It was 2016 and the youngest of Gregor Craigie’s three children was about to start school, opening up a few afternoon hours during his weekdays. Gregor, the host of On the Island, CBC Radio’s Victoria morning radio show, knew exactly what he wanted to do with those hours: “Write a book.” He also knew what he wanted to write about, but not “how I would organize it or find a publisher.”
But then he saw an ad in The Walrus for the University of King’s College Master of Fine Arts limited residency program in creative nonfiction.
“And the idea was born.”
That idea has now become On Borrowed Time: North America’s Next Big Quake, which is being published this month by Goose Lane Editions.
Growing up in Alberta, Gregor says he’d associated earthquakes “with California and maybe Mexico.” But then, when he moved to Vancouver in the 1990s, “I was astonished to learn that Canada’s west coast is also vulnerable.”
Not to mention surprised at the blasé attitude of many of those he knew who’d grown up in the danger zone. They told him not to worry. “There was a pretty good chance the Big One wouldn’t strike while we were all alive, so there was no point panicking. But I couldn’t help but shake the feeling we should do more to prepare. And that feeling was the genesis of this book, a quarter century later.”
To transform idea into reality, Gregor interviewed scientists, engineers and emergency planners, collecting “vivid first-hand accounts from people who have survived deadly earthquakes” and learning from experts how we can best prepare for what those experts agree is the inevitability of that Next Big One.
Given his job and other obligations, “I really did only have a few hours a day to work on the MFA and the book,” he acknowledges, “but with the efficiency of a busy person, I used every minute to its maximum potential, and I used all of that luxurious time of the residencies to full effect as well.”
During his two years in the MFA program, his mentors were veteran nonfiction authors David Hayes and Ken McGoogan. “They were every bit as helpful as I’d hoped in direct feedback and guidance on my book, and all of the other mentors were helpful in other ways too.”
For his part, McGoogan describes On Borrowed Time as “a passionate tour de force [that] dances with detail and rings with authority.” He’s far from alone in his praise. Science writer and author Alanna Mitchell says the book is “both captivating and urgent,” while Edwin Nissen, the Canada Research Chair in Geophysics at the University of Victoria, calls it “an impressive and timely reminder that large earthquakes can occur right across North America. But, as Craigie reminds us, earthquakes should not be anything to fear — providing we prepare properly.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Gregor is making his own preparations for that next Big One. “The biggest will be the seismic retrofit of my house,” he explains. “With the help of a seismic engineer, I’m strengthening the basement walls of my 110-year-old house with plywood to give the old shack a chance of remaining standing in a really strong shake. I hope to have that all finished by 2022.”
He’s not letting the threat of a Next Big One stand in the way of his own next big one? “When I finished On Borrowed Time, I immediately started writing the next book I wanted to write, and then the next book,” says the MFA Class of 2019 grad. “I have signed a contract for a children’s nonfiction with Orca Books about tall buildings (Spring 2022) and signed a contract with Cormorant Press for a comedic novel about early morning radio, titled Radio Jetlag (Spring 2023). I’m now working on another nonfiction for children about the history of border walls, which is tentatively scheduled to be released in 2024.”