Q&A with author Allan Casey about his Governor General’s Literary Award winning book Lakeland
Posted by Graham Lanktree
on Thursday, December 16, 2010
Photo: flickr\Jeff Pang
Canada is home to around 3 million of the world’s 5 million lakes. For years writer Allan Casey has been pouring them into his writing, culminating in his first book, 2009’s Governor General’s Literary Award winning Lakeland: Journeys into the Soul of Canada. Two articles Casey penned for Canadian Geographic became the backbone for chapters in the book: one on the algae problem on Lake Winnipeg (Nov/Dec 2006) and the other about over development on the Okanagan Lake (July/August 2008). Yet its core Lakeland is about how Canadians experience one of our greatest and most plentiful resources.
In 2008, a $5000 grant from The Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS) helped Casey journey from British Columbia to the ice roads of Uranium City, Sask. (which he jokes about conquering half a decade before the History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers).
Here Casey shares his recent "dizzying" experience winning the Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction and what lakes mean to Canadians.
CG: How did your articles for Canadian Geographic inspire the book?
AC: I can honestly say the Winnipeg story was the time where it really gelled. I realized "hey, why don’t we do a book about this?" I ran it by Rick Boychuk, who was the editor of CG at the time. He said it was a great idea for a book and that he would pass it around to some publishers that he knew. He mentioned it to Rob Sanders at Greystone and so one day my phone rang and on the other line was the one publisher in Canada that I really wanted to work with asking me about this book.
CG: Have things changed at Lake Winnipeg since you wrote about it for CG?
AC: The situation there has changed, and it has changed because of Canadian Geographic. Thirty years before our story came out nobody had done a damn thing about the problems on the lake, where a whole series of troubles that we know about from the Great Lakes are repeating themselves.
Within months of the story, $18 million in new science funding had been earmarked for the lake. The federal government at the time did that because of my story. And the people living there were very encouraged by it. The fellow that ran the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium said, "after the story came out our phone started ringing."
CG: Did the RCGS grant help you write Lakeland?
AC: It’s a really big country and this is a stupidly broad topic to tackle, which I didn’t really think about until it was too late. It was an ambitious first project. It’s my first book and I didn’t realize I was biting off more than I could chew. So the grant really helped. All that money went into travel, every penny. Also, I think almost as importantly was the prestige of that. When you say Canadian Geographic anywhere in Canada that’s a touchstone in itself. Everybody has respect for that title and they really feel like you’re going to do a good job. In journalism if people trust you they give you better information.
CG: In the book you say that lakes are uniquely Canadian, why is that?
AC: The book starts and ends in a little non-descript lake that I have a deep personal attachment to. I just happened to notice one day that there’s all sorts of Canadians who also have some attachment to some little lake somewhere that they don't think is very remarkable in and of itself. It suddenly hit me that so many people share the experience and in a sense that really defines Canada. It's not the only definition of Canada, but it's a very definitive aspect. At the same time I also realized that Canadians take it for granted. We don't realize what an amazing thing it is to drive a very short distance from almost any city and arrive in some fairly pristine wilderness. You just don't find that in any other country on Earth.
We have so much of it that we don’t realize how special it is. And it defines us whether we get out of the city as much as we want to or not. Canadians want to know that nature’s out there and it's intact should we want to access it.
CG: How did you find out you won the Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction?
AC: They phoned me on Montréal time bright and early, which is way too early for a western writer and I was barely awake. I wasn’t really up yet, just sort of stumbling around the kitchen so I said some really incoherent things to them. It was dizzying. There were some really good books on that list, and I pretty much knew which book was going to win and it wasn’t mine. I think the favorite was Ian Brown’s The Boy in the Moon. It’s a moving, great book. He won just about everything he had been up for and that was great. So I was pretty surprised.
CG: What would you like people to get out of the book?
AC: I really feel like I’ve done a good job if people could read this book and talk to their neighbours across the fence at the lake. You can’t make laws against the kind of stuff I’m talking about like excess materialism. You can’t really tell someone "you can’t have an opulent house on the edge of the lake." It’s a set of community values and that emerge when we talk to each other. I think living modestly is what the vast majority of people want out of the lake experience in Canada. They just don’t realize that they are the vast majority because they haven’t spoken to each other. I want people to talk to each other about the issues.
Interview by Mandy Savoie
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