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Memoir and history collide as non-fiction writers add personal touch to books

Canadian author Thomas King is shown in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ho-RBC Taylor Prize-Hartley Goodweather

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Canadian author Thomas King is shown in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ho-RBC Taylor Prize-Hartley Goodweather

TORONTO - In this voyeuristic age of juicy memoirs, reality series and social media sharing, it seems more and more non-fiction writers are also opening up about their lives, adding a personal touch to their exploration of larger issues in a way that's resonating with readers and critics alike.

In the past year several titles up for major non-fiction prizes in Canada have been from authors who've had a close connection to the stories, including Thomas King's "The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America" and Graeme Smith's "The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan."

"I think memoir has really taken off and personal writing has really taken off," says acclaimed non-fiction writer and historian Charlotte Gray, whose book "The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial that Shocked a Country" made the short list for this year's RBC Taylor Prize for non-fiction. "In the last 15, 20 years suddenly there are far more books being published and many people are excavating their own lives for the stories, and readers apparently like them.

"Memoirs do very well and so many publishers are pushing all non-fiction writers to say: 'Well, what's your connection with this material? We want to see it through your eyes.' And that's a fairly new development."

In King's "The Inconvenient Indian," the Guelph, Ont.-based writer — who is of Cherokee, Greek and German descent — details his own experiences as he examines the history of North America’s native peoples. The book won the RBC Taylor Prize and the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, and made the short list for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

"Most history books that I read when I was going through my PhD work and my research work were wonderful history books, but they tend to be dry, they tend to be concerned with dates and facts and they sort of string all these things together into a narrative — but it's a very distanced narrative, you don't feel as though you hear a voice in there, it's a very modulated voice," says King.

"With this, I didn't want to do that. I wanted people to know how I felt, wanted to know what the history felt like and I wanted to be able to impart that idea to them. So I had to make it a personal one, and I lived through much of that history, or at least the history of the '60s and the '70s, the activist movements. I wanted people to know what that felt like, and so first-person narrative was the way in which I wanted to go.

"I wanted to make it like a conversation, as if I were sitting down at your kitchen table with you over coffee and telling you the story about native people in North America."

Smith's "The Dogs Are Eating Them Now" also offers a personal narrative as it details his time as a former foreign correspondent in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2009. The book won the Hilary Weston prize and was a finalist for the RBC Taylor Prize, the B.C. National Award and the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.

Other recent award-nominated non-fiction Canadian titles that relay the authors' own experiences include J.B. MacKinnon's "The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be" — which made short lists for the RBC Taylor Prize, the Hilary Weston honour and the B.C. National prize — and "The Juggler’s Children: A Journey into Family, Legend and the Genes that Bind Us" by Carolyn Abraham, which was also a finalist for the B.C. National prize.

And it's not just a trend in Canada.

Coral Ann Howells, a British-based university professor specializing in English Canadian literature who was on the recent RBC Taylor Prize jury, says several of the books long-listed for the 2013 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in the U.K. also had autobiographical elements.

"It was described as the seepage of memoir into history, and it is very much this personal but quite idiosyncratic take on much wider historical events," she says.

"I think it's a very interesting and a very appealing development of the conventions of non-fictional form."

Vancouver-based MacKinnon, whose book was inspired by the transformation of nature in his hometown of Kamloops, B.C., surmises more non-fiction writers are adding autobiographical touches to their books because it "creates that sense that you're in a more democratic place with regard to the reader."

"I think that people don't have as much faith in the idea of the non-fiction author as 'expert' anymore," he says. "In fact, I don't think people have that much faith in self-declared experts in general.

"So I think bringing some of yourself into the book helps humanize you and creates more of a sense that you're having a dialogue or a conversation with the reader rather than telling them what's what."

As Gray puts it, non-fiction used to be "very arms-length."

"It used to be that non-fiction, everybody said, 'Well, that's the facts,' and in order to understand that this was objective reality, the author never infiltrated themselves overtly into the writing. But now we know there's never only one story, that it's always a subjective assessment of what's important and what isn't, and therefore in order to be honest, authors put themselves in the story to say, 'This is all being filtered through my perception.'"

In some cases, such writing is being labelled creative non-fiction or literary non-fiction, which is described on as "the use of literary craft, the techniques fiction writers, playwrights and poets employ to present non-fiction — factually accurate prose about real people and events — in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner."

Andrew Westoll, who was a judge for this year's RBC Taylor Prize and won the honour in 2012 for his deeply personal "The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A Canadian Story of Resilience and Recovery," says the trend is a natural progression for many non-fiction writers, who are often drawn to the genre because "they see their own lives and they want to express something about it."

And he thinks "more people are taking on this genre because they realize just how artful it can be and how creative you can be."

"I tell my students this all the time. I bring everything I've been reading into class and I explain to them why this is working and that's working and they're amazed that all this is happening with true stories. They think non-fiction is just boring, fuddy-duddy history books, and if you look at Canadian literature right now, non-fiction is incredibly exciting."

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