To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, The Globe and Mail is, throughout October, convening discussions of past winners and judges to reflect on the big questions of our literary culture. Here, Giller winners Joseph Boyden (Through Black Spruce), Esi Edugyan (Half-Blood Blues), Will Ferguson (419) and Richard B. Wright (Clara Callan) share their thoughts on the publishing industry, and how winning the country’s major fiction prize changes their relationships to it as writers.
How did being published change the way you work?
Richard B. Wright: I actually began my writing life in publishing, where I worked for eight years in the 1960s. When my wife and I decided to leave Toronto for the Gaspé fishing village where she was raised, I began my first novel, The Weekend Man, and it was published a year later. Over the next few years, I wrote seven more novels, and they were all published. I worked to be published; that was the whole point.
Joseph Boyden: Well, it certainly gives me deadlines. I like to tell my publisher, Nicole Winstanley, the approximate date she’ll receive a manuscript from me. And then I (and certainly Nicole, as well) sweat it hard. But usually, somehow, I manage to make it. Some people have asked if having already published books puts pressure on me when writing a new one. And it does, at first. But all the pressure disappears as the characters and storyline develop.
Will Ferguson: A more accurate question might be: How did having children change the way I work? My first book came out in 1997, and just a few weeks later our son Alex was born. Whereas before I had the luxury of being a night owl, of writing late and sleeping in, that was no longer the case. When our second son, Alister, came along, the need for keeping a tight work schedule only increased. I’m not a disciplined person by nature, but having kids forced me to take time more seriously. There’s a proverb: When you need something done, ask a busy person. The same principle applies to writing. The less time you have to squander, the less time you will squander – and the more productive you will become. That said, I do miss those two in the morning writing sessions, followed by lazy, languid mornings of newspapers and tea.
Esi Edugyan: I’m not sure that being published has had the greatest impact on the way I work. For me, it’s always been the more ordinary upheavals of life: where I happen to be living at the time; what city I’m in; who I’m living with; what sort of jobs I’ve had to work. Regardless of the changes in those circumstances, I’ve always felt it’s important that a writer try to keep regular hours, and try to trust in the work both when it’s going smoothly and when it’s resisting them.
How did winning the Giller change your relationship to the processes of publishing?
Ferguson: Winning the Scotiabank Giller Prize is head-swirlingly wonderful. Winning opens up endless doors for an author, and this sudden surge in possibilities could easily become overwhelming. Fortunately, I was already deep into my next project, a book set in Rwanda, so receiving the Giller didn’t put any extra pressure on me. I’ve carried on as I always do, muddling onward, vexing publishers and confounding editors.
Wright: I don’t know about “the processes of publishing,” but the Giller itself changed my life in a significant way by just being on the shortlist. In 1994 my eighth novel, The Age of Longing, was turned down by two publishers, the only rejections in my writing life. I was a middle-aged, midlist writer and all my books were then out of print. I was ready to give up, but the manuscript was read by Phyllis Bruce at HarperCollins, and they published it the following year. In 1995 it was a finalist for both the Giller and the Governor-General’s Award. It didn’t win that year, but the impact of being on that shortlist was huge. It renewed my confidence, encouraged me to continue writing. Five years later I published Clara Callan, which won the Giller, the G-G and the Trillium.
Edugyan: In the most obvious sense, it’s made the process a little more straightforward. Winning the Giller made it possible for my agent to negotiate an early deal for my next book, which gives me a certain amount of security that wasn’t there before.
Boyden: That’s an interesting question, one I’ve truthfully never considered before. My immediate reaction is that winning a Giller didn’t change my relationship to the processes of publishing. But if I really think about it, maybe winning such a big prize has made me a little more careful, a little more aware of how important it is to be involved in all the aspects of helping make a new book just right. With The Orenda, I really wanted to be involved in all aspects of the book, from the really meticulous line edits to helping choose the end papers and cover art.
What is your favourite part of the publishing process? Your least favourite part?
Ferguson: Writing a novel is like pushing a pickup down a dirt road. Most of the work happens right at the start. As momentum builds, it becomes easier and easier and the vehicle almost starts to roll itself. You sometimes find yourself hurrying to keep up. Which is to say, the only part I really dislike is the start. I often outline a project to death just as a way to avoid making that first godawful push.
Edugyan: That wonderful moment when you first see the cover design is my favourite part by far. My least favourite is waiting to hear back on a first draft.
Boyden: Receiving that first copy off the press is certainly one of the special moments. Then realizing a few minutes later that it’s time to start all over again brings your feet back to the ground.
Wright: Holding the finished book for the first time always will be a great thrill. Negative reviews can be briefly upsetting, but they come with the job. Writing is what, at some point in your life, you decide to do. Nobody frogmarched you into a room with a table and chair and a pile of blank paper . You volunteered. So you take what comes and move on.