Arts and culture

RBC Taylor Prize 2020 presents final award to Mark Bourrie


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mark bourrie winner taylor prize 2020 with jury members coral ann howells and peter theroux

Of all the labels 17th century adventurer Pierre-Esprit Radisson gets to wear, Mark Bourrie likes "hardware salesman with some of the most fascinating customers in the world" best. Because really, as the historian and author writes in the introduction to Bush Runner (Biblioasis) – winner of this year's RBC Taylor Prize – that's all he wanted to do.

He wasn't a colonialist or imperialist engaging in some experiment to "remake North America as a European state. " And he wasn't trying to turn the Indigenous North Americans into Christians. He just wanted to sell some pots and pans and whatever else he could to make a couple bucks.

"Radisson shows us North America through the eyes of a man willing to see everyone he encountered as a person," writes Bourrie. "Yes Radisson was a man of his time, but he was also – much more than you'd expect – a man of ours too."

And thus begins Bourrie's compelling dive into a Forrest Gump-ian figure who improbably appeared at some pivotal moments in both European and North America history including the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London, and the formation of the Hudson's Bay company.

The book was selected for the latest, and final, RBC Taylor Prize from a record 155 books by an all-star set of jurors including Margaret Atwood, Coral Ann Howells, a British-based professor of Canadian literature, and Peter Theroux, American writer and translator.

To celebrate Bourrie's win, the writer shares his thoughts on his affable rogue and the future of non-fiction.

Congratulations on the win, Mark, it feels like it's been a couple of years since a deep dive into a historical character's life has claimed the RBC Taylor Prize.

I was surprised. History really hasn't been front and centre in the main cultural zeitgeists lately. We've had a lot of memoir writing. And we've had a lot of people taking on social issues, you know, longer journalistic projects.

Why do you think that is?

Probably because of the changes in journalism, right? If you were to tell the story of anything that's complicated, you don't really have an outlet. But books still are. So you see the adoption of non-fiction writing to more social writing like Seven Fallen Feathers which might have been a magazine series back in the day as opposed to a book. By and large, if somebody walked in now and said I'm going to write a three-volume history of the Hudson Bay Company from Radisson to the present day like Peter C. Newman, or a two-volume history of the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway like Pierre Berton, that would never fly, people would say, well, who would buy it?

But you think there's still an appetite for it?

People used to buy it. But there's this social and a cultural trend among the people who are chartering Canadian culture that there isn't. I think they're wrong. I think they're disconnected from the reality of Canadians. Canadians actually do care about their country, they do like their country and would like to know about it. And that's whether they're Canadians whose families have lived here a long time or new Canadians. Everybody likes to feel connected to the place where they are and know what happened in those places.

You mentioned the proposal for Bush Runner was sitting around for 14 years before it came across a Biblioasis desk and got picked up.

The question was always: who's going to buy this? Well… people who like good stories. I was so lucky because Paul Kennedy at CBC Ideas and its producers liked the book and we did an hour-long program on it. And that kept injecting more and more interest in the book. And so the book did quite well, even before I got nominated for the prize, but that's the exception. There are so many good books that don't ever get that break. You can see books that come out with small publishers that literally don't get into bookstores. Even if people hear about the book, they still can't find it.

Let's talk about your book. You've always been pulled towards Canadian history but why Radisson?

I like that period of history in Canada and in Europe. So that was a big draw. And I like the character. It was the first book I've ever done that was basically driven by one person's character. When I wrote the book on Stephen Harper it was very tongue in cheek and I realized adding humour to this stuff was a good idea. Nobody likes to be lectured or preached at. Mockery is a good way of getting a point across.

Especially with a larger than life character like Radisson.

I think that's what makes the book what it is. You're never told that Radisson was the most pivotal, important character in the fulcrum of Canadian history. No, he's just a sh*t. He's every woman's worst boyfriend.

And he's everywhere – shipwrecks, pirates, the fire and the plague in London, the Canadian north.

He wasn't some guy living on a farm somewhere plowing the fields for his whole life, he goes out and really pushes those boundaries. That make him lots of fun. Obviously he was quite alright to be around otherwise he would have ended up dead pretty fast too. And I got to like him. I know he's not perfect. Even at the Taylor award, people asked how did you write about this guy? He's a chiseler and a cannibal blah blah blah but he's interesting you know? I don't want him to move in but why not talk about him and his faults?

What impact do you see this conversational approach – the way you've thought about Radisson and written about him, the literary elements – having or even being a part of a wider change in the way people approach historical non-fiction stories?

I think there's a group of us who write nonfiction in a way that we want people to read it. And I think culturally people pick up on what's being done. Having a champion like Margaret Atwood is at the very least reassuring. Certainly on the days when I think, why am I doing this? I will remember that. Confidence is so much of this. In this business, you spend so much time alone. It's a very personal thing. And then all of a sudden you pop out of your shell and they shove you in front of crowds and people to talk about it. You have to have this dual personality. There's an awful lot of time when you're working alone and you've got a huge amount of work in front of you and you think 'I should just go fishing or do something else' because the book itself is so far away. There's not much of a financial incentive.

And then you win an award like this.

I've met so many people through the course of the prize events… Noreen was amazing, and you can tell ... that she's always like that because she has this group of people in her inner circle who all adore her and work like crazy for her and who she's so loyal to. And she brings them forward to ask questions and to come to events. And from RBC and the Taylor board, Vijay Parmar and his wife… it's just great. And the fact that they've backed the prize. 20 years is a long time for sponsorship. They've done a lot for Canadian letters. And I'm very grateful.

I think that's why it thrived as long as it has. And not just thrived but evolved, especially with how much Canadian non-fiction has grown within that time span. Look at the quality of the books. And the writers behind them.

I was blown away by the fact I got to be in the company of these people. And then when I met them, they're really neat people and we're together, day after day. We weren't competing, we really got to like each other. There was collegiality we don't get to have very often, simply because we do this work that's so individualistic and different – one person's a TV star, one person's a newspaper reporter, another is a freelance writer living in a small town, one's an academic in the United States and me, practicing law and living in this weird sort of bubble in Ottawa. It was great to just spend time with them and all the readers and supporters and people who love literature. And then with the prize announcement, the publishers come and knowing that in the room was basically the elite of Canadian publishing. They're clapping for me and I'm just trying not to let my knees buckle. Yeah, it was really something. Now I'm going to go home and sleep for awhile.

Read more about the final RBC Taylor Prize here.