to write about a car from your life, so I was able to write about the event obliquely, from an angle. I would never have written it if I had sat down at my desk alone and told myself to write about it. So I would say that the inspiration and technique were from Barry. The style is meant to convey the nature of random violence — how it happens out of nowhere and is indifferent to you and your life.


What draws you to creative nonfiction and documentary?


As a fan, I love eavesdropping on people’s brains and lives and weird secrets. So many people are fascinating and lovable, from Werner Herzog to Big Ang, I love watching all kinds of docs and reality TV shows. When I write or make films, I think I’m drawn to playing with the constructs of the form — editing the messiness of reality or raw footage into something that makes sense to me, like an organized narrative or clean sequence because I’m an OCD control freak.


What will you work on during the two-week stay at the Banff Centre that you've been awarded?


I’ll be working on a companion piece to the documentary, a memoire about mental illness, recovery and trying to talk people out of suicide. I’m very excited to return to Banff and so thankful for this opportunity.

Hilary Dean has been published in This Magazine and shortlisted once for The Journey Prize. She has an MFA in Documentary Media from Ryerson University and is the director of the film So You’re Going Crazy... She lives in Toronto with her husband, musician Dave Schoonderbeek, and their Jedi Knight son. This story is an excerpt from her current work in progress, a memoir of mental illness and recovery.


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