Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Charles Taylor Prize Interviews: Ross King

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Ross King

Ross King is no stranger to prize shortlists; his The Judgement of Paris was shortlisted for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction in 2007. The $25,000 award honours both Charles Taylor's legacy and the finest work of non-fiction published in Canada in the previous year.

This year Ross is back with Leonardo and the Last Supper (Bond Street Books), one of five finalists for the 2013 prize, which will be announced on March 4.

Ross speaks with us today about Leonardo almost ended up as a failure, the great artist's eyeglasses and how Open Book has jinxed him for the prize.

Stay tuned to Open Book this week and next for interviews with all of the 2013 Charles Taylor Prize finalists!

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted.

Ross King:

My book takes five years in the life of Leonardo da Vinci and watches as he goes from being a discouraged and almost washed-up 42-year-old artist to the toast of Europe. This dramatic change to his fortunes came about thanks to The Last Supper, the work in which, after a string of failures and disappointments, he finally realized his full artistic potential. The great success of the painting was unexpected. The commission was more or less an accident. He was commissioned to do The Last Supper when the job he really wanted — casting a giant bronze horse — fell through.


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


One of the most challenging things was getting a bead on Leonardo, who is a very enigmatic, hard-to-read character. How do you explain his genius when we know so little about his upbringing or his interior life? I read tens of thousands of words from his journals and memos to try to understand him, but I suspect that even for his contemporaries he was a mysterious, inscrutable and almost otherworldly character.

On the other hand, Leonardo never threw anything away, and so reading these notes was a great pleasure. They do give little glimpses into his private life. As someone who’s shortsighted, I love the fact that he, too, wore glasses. He seems to have kept forgetting to bring them with him on trips, because he always made a note to himself to remember his specs. And I love how he was into self-improvement, making word lists to boost his vocabulary, presumably to impress the snobs at the court in Milan.


What do you love about writing non-fiction specifically?


Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but I find it easier than writing novels. I try to include everything in my non-fiction books that I had in my novels, such as plot, character, action, setting and atmosphere. But it’s reassuring for me to work on the firm bedrock of history rather than in the mists of my own imagination.


Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book.


Can I talk about two? They’re actually quite similar, though written six decades apart. The first is Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victoriansand the second (and not just because of the Charles Taylor Prize) Charles Taylor’s Six Journeys. Both of them zero in on a number of historical figures who are representative of an age or a nation. Both authors are wonderful prose stylists, with delicious dollops of wit and irony, and both have shrewd eyes for telling details that illuminate character. Taylor is the kinder and gentler of the two — maybe because he was a Canadian — but he must have been influenced by Strachey. And I’m influenced by both of them, or at least I hope some of their sparkle has rubbed off on me.


What can you tell us about your next project?


I’m not actually working on a new book at the moment. I’m casting around a few ideas. I hope to have a new project by the spring.


If you are awarded the 2013 Charles Taylor Prize, how will you celebrate?


I haven’t even thought about it. It’s bad luck to think about such things! But since you’re forcing me to jinx myself, I would probably take my wife for a holiday to Cornwall, in southwest England, to eat good seafood and walk along the cliffs. It’s where we go when we want to relax.

Ross King is the highly praised and bestselling author of Brunelleschi’s Dome, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, The Judgment of Paris, which was shortlisted for The 2007 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power and two novels, Ex Libris and Domino. Born and raised in Canada, he now lives outside Oxford in England.

For more information about Leonardo and the Last Supper please visit the Doubleday Canada website.

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

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