Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Weston Words, with Richard Gwyn

Share |
Richard Gwyn

The fourth finalist for the inaugural Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction is Richard Gwyn, author of Nation Maker — Sir John A. MacDonald: His Life, Our Times (Random House Canada). Nation Maker is the second volume in a two-part biography of Canada's founding father, the first of which won the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.

The Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction carries not only the name of Ontario's former Lieutenant Governor, but also one of the most significant purses for a literary prize in Canada, with $60,000 awarded to the author judged to have written the finest work of non-fiction.

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.

Richard Gwyn:

Nation-Maker tells the story of how Canada came to be and how, once it existed, it beat the odds and continued to exist, Today, we regard Confederation as our start. Back then, it was far more likely to be our finish: most of those in Britain and the U.S. who knew anything about Canada expected it to vanish quickly by joining the U.S., a step that would fulfill all economic and geographic logic.

Two factors defeated logic. One was the strange, stubborn, near- inexplicable, insistence of most Canadians on not becoming Americans. The other was the exceptional skill of John A. Macdonald — the political equal, although not so in statesmanship — of any national leader of the 19th century. As well, by charm and canniness and street smarts he held a grip on the imagination and affection of Canadians, (winning six of seven elections and winning seats in every province) that no successor has ever equaled. So Canadians trusted him.

For me, a special delight was in discovering and describing an unknown Macdonald. For instance, that he tried to extend the vote to women as early as 1885, the first national leader in the world to do so. That the religious institution he admired most was the Salvation Army. That while his power rested on the foundation of a large bloc of Quebec MPs, he believed it would be better for Canada if Francophones supported both parties more or less evenly.


Where were you when you received news of your nomination?


I was in my attic office looking out of the window to see if any leaves had yet turned red when Don Orvec of the Writers’ Trust called. We kibitzed about this and that publishing gossip, which gave me time to guess why he’d called.


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


“Non-fiction” is a terrible title and it’s long over-due for someone to come up with a better one. So-called non-fiction constitutes an attempt to capture the reality of some portion of the world, or of life itself. Its foundation is facts, or what actually happens or once happened. So it’s about truth, pleasant or unpleasant. It’s about far more than gathering up facts, though. It’s also about imagination, perception, a description and analysis of events, both physical and psychological. In the instance of some forms of non-fiction — biography; memoir — it’s about using the techniques of a novelist to bring alive scenes, events, personal experiences, so that a reader can feel they are observing them and can make their own judgments about what it was that happened.


Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book.


My favorite one if recent years in my own field is the American, Pulitzer Prize-winning, author David Hackett Fischer’s Champlain’s Dream. It re-tells a comparatively well-known story but presents it both with important new information and with high intelligence, both emotional and intellectual. While writing Nation-Maker, it was the target I aimed at.

Currently, I am reading, and am utterly swept away by, Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Almond Eyes.


What can you tell us about your next project?


I have none. Nation-Maker and its predecessor The Man Who Made Us, which cover Macdonald from birth in 1815 to death in 1891, took more than seven years to research and write. I began as a complete historical neophyte and ended as a thoroughly exhausted one. At my age — the same as my 11-year-old, black, Labrador, Nell — I haven’t the energy for another such huge project. Suggestions for compact, tidy, one will be gratefully received.

Richard Gwyn has long been widely-known as a political columnist for the Toronto Star and a frequent commentator on television and radio. He is also well-known as the writer of award-winning books. These include highly-praised biographies of Pierre Trudeau, The Northern Magus, and of Newfoundland Premier Joey Smallwood, The Unlikely Revolutionary. His study of Canada as a post-modern, multi-cultural society, Nationalism With Walls; The Unbearable Lightness of Being Canadian, was cited by the Literary Review of Canadian as one of the country’s 100 most-important books. The firs volume of Gwyn’s biography of Sir John A. MacDonald was The Man Who Made Us, which covered John A. from his birth in Scotland in 1815 to his achievement of Confederation in 1867. It won the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, in 2008, was short-listed for the Shaughnessy-Cohen Prize for Political Writing, while the Writers’ Trust of Canada selected it as one of the best political books of the last quarter-century.

For more information about Nation Maker please visit the Random House Canada website.

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

Related item from our archives

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications


Open Book App Ad