Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Shaughnessy Cohen Prize Series, with Taras Grescoe

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Taras Grescoe

It will be lucky number thirteen for one writer this year, with the thirteenth iteration of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, presented by the Writers’ Trust of Canada. The prize rewards the year's finest book tackling a political subject of interest to Canadian readers.

The winner of the prize, who will receive $25,000, will be announced at Ottawa's premiere social event, Politics & the Pen, on March 6, 2013. In addition to the finalists, the event draws hundreds of politicians, staffers, diplomats and philanthropists as well as playing hosts to dozens of respected Canadian authors.

Today we speak with Taras Grescoe, the author of Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile (HarperCollins). Taras has proved to be a literary canary in the social issues coal mine, with several books on essential contemporary issues. In addition to Straphanger's tackling of urban sprawl and transportation issues, Taras has also written on sustainable seafood in Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood. Both books appeared on the Hilary Weston Prize for Nonfiction shortlist, as did Taras' The End of Elsewhere: Travels Among the Tourists and Sacré Blues:An Unsentimental Journey Through Quebec.

Taras talks with Open Book about our ill-advised love affair with the automobile, why the brilliant Jane Jacobs is as relevant today as ever and the perfect drink for both celebration and consolation.

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted and how the project came about.

Taras Grescoe:

I trace the origins of Straphanger back to my love affair with the Paris metro, which I got to know intimately when I lived there in the 1990s, a time when I was eking out a living as an English teacher. I came to appreciate the way this beautiful belle époque system, so elegantly woven into the city, kept the French capital moving, while minimizing its citizens' reliance on cars, and allowing, not incidentally, for the preservation of beautiful urban spaces. The four years I spent walking the streets of Paris, and taking trips to other European capitals, really got me thinking about the connection between transportation and the shape of our cities.

Straphanger is, I suspect, the last volume in what I’ll later come to think of as my "angry young man" trilogy, which began with The Devil's Picnic (about the insanity of prohibition), and continued with Bottomfeeder (about the insanity of what our appetites are doing to the oceans). Straphanger deals with the insanity of what we're doing to our cities — and ourselves — by relying on cars as our main mode of public transportation. Starting with congestion, pollution and obesity, but not forgetting sprawl, social isolation, and the erosion of public space. Ultimately, though, the book is about the city, and it's the record of a journey that took me from Tokyo to Bogotá, with stops in Moscow, Phoenix, Vancouver, and Copenhagen. Along the way I found myself boarding high-speed trains and sparking streetcars, and talking to cargo-bike commuters, subway engineers, idealistic mayors, and disillusioned trolley campaigners. It was all in the service of imagining a better future for the cities we live in. I’ve got a strong stake in the ideas behind Straphanger: as a new father, living in a dense city neighborhood, I want my son Desmond to grow up in a city that feels like it was built around the needs of people, rather than cars.

OB:

In your opinion, what qualities or characteristics signify that a book qualifies as political writing?

TG:

My definition of the political is rather broad. I’m old enough, barely, to remember a place and a time when people used to say “everything is political, man.” (That was Vancouver, in the seventies.) I'm aware that many of the past winners of, and present nominees for, the prize have dealt with more obviously political themes: biographies of national politicians, for example. In Straphanger, I grapple with municipal issues, like Toronto's failure to build a transportation system worthy of a great city, but the deeper through-line is the connection of the personal and the political. By that, I mean the implications of the simple act of driving, as opposed to walking, cycling, or using public transit — and the impact that choice has on our cities, our environment, our future. That's politics. (I'll spare you the "man".)

OB:

The prize is presented at an evening event in Ottawa called Politics and the Pen. What are you most looking forward to about P&P? Have you attended before?

TG:

I attended last year’s soirée, and was fascinated by the entire process. The research for my book involved riding public transit on three continents, which had me rubbing shoulders with the straphangers of the world. I was not required to wear black tie and cufflinks along the way, so the Politics and the Pen event was definitely a change of pace. I enjoyed the conversations I had, but I’m the son of reporters, and have turned into an amateur social anthropologist, so I have to confess the spectacle of the nation’s elite enjoying a night out was what intrigued me the most. (I was taking copious mental notes.) It's a little known fact, but I lived in Ottawa ten years ago, when I was working on a book called The End of Elsewhere. The town has changed in the interim. After last year's event, I took a relaxing stroll in front of the Parliament Buildings. (Still a lovely spectacle at night, even if somewhat obscured by the exhaust from all the limos idling outside.) This year, I'll also look forward to the trip to the event on a VIA rail train and the stay at the Chateau Laurier — a grand railway hotel that used to be right across the street from the railway station. Trains now arrive several kilometers away, alas.

OB:

If you were to recommend one past finalist or winner of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize to readers, which title would you choose?

TG:

It would have to be the late Jane Jacobs’s Dark Age Ahead. She was a Toronto resident, a self-taught urbanist, before the term was widely used. One of the first books I read when I began the research for Straphanger was her classic Death and Life of Great American Cities, a cri de coeur for the preservation of walkable neighborhoods and against the kind of freeway-centered modernist planning that has ripped out the hearts of so many cities. Dark Age Ahead is a less hopeful book, painting a picture of a society in the process of losing its ethical centre. But its methodology was similar, and I loved the way she linked her personal experiences — as a mother looking out her window in Greenwich Village, and later strolling the streets of the Annex — to what she saw as the most crucial themes of the day. It's an example I try to follow in my writing.

OB:

If you win the prize, how will you celebrate?

TG:

After making a couple of crucial phone calls to Montreal and Vancouver, I suspect I will board a bus — if I recall correctly, it's the number 14 — and head to the Manx Pub on Elgin Street, where I will order, and consume, a Black and Tan. (Come to think of it, win or lose, that's probably where I'll end the evening anyway.)

OB:

What can you tell us about your next project?

TG:

Top secret. But I'm continuing to explore the terrain of narrative non-fiction, which is as vast as the world.


Taras Grescoe was born in Toronto and currently lives in Montreal. Straphanger was a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction and won the QWF Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-fiction. His previous book, Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood, won the Writers’ Trust Nonfiction Prize in 2008. Grescoe’s work has appeared in a variety of major publications, including the New York Times and National Geographic Traveler.

For more information about Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile please visit the HarperCollins Canada website.

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

For more information about the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, please visit the Writers' Trust of Canada website.

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