Smara is excited to once again catch up with the authors shortlisted for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. The annual literary award is presented by the Writers' Trust of Canada to the best nonfiction book on Canadian political and social issues. The Shaughnessy Cohen Prize winner will be announced at the Politics & the Pen gala in Ottawa on May 10.
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Q&A with James McLeod, author of Turmoil, as Usual: Politics in Newfoundland and Labrador and the Road to the 2015 Election
Tell us about the genesis of your book. How did you arrive at the subject?
This book started out as a long email to a friend in 2013. I’d been covering Newfoundland and Labrador politics for a few years at that point, and I often felt like the most colourful, telling, entertaining stuff never made it into the newspaper because it didn’t fit into the classic structure of a daily news story. I’d just come back from covering a political convention where an elderly lady had cheerfully threatened to kill me in full view of a plainclothes police officer and the justice minister (who was pretty drunk at the time) so I sat down to tell my friend about the intensely esoteric weirdness of it all. That email grew into the first chapter of my book, and then I just kept writing, and N.L. politics just kept getting weirder in the lead-up to the 2015 general election.
How was the writing process? Did you face any challenges while writing your book?
The writing process was actually a lot of fun, most of the time. I would often go to a coffee shop on the weekends and just pour out all of the stuff that was too long and complex to include in my daily news stories. And it was also a chance to put my opinion into the writing, which felt good to get off my chest. Of course, like any writing project, there were days when it was like pulling teeth. And the editing process was a slog at times. But for the most part, the writing was a lot of fun.
Did any books or events influence your approach to the subject?
I’d say the most immediate influence was Paul Wells’s The Longer I’m Prime Minister. In terms of writing tone, Wells’s voice was definitely something I aspired to — informative, but also entertaining with a wry sense of humour.
Who would you like to read this book?
I think it’s worthwhile reading for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who are trying to figure out why their government is so dysfunctional. And then, a few years from now, if things keep going the way they’re going here, and Newfoundland and Labrador is facing something like the Greek debt crisis, I think Turmoil, as Usual will be a pretty good primer on the political situation. (Google “Muskrat Falls” and “Newfoundland Commission of Government 1934–1949” if you want a head start.)
Why is your book important for Canadians and our political culture?
Two reasons, I think. Firstly, Turmoil, as Usual is about provincial politics. I often feel like Canadians spend a lot of time paying attention to Ottawa, and they don’t spend nearly enough time scrutinizing their provincial governments. When it comes to hospitals, schools, roads, liquor prices, and a whole host of other things that affect you every day, what happens in the provincial legislature matters a lot more than what happens in the House of Commons. This is doubly true in a small province like Newfoundland and Labrador that doesn’t have enough people to matter much in the overall national picture, politically or economically. So I hope my book can do a tiny bit to make people think more about their provincial government.
Secondly, I think it’s easy to forget that politicians are human beings with emotions, motivations, and flaws. I think too often we obsess about the strategy and gamesmanship of politics, and we forget about the human element. In Newfoundland and Labrador politics particularly, things don’t happen because of some grand game of political chess. Usually the explanation is just that somebody got angry, or somebody was too proud to admit they were wrong, or somebody just plain screwed up. In Turmoil, as Usual I tried very hard to present N.L. politicians as human beings, and I think it’s important for Canadians to remember that when they’re reading about politics.
James McLeod is the political reporter for The Telegram. He moved to the East Coast from Toronto in 2008 while pursuing a degree in journalism from Ryerson University and began covering national and local politics full-time in 2011. A past winner of the Atlantic Journalism Awards’ Jim MacNeill New Journalist Award, McLeod is a regular voice on CBC Radio. He lives in St. John’s.
Additional information about author and book, including the jury’s citation, can be found here.