Nino Ricci reflects on his writing life


First aired on As It Happens (9/11/12)

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On Wednesday, November 9, the Writers' Trust of Canada held its annual awards gala, where they give out more than $100,000 to Canadian writers at all stages of their careers. What's unique about the Writers' Trust Awards is that several of the prizes are given for an entire body of work and/or for the potential of future contributions to Canadian literature, rather than a single book.

One such writer who was honoured that night was Nino Ricci. The two-time Governor General's Literary Award winner (in 1990 for The Lives of Saints and again in 2008 for The Origin of Species) was this year's recipient of the Engel/Findley Award. The $25,000 prize is awarded annually to a writer who is "mid-career," having published at least three works of fiction. The prize was created in 2008 when the Writers' Trust merged two awards: The Marian Engel Award for a mid-career female writer and the Timothy Findley Award for a mid-career male writer.

Ricci, whose bibliography includes five novels and two works of non-fiction, was honoured to receive an award so rich in history. Not only is it named after two great Canadian writers, but past winners include such acclaimed writers as Miriam Toews, Wayne Johnston and David Bergen. "It's quite a legacy to live up to," Ricci told As It Happens host Carol Off in a recent interview. "It's quite an honour to get an award bearing those names."

Ricci credits his Catholic Italian upbringing for allowing him to have a unique approach to his fiction. Ricci's parents were Italian immigrants who came to Canada before his birth in 1959. "I consider it a tremendous boon to me," he said. "I think it gives you an outsidedness that grants you perspective, that makes you question the ways in which things are done."

His religion informed his writing just as much as his cultural heritage. Although he considers himself "so far lapsed that i don't even think they would bother to excommunicate me," he appreciates what Catholicism taught him. "I've always been grateful to Catholicism for the richness that it's given me in terms of imagery, in terms of story, as well as for the conflicts it's forced me to deal with and the questions it's forced me to pose."

For Ricci, it's the "messiness" of life, and trying to make sense of it, that matters most when it comes to creating art. "That's what literature does best," he said. "Story and narrative is the only way we can understand messiness. There's no other direct way to get at it."

Other winners of the evening included Jean Little (Matt Cohen Award), Paul Yee (Vicky Metcalf Children's Literature Award), Tamas Dobozy (Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize) and Alex Pugsley (Journey Prize).

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