By Janet Somerville
The crowd gathered in the Brigantine Room on Friday night accompanied first by Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and then Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” piping through the sound system. From where I sat I could hear Richard Ford’s irresistible Southern drawl trickling under both songs, a few tables away, a distinct rhythm of its own.
Hosted by CBC’s Jeff Douglas, the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction Spotlight began with its founder Noreen Taylor praising Andrew Westoll’s The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary—the most recent recipient of the prize—as a book “that defines the borders of what’s acceptable and not acceptable about humanity” and thanking IFOA Director Geoffrey E. Taylor for understanding that “nonfiction deserves a place on the podium.”
Andrew was the first of the authors to take the stage, marvelling that “10 years ago I came to IFOA to hear a writer I idolized and wanted to follow: Richard Ford.” That he was sharing the evening on the same bill with Ford seemed to fill him with wonder. Explaining that his book was “a Canadian story of resilience and recovery,” Westoll continued that one of the marvels of being named the Charles Taylor Prize winner was the previously unimagined doors that it opened for him as a scientist and a writer.
Perhaps the most charming moment of the evening belonged to him as he recalled an evening where he introduced Dr. Jane Goodall to an audience of 1,000 at the University of Toronto and she dragged him to the mic and insisted “let’s test Andrew on his knowledge of chimpanzee behaviour,” after which “this Dame of the British Empire told me to pat her on the head.” And simulated simian hell broke loose.
Perhaps America’s finest contemporary social satirist and certainly a celebrated man of letters, Richard Ford called IFOA “the gold standard of literary festivals. It’s a real treat, and slightly daunting to meet young writers, but also so encouraging.” He read from Canada, his voice dropping, masterfully controlling the pacing, parsing each line as if it were a poem. To hear him read from his own work is to be invited into a trust, an intimacy, and to facing one of the essential questions that his novel poses: Isn’t this a way of making sense of a life?
Stuart Clark, author of The Sensorium of God, who also writes for the European Space Agency, introduced his historically-grounded novel by referring to the “grand tradition of using narrative to discuss grand ideas and science” as Galileo did. In his book the ideas of astronomer Edmond Halley, a spy for the British monarchy, a “shadowy figure in Cambridge, Isaac Newton, who was practising the dark art of alchemy” and experimentalist Robert Hooke all intertwine as “science is born of hot passion, rivalry and intrigue” in the late 17th century. Wisely, Clark noted, “there are always those who will never understand.”
It was a pleasure, indeed, to bask in the intellectual companionship of these three fine men. If only for an hour, one rainy Toronto evening, we inched closer to understanding.