Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

RBC Taylor Prize Interview Series: David Stouck

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David Stouck

Controversial, revolutionary, brilliant — it's easy to see how architect Arthur Erickson became an irresistible subject for biography. Author David Stouck's Arthur Erickson: An Architect’s Life (Douglas & McIntyre) tackles both the work and life of the man who brought Canadian architecture to the world stage. A larger-than-life figure who counted the likes of Pierre Trudeau and Elizabeth Taylor as friends, the heights of Erickson's achievements were matched only by the depths of his troubled times. He eventually died penniless despite having created the initial drawings for building as prominent as Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall and Vancouver's Simon Fraser University.

Today we speak with David as part of our 2014 edition of our RBC Taylor Prize for Non-Fiction interview series. David tells us about Erickson's vision and talent, how he used architecture to promote justice and break down barriers and about the experience of walking the same paths Erickson explored on his travels.

The RBC Taylor Prize is a $25,000 award that honours both Charles Taylor's legacy and the finest work of non-fiction published in Canada in the previous year. The 2014 prize will be announced on March 10 and will be selected by a jury composed of Coral Ann Howells, James Polk and previous prize winner Andrew Westoll.

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted.

David Stouck:

Arthur Erickson: An Architect's Life


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


I taught English at SFU and my previous biographies were about fiction writers, Ethel Wilson and Sinclair Ross, so writing about architecture involved a steep learning curve. But I was newly retired and it was a challenge I was interested to take on. Aside from the pleasure of gaining new knowledge, two aspects of the project stand out as especially memorable. First, there were the many hours spent with the subject himself. Always a gracious man and an urbane conversationalist, Arthur Erickson had an original way of thinking and a rhythmic way of speaking, as though, to quote George Woodcock "his phrases had been deliberately crafted." It left a strong impression, a transporting sense of another world. Second, there was the travel required to write the biography. Erickson drew inspiration for his buildings from all over the world and it meant travelling to some places I had not previously visited including Turkey, Japan, and Indonesia. My wife and I are still following some of his pathways, this month in Thailand and Cambodia.


What do you love about writing non-fiction specifically?


As a form of non-fiction, biography comes with a ready plot — that is, the chronological account of someone's life and achievements. Especially with non-fiction I like to work with archival materials, which means the story is tethered to incontrovertible facts that reside in dates, places, letters, diaries, photographs.


Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book you've read.


In my recent reading I have especially admired The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), a family memoir by British ceramicist Edmund de Waal. In order to tell a story spanning several generations, he goes beyond the scope of individual biographies by following for more than a century the fate of a collection of miniature Japanese sculptures, netsuke, used as garment fasteners. This narrative strategy and the writing itself are both impressive.


What can you tell us about your next project?


Nothing, I'm afraid. For me, a biography takes the best part of a decade to research and write, and given my age, 73, there probably won't be another one. But I should also add that, like many writers, I feel talking about future books can be a way of not writing them.


If you are awarded the 2014 RBC Taylor Prize, how will you celebrate?


I'm sure there is a witty reply to this question, but right now packing my bags for Thailand I can't think of one.

David Stouck is a biographer whose works include Ethel Wilson: A Critical Biography, shortlisted for the VanCity Book Prize, and Collecting Stamps Would Have Been More Fun: The Correspondence of Sinclair Ross 1933-86, a finalist for the Alberta Book Prize. With Myler Wilkinson, he edited Genius of Place: Writing about British Columbia. He is professor emeritus of English at Simon Fraser University.

For more information about Arthur Erickson: An Architect’s Life please visit the Douglas & McIntyre website.

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

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