The Writers' Trust Fiction Prize (formerly the Writers' Trust Rogers Fiction Prize) is one of the biggest literary awards in the country, with a $50,000 prize purse and a history of highlighting some of Canada's best love stories from writers like Alice Munro, Lawrence Hill, and Miriam Toews.
The 2020 nominees are Gil Adamson, author of Ridgerunner; Zsuzsi Gartner, author of The Beguiling; Michelle Good, author of Five Little Indians; Thomas King, author of Indians on Vacation; and Maria Reva, author of Good Citizens Need Not Fear
This year, the winner (selected by a jury composed of writers Elisabeth de Mariaffi, Waubgeshig Rice, and Yasuko Thanh) will be announced on Wednesday, November 18 via a digital event called "The Writers’ Trust Awards: Books of the Year Edition." The event will also include the announcement of the 2020 winner of the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. For information on how to tune into the virtual event, check out the Writers' Trust website.
We're incredibly excited to speak with all five of the finalists for the 2020 prize today. They each share their experience of hearing about their nomination (including one finalists who got the news on their birthday!), their favourite parts of the writing process, and their recommendations for great fiction reads.
How did your nominated book begin for you, and how long was the writing process?
Ridgerunner began when I overheard a reader who had finished my first novel The Outlander wondering out loud what was going to happen next, what these two characters would be like as parents. Of course, I knew exactly what they’d be like as parents, but what interested me was what kind of young person they would produce; who would this kid be? The book took me many years to write, and because it is set during WWI, it required research. I am not a professional, organized researcher, so the process was like rooting through the world’s most enormous drawer trying to find useful things amongst all the other debris in there. The work was interesting, rewarding, terribly slow, and luckily it resulted in a published book.
The initial idea, or impulse, has disappeared into the mists of time. I honestly can’t recall when or how (or even why) it came to me, although I had wanted to create something modelled on St. Augustine’s Confessions. At the time I started working on what would become The Beguiling (working title: St. Lucy: a novel in confessions), in 2012, I was noodling around with other novel ideas. It was the one that seemed to have the most staying power, the one that I thought I wouldn’t become bored with in the many years it takes me to write a book, due to the multiplicity of voices and styles and non-linear structure I envisioned. Over the first couple of years The Beguiling morphed from being about a narrator who is an inveterate liar to someone who speaks hard truths.
Conceptually, this book started a very long time ago in response to the profound failure of Canadians to truly understand the deep and lasting wounds inflicted on Indigenous people by the federal Residential School policy and laws. The residential schools were a key implement in the colonial tool kit, designed to attack indigeneity at its root – the children and the integrity of familial connections in the largest sense of the word. While so much work has been done with respect to how these schools came about and the things that happened there, something more was needed in terms of characterization of how those harms continue to play out in our world. It was nine long years from first paragraph to release date.
Indians On Vacation began with the title. Years ago, I traveled around Canada and the U.S. doing candid portraits of Native artists for a book project called The Medicine River Photographic Expedition. The idea was to combine the portraits and a travel narrative into a large-format photography book, a project that, in the end, never happened. One of the sub-sections in that project was a series of photographs called Indians On Vacation where I took photos of my kids dressed in “Indian-themed t-shirts” standing in front of “Indian” monuments such as the Custer monument in Montana. It was a tongue-in-cheek series that went the same way as the book project.
But the title stuck with me. So, when I began casting about for my next novel, the title kept coming back to me. My partner, the painter Helen Hoy, and I had done a fair amount of travel and I always wanted to use that experience as part of a literary novel. So, in the end, the title and the travel got together and the novel had its start.
The first story of the collection, "Novostroïka," was inspired by a conversation with my parents. They recounted how our panel building in Brovary, Ukraine, hadn’t made it into the city’s registry. Since municipal authorities didn’t recognize the address, our entire building was deemed non-existent. Once I fictionalized this piece of family history as "Novostroika," I began to imagine how the other tenants in this building-without-papers might have fared—particularly during the turbulent period of the Soviet collapse. One by one, other stories opened up. I felt like I was walking through the building, turning on the lights in different rooms. The collection took about five years to write.
