Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Charles Taylor Prize Interviews: Carol Bishop-Gwyn

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Carol Bishop-Gwyn

The second of our 2013 Charles Taylor Prize finalists is Carol Bishop-Gwyn, who has captured one of Canadian dance's biggest and best-loved personalities in The Pursuit of Perfection: The Life of Celia Franca (Cormorant Books). The book follows Franca's life from humble beginnings to her reign as a first class ballerina.

The Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction honours both Charles Taylor's legacy and the finest work of non-fiction published in Canada in the previous year with a $25,000 award.

Carol speaks with us today about the Toronto Franca experienced in her dancing years, the paradise of research and a fascination with Catherine the Great.

Stay tuned to Open Book this week and next for interviews with all of the 2013 Charles Taylor Prize finalists!

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted.

Carol Bishop-Gwyn:

The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca is a biography about the first artistic director and creator of Canada’s National Ballet Company, which began in 1951, in a country almost devoid of any cultural institutions, and which today is one of the world’s best companies; shortly it will cross the Atlantic to perform at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Franca was a real toughie, a Brit who arrived in Toronto at the age of 29 to create a ballet company out of nothing and with no government money. A dedicated group of balletomanes had invited her to Canada to determine whether or not a national ballet company was feasible. Within eight months of arriving, Franca mounted an evening of professional ballet at Toronto’s Eaton’s auditorium and went right on to tour Canada with her fledgling company of 28 dancers. The book covers her entire life, beginning as the child of first generation Polish Jews in East End London, through the war years when Franca joined the Sadler’s Wells Ballet and toured England for fifty weeks of the year to entertain civilians and troops. It goes on to describe her 24 tumultuous years as the National Ballet’s artistic director, climaxing in her unwilling retirement and then the last three decades of her life when she needed to reinvent herself and also deal with the breakup of her third marriage.


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


No biographer can get it right without “the voice” of their subject. I had amazing luck with several key sources. Frank Rasky, a Toronto journalist, had been working on a biography of Franca during the early 1990s and had interviewed on tape nearly every person ever acquainted with her as well as several hours of conversations with Franca herself. Rasky died before finishing the book and the tapes were donated to Canada’s largest dance archives, Dance Collection Danse. When the tapes came into public domain, I sat for several months with a headset glued to my ears, listening and taking notes. In this interloper role, I sometimes felt like a therapist listening to both the words and silences between Franca and Rasky. Then I had another stroke of extraordinary luck. I had been told that one of Franca’s closest men friends in England had died. As a last, slim hope, I checked out his name in the London telephone book on the off chance that his widow might be able to provide me with some information. To my astonishment the supposed dead man, Cyril Frankel, answered the phone. By then elderly, he said that he had many letters written by Franca during the war years and later during her first decade in Canada. He said that he’s been wondering what to do with the collection. Needless to say, I offered to take them and after writing my book, to donate them to Dance Collection Danse. These intimate letters, still permeated with cigarette smoke, gave me unique insights into several seminal moments in Celia’s career.


What do you love about writing non-fiction specifically?


To be honest, I don’t love writing non-fiction. I find the writing part hard and stressful. But, like so many other writers, the act of researching the material is like being allowed into paradise. I am a research queen. Nothing suits me better than being in a musty archives gathering facts and looking for clues. I also find a particular joy in photo and illustrative research, searching out material which has never been seen before and adding new pieces of information in the captions. I also love researching contextual information. As an example, in The Pursuit of Perfection, I establish what Toronto would have been like in 1951, a time when the subway was just being built along Yonge Street and there were no high-rises on the cityscape.


Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book.


Since I lived in Moscow for nearly three years, I enjoy Russian history. Last year I read Robert Massie’s new biography Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. The perfect counter-balance was Eva Stachniak’s intelligent novel, The Winter Palace, an account of Catherine the Great through the eyes of the czarina’s servant and confidant. A delicious combo of books.


What can you tell us about your next project?


As this point nothing. I have one in mind and have actually begun the research, but it has not yet reached that stage where I know if I have a book (or will have and certainly should have) as opposed to having hold of a rather exciting idea for a book. It’s hard times for Canadian non-fiction writers to get manuscripts accepted.


If you are awarded the 2013 Charles Taylor Prize, how will you celebrate?


Firstly, I would take the prize to show my 87 year old father, who is in poor health Then I would treat my husband who is my own danseur noble (and also my son and daughter-in-law if they can make it up from New York where he is about to start a new job), to a classy, to-hell-with-the-expense dinner.

Carol Bishop-Gwyn is a writer and dance historian. She has taught courses at York University, Ryerson University, and the School of Toronto Dance Theatre. She has worked as a broadcaster and producer for CBC Radio and as a freelance magazine writer. She lives in Toronto.

For more information about The Pursuit of Perfection please visit the Cormorant website.

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

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