Ron Graham on The Last Act; Enter to Win

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012 View Count = 2401

Ron Graham on The Last Act; Enter to Win

One of Samara’s favourite writers, Ron Graham, whose book One Eyed Kings was one of our 12 Best Political Books of the Last 25 Years, talks here about writing his new book The Last Act, which is a finalist for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.

Don’t forget to cast your vote for the winner of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize. You’ll be entered to win copies of all five finalists!


Here's Ron Graham on The Last Act:

Describe the genesis of The Last Act: Pierre Trudeau, the Gang of Eight, and the Fight for Canada. What brought you to the subject?

The historians Robert Bothwell and Margaret MacMillan approached me to contribute to the series they had been commissioned to edit by Penguin Canada. The series was to be a number of books based on great moments—or turning points—in Canadian history.

Based on my previous writings, they asked me to find a turning point upon which I could deal with the rise of Quebec nationalism. I chose the fight between Trudeau and Lévesque about the patriation of the Constitution and the entrenchment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1981, in part because of the importance of the subject, in part because of the ongoing myths surrounding it. In fact, the book evolved beyond Quebec into an account of Trudeau’s fight with the “Gang of Eight” premiers.

How long did it take to write? What were the major challenges?

The book took about three years—and half a dozen drafts—to research and write. It required studying almost everything that had been written about the First Ministers Conference in 1981 in English and French, interviewing most of the living witnesses, and unearthing new documents in the National Archives. The biggest challenge was to weave all the arcane material and disparate points of view into a relatively short, dramatic narrative that compressed about a hundred years of constitutional history and the personalities of eleven first ministers into a single, 24-hour frame.

Were there any books in particular that influenced you in your approach?

Margaret MacMillan’s books on the 1919 Versailles Conference [Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World] and Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China [Nixon in China: The Week that Changed the World] were obvious models. I was also inspired by Five Days in London by John Lukacs and Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, among others.

Tell us a little about how the book title was chosen.

The Last Act worked as a neat pun, since a) patriation was the last important piece of legislation that bound Canada to Great Britain, and b) the November conference was the last act of a political drama that had been going on for years, if not decades. It also echoed Pierre Berton’s The Last Spike, about another epic event in nation-building.

The subtitle was harder, since it had to convey constitutional reform, an historic struggle, and a sense that the book was about all of Canada, not just about Quebec. We settled at last on something with a kind of “Harry Potter” ring to it!

What are you working on now?

Two contracts are pending, which means that I will have either too much or nothing at all on my plate in the next little while. I’m forbidden to speak of them, but neither has anything to do with Canadian politics.

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