Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Charles Taylor Prize Interview Series, with Charlotte Gill

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Charlotte Gill

Today we continue our series of interviews with the finalist for the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.

Charlotte Gill's Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe (Douglas & McIntyre) has been a non-fiction sensation since it was published, winning the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, and being shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Award for Nonfiction in addition to the Charles Taylor.

Check out Charlotte's interview, where she shares with Open Book about the unique world of tree planting and her plans for fiction writing.

Stay tuned this week to hear from all five finalists. The winner of the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize will be announced on Monday, March 5.

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted.

Charlotte Gill:

I used to be a professional tree planter. It was my day job for 17 years. I got it in my head about ten years ago that I’d write something about the occupation. It seemed so much more than just a job — it was a subculture, a way of life, for me and for thousands of other Canadians who’ve done it. I write fiction normally. Somehow the rhythms of tree planting didn’t suit a novel, which requires a hero and a series of extraordinary events. As I was writing Eating Dirt, I discovered I was more fascinated by the collective story. I was interested in what happens to tree planters on normal days: the weather, the bugs, the dirt. Creative non-fiction, as far as I can tell, is a fantastic medium for illuminating the incandescent moments in regular life, for shining light on hidden facets of human experience. Tree planters have been invisible for so long. I’m not sure why. But I’ve always found their lives to be remarkable and story-worthy.


What were some of the most challenging and most enjoyable elements of writing this book?


Planting trees is quite a remote experience. Its landscapes and work patterns are pretty removed from urban life. Though the story is set in Canada, I approached the book as if I were working on a piece of travel writing. I knew I’d have to translate what a clearcut smells like, to show how a body feels after a long day’s slog planting trees. The job bristles with details. I found it quite challenging to explain even the simplest things, the daily ritual of getting dressed for work, for example, without sound like an encyclopedia. And yet each piece of the wardrobe — the caulk boots, the shin pads, the duct tape, the planting bags, the shovel, the chemical-proof gloves — has relevance and even personal meaning.

On the other hand, I never would have imagined that I’d enjoy writing about science and natural history. For many non-fiction books I’d guess there’s more research done than ever appears on the page, and that’s the case with mine. I learned so much about trees and forests.


What do you love about writing non-fiction specifically?


This may sound strange, but I feel a closer bond with the reader. I know it’s wholly imagined. I feel we have a bit of an unspoken contract. They will grant several hours of their time, and in exchange I will not make stuff up. I like those goalposts. I’ve got to use the real-life material that the cosmos have given me. It’s my job to bring it to life so that it still feels as if something extraordinary happened.


Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book.


I’m a huge fan of Susan Orlean. I think her book The Orchid Thief is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction. She tells the story of a man who is arrested for stealing orchids. But the book runs much deeper than that. It’s about botany and colonial history. It’s also about the nature of obsession. About how our passions are the jet fuel of our earthly existence.


What can you tell us about your next project?


I’m pretty sure I’ll go back to fiction. But that said, I’m not the kind of writer who makes big plans. I take a long time to write. Once I begin, it consumes me wholly. When I flip through Eating Dirt now, I can’t even remember writing some passages, as if they’d been done in my sleep. I can’t say why the process took the shape it did. I’m not even sure I could recreate it.

Charlotte Gill planted her first tree at the age of nineteen. She is the author of the story collection Ladykiller, a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award and winner of the Danuta Gleed Award and the B.C. Book Prize for fiction. Her work has appeared in Best Canadian Stories, The Journey Prize Stories and many Canadian magazines, and has been broadcast on CBC Radio. Her non-fiction has been nominated for Western and National Magazine Awards. She lives in Vancouver.

For more information about Eating Dirt please visit the Douglas & McIntyre/Greystone website.

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

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