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Author Kate Harris wins $30k RBC Taylor Prize for her first book, Lands of Lost Borders

“It was all very dreamlike; it still is,” Harris said of the award
Atlin, B.C., author Kate Harris, centre, reacts as she finds out she is the winner of the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize in Toronto on March 4. (Tom Sandler/Submitted)

She’s been described as one of Canada’s greatest modern-day explorers, an award-winning author with a science background who never lost her childhood-sense of curiosity and wonder that made her dream of one day visiting Mars.

Kate Harris, who can usually be found in an off-the-grid cabin in Atlin, B.C., is no stranger to accolades. Earlier this month, however, Harris was bestowed her largest one yet — the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize, awarded annually to the best literary Canadian non-fiction, for her first book, Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road.

An adventure memoir at its core, the book details Harris’s desire to experience the unknown and break the boundaries of everyday life, leading her from her small-town Ontario roots to, eventually retracing the steps of Marco Polo by cycling the entirety of the Silk Road with a childhood friend.

“In an increasingly complex and volatile time, Kate Harris chose to look beyond the challenges of the here-and-now, and instead, remind us to care for one another, to care about the world we live in and to care about what makes living most rewarding,” Noreen Taylor, prize founder and chair of the Charles Taylor Foundation, said in a press release.

“It is a much-needed message, superbly told.”

Harris received the $30,000 prize, as well as a crystal trophy and leather-bound copy of her book, at an award gala in Toronto on March 4. She spoke to the News via email a few days afterwards from Italy, where she’s completing an invite-only fellowship with the Santa Maddalena Foundation.

When did you find out that you had won the award — did you know before the gala? What was your first reaction?

I found out during the gala, in real-time … I was equal parts shocked and euphoric to hear my name announced. It was all very dreamlike; it still is. The generous cash award alone is life-changing, but I’m even more thrilled about my book reaching a wider audience thanks to the reach of the RBC Taylor Prize. I hope anyone who loves to read literary nonfiction, who loves language and is curious about the wider world, will give it a look.

Were there any other highlights of the gala for you?

Spending five days with the other finalists during various RBC Taylor Prize events was a treat. I was hanging on Elizabeth Hay’s and Bill Gaston’s every wise witty word, for I’ve long admired their work from afar, and Ian Hampton and Darrel McLeod are gems of human beings, not to mention wildly talented debut writers.

Lands of Lost Borders is your first book. Did you have to change your work style or workflow as you were working it, as opposed to other pieces you’ve worked on?

The book took all my best energy over many, many years. I worked paying jobs only as often as needed to make ends meet and to carve out time for writing. A book demands such deep and sustained focus, not to mention faith, because there’s no promise all your hard work will ever pay off. And I don’t mean that in a monetary sense, because I’ve never had any expectations on that front; I mean in the sense of the work coming together artistically, as something larger than the sum of its parts. When I finished the book, I had nothing left, I was intellectually and emotionally drained. All I wanted to write was short, concrete pieces, essays or journalism with brief word counts and clear deadlines and quick publication turnarounds. But now that I’ve recovered from the flat-out effort of book writing, I’m craving exactly that kind of deep and sustained focus again — because I’m a fool for suffering I guess, but also because there’s nothing else like it. Writing a book, much like going on a long bike ride, takes you places you can’t reach by any other means.

Did you hit any stumbling blocks during the writing? And were there other parts that just came easily to you?

So many stumbling blocks in terms of structure, pacing, what to include, what to leave out — especially what to leave out. Writing a memoir is an exercise in elimination, or so I found anyway. I had to pare down my life, and my travels on the Silk Road, to the most essential and revealing moments, then render those moments into scenes with language sufficiently evocative to bring readers along for the ride. That said, whole paragraphs from the journals I kept during the Silk Road bike ride ended up in the book almost unchanged. So maybe it’s most accurate to say writing or note-taking during the trip came easily, but weaving those jotted fragments into a book proved the real challenge — but also the real adventure and joy.

Do you have any celebration plans? Are you taking a break, or are there any other big projects you’re working on at the moment?

Right now I’m holed up in Tuscany for a writing fellowship, where I’m reading deeply and widely and starting to work on my next book—at least when I’m not going for long walks in the olive groves. Being here is such a gift of time and space, and the timing post-Taylor Prize couldn’t be better. There’s nothing I love more than getting lost and found in the world, and lost and found in words.

What’s next in line for you?

Italy is such a treat, but my and my partner’s cabin in Atlin is my favourite place in the world. I can’t wait to sink back into life there this summer — can’t wait to grow a garden, go for long hikes and bike rides, hang out with dearly missed friends, read and write with abandon — after what’s been a very thrilling but scattered year on the road promoting my first book.

Interview edited for length and clarity

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