RBC Taylor Prize: Noreen Taylor discusses literary legacy with John Stackhouse

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For 20 years, the RBC Taylor Prize has helped unearth stories that matter. Noreen Taylor, the founder, discusses the inception of the prize and what it's done for Canadian non-fiction.


Our stories are the ones we don’t pay enough attention to. The late Charles Taylor, journalist, author, essayist and the namesake of the RBC Taylor Prize lamented this in the preface to his book Six Journeys: A Canadian Pattern, a quiet nod to six distinguished Canadians.

“Charles wrote that Canadians are really bad at recognizing their heroes,” says Noreen Taylor, founder of the RBC Taylor Prize, chair of the board of the Charles Taylor Foundation, and Charles’ widow. Charles, who’d worked as a correspondent in 50 countries and wrote five books, posited that maybe it was the absence of revolution in Canada, that hero-making machine, that created a void.

For 20 years, the RBC Taylor Prize has found those heroes at home. The award has helped set the benchmark for Canadian literary non-fiction, raised the voices of writers, and helped unearth stories that matter, stories that define the diversity of Canadian experience.

To commemorate that milestone, John Stackhouse, senior vice president, Office of the CEO at RBC, sat down with Noreen Taylor to discuss the inception of the prize and what it’s done for Canadian non-fiction.

As we stumble and rush through this digital age how do we best tell our stories as Canadians, how do we share our stories, and remember our stories?

And do we want to read our stories, know our stories? I was looking through the preface introductory essay to Six Journeys yesterday. Charles was trying to find those stories and he rightly said that our stories are ones we don’t pay enough attention to. And we don’t. We must get over our reticence to tell our stories and sing about heroes and talk about this country we love and its fragile place in the world.

Why aren’t we better at it?

Lack of practice. Think of Canadian literature, it was only with the Double Hook that you started getting stories placed in Canada. Stephen Leacock is writing Sunshine Sketches, he’s living in Orillia, Ont., and he’s writing about a fictitious American town. We weren’t placing our stories within Canada because Canada was too small of a marketplace to really sell. Northrop Frye was talking about the need for Canadian literature to reflect what was going on in art in the 1920s. So as the Group of Seven was saying “we’re Canada” he wanted our literature to be strong. It took a while but then we developed that. We put money behind that in the Canada Council. We created a National Film Board. And we started saying on the political agenda: our stories are important. And I think that resulted in the Carol Shields, the Margaret Atwoods, the Tim Findleys – there’s a whole gamut of wonderful writers who blossomed from that period and created a canon of storytelling that frankly is astounding for a small country. We punch way above our weight in storytelling. But do we have these people as heroes? Not yet.

Are you suggesting we’re better as fiction storytellers than non-fiction?

We’re more aware of our fiction storytellers than we are of our non-fiction storytellers. And that was the whole reason behind setting up the prize—we needed to develop a greater awareness of the stories that were being told about real issues.

A generation ago we did have hero recorders like Pierre Berton, Michael Bliss and Peter C. Newman—what happened?

They were on television, they had programs, they had enormous recognition. So when a book came out, they were name brands, that would help to sell their books. Non-fiction was in a heyday. Then all the pieces change. If you look into the Canada Council and what it funded, I’m wondering how many grants were for fiction writers versus non-fiction writers. I reckon that we wanted to develop the fiction writers and we supported that. But we also started that decline in media, we stopped that convergence of medium. The same thing, newspapers, which are now six pages long, we’ve stopped creating our heroes.

How’d you meet Charles?

Blind date. I’d just gone through a rather unhappy marriage breakdown and a friend of mine, a writer, said come over and meet Charles, and I did. Apparently we knew within 15 seconds we were going to get married. I was the girl his father and mother always wanted him to meet. And he was definitely the fellow my mother wanted me to meet.

In what way?

We’d both been running away. Charles went to China trying to get away from being the prince of 2489 Bayview Avenue (the Taylor estate). And I didn’t want to be Miss Forest Hill. We had a lot in common.

What year was that?


And when did Charles know he was dying?

Two weeks after we married. He had a wart on his thigh. We had talked about getting married for six years, we married in 1987, we were going through divorce processes which take a long time. And so he had the wart removed and it turned out to be stage four melanoma and he was told he would last until Christmas. And I thought, OK you’ve done some dumb stuff before but this is about the dumbest thing you’ve ever done. You’re not supposed to get married to someone and have them in the grave six months later.

What year did he die?

1997 – 10 years. I think like 12 major therapies, five chemotherapy rounds.

And the prize you launched two years after?

I started working on it in 1998.

Did you ever discuss it with him?

Just before he died.

What was the conversation like?

There were several. First thing, you have to remember he thought he was dying in six months so we talked an awful lot about the memorial projects and they all changed over the years. As it was becoming clear that he was going downhill, he was reading for the Lionel Gelber Prize as a juror and he said that’s it, that’s what I want to do. And I thought, right, there will be something new six months from now, but then he died two months later. That was it. He had prepared his notes for the Gelber jury which I delivered to Nancy Gelber, and I said ‘what about setting up a prize, Nancy?’ She was the first person who helped me.