Where were you when you received news of your nomination? What was your reaction?
I was at home. I couldn’t understand why my phone was going nuts. No one calls me, really, so I went around the house trying to find the phone, grumbling: "What in the heck is going on?" And then I saw multiple texts and emails saying "Congratulations". I just sat down on the couch for a moment, and grinned. I had a smile on my face all day, and all that night. The Writers’ Trust does so much good work. It is an honour to be included on this shortlist, especially now, in this terrible, strange, unpredictable year.
Standing in the kitchen, having just gotten up and gone downstairs for coffee. My husband was bent over his iPad reading emails and he’d been copied on the Whoopee!!! email my publisher had sent. He said, “This will make you happy.” And then I knew right away because I knew the announcement was that morning, but we’re three hours behind Toronto here in Vancouver, so I’d slept through it. I was thrilled, of course, but also felt a tsunami of relief – my weird little novel now had a chance at a wider readership! Then of course there was an email waiting for me from Writers’ Trust, followed by a lovely phone call from the lovely Charles Foran.
I had just come in from taking my dogs for their morning stroll and was settling in for a morning of work. I was not aware that the nominations were about to be announced and further was not really thinking of awards at all. A friend sent me a teasing text that didn’t actually tell me about the nomination but suggesting I should look at my email. So I did, and discovered I was nominated. It was a beautiful and stunning surprise and, best of all, it was on my birthday. Can it get better than that?
I wasn’t anywhere in particular. I got up that morning and checked my email and saw that the Writer’s Trust was announcing their finalist list. I hadn’t heard anything about a long list or had had any indication that I would be on it. Anyway, I opened the email and completely missed my book on the first pass. In my defense, I hadn’t had my morning coffee and didn’t really read the email. It was only when I went to the second email which was from my publisher Iris Tupholme with her congratulations that I realized that Indians On Vacation was a finalist. A bit embarrassing, but there it is.
It was early in the morning, and I was in my attic workspace. I was still half-asleep when I checked my email. The news of the nomination certainly woke me up! I’m very grateful. The Writers' Trust has been so supportive.
Is there a particular element of the fiction writing process that you find yourself most enjoying during book projects (whether research, first draft, editing, discussing the finished book after publication, or otherwise)?
I don’t use outlines, I write procedurally, so the book really does form organically, but there’s a delicious point at which you realize that you really do have a novel going; your characters feel like real people who you know intimately. I love that moment when the machine is humming along, and even though I know clearly where the story is going, where it must go, the exact way it will unfold is unknown even to me. I think this is how we apprehend stories when we are children: it’s almost happening to us, we are inside the story, carried along, and our imagination is always at work guessing what is to come – but how satisfying it is to be guiding the story yourself. And, of course, I loved “being out there in the middle of nowhere,” aka the natural world, the world of animals, with my characters.
Research is definitely the easiest way to convince (see: fool) myself that I’m hard at work on something. The truth is that although there are moments of grace and joy, especially when starting out on a new writing adventure, I find the process incredibly difficult. Someone I know, who was quoting someone else, once described writing as pulling a rusty chain through one ear and out the other – it’s not quite that awful, but there are times! What do I enjoy? Crafting sentences – I’m sentence junkie – finding the perfect word, solving a problem in the narrative (which usually happens in and around 4 am when I’m trying to sleep).
Creating the world that my characters live in is my favourite part of the writing process. It’s like painting a landscape – a backdrop that supports the character’s life and trajectory.
There are two elements of writing fiction that I enjoy. The first is the process of creating. I enjoy coming up with the characters and their voices and the world in which they live. I don’t care for research. I’d rather make everything up. The second element I enjoy is the editing. Once I have a good first draft, the real writing begins. I’m not one of these writers who can do it in one pass. In fact, it takes me many, many drafts to get it right. It is an agonizing process to get every word, every rhythm correct, but I don’t mind it. For me, it is like polishing a stone again and again until you can run a finger across the surface and not feel the imperfections.
