In the lead-up to the announcement of the winner of the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Nonfiction Prize, The Toronto Review of Books will feature Q&As with each of the five finalists.
Up first is Ray Robertson, whose book Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live is an exploration of what makes life worth living. After publishing his sixth novel, Robertson, who had a history of obsessive-compulsive disorder, fell into a suicidal depression. Rather than turning his experience into a novel, Robertson turned to nonfiction to examine life and happiness, writing the essays that make up this book.
TRB: Your book is part memoir, part intellectual exploration; did you go into it planning to write it that way or was that a product of the process of putting together all the various pieces?
RR: Process—it’s always process. Even when I’m writing a novel, I listen to the material for what it demands structurally. The essays in Why Not? are an odd sort of stylistic hybrid, but that’s what the subject matter seemed to formally demand.
TRB: Along with your personal story, Why Not? includes a lot of quotations and whatnot from philosophers, music, and books. How did decide how to balance your own words with those of others?
RR: The key word is “balance.” I wanted to include as many quotations from some of my favourite authors and philosophers as possible—from books that have helped sustain and inspire me through the years—but, at the same time, I didn’t want to drown out my own voice. This is where a good editor comes in, and luckily I had a very good one in Dan Wells.
TRB: What is it like to make such a personal journey available to the public?
RR: I’ve published six novels, so this is a bit of a departure. You can be autobiographical in a novel, but you’re usually employing a series of masks so you don’t feel quite so naked. With this book it book feels as if I’m working without a net. It’s a little scary, but invigorating as well.
TRB: You struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder for a long time before spiraling into the depression that inspired this book. If a book like Why Not? had been available at the time, do you think it would have helped?
RR: Probably not, because Why Not? isn’t really a book about OCD, but, instead, is a book inspired by the yearning I felt for all of the good things in life I couldn’t experience because I was sick. The book is really an investigation of what makes life worth living for anyone, not just someone who’s been or is depressed.
TRB: I would imagine that, like many diseases, OCD is something that never completely goes away. Did writing this book help, though, to put it behind you?
RR: OCD sufferers are like alcoholics: you never defeat it, you simply try to live with it the best you can each day. Which isn’t actually a bad attitude to hold regarding life in general.
TRB: After a career as a novelist, what was it like to write non-fiction?
RR: A refreshing break—I didn’t, for example, have to describe the weather or the sound of a streetcar, so it gave those authorial muscles a bit of a break. When I was done, though, I was happy to return to novel writing.
TRB: The full title of your book is Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live. Did you have trouble narrowing things down to 15 essays? Did you have other ideas that didn’t make the cut?
RR: I think I got everything in there that sustains me; although this doesn’t mean I addressed everything in life that’s important. I hope that people will read the book and either be inspired to reflect upon their own lives as to what makes life worth living, or disagree with my choices and so feel the need to advocate their own. Unanimity is boring; I much prefer stimulation, whatever its source.
Ray Robertson will be reading as part of the Toronto Public Library’s eh List series at the Northern District Branch (40 Orchard View Blvd.) on Oct. 12 at 12:30 p.m. Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live is available from Biblioasis ($19.95).
Angela Hickman is a Toronto-based freelance arts writer. Her work has appeared in such publications as the National Post, The Gazette in Montreal, and the Maple Tree Literary Supplement. She blogs about books at booksunderskin.com.
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