Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Weston Words, with Modris Eksteins

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Modris Eksteins

Today we welcome author and Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Nonfiction Prize finalist Modris Eksteins as part of our Weston Words series. Modris is nominated for his book Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age (Knopf Canada). In 1999, Modris won the prize (in its previous incarnation) for his book Walking Since Daybreak: A Story of Eastern Europe, World War II and the Heart of Our Century.

The Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction is the country's newest and biggest non-fiction prize. To be awarded on November 12, 2012, the prize honours the country's finest work of non-fiction with a $60,000 prize purse. Now in its second year, the prize has emerged as a tastemaker for readers and a career highlight for its winners and nominees.

Modris talks to Open Book about the merging of genres and the non-fiction title that blew him away and provides a sneak peak on the subject matter of his next project.

Join us throughout the week as we speak with all five finalists for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction!

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted.

Modris Eksteins:

Solar Dance is, in the first instance, a book about the fabulous posthumous success of Vincent van Gogh, an artist who was dismissed as a miserable failure in his own lifetime. But beyond that it invites reflection on our own loss of fixity and certainty in the midst of a culture of sensation and celebrity.


Where were you when you received news of your nomination? Did you celebrate your nomination in any way?


On my return from a trip, I found a message from the Writers’ Trust with an intimation of “good news.” When that good news was spelled out the next day, it of course evoked a monstrous grin.


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


My book is actually about the merging of former categories such as “authentic” and “copy,” or “non-fiction” and “fiction.” I am a historian who in the course of a career has lost faith in my ability to establish any form of historical “truth.” That said, the task of Sisyphus — to push that huge boulder up the mountain — must remain our task too. Yet I think we should also recognize that the rock is going to tumble back down again, with crushing potential.


Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book.


So many historians and critics have impressed me over the years, Peter Gay, Eric Hobsbawm, Carlo Ginzburg among others. But the one treatise I may have savoured most is Paul Fussell’s Great War and Modern Memory (1975). I was at the time just beginning my own exploration of the cultural impact of the First World War — the result would be my book Rites of Spring— and was, to borrow from the vernacular, “blown away” by Fussell’s literary analysis of the origins of modern irony. I almost packed in my own project. I remain in awe of Fussell’s accomplishment.


What can you tell us about your next project?


I have thought about the idea of Europe for most of my life. Perhaps it’s time to pull the threads together. The European Union may be the most encouraging story of the last half century. Like my Van Gogh story, it, too, emerges from disastrous failure — a civilization in ruin in 1945. Despite all the recent economic troubles rattling its foundations and poisoning its spirit, the union points to the collaborative effort demanded of us all if our planet is to survive.

Modris Eksteins was born in Latvia, settling in Winnipeg before eventually moving to Toronto. He won the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship and studied at Oxford University, earning a doctorate in philosophy. His title Walking Since Daybreak: A Story of Eastern Europe, World War II and the Heart of Our Century won the Pearson’s Writers Trust Non-Fiction prize in 1999.

For more information about Solar Dance, please visit the Random House Canada website.

For more information about the Writers' Trust of Canada, please visit their website.

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

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