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The Giller Prize story: an oral history, part three

Giller winner Austin Clarke (2002) at the 2012 gala (photo: Tom Sandler)

In the third 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 now.

From 1994 to 2005, each jury picked a shortlist of up to six titles. In 2006, a longlist of up to 15 titles was introduced. What hasn’t changed is the variety of reactions from Giller-nominated authors and publishers.

John Gould, finalist, Kilter: 55 Fictions (2003): I was just starting out as a teacher at the University of Victoria, which took a great deal of concentration. I was up until 3 a.m. prepping, and my wife came and shook me awake. She had been getting calls for an hour. I didn’t even know that the Giller shortlist was coming out that day ““ it was nowhere in my consciousness.

It seems to me that the whole thing was more dramatic back when it went straight to the shortlist. When I was nominated, no one knew who I was, I was published by a small press [Turnstone Press], and writing in a weird form. For that kind of book to show up on a shortlist beside Atwood and Ann-Marie MacDonald ““ all big books, big publishers ““ there was more drama.

Vincent Lam, winner, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures (2006): I heard the news I was longlisted via voicemail, but they didn’t get my name right ““ it was addressed to a different writer. I’m sure it was just an intern calling. I didn’t have the prize on my radar at all, so I just thought, “That’s nice for someone else.”

Zsuzsi Gartner, finalist, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives (2011): I feel like it was overdramatic. My husband, son, and I were gathered around my laptop as the names were coming up. Jian Ghomeshi was blabbing and blabbing, and about every half minute a name came up. My name popped up and we could hardly believe it. I just started screaming and jumping up and down.

Sarah MacLachlan, president and publisher of House of Anansi Press, which has published 13 shortlisted titles: We wait to see if we get on the longlist, and we wait again to see if we get on the shortlist, which inevitably seems to happen when a bunch of us are at the Frankfurt Book Fair. We sit in meetings looking at our Twitter feed, or waiting for an email. We used to wait for a phone call. One year, when two Anansi books were on the list, I let out a whoop, which silenced the whole room. That was embarrassing.

The envelope, please”¦

Douglas Gibson, former McClelland & Stewart publisher and long-time editor of Alice Munro: McClelland & Stewart books were very well represented among the early winners. That’s a diplomatic way of putting it. There were some years, in fact, where we had so many nominees that, at the Giller dinner, it was a case of divided loyalty and superhuman diplomacy.

Lam: It really was a shocker. I think someone nudged me. Later, I found out that [Random House of Canada president and CEO] Brad Martin had prearranged 50,000 copies to be reprinted on his go-ahead. Between the time I stood up and got to the stage, Brad had placed a call to the printer.

Patrick Crean, publisher of Giller winners Esi Edugyan and Austin Clarke: Before Austin Clarke won in 2002, he said to the table, “There shall be no tears at this table.” He was very wise, but he was the only grounded person there. I remember I could hardly breathe. The effect is so intense. You can go into these things trying to practice Zen detachment but it really gets under your skin.

Lam: I got pickpocketed the night I won. I think it was at the scrum afterward. You’re making your way through the crowd, and everyone’s pawing you and giving you hugs. I didn’t know about it until the next morning, when I got a call from my credit card company asking if I had tried to buy electronics online the night before.

From the pickpocket’s point of view, it’s brilliant. Who is the most distracted person in the room? It’s clearly the person who won the prize, and clearly their publisher will render them into a state of not being able to look after their credit card.

I say this as a public service announcement: whoever is shortlisted, I recommend you leave your wallet at home.

Although the Giller shortlist is often dominated by major publishing houses, independent presses have made their mark.

Crean: The Giller Prize was proving itself in the early stages. It began to go around the A- list: Atwood, Munro, Richler, Ondaatje, David Adams Richards. After practically everybody in CanLit had won it, then surprises began to happen.

MacLachlan: Anansi is an expert at being nominated ““ I believe it’s 11 times now ““ and never winning. But all the years have brought a special buzz. First novels that get nominated are always a thrill. You’ve decided to get behind a book, and when you see people validate the decision, it’s exciting.

Gould: I felt, and Turnstone felt, that despite my book being in a slightly unusual form, it was accessible and there should be a strong readership for it. But how do you connect with that readership considering it’s a small press with limited resources?  The Giller nomination made it more likely that people could find it.

In 2010, Johanna Skibsrud won for her debut novel, The Sentimentalists, making her the youngest winner in the award’s history. Booksellers scrambled to get the book, a challenge considering Skibsrud’s publisher, Gaspereau Press, could only print a maximum of 1,000 copies per week. Although Gaspereau co-publisher Andrew Steeves initially refused offers from larger publishing houses to help out, he eventually sold trade-paperback rights to Vancouver’s D&M Publishers.

Jack Rabinovitch, Giller Prize founder: As I said then, the problem was that Gaspereau thought they were printers. They forgot that their job was to help sell books. It’s nothing against them, but people mislead themselves as to what their roles are. I don’t think it had any implications for the prize, but I think it made everyone in the book business realize that a publisher has a responsibility beyond printing the book.

Michael Enright, CBC Radio host and juror (2010): I have always been interested in smaller presses because I don’t think they get fair consideration, but I was determined not to let that affect me as a judge. In the end, it was very strange ““ there were no Simon & Schusters or Random Houses on the shortlist. It was just a fluke.

Our job was to pick the book that we thought was the best, and I couldn’t care less about sales or availability. Gaspereau is a quality press, and there would be some way of getting the book into the hands of readers. That has nothing to do with quality. That’s a marketing problem; let the marketers deal with it.



Interviews have been edited and condensed.