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Will Ferguson’s lucky number: Author takes Giller Prize for ‘419’

Author Will Ferguson hoists his prize at Tuesday night's Giller gala in Toronto.

MICHELLE SIU/The Globe and Mail

Calgary author Will Ferguson has won The $50,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize for the best Canadian fiction of the year, prevailing over four other contenders nominated for the prize with a page-turning thriller, 419, the most populist win in recent memory.

Dressed in a Scottish kilt, Ferguson pulled a flask out of his sporran and raised a toast "to the written word" on receiving the award.

He also thanked the jury for "taking books on their own merits without any preconceptions, which is what jurors are supposed to do."

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Ferguson also expressed support for his soon-to-be downsized publisher, declaring "I am proud to be a Penguin."

And he made special mention of fellow authors who endorsed what he called "a very unlikely entrant in the literary sweepstakes."

"If I didn't win I would have been happy if any of them won," Ferguson added.

Speaking about the awards ceremony itself, Ferguson said: "I love the fact that in Canada literature is given the red-carpet treatment. ... This is such an eccentric, eclectic, weird country."

Known mainly as a travel writer and humorist, having won the Leacock Medal for humour an unprecedented three times, Ferguson is a relative newcomer to the rarefied world of literary fiction. Although 419 reads like a thriller, with a propulsive plot culminating in an ingenious twist, the Giller jury clearly saw more when it first nominated the novel as a finalist.

"It is tempting to put 419 in some easy genre category, but that would only serve to deny its accomplishment and its genius," the citation said.

By going the extra step of selecting 419 as the ultimate winner of Canada's highest-profile literary prize, however, this year's jury has made a clear populist statement that is almost certain to rankle literary insiders.

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Ferguson's book takes a topical subject – the proliferation and apparent success of African-based e-mail scams – and uses it as a lens to explore broad social themes shaping both Canadian and African society. The result is "a deeply ironic, thoroughly engaged politico-philosophical thriller," according to Globe and Mail reviewer T.F. Rigelhof .

Ferguson's novel prevailed over four other works by lesser-known finalists on a short list that ignored new work by such former Giller honorees Vincent Lam and two-time winner M.J. Vassanji. This year they included three novels with Montreal settings – The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler , Ru by Kim Thuy and Inside by Alix Ohlin – along with Whirl Away , a story collection by Newfoundland writer Russell Wangersky.

In addition to the $50,000 awarded to the winner, each of the runners-up received $5,000.

Televised live for the first time on CBC-TV's main broadcast channel, this year's Giller gala struggled to put a smile on a beleaguered industry reeling from two major blows in the course of a week: first the bankruptcy of Douglas & McIntyre, one of the last independent Canadian publishers operating at any scale, then the announced merger of multinational publishers Random House and Penguin.

Along with HarperCollins Canada, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., the two downsizing multinationals dominate the business of Canadian literature, responsible for a large majority of titles that have won or been nominated for the Giller Prize since its inception in 1994. As a result, industry consolidation in the face of declining book sales is expected to have a significant impact on Canadian authors.

But the Scotiabank Giller Prize retains its influence as a sign of quality in Canadian literature, with the winner virtually guaranteed a fast ride to the top of the bestseller list. Organizers boast that the prize helped sell more than 2.5 million Giller-nominated books in its first 10 years of existence, with more than $60-million in book sales generated "as a direct result" of the prize.

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