Sean Michaels’ novel Us Conductors the surprise winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize

November 11, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoIn the end, all the prognosticators and so-called experts were wrong.

Heading into last night’s Scotiabank Giller Prize gala, the heavy favourite to take the award was Miriam Toews for her sixth novel, All My Puny Sorrows. Toews had already won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award the previous week, and the smart money had her taking the Giller for her heartfelt (and semi-autobiographical) book about a sister trying to come to terms with her sibling’s desire to end her life. Over the weekend, The Globe and Mail ran an infographic that included predictions from thirty industry insiders – editors, booksellers, former Giller jurors and nominees – predicting who would win. Of the thirty, nineteen selected Toews.

None of them – not one – picked the actual winner, Sean Michaels, who emerged victorious with his debut novel, Us Conductors.

In the experts’ defence, Michaels was a longshot going into last night’s event. He is a first-timer; only one other first-time writer has claimed the prize (Vincent Lam, in 2006, for the story collection Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures). Johanna Skibsrud is the only other first novelist to win, in 2010. (Skibsrud had already published a volume of poetry prior to taking the Giller for  The Sentimentalists.)

David Bezmozgis, nominated for his sophomore novel, The Betrayers, had been shortlisted once before, for his first novel, The Free World. Frances Itani, nominated for her novel, Tell, is a previous winner of the regional Commonwealth Writers Prize and was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Heather O’Neill, a shortlister for her sophomore novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, won Canada Reads with her previous novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, which was also nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award. And Padma Viswanathan, nominated for her second novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, was a finalist for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and a regional Commonwealth Writers Prize for her debut, The Toss of a Lemon.

But past track record and popular opinion proved no match for a quirky debut about a Russian inventor most famous for a musical instrument that harnesses air and electricity to create its ethereal sound.

Sean_Michaels

Sean Michaels (photo by John Londono)

Us Conductors is the fictionalized biography of Lev Termen, inventor of the theremin (which the Beach Boys famously used in the intro to their song “Good Vibrations”); prior to its appearance, its author was best known as one of the creators of the music blog Said the Gramaphone.

In an essay for Quill & Quire, Michaels wrote that the inspiration for Us Conductors sprang in part from hearing Peter Pringle playing the theremin on CBC Radio. But the story of the instrument’s inventor, the inscrutable and eccentric Termen, served as the real “catalyst” for the novel: “Termen’s biography is a roller coaster of science, jazz, espionage, and heartbreak. There are secret laboratories and transatlantic crossings, Manhattan dance halls and Siberian prisons, visits to Alcatraz and the Kremlin, cameos by Charlie Chaplin and Vladimir Lenin, Rockefeller and Rachmaninoff, love and electricity.”

The Giller jury, comprised of writers Shauna Singh Baldwin, Justin Cartwright, and Francine Prose, must have agreed. In awarding Michaels the prize, which this year increased to a cool $100,000, they simultaneously defied expectations and validated the potential of emerging writers in Canada. Not bad for an award that has been criticized in the past as being hidebound and in thrall to an establishment mentality.

And not bad for an author the experts had all but written off until the moment the envelope was opened last night.

Unsurprising Giller shortlist plays it safe

October 6, 2014 by · 2 Comments 

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoIt’s turning into a very good year for Miriam Toews.

Last week, the Toronto-based author was tapped as one of the five shortlisted names on the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and this morning she became one of six authors to appear on the shortlist for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Toews’s sixth novel, All My Puny Sorrows, is the only book to appear on both lists, meaning that she is the only author still in contention for the CanLit award trifecta, which will be determined when the Governor General’s Literary Award shortlists are announced tomorrow.

Joining Toews on a bulked-up Giller roster are David Bezmozgis for The Betrayers; Frances Itani for Tell; Sean Michaels for Us Conductors; Heather O’Neill for The Girl Who Was Saturday Night; and Padma Viswanathan for The Ever After of Ashwin Rao.

For those keeping track of such things, that’s four women and two men. Geographically, Montreal remains strong, with two contenders (Michaels and O’Neill) residing there, and a third (Viswanathan) having once called the city home (she currently lives in the U.S.).

On the publisher front, it was a very good showing for HarperCollins Canada, which scored with three out of four longlisted books (Bezmozgis, Itani, and O’Neill; the fourth was Rivka Galchen’s story collection American Innovations). This was a sharp contrast from the publisher’s “Black Monday” of 2007, when they had five longlisted titles and nothing on the shortlist. The three other books are from imprints of Penguin Random House Canada.

