First-time novelist Ian Williams singled out a special member of the audience as he accepted the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize – Canadian literary icon Margaret Atwood.
Williams choked back tears as he took to the stage to receive the honour at a glitzy Toronto gala on Monday night for his debut novel, Reproduction.
“I’ve got notes here for people I need to thank, but maybe I’ll just start with my heart first,” Williams said. “Margaret Atwood over there is the first book I bought with my own money at a bookstore in Brampton.”
Reproduction traces the ties that bind a cross-cultural chosen family in Williams’ hometown of Brampton, Ont.
The tale begins when a sober-minded teenager from a small island nation and the listless heir to a German family fortune meet in the hospital room where their mothers lay dying.
From there, Williams unspools a narrative so entangled it strains against novelistic convention.
Jury members praised the Vancouver-based writer for his “masterful unfolding of unexpected connections and collisions between and across lives otherwise separated by race, class, gender and geography.”
Reproduction, published by Random House Canada, was a finalist for this year’s Amazon First Novel Award.
Williams’ short-fiction collection, Not Anyone’s Anything won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award in 2012, and he’s been a rising star in poetry circles. His 2013 collection, Personals, was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize and the Robert Kroetsch Poetry Book Award.
Williams was the 2014-2015 writer-in-residence in the University of Calgary’s distinguished writers program, and has held numerous other fellowships and residencies.
He is currently a Griffin Poetry Prize trustee and associate professor of poetry in University of British Columbia’s creative writing program.
Williams beat out titles by David Bezmozgis, Michael Crummey, Megan Gail Coles, Alix Ohlin and Steven Price.
Before the Giller winner was announced, a who’s who of Canada’s cultural scene walked the Giller red carpet at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto.
Canadian poet Ian Williams on his debut novel, and finishing it as real-life controversy swirled at UBC
Giller executive director Elana Rabinovitch said this year’s short list was distinct not only because there were six finalists instead of the usual five, but for the range of time periods, styles and geography the books represent.
“(The finalists) come from everywhere and these voices are strong and powerful and resonant,” Rabinovitch said.
Atwood said she chose to celebrate her 80th birthday at the literary bash at Rabinovitch’s behest.
“Elana made me do it,” Atwood told reporters with a laugh.
As her global book tour for The Testaments winds down, Atwood said she’s hoping to catch up on the latest Canadian reads.
“There’s some interesting non-fiction books as well, and I would say quite a lot of fiction,” Atwood said. “I haven’t ploughed my way through it, but I will.”
Singer-songwriter and actress Jann Arden, who hosted the televised night’s festivities, serenaded Atwood with a birthday tune.
“Happy birthday to you. You write such good books,” Arden crooned. “Now Canada’s famous for more than just maple syrup.”
The six finalists were chosen from 117 submissions by a jury consisting of Canadian writers Donna Bailey Nurse, Randy Boyagoda and Jose Teodoro, Scottish-Sierra Leonean author Aminatta Forna and Bosnian-American author Aleksandar (Sasha) Hemon.
The Giller awards $100,000 annually to the author of the best Canadian novel or short story collection published in English, and $10,000 to each of the finalists.
Last year’s winner was Esi Edugyan for Washington Black.
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