Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Scotiabank Giller Prize 2010

TORONTO - Thirty-year-old Montreal author Johanna Skibsrud became the youngest recipient of the $50,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize on Tuesday night, but readers may have trouble finding her winning novel, "The Sentimentalists."

That's because her Nova Scotia-based publishing house, Gaspereau Press, makes its hand-crafted books locally and can only print about 1,000 copies of "The Sentimentalists" a week. Some bookstores across the country have been unable to get the title since the Giller short list came out Oct. 5.

But Skibsrud was optimistic about the situation upon winning the prize, the most lucrative literary honour in Canada.

"I think that (the publishers) had said that they would cross that bridge when they come to it, so here's the bridge!" she said cheerfully backstage after an acceptance speech in which she thanked Gaspereau for believing in her.

"There definitely have been times that I've wished that it was out there in more readers' hands but I know that Gaspereau has been working very, very hard to get them there and they are in the independent bookstores now and they are, or should be, in Chapters again soon. So yeah, I have faith in them."

"The Sentimentalists" chronicles a daughter's quest to learn the truth about her dying father's life and his backstory in the Vietnam War. Skibsrud — who grew up in Pictou County, N.S. — was tearful in her acceptance speech as she thanked the person who inspired the Vietnam stories in the book.

"To my late father, Olaf, for sharing his stories with me ... for all of his love and support as well, and for being here tonight, because I know he is," she said, looking radiant in a black, long, form-fitting Oscar de la Renta dress and a pearl necklace. I just can't even imagine how proud he would have been."

She said she'll use the prize money to pay off her student loans and travel from Moscow to Beijing on the Trans-Siberian railway.

"The Sentimentalists" was presented by singer Anne Murray at the Giller gala, which was hosted by CTV personality Seamus O'Regan and drew in nearly 500 members of the publishing, media and arts communities.

It was up against:
"This Cake is for the Party" by Toronto's Sarah Selecky;
"Light Lifting" by Alexander MacLeod of Dartmouth, N.S.;
"The Matter With Morris" by Winnipeg's David Bergen; and
"Annabel" by Montreal-based Kathleen Winter.

Winter's novel is also shortlisted for a Governor General's Literary Award. That prize will be handed out next week.

This year's jury — CBC broadcaster Michael Enright, American author Claire Messud and British writer Ali Smith — arrived at the short list after reading 98 books submitted by 38 publishing houses. Giller runners up will each receive $5,000.

Businessman Jack Rabinovitch established the prize in 1994 in memory of his late wife, literary journalist Doris Giller. Since then, it has become one of the country's most popular literary awards, with nominated books receiving a considerable boost in sales. It's also a rare chance for the shortlisted writers — who so often toil in solitude — to enjoy a moment in a glamorous spotlight.

At Tuesday's black-tie bash, the nominated writers rubbed shoulders with luminaries including filmmaker Atom Egoyan, dancer Veronica Tennant, author Margaret Atwood, politician Bob Rae and actor Gordon Pinsent. Pinsent voiced the ceremony's author profiles and filmmaker Bruce McDonald produced and directed the broadcast's opening short film, which paid tribute to the prize. Other presenters included Blue Rodeo frontman Jim Cuddy and journalist Barbara Amiel Black, wife of Conrad Black.

Dinner included sweet chili ahi tuna tartar with avocado and cilantro, and grand cru torte with pistachio and vanilla anglaise. Selecky, who has admitted she crashed the Giller a couple of years back, was soaking in the night. "It's really nice to have an invitation this time," said the 36-year-old author. She was excited to meet Atwood, one of her idols.

"There's a story in the book that I wrote particularly wondering what she would think of it and I just never thought that she would read it or have an opportunity to read it let alone sit behind me at this dinner," said Selecky. "So it's really special."

While past winners have included high-profile authors including Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro and M.G. Vassanji, this year's list — with the exception of Bergen, who won the Giller in 2005 — was made up of newcomers.

Skibsrud says she relished bonding with her fellow finalists, many of whom — like herself — "haven't received a lot of attention" in their careers. "I feel that this is a really exciting time in Canadian literature," she said, noting she was in "utter shock" when her name was announced as the winner.

McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg says it was "caught off guard" by the number of new writers on this year's short list. "Generally there are small presses involved and some rising but unknown authors, but they don't tend to be the majority of the list," said Chris Hall, senior inventory manager at the store.

MacLeod — the son of acclaimed author Alistair MacLeod — said he and his fellow finalists were all "feeling good for each other" ahead of the show. "Many of us are outsiders to the ... business side of it, and I think that's been a great insulator for us," said the English professor at Halifax's St. Mary's University, which was planning to hold a party for him Tuesday night.

The Giller gala was broadcast live on Bravo! and, and will air on CTV on Wednesday. (Tonight)


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