Mary Lawson, a Canadian who lives in Britain, returned to home soil on Wednesday to pick up the $7,500 First Novel Award for her much-lauded book Crow Lake.
"Fantastic," Lawson, 57, said after winning the prize following a whirlwind year-and-a-half of acclaim for the book and travel to foreign countries.
"It has been a very busy year and I have loved every minute of it. The thing about success coming so late is that you do know enough to appreciate it when it comes."
The winning book was on a short list of six, and was announced by Amazon.ca/Books in Canada at the BookTelevision studio in Toronto.
The poignant story of a family of four Northern Ontario children whose lives are shattered by the death of their parents became a fixture on bestseller lists after it was published by Knopf Canada.
Lawson comes from a small farming community near Sarnia, Ont., but has resided in England for about 30 years, where she and her husband have raised two sons.
She has won a few book prizes already, including a first book award in Britain and a libraries' award in the United States. Crow Lake received a huge boost in the U.S. when it was chosen for the book club of an NBC morning show.
The book has been sold in 19 countries.
"I did not expect anything remotely like this, and it has been so fabulous having it well received, particularly I might say, in Canada, which is the one country of all others that will know whether I've got it right," says Lawson, who speaks with a hint of an English accent.
Initially, Lawson thought that setting the book in Northern Ontario could be a problem for readers.
"And it turns out not to be a disadvantage," she says. "I'm sure it's one of the draws of the book. They don't know a lot about the landscape of the Canadian Shield. It's not something that's been written about hugely before."
In fact, foreign readers appear quite taken with what, for them, is an alien landscape.
"I think perhaps there's a romantic element in there," Lawson observes. "They think 'all that beautiful snow."'
The travelling has cut into Lawson's writing time, but she is busy working on a second book - once again, set in Canada.
"I'm not finished with the North. The North holds a particular magic for me. It is my favourite landscape. Small communities, too. They're what I know. Write about what you know, they say."
The other finalists for the First Novel Award were Christy Ann Conlin for Heave, Aislinn Hunter for Stay, Clint Hutzulak for The Beautiful Dead End, Michael V. Smith for Cumberland and Marnie Woodrow for Spelling Mississippi.
Three judges were from the newspaper industry: Noah Richler, Leah McLaren and Val Ross. The fourth judge was Patrick Watson of the Historica Foundation.
Previous winners include Michael Redhill, Michael Ondaatje, Joan Barfoot, Joy Kogawa, Nino Ricci and Deborah Joy Corey.
Books in Canada, which was launched in 1971 to promote Canadian literature and to offer a forum for Canadian writers, will be accepting submissions for the 2003 First Novel Award until Dec. 31, 2003.