Slush pile to Giller glory

Prize's 5 finalists are all unknowns

Article by Judy Stoffman, Toronto Star
October 4, 2006

A gainst all odds, Rawi Hage's De Niro's Game, a first novel by an unknown picked from the slush pile by an editor at House of Anansi Press, has landed on the Scotiabank Giller Prize short list.

In fact, all five shortlisted titles are by first-time or little known authors, and four of them were issued without fanfare by small presses. Two are translations from French.

"Oh, my God! I'm on cloud nine," said Anansi's Lynn Henry when the list was announced yesterday. "Most books come to us through agents. The chance of our publishing (De Niro's Game) and then getting on the short list are one in a million."

Losing out yesterday were such celebrated authors as Wayne Johnston (for The Custodian of Paradise), Douglas Coupland (jPod) and David Adams Richards (The Friends of Meager Fortune), who had been on the long list of 15 books announced two weeks ago. Large houses like McClelland & Stewart, HarperCollins and Penguin Canada, publishers of past Giller winners, were shut out this time.

"We didn't look at who the publishers were," said judge Adrienne Clarkson, the former governor general and a writer herself. "We just read the books. Things emerge when you are looking for excellence."

To compose the long list, the jury read 101 books from 36 presses.

Clarkson and novelist Michael Winter revealed the five finalists yesterday at the Four Seasons hotel. (Writer Alice Munro, the third judge, could not be present.) Their list includes three novels and two short-story collections.

De Niro's Game is a searing story of two friends — one Christian, one Muslim — caught in the civil war in Beirut.

Hage wrote the novel in English, his third language after Arabic and French. He left his native Lebanon as a teenager and lived for a time in New York before settling in Montreal.

One major publisher, Doubleday, a part of Random House of Canada, made it on the short list with a short-story collection by Vincent Lam. Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures draws on Lam's experiences as an emergency room doctor at Toronto East General Hospital.

Another finalist for the $40,000 prize (its value increased since Scotiabank became its co-sponsor last year) is from Anansi: The Immaculate Conception by Gaétan Soucy, published in French in 2004 and translated by Lazer Lederhendler.

The other two titles shortlisted were both published by Cormorant Books: The Perfect Circle, a novel by Pascale Quiviger, translated by Sheila Fischman; and Home Schooling, short stories by Carol Windley.

Moved nearly to tears, Cormorant's publisher Marc Côté jumped up to phone his authors with the good news. Windley lives in Nanaimo, B.C., where she has taught at Malaspina College. The Montreal-born Quiviger lives in England and Italy, and is married to British Labour MP Alan Simpson.

As Le cercle parfait, Quiviger's story of a Montreal woman and her Tuscan lover won the Governor General's Award for best French-language novel in 2004.

"I read the first 20 pages and sent it immediately to Sheila Fischman," recalled Côté. "We both loved it and she said, `Get the rights now.'"

Côté ordered reprints yesterday of Home Schooling and The Perfect Circle. Before the short-list announcement, only 1,500 copies were in print of each title.

The Giller prize, created by businessman Jack Rabinovitch in 1994 in memory of his late wife Doris Giller, a journalist for the Star, has become the most effective marketing tool in Canadian publishing, so demand for more copies is assured.

Research by BookNet Canada, a not-for-profit agency that tracks national book sales, shows winning the Giller increases sales more than any other Canadian book prize, by even twice as much as the Governor General's Award for fiction.

The analysis, released Monday, shows the effect is equal for big-name authors and unknowns.

Frans Donker, owner of the Book City chain, was pleased with the short list: "These are new names, young names. The whole idea of having a long list worked very well. People were asking for those titles. The Giller makes an incredible impact."

The long list was made public for the first time this year. The winner will be announced at a Toronto gala on Nov. 7.

© The Toronto Star 2006