Laurier award goes to novel that deals with traumatic themes

For writer Russell Wangersky, writing his memoir Burning Down the House: Fighting Fires and Losing Myself was about more than just writing – it was a cathartic experience.

Recently Wangersky won the 2009 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction for the book, a $10,000 annual award Laurier grants to acknowledge a Canadian writer whose work has national relevance of a great magnitude. The award was celebrated at a reception in the Paul Martin Centre on Monday evening.

Wangersky’s book is a record of his experiences as a volunteer firefighter for eight years. It is a depiction of the psychological affects that take place on a person in this field of work. The memoir describes the emotional toll it has taken on him personally.

However, the book was not intended to be a memoir, nor did it start off as a book. Instead, Wangersky had written a collection of short stories.

“I had, like most writers, thought something would happen right away and nothing did,” he told The Cord in a phone interview hours before the award reception at Laurier.

It was in November of 2005 that Thomas Allan Publishers offered to give Wangersky an advance payment to expand his collection into a book. He explained that it was for this reason, as well as his frustration that nothing productive was occurring with his work, that he took them up on their suggestion.

In his interview with The Cord, Wangersky described his experience of writing the memoir.

“Half-way through, I realized that among other things, I was really angry. I was angry that people didn’t automatically realize that anyone doing this kind of work is going to be affected by it.”

The purpose of the memoir is to demonstrate to Canadian readers how traumatizing these experiences can be. Being an emergency worker involves life altering experiences on a regular basis and it leaves a permanent scar.

“Some people doing this work are going to be affected quite horribly for them as it was for me,” he explained.

“I hope that families of emergency workers read it,” said Wangerky because the emergency workers themselves do not normally see the signs of how they are being affected as family members would.

Wangersky describes that he learned a very important thing after the completion of his book – “that things don’t go away as easily as just writing about them. I thought it would be a cathartic experience – that once I got through it, I would be able to put it into a box.”

However, the book has been a tremendously success, which, as Wangersky acknowledges, is “a double edged sword.”