The morning after winning the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, Anakana Schofield was ushered in front of a camera for a live TV interview. The Vancouver writer doesn't remember exactly what she said, but in the weeks and months and years that have followed, online reviews of her novel Malarky surface, from time-to-time, that reference the exchange. "[The review] will say 'I saw Anakana on the TV for winning the prize, and I went and bought her book, and I'm thoroughly disappointed.' That's when I know this was a very good thing. That's when I know I'm reaching people who would never, ever, ever see this work."
Since 1976, the Amazon.ca First Novel Award – formerly sponsored by Books in Canada, SmithBooks, and Chapters – has celebrated the work of debut Canadian novelists. The winner of this year's prize will be announced on Thursday; the finalists are Judith McCormack for Backspring; Elizabeth Philips for The Afterlife of Birds; W. Mark Giles for Seep; Mona Awad for 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl; Karim Alrawi for Book of Sands; and Aaron Cully Drake for Do You Think This is Strange? To coincide with the anniversary, the winner will receive $40,000, while the nominees will leave the ceremony with $4,000.
There was no gala during those early years; when Joan Barfoot won in 1978 for her novel Abra, the announcement was made at the old CBC headquarters on Jarvis St. in Toronto, where it was announced live on the radio.
"I got the day off work, hopped on a train and went to Toronto, and went with my editor to the CBC," she recalls. "It was an interesting joint. We were sitting in the lobby, and there were three or four guys, pretty shabbily and badly dressed, milling around the coffee maker. I thought, 'Oh, I seem to be overdressed if these are the other people nominated.' They actually turned out to be perfectly nice homeless gents in for a morning coffee."
Three years later, when Joy Kogawa won for Obasan, her now-classic account of her experiences as a Japanese-Canadian girl during the Second World War, she got the news from a phone call.
"Getting that phone call was one of the highs of my life," she says. "Nothing like that had ever happened in my life. It was so unbelievable to me."
All awards are crapshoots, but for a prize that recognizes writers with little or no track record to speak of, a surprising number of the 41 previous winners – there have been ties on two occasions – have gone to enjoy long, or critically acclaimed, careers, including Michael Ondaatje (co-winner of the inaugural prize), Eleanor Catton (whose second novel won the Booker Prize), Rohinton Mistry, Joseph Boyden and André Alexis, whose novel Childhood won the prize in 1998.
"It changes how people think about you, it changes how people think about the book that you won for, and it's part of what proceeds you in terms of reputation," says Alexis, winner of last year's Giller Prize. "So there are kind of invisible benefits to it – well, invisible, but you can feel them.
"I felt very much like my status had changed internally as much as anything else, because getting that award was a little way of saying, 'Oh, okay, so this is actually what you're supposed to be doing,'" he says. "I knew it anyway, but it's a confirmation, and that can be tremendously helpful at a certain point. When you're starting out, you want that little sense that what you're doing has a kind of shadow, and feel, and solidity to it."
Madeleine Thien, who won the 2006 prize for Certainty, and who will publish her third novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, later this month, says winning not only "gave me the confidence to pursue what it was that I wanted to do" but perhaps, more importantly, put her novel "into a public memory of what was published that year. That is something that is hard to underestimate."
Schofield underestimated her chances of winning in 2013. Before heading off to the gala, "I went to the liquor shop and I bought the cheapest bottle of wine so that I'd have something, afterwards, to console myself with," she says. "And then I did win, and I had this really embarrassing situation where I had all these people in my hotel room and I had this really, really awful bottle of wine."
One of the other finalists brought champagne.