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Arts An ‘astonishingly high number’ of good books submitted for Giller Prize

Sean Michaels’ first novel, Us Conductors, is one of six finalists for the prize that recognizes the best in Canadian fiction – an award, according to prize founder Jack Rabinovitch, that “has become a celebration of all Canadian writers, not just the winners.”

John Londono

Sean Michaels was home with his wife on Monday morning, looking at wedding photographs, when he learned he was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize via a text message from his father. Monday, it so happened, was the couple's first wedding anniversary, and it is "bewilderingly apt," he said in a phone interview later in the day, that it is traditionally known as the paper anniversary.

"There was much hooting and hollering," Mr. Michaels said, speaking from his home in Montreal. "This being my first book, I was really aspiring to find the right words and then [be] lucky enough to get them into people's hands. Everything beyond that has felt like an overflowing of luck and riches. So this is completely unforeseen and feels really improbable."

The 32-year-old author's first novel, Us Conductors, is one of six finalists for the prize that recognizes the best in Canadian fiction – an award, according to prize founder Jack Rabinovitch, that "has become a celebration of all Canadian writers, not just the winners." It's a lovely sentiment, but the six writers on the shortlist are probably celebrating a bit more than their peers. This year's winner takes home $100,000 – twice as much as in 2013 – while each finalist receives $10,000, making it the most lucrative fiction prize in Canada and one of the richest in the English language.

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Besides Mr. Michaels, whose novel fictionalizes the life of Russian inventor and musician Lev Termen, the finalists include David Bezmozgis for The Betrayers, about a disgraced Israeli politician who seeks sanctuary in the Crimean resort town of Yalta; Frances Itani for her novel, Tell, a semi-sequel to her 2003 bestseller, Deafening; Heather O'Neill for her The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, about twins growing up in Montreal on the eve of the 1995 Quebec referendum; Miriam Toews for All My Puny Sorrows, a novel about sisterhood and suicide; and Padma Viswanathan for The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, about a psychologist exploring the aftermath of the 1985 Air India bombing.

Both Mr. Bezmozgis and Ms. Toews have previously been finalists for the prize, which honours the late literary journalist Doris Giller.

Interestingly, this year's shortlist hints at the two solitudes that have emerged in Canadian publishing since the merger of Penguin and Random House was announced in 2012; although books by two independent publishers, Biblioasis and ECW, were on the 12-book longlist, half of the shortlisted titles are published by Penguin Random House, the other half by HarperCollins Canada.

This year's jury – British author Justin Cartwright, Canadian novelist Shauna Singh Baldwin and American writer Francine Prose – considered 161 books before settling on the shortlist, a difficult process, Mr. Cartwright said, considering the "astonishingly high number of very, very good books" submitted by publishers from across the country.

"For me, it was an absolute revelation to see how many fine writers there are in this country," he said.

The jurors especially praised the "depth" and "diversity" of this year's entries.

"I think what's striking is the variety of the books," Ms. Prose said. "I mean, all they have in common is that they're very good books. But subject matter, setting, characters – they're all extraordinarily different."

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The winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize will be announced in Toronto on Nov. 10.

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