This Magazine is happy to announce Lynn Cunningham as one of our creative non-fiction judges for this year’s Great Canadian Literary Hunt. Lynn is an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism. She is well known throughout the magazine industry, holding senior editorial positions at Canadian Business, Quest and Toronto Life. In 1999, she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement award at the National Magazine Awards. We recently sat down with Lynn to discuss creative non-fiction and judging the Great Canadian Lit Hunt.
This: We’ve had a lot of questions surrounding our new category, creative non-fiction. Could you share your thoughts about what it exactly is?
Lynn Cunningham: My book club only reads creative non-fiction. When we first met, we spent some time clarifying what we meant by that term. We agreed that this genre is characterized by true stories, with emphasis on both “true” and “story,” that employ techniques of fiction–plot, dialogue, strong characters, effective scenes. But my favourite part of our definition is that a book has to be a “ripping good read.”
This: As one of our judges this year for creative non-fiction, what will you be looking for in a winner?
LC: See above, particularly the ripping good read part.
This: What value do literary contests have for new writers?
LC: It’s often hard for beginning writers to get much validation, or even to get someone outside their immediate family to read their work. A contest is sort of like what an open-mike night is for musicians—a chance to show their chops. And if they win, they have a great clip and a bit of dough to put toward the garret rent.
This: Where can people find examples of creative non-fiction?
LC: There are usually some tucked into the bestseller lists. One current example is In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson; another is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot . Frequently, the winner of the Governor General’s award for non-fiction qualifies. One of the titles my club read this year was The Golden Spruce, by John Vaillant, which received the 2005 GG. Its subtitle alone is enticing: “A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed.” How could you not want to read that? Goodreads offers a lot of excellent suggestions, though I’d quibble with a few (Eat, Pray, Love? Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim?) and caution that some of the authors—Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’s John Berendt, for one—have copped to being a little too creative with the verite.
This: Is there a place for creative non-fiction in mainstream media?
LC: If you consider book publishing part of the MSM, as I do, certainly. Of course, a lot of magazines—and not just the obvious ones, like The Walrus or The New Yorker—regularly publish articles that qualify. Download some of the winners of this year’s National Magazine Awards for a sample. As newspapers move away from the inverted pyramid tradition, particularly in features, you can encounter examples of this genre in their pages as well. Think of Ian Brown’s affecting meditation on his dad and loss published this past Father’s Day in The Globe and Mail.