Author Patrick deWitt of Portland, Ore., became the shining example of Canadian government support for the arts Tuesday when his novel The Sisters Brothers won the $25,000 Governor-General's Literary Award for fiction, with the author attributing his success in part to a crucial grant received from the Canada Council for the Arts midway through writing the book.
"I can't overstate how much it saved me," deWitt said of the $12,000 grant, adding that the Canadian government funds allowed him to finish the book rather than return to a job in construction to support his family. "I think it benefited the book in a really tangible way."
A clear favourite with prize juries on both sides of the Atlantic this season, deWitt's genre-bending Western was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in Britain and all three major Canadian prizes, winning the $25,000 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. But it was the Canada Council, organizer of the Governor-General Awards, that glowed brightest in light of deWitt's win on the program's 75th anniversary.
The author said he knew he was onto something special when he began writing The Sisters Brothers and feared he would "just lose the momentum completely" if he were forced to set it aside. "The initial spark, your affection for the characters, all those things can disappear," he said. "It's a perilous thing."
The B.C.-born author was "at the end of his rope" when the fateful envelope from Canada finally arrived at his Portland home. "My hands were shaking and my wife and my mother were there," he recalled. "There was this really intensely dramatic moment. When I opened it up and got [the grant]we all erupted in cheers. It was a really fine moment for me."
DeWitt's latest victory brings to an end the unexpected rivalry between his novel and Esi Edugyan's Half-Blood Blues, which began when both novels were nominated for the Booker Prize and ultimately all three major Canadian fiction prizes. Together they dominated the season, with deWitt's two prizes bracketing Edugyan's win of the influential Scotiabank Giller Prize last week.
Also enjoying the latest of many honours at yesterday's ceremony, which distributed almost $450,000 to 14 prize winners in both official languages, was Charles Foran of Peterborough, Ont., who accepted the 2011 Governor-General's award for non-fiction for Mordecai: The Life & Times – probably the single most awarded book of any genre in the history of Canadian literature.
Prior to winning this prize, Foran's book on Mordecai Richler won the 2011 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, the 2011 Hilary Weston Prize for Non-Fiction and the 2011 Canadian Jewish Book Award. It was nominated for the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction and the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award.
"It's very surprising and flattering to have so many juries choose the book," Foran said. "They're full of strong personalities and people bring a lot of different agendas to the table. I would never have thought that so many would have gone with my book."
Foran also expressed doubts that his late subject would have liked the book, nonetheless offering him the ultimate thanks for the honour. "I have been standing on the shoulders of a giant throughout," he said.
Yesterday's award for poetry went to Phil Hall of Perth, Ont., for Killdeer, one of three poetry finalists published by upstart small press BookThug. Erin Shields won the drama award for If We Were Birds while historian Christopher Moore won the children's literature award for From Then to Now: A Short History of the World.