You offer to lend Martin John, one of the books shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, to a book-club-attending, voracious novel-reading suburban dweller in your life, and you're asked, as I was, what the novel is about. There are different ways to answer this query. I went with: It's about a sexual deviant who masturbates in public. (To which my offer of the loan was declined.) Much more accurate would have been a less plot-focused response. Because more than a novel about a mentally ill flasher, Martin John is an avant-garde showcase for the great potential of language. Bold and innovative – and yet not impenetrable.
"I want to push the form of the novel; I want to see what can the novel become," author Anakana Schofield says. "Although I might be rolling back on that after this book. I feel like I may never write a book that difficult again.
"This book took a toll on me," she adds. "It was really unpleasant."
Martin John, the novel's disturbed protagonist (who appeared briefly in Schofield's award-winning debut novel, Malarky), runs into some trouble in the dentist's waiting room at home in Ireland and his mother ships him off to London. As a self-calming measure, he recites a series of refrains, avoids words with the letter "p" and performs circuits – walking around Euston Station.
Schofield herself performed a circuit of sorts as she wrote the novel. Beginning at her cramped, B.C. Housing apartment, she would walk down toward Vancouver General Hospital, past the psychiatric ward, around the corner past a long-term-care facility, then the new spinal cord research centre and finally back around to the medical building where she wrote some of the novel, up in the medical library.
"I think about the people that are in there, I think about the people that are going in there, and I think about the people that will never get out of there," she says, nodding toward the hospital. "I just think about the people that are just going to die in there on their own."
Schofield, 44, was born north of London to a father from northern England, who died when she was 5, and a mother from rural Ireland.
Despite her sophisticated use of language, Schofield's literary upbringing was fairly lowbrow. "I did not grow up surrounded by Dostoyevsky," she says. There was not a lot of money for books, but there were frequent trips to the library. Schofield recalls her mother reading to the children on the staircase of their home, moving up a step for each line she read.
She was raised outside London, but spent a lot of time in Ireland, then moved to Dublin in her 20s and then to Vancouver in 1999.
When her son, who is now a teenager, was a few months old, Schofield got a part-time freelance gig writing gambling news for a website – stories about horse racing, poker, casinos – a job she still does three days a week. "That's how I feed us," she says.
She confirms that she is not getting rich off her novels. "Well, no," she says. "Look at what I write, for God's sake."
In Malarky, published in 2012, a middle-aged farmer's wife in rural Ireland learns that her husband has been carrying on with another woman and decides to investigate what might be motivating him. It won the Amazon First Novel Award, the jury calling it "a bold first novel from an author whose prose hums with electric wit and linguistic daring."
If Malarky wasn't a traditional novel, Martin John ventures far further from convention, telling the story of the deranged sex offender – and his mother's decision to protect him – in literary fits and starts that dazzle and surprise.
The novel ventures to dark, creepy places as the protagonist's psycho-sexual problems and proclivities become increasingly apparent. (Schofield consulted an Ottawa-based expert in paraphilia, but beyond that, she says that "I made all of it up!") One particularly disturbing scene involves an unconscious woman.
"There's really nothing in this book I suggest that's comfortable except perhaps the Eurovision Song Contest," Schofield says. (Martin John is obsessed with Eurovision.) "But you know, isn't that the role of the artist? Isn't that the role of the writer? I can't think in terms of the marketplace. And I do think increasingly writers seem to be somewhat required to speak in those terms and I just refuse to. I'm interested in literature; that's what raises my spade, as they say. I'm passionate about language, I'm passionate about literature and yeah, it's true it wasn't very sensible. I really need to think about writing a nice book about nice people at some point."
The changing Giller effect
The Scotiabank Giller Prize, which awards $100,000 to the winner and $10,000 to the remaining finalists, is CanLit's ultimate trophy – not simply because of the rich purse, but the sales impact.
According to data provided by BookNet Canada, sales for the Giller winner increase significantly – 492 per cent for Lynn Coady's Hellgoing, for instance, compared with the three weeks before the announcement of the winner (further to drastic increases that come with the shortlist announcement – although sales before the announcement tend to be on the low side).
"The Giller's a huge thing; what it's done for the Canadian book industry is inestimable," Toronto bookseller Ben McNally says. "It's raised the attention of Canadian literature in ways you can't really begin to calculate."
But McNally, who owns an eponymous bookstore on Bay Street, has seen a turn of late. "For the first time in a long time we've put up a display of the shortlisted authors for the Giller and the shortlisted authors for the Governor-General's [Literary] Award and, you know, we haven't seen a lot of action, to tell you the truth," he says, making it clear that he's talking only about his individual store.
"Gone are the days when people would come in and say, 'Sell me the Giller shortlist.' I mean, that hasn't happened to us for a couple of years now."
McNally wonders if the lower profile of this new wave of writers may be playing against them in terms of media coverage and public engagement. There's also the shortlist itself. The subject matter of Martin John, for instance, can make it a tough sell.
"In terms of people actually running in [to buy a Giller-nominated book] and automatically assuming that what they're going to get is going to be to their taste, I think we've sort of lost that – at least temporarily. I hope it's temporary. If this brings an entire new generation of readers into the literary sphere, then it will have been worth the little bump on the road," McNally says.
'Then you really despair'
Things got stressful for Schofield writing Martin John, and she would sometimes find herself scribbling letters of the Arabic alphabet or wind terms in Irish. "I do that to calm myself down," she says. "I tend to get worked up."
Schofield's interests are wide and varied. There's her weather obsession, and she describes bird flu as a hobby. Her big Giller splurge was the purchase of a 19th-century vintage book, The Nun of Kenmare: An Autobiography. Ask her about the benefits of being on the shortlist and she'll mention the snacks.
She's a force not just on the page, but in person. She can dominate a book panel and befriend anyone on the street.
Schofield has loved hearing herself described as a Canadian novelist during this Giller process. "I'm very excited to be thought of as Canadian," she told the audience at a Vancouver Writers Fest reading. "Maybe Canada's not that excited about me being a Canadian," – cue the audience laughter – "but I am."
At that same event, Schofield was asked about her writing process. Her answer drew cheers and applause – but was also a window into that dark, lonely place that can give birth to genius.
"You just read and then you read more and you read even more and then you just keep reading and then when you're writing you just despair," she said. "And then you despair more and then you really, really despair. And then there's a brief month when you despair a bit less. Then you realize no – and you despair a bit more. And then it ends. And then you worry."