Did he declare the parameters for Canadian non-fiction?

I had to figure it out.

How did you come to that?

Reading. A lot of reading. He talked about belles lettres and so I tried to figure out what that meant. I started reading all his works again and trying to define it. I looked at everything from China Hands to Reporter in Red China, I read his columns from Queen’s Quarterly, I read his letters to other writers … I immersed myself and I figured out that what he was talking about was the quality of writing on various subjects. Working with Robert Bringhurst, a wonderful poet and writer, David Staines, professor of Canadian literature, Marc Côté, who had been working for Canada Council, and Michael Bradley, a lawyer, we started putting together what these words were until we felt comfortable. That took about six months. And then Nancy Gelber – how did she set up the Lionel Gelber Prize, what was involved? Why was there Canadian and international? Could this work for Canada? Could it be co-authored? Yes. Could you have multiple authors? No, he wouldn’t approve of that. So one of the best things about this is I stayed married to the man because I always had to consult back with him.

In 1999, what did you envision the prize be about?

What I was trying to do was create awareness that non-fiction was worth reading for the average Canadian. I wanted to be able to speak to my neighbours. I wanted to create a society that could have civil discourse on the issues of the day, and bring to light those books and their writers in a manner that wouldn’t be about fame but would be about significance. So that there would be a kind of gravitas attached to it. If I went the fame route, I didn’t think Charles would approve of it.

Why not?

He would think it was all flash and not serious and all about creating stars not appreciating the body of work. I think there’s a great argument that you could make that if you created stars, people would read the work. But he wouldn’t have bought that. I always liked the Pulitzer model better.

What about the Pulitzer model?

Someone phoned up and said you’ve won the Pulitzer and nobody knew what was going on. When people asked me why $25,000 dollars? It was chosen deliberately to reflect the Governor Generals. No more, no less. Because in my mind that’s a significant prize for our nation. You don’t want to demean that. But if it’s all about how much money you’ve won, what does that actually buy? It buys maybe a few more months of writing, that’s it. It doesn’t change your life.

One of the magical elements of the prize is that it’s not just a prize, it’s a conversation, a series of events, it’s a festival. Is that deliberate?

No, that came absolutely happenstance. This is the involvement with RBC because they were focusing on emerging talent. I never would’ve thought of it. As you start seeing the achievement of all your goals, you have to start thinking now what do we do? What are your next goals, what’s the next step forward? RBC was focusing on young writers, and it just fit right in. Then we started doing an educational piece, again it had been something suggested then dropped, then resuscitated.

Reflect a bit on the emerging writer program, what has come of it, how has it succeeded and what have its limitations been?

There are two parts—one the writer chooses the person to mentor for the year. Most of this happens via email, they meet up occasionally, but it’s asking questions—I’m thinking of this or do you mind reading a chapter? If it works, it’s about as helpful as any mentorship can be.

Talk a bit more about the second part.

I think the part that’s really essential is where we sit and go OK, you want to be a writer now here’s what really is going to happen. Sarah MacLachlan came in and spoke about running a small press, House of Anansi. Someone from RBC came in and said, right you just got your first advance what does this buy you? How are you going to actually live? The average writer—and this includes everybody from Margaret Atwood down to me, if I were to actually write a book—makes $12,000 a year from their writing. So how are you going to plan your life? Then there’s somebody from Westwood Creative Agency who talks about what you should look for in an agent? All those things are usually not top of mind – these are young people and they’re often starry-eyed.

It’s kind of interesting how mentorship has become a thing.

It always was a thing. Now it’s named.

And yet we have access to more information than ever and every point you just made is probably eminently gettable with a simple search. How to find an agent—there’s probably a Ted Talk on that. So why do we, with this abundance and access to information, feel the need for this ancient relationship called a mentor?

We’ve always done that, we’ve always turned to people who we’ve respected and said what do you think of this? If you talk to someone you respect, you’ll respect the advice they give you. And the winners are choosing really good people. There’s a young writer that was chosen last year by Tanya Talaga and she’s just having a book come out. Tom King’s writer, Leanne Simpson, is publishing other things. And this year, the emerging writers coming from the creative writing schools are being identified across the country by their universities; almost all of them have publishing contracts. It’s unheard of. Do people say: the RBC Taylor Prize people are picking the writers we should be paying attention to, let’s sign them up, let’s get them publishing contracts? I don’t know, but I’m finding it fascinating. There’s this appetite for telling our stories. We’re creating a body of writers. This is what Charles wanted to create.

To continue the reading the conversation between John and Noreen click here.

This interview was edited and condensed prior to publishing

Watch: Noreen Taylor discusses the history of the RBC Taylor Prize:

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