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Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction
John Leigh Walters accepts the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction
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WATERLOO — After retiring from a successful career in broadcasting, John Leigh Walters turned his hand to writing.
He sent his first manuscript to more than 400 agents but got nary a nibble in reply. His second book, a memoir about his mother called A Very Capable Life: The Autobiography of Zarah Petri, was published by Athabasca University Press and was awarded the prestigious 2010 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction.
“Anything can happen!” a delighted Walters quipped Wednesday evening while accepting the award at a presentation event at Wilfrid Laurier University.
In the memoir, Walters reshapes the autobiographical impulse by writing in the first-person voice of his mother, the sweetly acerbic Zarah Petri. His use of Petri’s colloquial and engaging narration makes the book part oral history, part memoir and part re-imagination of the events of the twentieth century.
Tanis MacDonald, an associate professor of English at Laurier and a member of the judging panel, told the audience Wednesday evening that A Very Capable Life is unique yet reminiscent of such works as Margaret Laurence's novel The Stone Angel, Miriam Toews’ non-fiction Swing Low: A Life, and Mordecai Richler’s novel Barney’s Version.
On the one hand, MacDonald said, A Capable Life is the story of an ordinary person living an everyday life. On the other hand, it is “absolutely not about an everyday life.”
“She was idiosyncratic, wry, ribald and assertive," MacDonald said. "The voice is 100 per cent Zarah Petri but the technique belongs to John Leigh Walters.”
Walters revealed something of his mother’s distinct and amusing personality while telling an anecdote about the time he first told her he’d like to write a book about her life. He reminded his mother that she had been a bootlegger in her youth and that she’d even paid the doctor who presided over his birth with a couple of bottles of illicit whiskey.
“He delivered you for free — the whiskey was a tip,” his mother shot back.
Walters also read from A Capable Life and signed copies of the book for many who attended the event. He also acknowledged the other authors who were shortlisted for the Edna Staebler Award: Allan Casey for Lakeland: Journeys into the Soul of Canada (Greystone Books), and Else Poulsen for Smiling Bears: A Zookeeper Explores the Behaviour and Emotional Life of Bears (Greystone Books).
About the Edna Staebler Award
The Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction was launched in 1991 and is administered by Wilfrid Laurier University, the only university in Canada to bestow a nationally recognized literary award. The $10,000 award encourages and recognizes Canadian writers for a first or second work of creative non-fiction that includes a Canadian locale and/or significance.