Accepting the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel The Sleeping Car Porter on Monday evening, Suzette Mayr quickly illustrated the high impact of the award. “I think today I’m officially done with my feelings of imposter syndrome as a writer,” the author said in an emotional acceptance speech.
Twelve hours later, with little sleep in between, the 55-year-old Calgarian spoke to The Globe and Mail about her “imposter” remark and the nagging self-doubt of a novelist.
“When you’re making a piece of art, when you’re writing fiction, it makes sense to you,” Mayr said. “But you wonder, ‘Is it going to make sense to other people?’ Sometimes it’s hard to tell.”
And sometimes it isn’t. The Giller jury praised Mayr’s novel about a queer Black porter working on a trans-Canada luxury train in 1929 as feeling “alive and immediate and eerily contemporary.” Applied to Mayr’s work of historical fiction, those adjectives were music to her ears.
“It was really important to me to show that just because something happened in the past, it doesn’t mean we’re past it,” Mayr said. “We have to stay vigilant and think about people who are not able to come out of the closet and who are being oppressed for being Black and for being queer.”
With the trophy and standing ovation presented to her at the Toronto gala comes $100,000, a figure which makes the Giller this country’s most lucrative recognition for works of fiction. However, the financial reality facing writers was addressed during the nationally broadcast gala. “Writing fiction is many things: a vocation, an escape, a compulsion,” said previous Giller winner Margaret Atwood. “The only thing it is not is a steady paycheque.”
Mayr said she will use her Giller jackpot to pay down her Visa bill and help family members. “It will make some things easier, but I’m still keeping my day job.”
The author is a writer-in-residence at the University of Calgary, where she teaches creative writing. If $100,000 sounds like a lot of money, it is worth noting that it took her nearly two decades to complete The Sleeping Car Porter in between teaching and writing other novels. “It probably works out to about five cents an hour for the work I did on this book,” Mayr said.
The novel is her sixth, and the third for Toronto’s Coach House Books, which released 2017′s Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall and 2011′s Monoceros. The latter was longlisted for a Giller.
Monoceros was praised upon its release by The Globe as “imaginative, quirky and emotionally devastating.” It’s about a gay youth who commits suicide after being bullied in his Calgary Catholic high school. The story was inspired by a master’s thesis written by Mayr’s wife, Tonya Callaghan.
Mayr’s latest, The Sleeping Car Porter, arrived at the publisher’s doorstep with little warning.
“We knew Suzette was working on something, but she hadn’t really talked about it,” said Coach House editorial director Alana Wilcox. “One day, the manuscript just showed up in my e-mail, and I was thrilled to receive it. Suzette is lovely to work with and I can’t imagine a world in which I wouldn’t have taken a book by her.”
Mayr had decided to write The Sleeping Car Porter when a former creative writing instructor, Fred Wah, suggested the topic. “I had no idea what he was talking about,” Mayr said. “But I started researching sleeping car porters and got hooked.”
What was an obscure subject to Mayr when she began writing her book became much more visible by the time it hit bookshelves this summer. In 2019, Cecil Foster’s They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada was published. Then, this February, The Porter premiered on CBC Television. The series depicts the history of Black men who worked as Pullman porters in the same era in which Mayr’s story is set.
Mayr did not feel scooped by the related projects – in fact, she was relieved.
“I was really happy when Cecil Foster’s book came out,” Mayr explained. “I thought that people would read his book and they would understand where I’m coming from in my own book.”
The television series didn’t steal her thunder, either. “We’re starting to build up the language up and building up people’s general sense of this history,” she said. “This is a good thing.”