Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Weston Words, with JJ Lee

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JJ Lee

With the announcement of the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction rapidly approaching, we reach the penultimate interview in our Weston Words interview series. Today's finalist is JJ Lee, whose wildly popular book The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son and a Suit (McClelland & Stewart) has also been shortlisted for each of the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, the Governor General's Literary Award and the BC Book Prize's Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize.

The Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction is the country's newest and biggest non-fiction prize. To be awarded on November 12, 2012, the prize honours the country's finest work of non-fiction with a $60,000 prize purse. Now in its second year, the prize has emerged as a tastemaker for readers and a career highlight for its winners and nominees.

JJ talks to Open Book about getting good news au naturel, celebrating with a guitar and a newfound love of re-reading.

Join us tomorrow for our final interview in the 2012 Weston Words series!

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted.

JJ Lee:

The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit is a memoir. My father died over ten years ago. At the time of his death we were estranged. He lived only ten minutes away, maybe twenty minutes by car, but I hadn't seen him in nearly a year at the time of his death. When I went to his basement apartment I found whiskey bottles under the sink. Empty ones. In the closet, I found a blue suit. I held onto that suit for years and one day I decided to try it on. The suit fit loosely over me. My father was a bigger man. It felt heavy and burdened with his history and struggles and I decided to do something I wouldn't advise for others: I decided to alter it myself. It became a leaping-off point to explore my life with my father and to recover a past I spent many years trying to forget.

OB:

Where were you when you received news of your nomination? Did you celebrate your nomination in any way?

JJL:

I received the phone call from Don Oravec. It was in the mornings and I had just dropped off my twin boys to school. For some reason I think I may have slipped into my writing uniform. I wear decaying Sperry Top-Siders, plaid flannel pants, a black motorcycle t-shirt from a vintage motorcycle rally in Sechelt, BC, a torn fuchsia house coat, and a grey toque knitted by my childhood friend, Maggie Booth. Or I may have just come out of a shower which means I was like the answer my friend, blowing in the wind.

To celebrate I did two things: my family went to dinner at Yianni's, a local Greek restaurant; I bought a Yamaha "Red Label" guitar made in 1969. The guitar resembles the one played by Elliott Smith and features two cigarette burns on the top. It sounds beautiful.

OB:

What unique experience or benefit does non-fiction provide for readers?

JJL:

Unique is a powerful word, and though I may have suggested in the past that non-fiction and fiction have great differences, I'm beginning to waver. Great non-fiction should read like a good novel; I've heard this more than once. The statement is somewhat irksome. It suggests in non-fiction the pleasure of reading is sacrificed for the edifying facts found in non-fiction. A great bit of writing is great whether it's a novel of vengeance on the high seas or an evocative study on 19th century whaling practices. Of course, I'm speaking of ONE book and that's Moby Dick.

OB:

Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book.

JJL:

I recently reread a Pan paperback edition of The Phantom Major by Virginia Cowles. It tells the story of David Stirling and a band of misfit soldiers into the SAS. I had read it as a tween and filled my head with dreams of sneaking onto Nazis airbases and blowing up their planes. I couldn't recall the title but stumbled across it while looking for a good hardcover edition of Barbara Tuchmann's The Guns of August. I've been doing a lot of rereading.

OB:

What can you tell us about your next project?

JJL:

I can't. I would have to kill you if I did — but a teaser anyway: sometimes I think the title will be The Kingdom of Boys.


JJ Lee JJ Lee is an essayist and fashion writer. His writing appears in ELLE Canada and The Vancouver Sun. Prior to that he was an art critic and a broadcast journalist with the CBC.

For more information about The Measure of a Man, please visit the McClelland & Stewart website.

For more information about the Writers' Trust of Canada, please visit their website.

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

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