Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Charles Taylor Prize Interviews: Tim Cook

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Tim Cook

Charles Taylor Prize for Non-Fiction finalist Tim Cook is the author of Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King and Canada's World Wars (Allen Lane Canada).

Tim may be feeling a bit of déjà vu this year; his Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting in the Great War 1917-1918 won the Charles Taylor Prize in 2009. Will he make it two for two? Stay tuned to Open Book for the March 4 announcement of the winner.

The $25,000 award honours both Charles Taylor's legacy and the finest work of non-fiction published in Canada in the previous year.

Tim speaks with us today about his experiences as Great War historian at the Canadian War Museum, his impressive upcoming project and watermelon as a victory celebration.

Stay tuned to Open Book for our final interview in the 2013 Charles Taylor Prize series next week!

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted.

Tim Cook:

My book, Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King and Canada’s World Wars, explores wartime leadership. I was intrigued by the idea of how politicians with little military training led Canada through these titanic conflicts. Canada was forever changed by the world wars of 1914 to 1918 and 1939 to 1945, with the introduction of income tax, the infringement of civil liberties, the enfranchisement for women, the massive industrialization, the reinforcement of national pride and countless other social, political and economic changes. The cost in lives was horrendous, with more than 110,000 Canadian dead and twice as many veterans wounded in body, mind and spirit. With the country engaged in a total war effort in the two wars, this book explores Borden and King’s leadership styles, influence, wielding of power and their successes and failures as Canada’s warlords.


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


I have a passion for Canadian history and it is my pleasure to work at the Canadian War Museum where I have an opportunity to share our important stories with all Canadians. The greatest challenge in this book was to wrestle down the complex stories of Canada at war and the prime ministers who guided the country during it and to draw out the key narratives. Some writers engage with small subjects and build their way; my challenge was to take two of the most complex events in Canadian history and two of the most complex historical actors and to make sense of them.


What do you love about writing non-fiction specifically?


This is my sixth book of historical non-fiction. Like most historians, I enjoy the research and writing process. I love to visit the archives and to read the original documents, letters, memoirs and diaries. These are the bare bones of history upon which to hang the story. But there is also an enormous literature published on these two world wars and the prime ministers and it was a delight to tackle that mountain of articles, journals, speeches and books to reconstruct the life and times of Borden and King.


Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book.


In 2007 and 2008, I published a two volume history of Canadians in the Great War, At the Sharp End and Shock Troops. These two books focused on Canadians fighting during the Great War, with an emphasis on the Canadian civilian-soldiers. I remain fascinated by those young Canadians who served and sacrificed. Through their letters, memoirs and diaries, one can catch a glimpse of how they faced the tremendous strain on the Western Front, where they lived and died in unspeakable conditions. The emphasis on the soldiers’ experience was shaped by my experience as a public historian at the Canadian War Museum, but also a critical book that I encountered early in my academic career. Richard Holmes’s Firing Line was one of the first books I read while studying military history at the Royal Military College of Canada and its emphasis on how soldiers cope, endure and make sense of the bewildering experience of combat profoundly shaped my approach to writing history.


What can you tell us about your next project?


My next project, to be published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Canada, will be a two volume history of Canadians fighting during the Second World War. Based on hundreds of interviews with veterans, unpublished letters and diaries and archival documents, I plan to tell the story of Canadians fighting on all fronts, from the Battle of the Atlantic to the skies over Germany and during the land campaigns at Hong Kong, Dieppe, Sicily, Italy, Northwest Europe, Holland and Germany. It is a daunting project in size and scope, but it is an important part of our history for Canadians to know better.


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


Writing is an exhilarating experience, but it can be a lonely one. I only do what I do because of the love and support of my understanding wife and three supportive daughters. When I have won awards in the past, I’ve handed over the prize money to my wife. We also buy gifts for the girls. When I won the Charles Taylor in 2009, they asked for watermelon. That seemed reasonable.

Tim Cook is the Great War historian at the Canadian War Museum. He is the author of five other books, including Shock Troops, which won The 2009 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. He was also awarded the J.W. Dafoe Prize and the Ottawa Book Award for At the Sharp End. He lives in Ottawa.

For more information about Warlords please visit the Penguin Canada website.

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

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