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The Giller Prize story: an oral history, part one

Margaret Atwood and Jack Rabinovitch, 1998 (photo: Tom Sandler)

In the first post of a four-part oral history, Q&Q speaks to Scotiabank Giller Prize insiders about the award’s first 20 years. For the full story, see Q&Q‘s November issue, on newsstands soon.

In 1994, with a little help from his friends, Montreal developer Jack Rabinovitch established the Giller Prize in honour of his late wife, arts journalist Doris Giller.

Jack Rabinovitch: When Doris died, I thought something should be done, because she was an exceptional person. Some of our closest friends were Mordecai and Florence Richler. I flew to Montreal to see Mordecai at a place called Grumpy’s, and over double Scotches, we decided to form the Giller Prize and have a Montreal-style party. We would invite people who knew Doris, who were in the literary field, and who were interested in literature.

Mordecai recommended David Staines, whom he knew from Harvard, to sit on the jury. Our first meeting was at Moishes Steakhouse. Over chopped liver and onions we decided to ask Alice Munro to join us.

Doris loved flowers, so the first invitation had a rose attached to it. For 20 years we’ve been doing the same thing.

Patrick Crean, publisher of Giller winners Esi Edugyan and Austin Clarke: I was very fortunate in having an author nominated in the very first year, with Eliza Clark’s novel What You Need. I remember thinking how refreshing it was that there was this new prize. At the time, the Governor General’s Literary Awards seemed very stuffy and was the only game in town.

Rabinovitch: At the first dinner we encouraged betting. When M.G. Vassanji won, Mordecai said, I don’t know why everyone is surprised. If they read the goddarn books, they would realize it was the best book!

The invite-only gala quickly established itself as the most glamorous literary party of the year.

Jane Urquhart, finalist, The Stone Carvers (2001); two-time juror (1995, 2000): The first parties were the height of elegance. They weren’t nearly as big or loud as they are now. I enjoyed the intellectual discourse. The conversation at the tables really did have to do with the books. It was a way of expressing respect not just for the shortlisted books, but books generally, and what authors and writers do. Nothing like that had happened before in this country.

Rabinovitch: To get Mordecai to wear a tux was not the easiest thing in the world. He’d call me the night before the gala and say, My old tux doesn’t fit, and I’d say, I could have told you that before. So in the morning we’d have to order a rental tux that they could adjust to his girth.

Zsuzsi Gartner, finalist, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives (2011):
My son, who was 11, was the only kid at the gala, and he was in his tux and a top hat. The whole night was fantastic and fun. I made loot bags for everybody at the table and put in a little item for each story in the book. We had windup toys and candies, and everybody was in very good spirits. And the spirits flowed, which is helpful.

Vincent Lam, winner, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures (2006): Apparently, tons of people crash the Giller. Before the evening got started, they hurriedly set another place at our table. A person, whom I had never seen before or after, sat down. He didn’t say much, just ate dinner. No one knew who he was.

John Gould, finalist, Kilter: 55 Fictions (2003): It was overwhelming. It’s a long way from the writer’s life, especially when you’re an unknown author. It felt surreal to have that kind of glitzy fuss made over books, and a bit preposterous “ like you were playing dress-up. My mom is a real CanLit buff, and it was fun to have her meet Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro.

Lam: Shortly before the winners were announced, this woman comes up to me and says, Hello. I had no clue who she was. Oh, I’m Sandra Martin, she said. I still had no idea whatsoever. Then she said, I’m the person who said all those terrible things about you in the newspaper. I guess there had been a Globe and Mail piece where, as far as I can tell, terrible things were said about everyone.

Anyway, she was coming off as pretty aggressive. I think I had this wide grin on my face because what else are you going to do? Then she leaned in and said, Well, you’re really out of your league now, aren’t you? I felt like someone had stabbed me. That’s when I thought this is my you’re not in Kansas anymore moment.

Interviews have been edited and condensed.