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This may be David Bergen’s fifth nomination for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, but the former winner says securing a spot on this year’s short list felt like far from a guarantee.
“There’s always the anxiety around it,” Bergen said by phone from Winnipeg on Monday after being announced as one of five finalists in the running for the $100,000 honour.
“No matter how you coach yourself, and say, ‘you know, it doesn’t matter’ and stuff like that, it does matter. Because that’s what we do. We write books and hope they get recognized. And so it’s always a surprise.”
Bergen, who took the prestigious award in 2005 for The Time In Between, is nominated for a short story collection, Here The Dark, published by Biblioasis. He was also a finalist in 2010 for The Matter with Morris. He made the long list in 2008 with The Retreat and in 2016 for Stranger.
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Giller regulars like Bergen and Shani Mootoo, who is marking her fourth nod for her love-triangle novel Polar Vortex (Book*hug Press) must navigate a new awards format this year because of the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Given the global travesty, Bergen recognizes that a book prize may seem like a “sideline event.” But he believes it’s important to carve out space for celebration in light of the crisis so many Canadian artists are facing.
“We need books, and they can lend another perspective to what’s happening,” Bergen said. “Artists are suffering, so any little bit of joy you can grab at, that’s great.”
Bergen trusts that organizers will do their best to safely simulate the usual fanfare leading up to the Giller ceremony in November.
But he fears that first-time finalists Gil Adamson, Emily St. John Mandel and Souvankham Thammavongsa may miss out on the rush of being feted by a room of their literary peers.
“I do feel for the writers who are first-time (nominees) and have not experienced the brouhaha around it, and the joy and the pleasure of meeting the audience,” said Bergen.
“You can sort of get a sense of them out there. But it’s in the ether. And that’s really hard to get your fingers onto and grasp.”
British Columbia-raised, New York-based Mandel, who received a nod for The Glass Hotel (HarperCollins Publishers), admits the current state of affairs put a bit of a damper on news of her nomination on Monday.
But Mandel also hopes that a virtual ceremony may relieve some of the pressure she associates with awards, based on her experience as a fiction finalist for the U.S.-based National Book Awards in 2014. “There are great moments in an evening like that, (but) it’s a kind of a fishbowl feeling,” Mandel said by phone from Brooklyn.
“It’s a lot of scrutiny somehow, so I could imagine a virtual award ceremony is actually maybe a little more relaxed.”
Besides, Mandel has already given some thought to the role of the arts in reckoning with the far-reaching ravages of contagion. Her 2014 novel, Station Eleven, follows a theatre troupe roaming what remains of the Great Lakes after a fictional swine flu pandemic kills much of the world’s population.
“The source I’ve always taken with Station Eleven is that there was always going to be another pandemic, because that’s just something that happens in human history,” she said.
“By the same token, if you’re looking at a book like The Glass Hotel, which has this massive financial crime at its center, there will always be another con man,” she said of her latest book, which details the devastating consequences of a Ponzi scheme collapse. “We certainly see that in our politics, unfortunately, living in this era of the empty suit, which I think is a kind way of putting the American situation these days.”
While Mandel denies having prophetic powers, she jokes that she should start writing utopian reads, just in case.
Toronto-based Adamson is being recognized for the western-meets-mystery Ridgerunner (House of Anansi Press), which is a follow-up to her lauded 2007 debut novel The Outlander.
And Toronto-raised Thammavongsa has a shot at the title with the short-story collection How To Pronounce Knife (McClelland & Stewart).
Canadian actor Eric McCormack will host, and jazz musician Diana Krall will perform in the Nov. 9 broadcast announcing the winner. The event, which will have a mix of live and pre-taped portions, will air on CBC and its Gem streaming service.
Both McCormack and Krall will be filmed in Vancouver, from their respective locations, adhering to COVID-19 pandemic protocols.
Jury members Mark Sakamoto, Eden Robinson, David Chariandy, Tom Rachman, and Claire Armitstead chose the short list from a total of 118 submitted works. The long list of 14 titles announced last month had some big names who didn’t make the cut, including Thomas King, Emma Donoghue and Lynn Coady.
his is the 27th edition of the prize, which was founded by the late Jack Rabinovitch and celebrates Canadian fiction.
The award is named in honour of Rabinovitch’s late wife, literary journalist Doris Giller.
With files from Victoria Ahearn