Elusive Boundaries of Creative Nonfiction: Murray Leslie in Conversation with Lynne Van Luven

Lynne Van Luven

Malahat volunteer Murray Leslie talks with Lynne Van Luven about her role as moderator for Natural Divide or Shape-Shifting Chic: Negotiating Creative Nonfiction's Extremes, one of four interactive panel discussions at this year's literary symposium, WordsThaw. Panelists include Fiona Tinwei Lam, Mark Leiren-Young, and Jane Silcott.

 

This panel will take place Saturday, March 21, 10:30 p.m. - 12:00 p.m., at the University of Victoria.

 

See the WordsThaw website for details on this and other panels, and to purchase tickets.

You grew up in a small town and cut your teeth (journalistically) at the Red Deer Advocate. Do you think that writing in a small western Canadian town gives you a unique perspective on human behaviour?

I grew up on a farm, actually, and from Grade 7 on, went to school in a small town. When I got my first job at the Red Deer Advocate, I was totally green as a reporter and I had to learn everything on the job. It is nearly impossible to have that experience today because journalism had become professionalized. And because there are so few jobs left in print journalism. What I learned as a young reporter is that everyone has a story, and that no story is beneath the telling. I learned to watch human nature, and to quickly assess people’s behaviours. I could have learned that in any community, large or small, but I think it’s easier in a smaller place, with lots of mentoring, which I had.

I recently read some of the CBC 2014 Creative Nonfiction Prize submissions, from authors like Patty-Kay Hamilton, Jennifer Clark, Brandee Euband, Sarah Habben, and Patricia Webb. To be honest, this was the first time I read anything on this part of the CBC website. They were all fascinating reads, but I can't help but notice the lack of submissions from male authors. Same for 2013. What's up with that?

In my definition of CNF, its primary tenet is that it is fact based, but that it is a true story told from a personal perspective. It is fully researched, and while it can be told dramatically, it cannot lie. Not everyone buys that definition, but it’s mine. As to the dearth of male authors on the CBC site, I am not sure I can explain that. Maybe we should do a check of the CNF winners in the Malahat contest, to see if the discrepancy is the same.

The Creative Nonfiction Collective is holding its conference in Victoria for the first time this year (April 24 - 26). Why do you think Victoria is a good venue for a national conference on creative nonfiction? 

This is the Collective’s 11th conference, and I was at the first one held in Calgary, so I’d say the move further west is evidence of CNFC’s strength and growth. Vancouver Island is home to many accomplished writers of CNF, and several of them are on the Collective’s board, so the human resources are here, so to speak.

Would a new regional author have a better chance to be discovered in Victoria, or Toronto? 

These days a regional author has a tough time wherever she lives. She needs to really understand the market, be fierce about her story’s viability and have a strong platform in terms of website and social media.  In some ways, if she goes to a smaller press, of which there are several in B.C., she might have a better chance here than in Toronto. Everything has to do with “marketability,” no matter how good your story.

I asked my 16-year-old daughter what she thought creative nonfiction was as a genre of writing. She thought it was something like scientific paper (she has a preference for fantasy and science fiction). How would you promote this genre to a high-school aged audience? 

Your daughter is partially right: a lot of good CNF authors do write about “sciencey” topics—consider John Vaillant, Frances Backhouse, James McKinnon, Charlotte Gill. But I think the real draw of creative nonfiction is that it is based on real-life stories about actual events and people. Since high school students have a genuine nose for the false and the fake, we can always hook them just by giving them the facts, and showing how those facts or events affect the world we all inhabit.

 

Murray Leslie

Murray Leslie

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