Farewell, awkward teenage years: The Scotiabank Giller Prize is all grown up, and celebrating its 20th birthday. The award, started by Jack Rabinovitch to honour his late wife, journalist Doris Giller, has become the premier metric for success in Canadian fiction. Win it, and you’ll sell tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of books. Don’t win it, and you can easily become dust in the wind. Its dominance is impressive to some, scary to others. And it is almost single-handedly responsible for changing our literary culture to one driven by awards rather than word of mouth.
To mark this occasion, we today begin a month-long exploration of all things Giller. The Globe will interview more than a dozen winners of the prize, and some of its most illustrious jurors. We’ll ask them big questions about the art and the industry, where we’ve been and where we’re going – painting a portrait of a prize, and the writing and reading culture it has shaped.
To begin, we talk writing with four of the Giller’s most prominent winners: Margaret Atwood, Austin Clarke, Linden MacIntyre, and M.G. Vassanji (who has won twice). We convened the panel on a late summer day in stately Hart House Library on the campus of the University of Toronto. Over the course of the discussion, the writers, seated around a handsome wooden table, were reflective and sharp, challenging not only the questions asked of them, but each other’s understanding of their craft, their methods, and, perhaps most compellingly, their sense of a writer’s responsibility (or lack of one) to a prize-driven but passionate literary culture.
Why did you want to become a writer?
Margaret Atwood: Why don’t you start with “When did you want to become a writer?”
Okay, when did you want to become a writer?
Atwood: When I was 16. There wasn’t any why at that moment in my life because when you’re at that age, you don’t think in those terms. But let’s just say that it was more fun than anything else I was doing.
What else were you doing?
Atwood: Other things that were less fun. It was going to be more fun than being in home economics, let’s put it that way.
Linden MacIntyre: Shortly after I started to be a reader, I realized this is a wonderful, magical power to have. Never crossed my mind that I could become a writer, but I wanted to be a cowboy, I wanted to be a sailor in the 19th-century sense of the word. Being a writer was kind of in that space. It stayed with me until I was in university and I was advised by a creative-writing instructor never to write. So I became a journalist.
Atwood: You take those aptitude tests, and mine included car mechanic.
M.G. Vassanji: I don’t understand the question. What kind of writing do you mean – as a kid, formally? To formally become a writer is to publish and to do something. Many of us just enjoyed writing when we were kids. The question is more complex than you might imagine. I’d done some dabbling in writing in school, and enjoyed my composition lessons in high school, but it was not formal, it was not a career option. Once I came to Toronto, I had a job at the University of Toronto and I realized that I might not go back home, and therefore I would lose a lot of the stories, the history, that made me what I am. I thought maybe I should write it down, and I started to do that.
Austin Clarke: My experience is much more romantic and ordinary. The brightest boy in the village challenged me to a reading race. He decided on the books to be read; he took one and I took one. I became fascinated and I wanted to become a writer, because it was amazing to me that anybody could remember what he’d written on the first page and be consistent on page 300. So I would take pages from my exercise book, because each subject taught to us in those days had a different colour. I chose English, which was red, and I wrote, “Once upon a time, there was a man.” And I couldn’t think of anything else, so I wrote wavy lines for many pages. And at the end said, “The End. By Austin Clarke.”
It’s a good reminder, though, that it isn’t a romantic thing you switch on and off. It’s an evolutionary process. When you started, what was the hardest part?
Atwood: How are you going to make your living. There wasn’t any idea in Canada at the time – we’re talking the late fifties – that you would suddenly burst into bestsellerdom and make your living from it. So the real question was: What’s the day job gonna be? My first idea was to get something called Writer’s Markets, which told you where you could sell things to magazines and how much they’d pay you. You could make the most money writing true-romance stories, so I went out and got a bunch of true-romance magazines. I thought I should be able to whip up a few of these and sell them to magazines. I set out to do that, but I could not master the language. The plots were not hard, but that kind of language was beyond me. I laughed too much. To write those kinds of stories successfully, you have to believe them.