Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Charles Taylor Prize Interviews: Sandra Djwa

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Sandra Djwa

Sandra Djwa is the author of Journey With No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page (McGill Queen's University Press), one of five finalists for the 2013 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, which will be announced on March 4. Journey With No Maps examines the life of Page, a decorated poet who published more than 30 books during her life and who was also a respected visual artist.

The Charles Taylor Prize awards $25,000 annually to the author judged to have created the finest work of non-fiction in Canada during the previous year. The prize honours Charles Taylor's legacy and has been awarded to many Canadian luminaries, including Carol Shields, Wayne Johnston and Rudy Wiebe.

Sandra speaks with us today about the relative truth of biography, her next P.K. Page-centric endeavour and celebrating Newfoundland style.

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.

Sandra Djwa:

Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page is a story about a young woman on the Canadian prairie who yearned to be a poet and taught herself to become a writer and a visual artist. It is also a story about the life of a modern woman and her quest in the context of Canadian literary culture of the last fifty years.


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


P.K. Page was a fine poet, a fiction writer and an original visual artist who lived in five countries and six provinces over 93 years. In each of these different locales she developed a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. Consequently the scope of her life — and art — was huge.

The most challenging aspect of writing this book was gathering the biographical materials (letters, diaries, interviews) in the attempt to discover both order and design. Not only were many of P.K’s early letters undated but also she herself often did not know when she was living where for much of her childhood. To establish even a skeleton chronology I had to consult English census reports and Canadian military records. Her letters were not transcribed or collected and were to be found in a number of private collections as well as Library and Archives Canada. Her visual art was largely undated and in private hands. Her poems and short stories were equally difficult to date. But biography is dependent upon chronology. Consequently, the first task was to establish a valid timeline on which to plot the written story. Subsequent tasks included gathering the poems in chronological order, transcribing essential journals, and assembling reproductions of the visual art in the order in which they were created. For assistance in this latter work I am grateful to the Zailig Pollock and to the editorial team assembled in 2005 to undertake The Collected Works of P.K. Page.

Some of the most enjoyable moments came when interviewing friends, family and P.K. herself. She was an excellent respondent and could wax eloquent on any subject at the drop of a hat. On the whole the interviews were fun and we would occasionally break into song when one of us recalled a line pertinent to the subject under discussion. Biographical fact checking can be dull work but as she once said “We can sometimes touch heights.”


What do you love about writing non-fiction specifically?


I enjoy biographical non-fiction as a kind of literary quest for the “truth” of character and action. This is a very old-fashioned concept of biography, perhaps, as truth is relative. Nonetheless the kind of literary non-fiction that I most admire attempts to set the subject in her/his time and place and gives (to the best of the biographer’s understanding) the character of the persons concerned and their actions.


Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book.


I loved P.N. Furbank’s E.M. Forster: A Life, a biography published in England in the mid-seventies. It’s a big book, very comprehensive, initially published in two volumes. It gives the reader a satisfying sense of Forster, as man and artist. The biographer sets Forster within his essential family background and introduces the young man’s developing sexuality within the context of university life, friends and travels — especially his travels to India. Furbank also provides helpful discussion of Forster’s major novels. The biographer as a person comes into the story only after he has met his subject. Furbank then reports what he sees to the reader: it is wonderful to read these cameo period pieces reproduced from Furbank’s diary.


What can you tell us about your next project?


I am a general editor of an editorial team working on The Collected Works of P.K. Page together with Zailig Pollock of Trent University and Dean Irvine of Dalhousie University. Dean Irvine and I are now working on an edition of P.K.’s letters. I had selected over 2000 letters for the purposes of this biography but we are adding to this collection. If readers have any P.K. Page letters we would be grateful to receive them.


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


With a good party. Whether I win or not, I’ll celebrate Newfoundland style by cooking a dinner for my neighbours and friends, some of whom helped with this book. I also have a new project that I would like to start and would probably use the prize money as seed money for research assistance.

Sandra Djwa is a professor emeritus of English at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C. and the prize-winning author of The Politics of the Imagination: A Life of F.R. Scott and Professing English: A Life of Roy Daniels. She lives in Vancouver.

For more information about Journey With No Maps please visit the McGill Queen's University Press website.

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

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