I enjoy the very beginning and the end of the process. The beginning: an exciting new idea for a story, the energy and ambition behind it, the research. Then comes a long period of exasperation, when the idea doesn’t pan out and I question my ability to write not just the story at hand but any story at all. But I start to like the process again near the end, when the substantive edits are complete and I can sink into the weeds of the sentences. I find sentence-level revision gratifying, how the story gains strength little by little.
Tell us about a favourite book or piece of fiction you've read, what you love about it, and why you would love to see others discover it.
So many books I could recommend are impossible to find now. And I should probably be erudite and current, but Ridgerunner is in part a child’s adventure tale, so, for inspiration I re-read books from my childhood. Don’t laugh at me, but I choose Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson. You’ll have no trouble finding copies, I promise. I opened both books expecting to see stilted diction and awkward ways of telling a story. But they are surprisingly modern in feel, despite being written in 1883 and 1886 respectively, and to my eye, Jekyll is distinctly cinematic, even though the most basic moving pictures were still decades in the future. These books are entertaining, exciting, occasionally very funny, and they ask moral questions that are relevant today because they will always be relevant.
Oh, there are so so so many, but if I have to pick one let it be Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jane Brodie, one of the most perfect novels ever written. The wit, the lack of sentimentality, the ruthlessness, the energy – which crackles off the page, and cackles at times like Weird Sisters in Macbeth – are all sublime. I love the balls-out use of the omniscient POV and the flashforwards (as opposed to hoary old flashbacks). I love that it’s entertaining while being socially and politically relevant. I love that it takes the piss out of almost every character and yet lets you still feel something akin to affection for them. I love that she does all this in less than 125 pages.
There are so many. Winter in the Blood by James Welch was an epiphany. Restrained, powerful prose that tells a devastating story woven quietly between the lines, it became my style bible.
I get asked about my favourite book or my favourite piece of fiction all the time and I never have a good answer. What I can say is that I’m drawn to well-considered satire, fiction that has a horrible/comic/nasty/profound edge to it, where the reader is shoved off a cliff and left to dangle by their fingertips. Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 comes to mind, as does Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam triology.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. It’s a great book club pick—I’ve presented it to two so far—because people either love it or hate it. The book generates a lively discussion.
Gil Adamson is the author of The Outlander, which won the Dashiell Hammett Prize for Literary Excellence in Crime Writing, the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, and the ReLit Award. It was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, CBC Canada Reads, and the Prix Femina in France and longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. She is also the author of a collection of linked stories, Help Me, Jacques Cousteau, and two poetry collections, Primitive and Ashland. She lives in Toronto.
Zsuzsi Gartner is the author of the fiction collections All the Anxious Girls on Earth and Better Living through Plastic Explosives, which was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Her fiction has been widely anthologized, broadcast on CBC and NPR, and won numerous prizes, including a National Magazine Award. Gartner is the founder and director of Writers Adventure Camp in Whistler, British Columbia. She lives in Vancouver.
Michelle Good is a writer of Cree ancestry and a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. She obtained her law degree from UBC after three decades of working with Indigenous communities and organizations. Good earned her MFA in creative writing at UBC and won the HarperCollins/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction in 2018. Her poems, short stories, and essays have been published in magazines and anthologies across Canada. Good lives in south-central British Columbia.
Thomas King is a novelist, short story writer, scriptwriter, and photographer. His publications include Green Grass, Running Water; One Good Story, That One; The Back of the Turtle; The Inconvenient Indian; and the DreadfulWater mystery series. King has won the RBC Taylor Prize, a Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction in 2013. A Member of the Order of Canada and the recipient of a National Aboriginal Achievement Award, King lives in Guelph, Ontario.
Maria Reva is a writer and opera librettist. She has an MFA in fiction from the Michener Center at the University of Texas. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories in 2017 and 2019, McSweeny's, The Journey Prize Stories, and Granta. In 2019, Reva won the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers for her short story “The Ermine Coat.” Born in Ukraine and raised in Vancouver, she currently lives in Austin, Texas.