With eBooks replacing hardcovers, social media replacing book tours, Amazon replacing bookstores, and bookstores replacing books with gardening supplies, the state of the book business (and of books themselves) remains uncertain.
Still, writers keep writing. And new voices keep emerging with good, often great, surprising, inspiring work.
Herewith, our pick of five up-and-comers to watch. They cut a broad swath in terms of genre, background and point of view. The one thing they have in common: compelling words, artfully composed, that remind us why the future of books, however it takes shape, matters.
"As a therapist," says Yejide Kilanko, "I'm fascinated with what motivates human behaviour." A social worker in children's mental health, the 36-year-old resident of Chatham, Ont., and author of Daughters Who Walk This Path, is a native of the sprawling city of Ibadan, Nigeria.
The novel, a deeply tragic, engaging tale of domestic violence, rape and fear, explores how family and community can help to envelop and protect women. As a young girl growing up in urban Africa, Kilanko began writing poetry at age 12, and from her earliest years explored the fine art of escape through reading. "I discovered faraway places," she says, "by immersing myself in the pages of a book. Sometimes by squeezing my eyes tight, I saw myself walking down cobbled European streets, or swaying to pulsating drum beats when African warriors still ruled the savannah plains."
In her own writing, Kilanko says, she is "deeply interested in how people thrive or struggle within existing social and political structures," but acknowledges that some of her biggest struggles as a budding novelist are with herself. "My greatest writing achievement so far was being able to temporarily silence the insistent voice that said I couldn't write a novel," says Kilanko. "It's a daily battle of woman versus doubt."
His debut novel, the spellbinding Soucouyant – which took its name from a demon of Trinidadian folklore, and told the modern-day story of a guilt-ridden young Toronto man whose mother is ravaged by a rare form of dementia – was longlisted for both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and nominated for a Governor-General's Award. With a second novel, Brother, in the works, it would appear that Chariandy is sticking to familial themes, but we'll have to wait for its 2013 pub date to find out. In the meantime, Chariandy, who teaches at Simon Fraser University, is more voluble on the notion of the CanLit family.
"I like reading experienced authors of very different writing styles and ambitions who allowed me, in each case, to glimpse the long road of a life spent writing." Among them: Alice Munro, Daphne Marlatt, Fred Wah, Alistair MacLeod, Austin Clarke, Michael Ondaatje and Dionne Brand, as well as a handful of others he describes as "authors who will always be much cooler than you are, so Sheila Heti, Lee Henderson, Kyo Maclear, and Wayde Compton." As for his own work, he says, "I'm extremely serious about how and what I write, but I'm not too interested in 'being' a writer. I guess I'm interested in the work, not the role."
When you're the son of CanLit royalty, you want to hit the ground running when you decide it's time to claim your place in the family firm. Alexander MacLeod did that and more with his sublime Light Lifting, whose seven short stories covered a panoply of settings and plots: from the sweaty world of competitive running to life on a bricklaying crew to a baby's diaper change in the men's room of a highway rest stop. Shortlisted for the 2010 Giller Prize, the collection was also named one of the world's 12 notable books of the year by the American Library Association.
As he prepares for "settling in to a bigger project this fall," MacLeod, who teaches English at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, looks to more than just his dad for inspiration (although he insists Alistair MacLeod "has produced some of the best stories written in the whole 20th century – I'm not playing the dutiful son here; it's just true.") His favourite Canadian writers? "I'd stack up the contemporary Newfoundlanders against all comers," he says, sounding a bit like the jocks he brought to life in Light Lifting. "A starting five of Lisa Moore, Jessica Grant and Michael Crummey up front, with Michael and Kathleen Winter anchoring the defence, would be tough to beat."
"I have failed to achieve a great, great deal," says Iain Reid.
That turns out to be a good thing, since it's the basis for Reid's first book, One Bird's Choice: A Year in the Life of an Over-educated, Underemployed Twentysomething Who Moves Back Home.
Home, in his case, is a hobby farm in Ontario, where Reid spends a year juggling poultry, platitudes from his eccentric parents and part-time work at a radio station in the sticks. The result is a comic memoir (think David Rakoff on the farm) that put him on the author's circuit and won him a CBC Bookie Award for Non-Fiction.
Since then, some things have changed. The 31-year-old has a second book deal, for The Truth About Luck. He also writes regularly on the writing life (fear of the sophomore slump, the benefits of working while lying down). But in the wake of being the "author of … one book," as he's put it, he's still, you know, Iain Reid – same old wool sweaters, same flip phone. Same self-deprecating humour. Of his work, he insists, "a lot of the time, writing makes me feel unintelligent and semi-useless.
"Even if I felt like I had achieved a tiny amount and could somehow attempt to verbalize this, the process of explaining it or just believing it would make starting anything new nearly impossible. Also, one of my friends would rightfully punch me in the face."
"I hope to write books that are smart and a little strange but not dense or unnecessarily complicated," says Grace O'Connell, whose debut novel, Magnified World, comprises a moving and mysterious contemplation on loss and what comes after. Keeping the strange out of her next outing may be a bit more of a challenge: A work still in its "very early stages," it will, O'Connell hopes, reimagine the Sleeping Beauty story – with a few twists. "Video games and a bougainvillea plant," she notes, "play important roles."
Despite her penchant for such unconventional pairings, and her contention that "a lot of our authors are interested in madness ... Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, Timothy Findley," O'Connell acknowledges that she tends to anchor her own work in day-to-day images from her suburban Ontario youth and current life in Toronto: "two-lane highways, rickety parking-lot carnivals, fresh-water lakes, trains and streetcars, swimming pools."
As for her longer-term goals as an author, she favours old-fashioned readability over highfalutin tricks and tropes. "I'd like to make readers cry, and then, to make up for it, I'd like to make them laugh. It would make me happy if people read my books in the bathtub."