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For those who make the shortlist, the Amazon Canada First Novel Award is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. After all, an author can only publish their first novel once.

But there are many roads to writing a first novel. The $40,000 award – established in 1976 and sponsored by Amazon Canada since 2009 – is often notable for the wide variety of experience its nominees bring to their respective debuts.

Take 2014 winner Wayne Grady, who had published more than a dozen non-fiction books when his debut novel, Emancipation Day, won him the prize at 65. Or 2011 winner Eleanor Catton, who won at 25 for The Rehearsal, a novel that she wrote while still in school.

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The novelist’s apprenticeship, it seems, can take many different forms.

For 2018 nominee Michael Kaan, 49, an administrator at a medical clinic by day, The Water Beetles is simply his first book. Prior to writing the novel, which was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Literary Award in 2017, he says he “had scribbled and dabbled,” but never seriously attempted much writing beyond “a partial novel in a drawer that will stay there forever.”

For fellow nominee Rachel Manley, nominated for The Black Peacock, on the other hand, decades of non-fiction writing and poetry paved the way to her becoming a novelist – at 70. Best known for a trilogy of memoirs, Manley won a Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction in 1997.

Asked about her transition to fiction, she seemed almost surprised by it herself. “I was quite happily settled into non-fiction,” she said in a phone interview. “I really had to reorganize my approach to writing. To tap into that huge resource – your imagination rather than your memory – is a different process.”

Alison Watt, 61, is a visual artist who has published both non-fiction and poetry, but had long been “curious” about writing fiction, she says. Reached by phone in Rome, the author explained that her novel Dazzle Patterns began as non-fiction, but “sort of slid down the slippery slope” into becoming a novel.

A biologist by training, Watt found that writing poetry eased her transition to the mental invention necessary for writing fiction. “Fiction for a biologist is almost unimaginable,” she said, because science is “all built on facts.” But poetry “has a bit of a fiction element” because “you’ll bend a lot of facts to serve language.”

Transitioning from one genre to another was also the route taken by David Demchuk, 55, who is nominated for The Bone Mother. An award-winning playwright who has spent more than three decades writing for film, radio and television, Demchuk was daunted by the length of a novel.

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“One of the things about theatre is that plays are not that many words,” he said in a phone interview. “I just felt that a novel was a massive Alp that you had to climb.” Ultimately, he scaled the mountain by turning to what he knew best: The Bone Mother began life as a play.

If Demchuk, Manley and Watt all had to, as Manley put it, “recalibrate [their] mind and [their] methods” to turn to fiction, it’s perhaps not surprising that it’s the two youngest writers on the shortlist for whom the route was a little more direct.

Sharon Bala, 39, who is nominated for The Boat People, found her way to her first novel via short stories, which “is a great way to start because you can mess it up and it doesn’t really matter,” she said on the phone from the Ottawa International Writers Festival.

In 2015, Bala won a prize for unpublished first novels in her hometown of St. John’s. That gave her the confidence to “send the manuscript out off the island” and find an agent and publisher for what is now The Boat People.

Arguably the most well-known novel on this year’s shortlist is American War by Omar El Akkad, 36, which is also nominated for the Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize. Reached by phone in Portland, Ore., El Akkad said, “Writing fiction is all I ever wanted to do with my life. I was doing it long before I ever became a journalist.”

He was a reporter for The Globe and Mail for a decade.

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He wrote three novels before American War, but showed them to nobody except his best friend. Even so, the novel had always been his goal. “Fiction has been my home for a very long time now,” he said.

Selected by a jury of writers Irene Gammel, Dimitri Nasrallah and Donna Bailey Nurse, the winner of the prize will be announced in Toronto on May 22.

For these six nominees, the journeys to landing on this shortlist are vastly different. On the pleasures of having written a well-received first novel, however, they are unanimous, although Watt expressed it best: “How deliciously wicked to just make things up.”


Becky Toyne is the “Should I Read It?’ columnist for Day 6 on CBC Radio and a regular contributor to Globe Books.

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