A novel that, less than a year ago, was without a Canadian publisher has won the country’s most prestigious literary prize. Esi Edugyan‘s Half-Blood Blues, about a jazz musician who disappears in Nazi-occupied France, was awarded the $50,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize Tuesday evening, capping an unlikely run that has seen the Calgary-born novelist rise from obscurity to become one of the season’s most buzzed about authors.
Edugyan’s sophomore novel was supposed to appear in the spring with the now bankrupt Key Porter Books. Half-Blood Blues eventually landed with Thomas Allen Publishers, which released the book this summer, months after it had appeared in the U.K. (with the venerable literary press Serpent’s Tail) and the U.S. (Picador).
Accepting the prize at a Toronto gala, Edugyan thanked Thomas Allen publisher Patrick Crean for rescuing the book from limbo. Thomas Allen has been the most amazing publisher, she said. After Key Porter “ that wonderful Canadian house “ fell apart, he (Patrick) came in and believed in the book and purchased it, and I’m so, so thankful for that. It’s been a wonderful experience, Patrick.
Edugyan also thanked her editors Jane Warren and John Williams (of Key Porter and Serpent’s Tail, respectively), as well as a trusted early reader, the author Jacqueline Baker. Finally, she acknowledged her husband, poet and novelist Steven Price, without whom nothing gets written.
In fact, Price, whose first novel, Into That Darkness, appeared this spring with Thomas Allen, had a hand in getting the book published, too. Crean said Price contacted him in April, shortly after the problems with Key Porter, and convinced him to take an advance reading copy to the London Book Fair. After reading the novel on the plane, Crean said he was absolutely beguiled and amazed. He signed the book not long after returning to Toronto.
This is the second time Thomas Allen has won the Giller, and only the third time in the prize’s 18-year history that a solely Canadian-owned firm has published the winning title. When Thomas Allen last won the Giller, in 2002, it was for Barbadian-born novelist Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe.
Crean described being in the winner’s circle for a second time as an absolute thrill. He added: It’s also a thrill to see a young African-Canadian woman win it. I think we have a lot of wonderful writers of many different backgrounds, but we seem to have a dearth of young writers of that particular heritage.
Edugyan is a second-generation Canadian whose father emigrated from Ghana in the 1970s.
There are currently 23,000 copies of Half-Blood Blues in print. Tomorrow morning we’re going to be pushing the button again, Crean said. I don’t quite know what the number is going to be, but it’s going to be upwards of 20,000. Thomas Allen has sold just 250 e-book copies of the novel, but Crean said that may change very rapidly now.
Following the controversy that erupted last year when winning publisher Gaspereau Press was unable to keep up with demand for Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists, Crean reassured retailers that history isn’t about to repeat itself. [Gaspereau is] an artisan publisher, and one has to respect that very much, he said. We’re a more commercial house, and we keep our eye on the sales figures and make sure there’s enough inventory.
The Giller is just one among a full slate of literary prizes Edugyan was eligible for this fall. With Giller co-nominee Patrick deWitt she shares the peculiar distinction of having been nominated for all three of Canada’s major literary awards as well as the U.K.’s Man Booker Prize.
Last week, deWitt won the $25,000 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for his sophomore novel, The Sisters Brothers (House of Anansi Press). Along with Edugyan and deWitt, a third Giller nominee is eligible for the $25,000 Governor General’s Literary Award, which will be handed out next week: David Bezmozgis, nominated for his first novel, The Free World (HarperCollins Canada).
The other Giller nominees were Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist (Anansi), Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table (McClelland & Stewart), and Zsuzsi Gartner’s Better Living Through Plastic Explosives (Hamish Hamilton Canada).
Anansi, which has yet to win a Giller, has now been nominated 10 times, more than any other publisher save Random House of Canada and McClelland & Stewart.