Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Weston Words, with Andrew Steinmetz

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Andrew Steinmetz

We're counting down the days to the October 21, 2013 announcement of the winner of the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction with a series of interviews with the shortlisted authors.

Today we're chatting with Andrew Steinmetz. Andrew has gotten a nod via the Writers' Trust before, having been previously shortlisted for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize for his novel, Eva's Threepenny Theatre. The multi-genre writer (who has also authored two poetry collections) has turned his hand to non-fiction with This Great Escape: The Case of Michael Paryla (Biblioasis). Shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize, This Great Escape tells the mysterious life story of Michael Paryla, who had 57 seconds of screentime in the classic film The Great Escape. Paryla, who was part Jewish and had escaped from the Nazis early in his life, appeared as a Gestapo agent.

Today Andrew speaks to us about his family connections to Paryla, a celebratory Swedish drinking song and a deathly new project.

The Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction honours the finest works of non-fiction published in Canada each year. The winner will receive $60,000. The Writers' Trust of Canada also creates teaching resources for senior high school educators based on the shortlisted titles.

Check out all of Open Book's interviews with finalists through our continuing Weston Words series!

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted.

Andrew Steinmetz:

This Great Escape is the record of my almost ten year obsession to tell the story of my distant cousin, Michael Paryla, a part-Jewish actor who had a bit part in the 1963 movie The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, and James Garner. The movie is based on a true story: the March 1944 escape of 76 POWS from an “escape-proof” POW camp in Germany, called Stalag Luft III.

Background: Michael Paryla was born in Vienna in 1935. He spent his childhood as a war refugee in Switzerland. He lived in the Russian Zone of Berlin from 1946 until he immigrated to Canada in 1949. He attended high school in Sault Saint Marie and University in Montreal. Paryla returned to Germany in 1956 and he died in Hamburg, on January 21st, 1967. He was thirty-two years old. I never met him.

Michael Paryla: 57 seconds in one of the most watched war movies ever: seen by millions, never noticed, eclipsed by that Hollywood firmament of stars. And he was un-credited for the role.

I grew up knowing two things about him: that he was an actor and played a Gestapo agent in the famous movie; and that he died relatively young from a drug overdose.

The interesting thing is — and I only realized this late on — that somewhere along the line I must have posited a causal relationship between him being in the movie and having that role, and him dying young from an overdose; as though his fate was directed by the role he played in the movie. Today, I realize this kind of reasoning amounts to bad science — confusing causation with correlation. But, for better or worse, prophetic or wrong-headed, it was where I started working on The Case of Michael Paryla.


Where were you when you received news of your nomination?


I had just returned home from walking the dog and checked my phone messages. After hearing the news, I poured myself a shot of Campari, raised my glass to the dog, and sang a Swedish drinking song — ‘Helan Går’ — alone in the kitchen. Then I poured another, just in case I was dreaming.


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


It’s an exciting time to be a writer or reader of non-fiction. With non-fiction in general, today there is much less energy put into maintaining the unquestioned erudition of the writer. There is room for doubt. The entire process is more democratic. For the writer there is the option to disregard convention without losing credibility. What I especially like about the personal memoir is that from page one you can get straight to it: the heart of the matter. As a result, I find the link between the text and reader is more immediate, and potentially more urgent. If you combine the range of human experience with the range storytelling styles, the product is endless potential for learning and entertainment — without the writer ever having to “make things up” or having to pretend to know-it-all, and without the reader having to leave their suspended disbelief like a pair of dirty shoes at the front door/cover page.


Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book.


A favourite of mine is Swing Low: A Life by Miriam Toews. Toews is known foremost for her fiction, especially A Complicated Kindness and The Flying Troutmans. Less known but more powerful in my opinion is Toews’ memoir of her father, a high school teacher and life-long sufferer from depression. In Swing Low, Toews opts to tell the story from her late father’s point of view. It’s a daring maneuver with the potential to alienate a lot of readers. The “I” of her first person account is her father. But all the while Toews herself remains a near presence, the source of an intuitive, deeply sympathetic wellspring, inhabiting and negotiating the twists and agonies of her father’s mind, during his final days in hospital. Toews’ audacious strategy is brought down to earth by the accumulation of her many simple and true sentences. Toews cuts close to the bone and never submits to sentimentality. The result is a quietly innovative and beautiful book.


What can you tell us about your next project?


I’m interested in how secular people in the absence of religious ritual mark the death of their loved ones. Starting from personal experience, I’d like to catalogue the kind of non-religious rituals people are inventing nowadays to replace traditional ceremonies.

Born in Montréal, Andrew Steinmetz is the author of a memoir (Wardlife) and two collections of poetry (Histories and Hurt Thyself). His novel, Eva’s Threepenny Theatre, tells the story of his great-aunt Eva who performed in one of first touring productions of Bertolt Brecht’s masterpiece The Threepenny Opera, in 1928. An unusual fiction about memoir, Eva’s Threepenny Theatre won the 2009 City of Ottawa Book Award and was a finalist for the 2009 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Steinmetz is also the founding editor of Esplanade Books, the fiction imprint at Véhicule Press.

For more information about This Great Escape please visit the Biblioasis website.

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

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