Sean Michaels was awarded the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize at a gala ceremony in Toronto on Monday night for his novel Us Conductors, becoming just the second debut novelist to win Canada's most prestigious literary award in the prize's 21-year-history.
This year the winner's purse was $100,000, making it among the most lucrative annual literary awards in the English-speaking world.
Standing on stage shortly after he was declared the winner, a visibly shaken Mr. Michaels described the moment his name was announced as "absolutely discombobulating. It felt like my world went sideways."
"It's an incredible gift," he added. "I feel so lucky – stupidly lucky."
His editor, Anne Collins, wiping away tears, joined him on stage.
"It was so easy to take a chance on this guy," she said, putting an arm around his shoulder and kissing him on the cheek. "I just think it's a fantastic tribute to an extraordinary novel, and I just knew it was extraordinary from the first moment I read the first sentence."
The 32-year-old Mr. Michaels was something of an underdog considering the strength of this year's shortlist, which included Miriam Toews, who won last week's Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, and David Bezmozgis, a two-time finalist for the prize.
The only other debut novelist to win the Giller Prize was Johanna Skibsrud for The Sentimentalists in 2010, although Ms. Skibsrud had already published a collection of poems. Besides Mr. Michaels, the only other first-time author to capture Canada's most prestigious literary award was Vincent Lam for his 2006 short story collection Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures.
As well, the Montreal-based Mr. Michaels becomes the first resident of that city to win the Giller since Mordecai Richler won for Barney's Version in 1997.
Us Conductors, which was published by Random House Canada in April, tells the story of Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the Russian scientist whose most notable invention was the theremin, the ethereal musical instrument that is played without touch. A hyper-stylized fictionalization of Termen's real life, Us Conductors charts his arrival in America, his not-quite-love affair with Clara Rockmore, who was perhaps the best theremin player ever to grace the stage, and his eventual exile to a prison camp in the Russian Far East. "Us Conductors is a novel of epic proportions," wrote the musician Brendan Canning, reviewing the novel in The Globe this past spring. "Whatever picture Michaels is trying to paint, he does so with great accuracy and potency."
Mr. Michaels, the co-founder of the popular music blog Said the Gramophone, was chosen by a jury composed of British novelist Justin Cartwright, American writer and critic Francine Prose, and Canadian author Shauna Singh Baldwin, a finalist for the prize in 2004. They considered a record-setting 161 books submitted by 63 publishers from across Canada.
The other finalists were Miriam Toews for All My Puny Sorrows; Heather O'Neill for The Girl Who Was Saturday Night; Frances Itani for Tell; David Bezmozgis for The Betrayers; and Padma Viswanathan for The Ever After of Ashwin Rao. They each received $10,000.
This marked the 21st awarding of the Giller Prize, which was founded in 1994 to honour the late literary journalist Doris Giller. Past winners include Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Ondaatje.
Rick Mercer emceed this year's ceremony, which was held at the Ritz-Carlton hotel and aired live across the country, replacing former CBC broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, who hosted the previous three years.
"As we've been reminded in recent months there are people in our little corner of culture who behave monstrously," said Mr. Michaels, in what was an apparent reference to the former CBC radio star Mr. Ghomeshi. "We have to reckon with that and change it. Each of us does. We must believe women, and men too. Mostly, we must tell good stories and buy every book.
"And as the poet Sina Queyras wrote, let's go forth and undo harm, let's go forth and do."