ARTS April 4th, 2008

By Lorianna De Giorgio

Father and son bio up for literary non-fiction award

The only downfall of spending three years of one-on-one time with his son, Jesse, was that it ended too soon, says David Gilmour.

The author and former national film critic for CBC allowed his then 16-year-old son to drop out of high school on the condition that he watch three movies a week with his dad.

The experience brought father and son closer together. It gave them the opportunity to not only discuss every film from Casablanca to Robocop but allowed them the chance to connect on a much deeper level than they had ever done so before.

The three years also became perfect fodder for Gilmour’s seventh book, The Film Club: A True Story of a Father and Son, published last year by Thomas Allen Publishers.

Since publication, the memoir has gained high acclaim, and is one of five books nominated for the 2008 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.

The other finalists are Kevin Bazzana, Lost Genius: The Story of a Forgotten Musical Maverick; Lorna Goodison, From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People; Richard Gwyn, John A.: The Man Who Made Us: The Life and Times of John A. Macdonald, Volume One: 1815-1867 and Anna Porter, Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of Rezsö Kasztner, Unknown Hero of the Holocaust.

Four of the authors live in Toronto, while Bazzana resides in B.C.

The winner will receive $25,000 in prize money and be announced at the King Edward Hotel on March 3.

“I didn’t want my son permanently scarred for the purpose of a grade 12 diploma,” Gilmour said over the phone from his Kensington Market home last month about his decision to let Jesse quit school.

Many parents wouldn’t dream of willingly allowing their teen to drop out of school but Gilmour knew that if he didn’t let Jesse quit, school would eventually ruin him.

“School was destroying his personality,” said Gilmour, whose son was getting failing grades, skipping classes and hanging out with the wrong crowd. “Ultimately it was killing him, and I wouldn’t let that happen on my watch.”

He came up with the idea to watch three movies a week, for three years. Gilmour, who was a pro when it came to the film world, having hosted the award-winning Gilmour on the Arts, an arts magazine series on CBC Newsworld in the 1990s, was an avid film fan.

They watched everything from such classics as The Birds and Chinatown to questionable films, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Showgirls. They discussed the films and each other’s lives.

Undoubtedly, Jesse was “enormously grateful” for the opportunity. Now 22, Jesse is back at school, taking a general arts degree at U of T. He plans to enrol in film school once he graduates, Gilmour said.

For Gilmour, who won the 2005 Governor General’s Award for Fiction for A Perfect Night to Go to China, a haunting tale about a father’s attempt to come to terms with his child’s disappearance, the three-year experiment was beyond enjoyable.

“I loved spending time with a wonderful young man,” Gilmour said, admitting it was bittersweet when the three years ended. “I didn’t learn nothing new about him.

“I knew he was a great guy before the three years.”

Fellow Charles Taylor Prize finalist, Lorna Goodison, also wrote about her family.

While her memoir, From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People tells the story of her mother, Doris Harvey, and her family, it ultimately tells the story of the people and places that make up Jamaica.

It took Goodison 12 years to write, and is based on the stories Goodison’s mother used to tell the author when she was a child.

“I was always fascinated by my mother’s stories,” the Jamaican-born writer admits over the phone from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she teaches at the University of Michigan. She divides her time between Michigan and her home in Toronto, which she shares with husband and fellow author Ted Chamberlain.

From Harvey River recounts the social history of Jamaica, historical events, and the recipes and music that all play a part in country’s makeup.

“After my mother died (in 1994) I wrote this book as a way to process her passing,” Goodison said, adding the lengthy writing process tested her patience and at times made her debate whether to stop writing the memoir altogether.

She stuck with it and now says she’s satisfied with how it turned out.

Fellow finalist, Richard Gwyn, veteran political columnist for the Toronto Star, achieved satisfaction of writing of Canada’s first prime minister. He wanted to pen a tell-all biography about John A. Macdonald because no biography had been written about the Prime Minister for more than half a century.

The first of two volumes, John A.: The Man Who Made Us: The Life and Times of John A. Macdonald, Volume One: 1815-1867, discusses Macdonald’s two achievements: Confederation and how the prime minister was staunchly anti-American. He made it his mission to not allow Canada to join America, Gwyn said over the phone from his Toronto home.

“He was fiercely anti-American and we owe that to him,” said Gwyn, who has authored The Unlikely Revolutionary on Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood and The Northern Magus on Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

What he likes about writing biographies is the chance to unearth a public figure’s past.

“A good biography can relate to anyone,” Gwyn said. “All of us are biography hunters in our own lives.”