Two gun-toting bad guys rode out of the Wild West sunset and onto the main stage of the Canadian literary scene last night when Patrick deWitt's second novel, The Sisters Brothers, was named the winner of the $25,000 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.
Described by organizers as "a story that pays homage to the classic western, but with a darkly comic twist," The Sisters Brothers chronicles the adventures of two 19th-century hit men as they ply their trade in the California gold fields.
It is one of two Canadian novels that were nominated for all three major literary awards in this country and also short-listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize.
In winning the Writers' Trust Prize, The Sisters Brothers pulls ahead of Esi Edugyan's Half-Blood Blues in the neck-and-neck horse race that has dominated this year's award season. Next week, the two will face off at the ceremony to award the Scotiabank Giller Prize, followed by a fourth and final match the week after when the winners of the Governor-General's Literary Awards are announced.
Born on Vancouver Island, deWitt is a long-time resident of Portland, Ore., whose Canadian triumph stemmed from a canny decision by his U.S. agent to have the author's second novel published independently in Canada rather than have it distributed here by its U.S. publisher, HarperCollins. With three Canadian nominations in addition to a Booker nod for the British edition, The Sisters Brothers now has a higher profile abroad than it does in its author's home market.
Two authors whose latest work did not appear among the prize lists this year also received recognition from the Writer's Trust on Tuesday evening. Newfoundland-born Wayne Johnston, author of A World Elsewhere, won the $25,000 Writers' Trust Engel/Findley Award, which is given annually to a writer in mid-career for a body of work. The similar $20,000 Matt Cohen Award, given "to a writer dedicated to writing as a primary pursuit, for a body of work," went to New Brunswick-born David Adams Richards, author of Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul.
Other awards went to Gulf Islands novelist Iain Lawrence, winner of the $20,000 Vicky Metcalf Award for Children's Literature; and Hamilton's Miranda Hill, who won the McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize for her short story Petitions to Saint Chronic.
In addition to deWitt and Edugyan, this year's Writers' Trust fiction short list characteristically featured writers as yet little known in the mainstream of contemporary Canadian literature. They included "writers' writer" Clark Blaise, nominated for his latest story collection, The Meagre Tarmac; British Columbian Michael Christie, nominated for The Beggar's Garden, his first collection of short fiction; and the peripatetic Dan Vyleta, nominated for his novel The Quiet Twin. Each of them received $2,500.
The three-person jury that selected the finalists and the ultimate winner reviewed 120 books from 53 publishers before making their decisions, according to the Writers' Trust. It comprised novelists Margaret Sweatman ( The Players), Emma Donoghue ( Room) and Rabindranath Maharaj ( The Amazing Absorbing Boy).