Wisdom of the Ages With Giller-Winner Elizabeth Hay

Elizabeth Hay

Photo by Mark Fried

“I like to write with a pen or pencil on paper. I have a rocking chair with wide arms in my second-floor study. I sit in the chair, place a piece of plywood across the arms and write on that flat surface,” author Elizabeth Hay explains in an introduction on her website. “It gives me much more peace of mind to work this way than directly in front of a computer screen.”

Clearly, the process works for her. The 66-year-old Owen Sound, Ont., native took home the 2007 Giller Prize for her novel Late Nights on Air and has wracked up a slew of nominations for other honours, including a second Giller Prize, two Governor General’s Awards and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. And earlier this month she received became a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, which boasts a hefty $60,000 purse to accompany the prestige.

Hay earned that latest nomination for her most recent work, a memoir about serving as her parents’ caregiver at the end of their lives titled All Things Consoled, which just hit bookshelves.

“I didn’t know how rewarding it would be to write about their struggles and have my parents live on in a book,” Hay replied when I asked her about what she learned about aging while caring for her parents. It’s an insightful response – one of many that she shares with us.

What advice do you wish you’d given your 25-year-old self?

To my 25-year-old writing self, I wish I had said, “Forget your self-doubt. Look outward and write about the world.”

What advice would you give your 80-year-old self?

Find the humour in decrepitude. Read Mordecai Richler to remind yourself what’s funny.

What do you know for sure?

A good night’s sleep is a godsend.

What have you learned?

That the older I get, the more I treasure quiet places.

What will you never learn?

How to play the piano, how to do the tango, how to meet up with Jeff Bridges and have a fling. And it’s a rotten shame.

Best piece of advice?

V.S. Pritchett’s advice to writers: When in doubt, increase the difficulty.

Did it work?

It works.

What inspires you?

People who devote themselves to doing excellent work in whatever field. I find that not only inspiring but moving.

The moment that changed everything?

Discovering at 15 that I could write poetry of a sort.

Happiness is …

My children coming home.

What tip(s) would you offer others who are caring for an aging or ill parent or loved one?

Listen to the old codgers and try to do what they want. Try not to be too bossy or too frightened. Remember what a helpful friend told me: “You must know that though it’s hard and time-consuming, you are doing what you can to ease their final years in this very difficult world.”

What advice could you offer others looking to write a memoir about their own lives and experiences? 

Keep it short.

Elizabeth Hay’s new memoir, All Things Consoled, is available in stores and online now.