Independent publishers dominate the short list for this year’s $50,000 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. The nominated works, which feature writers at all stages of their careers, were announced on Tuesday.
The five short-listed books are: André Alexis for Days by Moonlight (Coach House Books); Sharon Butala for Season of Fury and Wonder (Coteau Books); Michael Crummey for The Innocents (Doubleday Canada); Téa Mutonji for Shut Up You’re Pretty (Arsenal Pulp Press); and Alix Ohlin for Dual Citizens (House of Anansi).
In a phone call, juror Michael Kaan characterized the works as representing “bold, very risk-taking writing.” On the prevalence of independent publishers on the list, he said, “I’m glad that happened. It’s really, really hard for small presses to compete. Four out of five authors are probably not going to see their book for sale at the airport, or on the table at Indigo as a Heather’s Pick, but they deserve the attention.”
Alexis’s name is already well-known to Canadian book-buyers as the author of the 2015 bestseller Fifteen Dogs, which won the Writers’ Trust prize as well as the Scotiabank Giller Prize that year. Days by Moonlight is a take on the quest narrative that combines a critique of Canada’s colonialist history with a fantastical journey through Southern Ontario. The novel is part of Alexis’s thematically linked quincunx of novels that also includes Fifteen Dogs.
For Season of Fury and Wonder, Butala drew inspiration from classic works she had read in her youth, including Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. Her 19th book, a collection of 10 stories, presents an honest portrayal of aging.
Crummey’s inspiration for The Innocents came in the form of the true story of a brother and sister orphaned in an isolated Newfoundland cove. The novel is a thrilling and often harrowing tale about siblings whose fierce bond becomes their only assurance in a remote and weather-beaten existence. Crummey was previously short-listed for this prize in 2005 for his novel The Wreckage.
Mutonji’s debut, Shut Up You’re Pretty, marks the first release from new Arsenal Pulp Press imprint VS. Books, which was founded with a mandate to “create more intergenerational dialogue and support for artists of colour.” Mutonji’s tough and touching stories about a Congolese teenager in Scarborough, Ont., question ideas of femininity, sexuality and womanhood in the 21st century.
Ohlin, who is the creative-writing chair at UBC, completes the short list with Dual Citizens (House of Anansi), a novel that explores the complex bonds between mothers and daughters and siblings, and asks questions about the ways women define themselves in relation to other women. Ohlin’s 2012 novel, Inside, was also a finalist for this prize.
In her acknowledgments, Butala thanked her publisher, a small press based in Regina, “for publishing (for most publishers the dreaded) collection of short stories.” But, Coteau Books publisher John Agnew doesn’t see it that way. “It’s a trope in this business that short stories don’t sell,” he said, following the announcement. “But I didn’t see this book as taking a chance at all in terms of its literary merit. And I think that it’s really the job of a smaller regional publisher to take those kinds of risks. I think it’s the job we do.”
For smaller presses, a nomination can make a significant difference to a book’s success. “Prizes have their own magnificent and hugely effective promotion machines that can get one of our titles more promotion than we could possibly dream of doing,” Agnew said.
Arsenal Pulp Press publisher Brian Lam says the short story is “a quintessentially Canadian format, from Alice Munro onwards, and when the writers are as gifted as Téa,” he added,” audiences will follow.” The publishing house, which has five staff and a list of fewer than 20 books each year, has become a force in Canadian indie publishing.
In a phone call after the announcement, Vivek Shraya – the multimedia artist behind the VS. Books imprint – said she was “over the moon” about Mutonji’s inclusion on the list. Shraya’s own first book – also a collection of short stories – was picked up by Arsenal Pulp Press after being originally self-published. “Having a book published with Arsenal definitely gave me a foot in the industry to build on,” she said.
Alexis, Crummey and Ohlin are all currently long-listed for this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, for which the short list will be announced Sept. 30.
The Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize finalists were selected by novelists Michael Kaan, Dennis Bock and Suzette Mayr from 131 submissions. The winner, to be announced at the Writers’ Trust Awards ceremony in Toronto on Nov. 5, will receive $50,000. Each finalist will receive $5,000.
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