Three local writers are in the running for this year’s CBC Non-fiction Prize.
On Sept. 17, CBC Books announced the longlist for its annual award for short, unpublished non-fiction stories, and among the 35 writers from across Canada are Vicki McLeod and Rachael Preston of Nanaimo and Gabriola Island’s Sheila Brooke.
McLeod and Preston are nominated for their works Georgie and The Story Teller, respectively, while Brooke is the lone candidate with two pieces in the competition, Le Trajet/The Way There and The Curve of Forgetting.
The winner receives a $6,000 award from the Canada Council for the Arts, has their entry published on CBC Books and gets the chance to take part in a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. The four finalists each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council and their works will also be published on CBC Books. This year’s judges are writers Yasuko Thanh and Bill Gaston and journalist Robyn Doolittle.
McLeod said it was “a little bit overwhelming” when she learned she made the longlist, but as someone new to autobiographical memoir writing it was also validating and motivating.
Her entry, Georgie, is part of a series of short stories McLeod is writing about the remote Washington State campground where she spent her summers as a child in the 1960s. She said the place was full of people “living off the grid,” hippies, draft dodgers and working class people and “Georgie was just this larger-than-life woman who was part of this retinue of interesting characters that populated this particular marginal space.”
McLeod said Georgie was a very influential figure in her life and was a likely “romantic liaison” of her divorced father’s, although that wasn’t obvious to her at the time.
“This particular narrative is about her revealing some of her past to me when I was a quite young child still. I was probably nine or 10 years old…” McLeod said. “She reveals some of her past to me that is both shocking and surprising, although I’m a little bit too young to really process it so I process it in a way that a child would.”
McLeod said she would be “thrilled” to win the Banff Centre residency.
“Just being able to have that focused time to work on your writing without distraction and to be able to have that kind of support and mentorship that that kind of program offers would be invaluable,” she said.
Preston said she submitted The Story Teller to the competition thrice before, but this time she reworked the beginning and earned a spot on the longlist. She said she “might have” cried and squealed when she heard she made the cut.
The story came out of Preston’s desire to pen a memoir about her experience moving from England to join her father in Canada in the late ’70s when she was a teenager, but found that writing a full-length work was too long a process.
”So many years that you’re working away invisibly that I wondered if I could turn parts of it into short stories so I could get some more immediate feedback,” she said.
The events of The Story Teller take place a few years before Preston’s move.
“It’s about a car ride. My uncle picking my mother up from work with some huge news that he didn’t have the courage to tell her for the longest time,” she said. “And so it’s my reimagining of that car ride and the conversation that takes place.”
Preston said her uncle told her his version of that story when she visited him in England as an adult.
“He said, ‘Did I ever tell you about that time I picked your mother up from work?’ and then told me this story and made it his,” she said. “He was laughing and joking and it was all uncle Terry’s story. And so years later I sat down to reclaim it.”
This was Brooke’s second time entering work into the competition. In 2018 she made the longlist with a draft version of The Curve of Forgetting.
“I was astonished and delighted to hear that both of my submissions had made the longlist,” Brooke said in an email. “Most of all, I felt hugely encouraged in my writing.”
Brooke describes The Curve of Forgetting as a story about discovery and solitude during her time working as a lookout on a fire tower, while in Le Trajet/The Way There, she plots the course of her life while working at a lighthouse and reflects on immigrant stories, family tensions and solitude.
“Both stories are very personal reflections emerging from 20 years of work in isolated, remote locations,” Brooke said, adding that she was drawn to those topics because “I wondered if it might be possible to find, in isolation, a way of being together with readers and with self, through prose.”
While the Banff Centre residency would be a “life-changing” opportunity to develop and focus on her writing in encouraging company, Brooke said just being considered for the award is meaningful.
“As a new writer without any previously published work, even making the longlist is an opportunity to consider myself as a writer, to sit with my dreams of writing and allow them room to grow, and to share my work for the first time with readers beyond my friends and family,” Brooke said.
The shortlist will be revealed on Sept. 24 with the winner being announced on Oct. 1.