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.

Welcome to fall, or, Literary Awardapolooza

September 6, 2011 by · 6 Comments 

So, how was everyone’s summer?

After a refreshing (and virtually unbroken) three-month hiatus, TSR can feel the crispness returning to the air, sense the leaves beginning to turn, and smell the woodsmoke that can only mean one thing: literary awards season is upon us.

I planned to return with a carefully constructed, thoughtful post on some esoteric yet fascinating subject – the importance of shoelaces in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps. But, once again, life intrudes, this time in the form of three literary award lists dropping on the same fucking day. Haven’t these people learned anything from Hollywood? Marketing 101: you don’t open the new Transformers sequel opposite the new X-Men sequel. You stagger the openings to maximize exposure, and thus maximize box office returns, because when all is said and done, that’s what it all comes down to, right?

Right?

In any event, there are three literary awards to catch up with. Let’s start with the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which this morning unveiled a supersized longlist of seventeen books, the longest longlist in the history of Giller longlists (which, in case you’re keeping track, go back to 2006). And for the first time, the longlist contains a Readers’ Choice selection, voted on by the general public. The Readers’ Choice selection is Myrna Dey’s debut novel, Extensions. The other sixteen, jury-supported nominees are:

  • The Free World, David Bezmozgis
  • The Meagre Tarmac, Clark Blaise
  • The Antagonist, Lynn Coady
  • The Beggar’s Garden, Michael Christie
  • The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt
  • Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan
  • The Little Shadows, Marina Endicott
  • Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, Zsuzsi Gartner
  • Solitaria, Genni Gunn
  • Into the Heart of the Country, Pauline Holdstock
  • A World Elsewhere, Wayne Johnston
  • The Return, Dany Laferrière, David Homel, trans.
  • Monoceros, Suzette Mayr
  • The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje
  • A Good Man, Guy Vanderhaeghe
  • Touch, Alexi Zentner

Now, if you read the National Post book section, you’ll know that this is the point at which I’m supposed to sprout hair, grow claws and fangs, and bark at the moon. But in all honesty, I can’t find a lot to complain about with this list. It’s a solid mix of established names and newcomers, it is geographically representative, and includes a good sampling of books from multinationals and indie presses. True, the default CanLit setting – the naturalistic, historical novel – is well represented (Endicott, Holdstock, Vanderhaeghe), but there are also examples of other styles and genres, including comic neo-Western (DeWitt), linked stories (Blaise), autobiography manqué (Laferrière, Ondaatje), and even – will wonders never cease? – satire (Gartner). I can’t even really complain about the Readers’ Choice nominee. It’s a first novel from a small press out in the prairies; sure, it tilts toward the kind of naturalism that has dominated Giller lists since their inception, but it’s not what you might call an intuitive popular choice. I still have problems with the concept of a Readers’ Choice element to selecting the Giller nominees (and no, Beverly, I am not fucking kidding), but if it has to exist, this is probably the best possible outcome.

As per usual, the Giller jury, made up this year of Canadian novelist (and erstwhile Giller nominee) Annabel Lyon, American novelist Howard Norman, and U.K. novelist Andrew O’Hagan, have rooked me by placing on the longlist only a single book I’ve already read, which means, as per usual, I have some catch-up to do. (I am pleased that the single book I’ve actually read, Michael Christie’s debut collection, is one I thoroughly enjoyed.) And I offer no guarantees that my sunny disposition will persist through the shortlist and eventual winner. But for now, I can applaud what appears to be a strong longlist of books in the running for Canada’s most lucrative and influential literary award.

As for the U.K.’s most lucrative award … It cheers me (on a flagrantly patriotic level) to announce that two of the authors longlisted for the Giller Prize – Patrick DeWitt and Esi Edugyan – have also made it onto the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize. (The third Canadian to appear on the Booker longlist, Alison Pick, did not make the final cut.) The remaining nominees for the £50,000 prize are:

  • The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
  • Jamrach’s Menagerie, Carol Birch
  • Pigeon English, Stephen Kelman
  • Snowdrops, A.D. Miller

Perhaps the biggest surprise here is that Alan Hollinghurst, who won the prize in 2004 for his extraordinary novel The Line of Beauty, did not progress to the next stage with his new effort, The Stranger’s Child. (Hollinghurst can commiserate with David Gilmour and Miriam Toews, two notable Canadian authors whose most recent novels, The Perfect Order of Things and Irma Voth, failed to make the Giller longlist.)

Meanwhile, on the municipal front, the finalists for the Toronto Book Awards were also announced today. They include previous award winners James FitzGerald for his memoir What Disturbs the Blood (which won the Pearson Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize and the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction) and Rabindranath Maharaj for his novel The Amazing Absorbing Boy (which won the Trillium Book Award). The other nominees are:

  • Étienne’s Alphabet, James King
  • The Parabolist, Nicholas Ruddock
  • Fauna, Alissa York

Whew. I’m spent. When do the Governor General’s and Rogers Writers’ Trust nominees get announced?