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Writer Nicholas Herring won the Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for his debut novel Some Hellish.Norma Jean Maclean/Handout

During a swanky evening gala for the annual Writers’ Trust Awards in Toronto earlier this month, writer Nicholas Herring ambled up to the podium in a daze. He’d just been announced as the winner of the Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for his debut novel Some Hellish, surprising many of the literati in the audience – and Herring himself.

Accepting the trophy, the lanky, curly-haired Herring stared at it in bewilderment before offering a few brief halting words thanking his publisher, Fredericton-based Goose Lane Editions. “This is great – thank you very much,” he stammered. “I’m kind of confused.”

Reached a few days later at his home in Murray Harbour, P.E.I., Herring was still getting over the shock of winning the $60,000 prize for his first book – which hit bookstore shelves just a little more than a month prior to the awards.

Handout

“I think overwhelming is the best word for it. I genuinely didn’t think I’d win. I’m still trying to come back to Earth – it’s been crazy,” Herring says, sitting in the small attic room where he writes, a whiteboard with ideas scrawled in marker perched behind him.

“I’m trying to process how special – and validating – this is. I initially didn’t even know the book had been submitted for consideration. My book came out on Sept. 13 and then the next day, I found out I’d made the shortlist. So the whole thing has been really beautiful.”

Soft-spoken and deeply thoughtful, the 39-year-old Herring recognizes how improbable his journey to the award podium has been. Herring, a long-time carpenter and fisher with degrees in literature, had seen his work appear in a few literary journals over the years, but he struggled to complete a novel before landing on the darkly comic premise of Some Hellish.

“What Cormac McCarthy did for cowboys and horses, Nicholas Herring does for fishermen and boats in his novel Some Hellish, wrote the Writers’ Trust jury in their citation – an apt comparison, but one that barely scratches the surface of the wild journey Some Hellish takes readers on.

The novel centres on Herring, a lobster fisher mired in an unexceptional life – until he decides to cut a hole in his living-room floor, turning that life upside-down. His wife leaves him, his dog dies and he crashes his truck – only to be rescued by a group of Tibetan monks.

“Anyone who’s read the book might be surprised as to how much is actually autobiographical,” Herring says with a chuckle. “I was trying to create an avatar of myself that I could put into a world that is based on the world around me and see how he behaves, knowing what I know of myself. At a reading I did in New Brunswick, I said jokingly, ‘Oh, I’m too cheap to go to therapy.’ But in a way, it really was kind of like therapy.”

Herring’s path to writing began at an early age. He recalls his father telling him a story about how, when Herring was just 8 or 9, he declared that if he ever won a writing award he would buy his mother a K-car. But his youth was marked more by avid reading – a habit that’s stayed with him and continues to inspire his own writing.

But instead of pursuing a writing career, Herring went into the trades after high school, working for his brother’s construction company – a job that suited his innate connection to the outdoors and strong work ethic. His brother urged him to go to university to pursue other interests, so Herring completed his English undergrad at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont., as a mature student before going on to a master’s degree in creative writing at the University of Toronto.

After university, Herring experimented to figure which form suited him best, trying his hand at a few novellas after an early novel about brotherhood didn’t quite come together. He started working on what would become Some Hellish in 2019, but it wasn’t until he applied for a residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity at the urging of his wife, painter and printmaker Norma Jean MacLean, that the book started to take concrete shape in early 2020.

Under the mentorship of award-winning novelists Anakana Schofield and Gary Barwin, Herring spent long days working on his manuscript and found support and community among the other residents.

Schofield recalls being struck by Herring’s work during his time in Banff. “He had a lovely feel for language and a dark humour that was delightful, alongside a quiet wisdom about humanity,” she says. “I remember telling him, ‘You know what you’re doing – you just need to go and write. Write hard and long and don’t settle too soon.’”

Herring took that to heart, continuing to hone Some Hellish over the subsequent year. By 2021, he had a draft of the novel he was satisfied enough with to send to two small East Coast independent publishers: Nova Scotia-based Gaspereau Press (who turned it down with a kindly rejection letter that Herring says was “so beautiful that I have it framed”) and Goose Lane.

Herring was out on the water during the fishing season when the e-mail from Goose Lane’s fiction editor Bethany Gibson came in, saying she wanted to read more and planned to pitch it to her team for publication.

Gibson recalls immediately connecting to Herring’s literary voice.

“The feeling of reading the novel for the first time was of encountering something alive, a very vivid and very funny story that felt to me enveloped in a philosophy – not as an agenda, but something integral to Nicholas’s clear artistic vision,” she says.

“It felt so deeply true, so deeply felt. I knew sentences would stop a reader in their tracks, because of this beauty, humour and the sense of consolation and grace.”

As the Writers’ Trust jury alluded to, part of what makes Some Hellish so compelling is its distinct focus on the working class. Herring says the novel was inspired not just by his own experience as a seasonal fisher, but also a desire to tell the stories of the hard-working men and women he’s encountered along the way.

In fact, the day after arriving home from the Writers’ Trust gala, Herring returned to his carpentry work – getting a good-natured ribbing from his co-workers for doing so. He is still wrestling over whether he’ll continue in the trades or focus on writing full-time.

He recognizes that winning such a prestigious award this early in his literary career comes with its own pressures – but also opportunity.

“I’m going to have to figure out what I’m going to do next,” he says. “This is a life-changing amount of money. We’ve barely been scraping by with everything that’s going on – COVID, inflation, the cost of fuel and groceries – so now it’s nice to have a buffer against calamity, you know?

“The dream would be to keep writing for however long it takes to produce a body of work,” he adds. “It has been a dream of mine to contribute to Canadian culture in some way. I get emotional even thinking about it – it’s kind of cool that I get to do what I do.”