By any estimation, this year’s jury – comprising writers Shauna Singh Baldwin, Justin Cartwright, and Francine Prose – has delivered a safely predictable list. Toews (whose novel A Complicated Kindness was shortlisted for the 2004 Giller) has been a critical and reader favourite since All My Puny Sorrows appeared in April, and Bezmozgis, O’Neill, and Itani are not exactly literary outsiders. Bezmozgis’s first novel, The Free World, lost the 2011 Giller to Esi Edugyan’s novel Half-Blood Blues, but went on to win the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. O’Neill’s debut, Lullabies for Little Criminals, won the 2007 edition of Canada Reads, and was nominated for both a Governor General’s Literary Award and the Orange Prize. And though this is Itani’s first Giller-nominated title, her novel Deafening won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Even Viswanathan, arguably less well-known than the others, had her previous novel, The Toss of a Lemon, shortlisted for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book (Canadian and Caribbean regions). The real outlier is Michaels, better known as a music critic, who is shortlisted for a first novel about the man who invented the Theremin and also acted as a Soviet spy.

But all of these are big books from big houses, leaving the smaller, Canadian-owned houses on the longlist – ECW Press (for the novels Waiting for the Man by Arjun Basu and Watch How We Walk by Jennifer LoveGrove) and Biblioasis (for the story collection Paradise & Elsewhere by Kathy Page) – out in the cold. It’s a bit of a retreat for a jury that confounded expectations by choosing a longlist that ignored some of this year’s marquee names – among them David Adams Richards, Michael Crummey, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Emma Donoghue, and David Bergen – in favour of younger or lesser-known writers. By contrast, the six shortlisted titles comprise the most traditional half of the 2014 longlist.

Neither of the short-fiction collections – easily the most technically adventurous books on the longlist – made it to the final round, nor did Basu’s debut, which is part existential quest, part road trip. And though they share themes of religious fanaticism and violence, Viswanathan’s sprawling epic about the fallout from the Air India disaster is much more recondite than LoveGrove’s scabrous novel.

When the longlist was announced, the jury commented that they were “celebrating writers brave enough to change public discourse,” and that impulse certainly seems to have been borne out in the six shortlisted titles. Once again, big themes abound: terrorism (Viswanathan); assisted suicide (Toews); cultural tension (O’Neill); war (Itani); Israel and the Middle East (Bezmozgis). Only Us Conductors feels less self-consciously serious. Which is not to suggest humourlessness: both Toews and O’Neill employ humour as a narrative tactic. Nor is it meant to slight the prowess of any of these authors. (Bezmozgis, in particular, has written a strong book, one that is unafraid to deal with politics in a forthright and uncompromising manner.)

But elevating books that emphasize moral uprightness and rectitude over more ambiguous pleasures such as aesthetic innovation or linguistic flair does tend to indicate that this jury is interested in improving readers as much as entertaining them.

So who will take home the prize, which has doubled to a cool $100,000? This is a robust year for Canadian fiction, but an unfortunate one for any writer who is not Miriam Toews. Unless all indications are amiss, she’s the one to beat when the winner is announced on November 10.

Attention writers! CBC Literary Awards wants a word with you

September 14, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

The CBC Literary Awards, an annual competition celebrating original, unpublished writing in both official languages, is looking for submissions for its 2010 edition. There are three categories – fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction – and the prizes are not insubstantial: $6,000 for the winning entry in each category, $4,000 for the runner-up, plus publication in Air Canada’s enRoute magazine and on the CBC’s website. The deadline for this year’s submissions is November 1, 2010.

As with the Ceeb’s annual Canada Reads competition, they are doing yeoman’s work promoting their literary awards online, with a website where aspirants can submit their material and a Facebook group. In addition to information about the submission process, the CBC website also includes writing tips, previous winners’ work, and other features, including an interview with former juror Heather O’Neill, who provides some insight into her criteria for judging the submitted material:

O’Neill admits that the stories’ brevity often determined how she evaluated the writing. “Because of the word count,” she explains, “you’re almost looking for the style of the writer because there isn’t time for story development. You’re looking for a new voice that’s talking to you, so you weed out the derivative stuff right away.”  In terms of personal criteria, O’Neill finds it difficult to pinpoint exactly what grabs her in a story. She takes a stab at it anyway. “It’s funny,” she says, “because you look for something that doesn’t seem laboured, but to develop that, it’s very laboured. I guess I look for something lovely and light, with humour … I like writing that’s funny and sad, that hides the author.”

O’Neill also emphasizes the importance of strong beginnings. “The opening of your story is like a first date,” she says, suggesting that writers need to charm the jurors from the outset.

So dust off those laptops and get writing; the deadline for submissions is less than two months away.