The race for the Governor General’s Literary Awards began Tuesday, with nominations that tapped well-regarded biographies of Canada’s first prime minister and Montreal writer Mordecai Richler in the non-fiction category.

In the fiction categories, new writers Esi Edugyan and Patrick deWitt emerged as strong contenders — each has nominations for the Giller Prize, the Writers Trust Award and the Man Booker Prize — as well as now a Governor General’s Literary Award.

The $25,000 awards recognize the best books in English and French, with categories for fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, children’s literature and translation.

Debut novelists David Bezmozgis and Alexi Zentner are among those on the short list, along with veteran dramatist Vern Thiessen, translator Lazer Lederhendler, who has a double nomination, and beloved children's writer Tim Wynne-Jones.

In the non-fiction category, Charles Foran's biography of writer and provocateur Richler, which won the Charles Taylor Prize earlier this year, is competing with another high-profile biography, the second volume of Richard Gwyn's examination of Sir John A. Macdonald.

The full list of non-fiction nominees for the $25,000 award:

  • Charles Foran, Peterborough, Ont.:  Mordecai: The Life & Times.
  • Nathan M. Greenfield, Ottawa: The Damned: The Canadians at the Battle of Hong Kong and the POW Experience, 1941-45.
  • Richard Gwyn, Toronto: Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times, Volume Two: 1867-1891.
  • J.J. Lee, New Westminster, B.C.: The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit.
  • Andrew Nikiforuk, Calgary: Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug Are Killing North America’s Great Forests.

Foran and Gwynn are also competing for the Hilary Weston prize, a new non-fiction award with a $60,000 prize pot.

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Richard Gwyn's Nation Maker follows Sir John A. Macdonald's life after 1867. (CBC)

It took Foran four years to write Life & Times, and he says he was inspired both by Richler's writing and his public persona.

"On an essential human level, you need to find the person interesting and full of surprises, and you need to find the work engaging and both the particulars of his character and the patterns of how he conducted his life of sufficient interest to you. For me, Richler was perfect," Foran said.

But it was the private man behind the outsized facade that ended up capturing his imagination.

"Over the course of the four years I began to know him more and more and to understand the man. I discovered that I liked that person, I liked his values. I liked his bedrock concerns about friendship and family and romantic love."

Gwyn won the Charles Taylor Prize in 2008 for the first volume of his biography of Sir John A. Macdonald, The Man Who Made Us, which examines our first prime minister's life in the period before Confederation. His second volume looks at Macdonald's time as prime minister and his legacy to the country.

Scourge of the bark beetle

Nikiforuk recalls looking down from his airplane window during a flight over the British Columbia interior and seeing "a vast sea of red" where the pine bark beetle had struck.

"I knew there was something powerful and significant taking place and I wanted to get to the bottom of it," he said.

His examination of the pine bark beetle extends to the beetle's fascinating social life and the cycles of boom and bust it creates, but also to the strange collection of entomologists, foresters and artists who are trying to draw attention to the problem, which is endemic to Western Canada.

"We are becoming such an urban people; we're slowly beginning to forget the impact of forestry on our country," he said. "One of the things I discovered was that in 1996, the federal government cancelled the federal insect disease survey. That was the same year the insects exploded in B.C. In a sense, we've gone into this blindfolded."

The nominations for fiction recognize Esi Edugyan of Victoria  for Half-Blood Blues, about black jazz musicians caught in Nazi Germany, and Patrick deWitt, a Vancouver Island native now based in Portland, Ore., for his unusual western The Sisters Brothers.

Fiction finalists

The pair, virtual unknowns before they turned up on the Man Booker list in early September, are now among the most closely watched writers in Canada because of their multiple nominations.

The other fiction finalists:

  • David Bezmozgis, Toronto: The Free World.
  • Marina Endicott, Edmonton: The Little Shadows.
  • Alexi Zentner, Ithaca, N.Y. (originally from Kitchener, Ont.): Touch.

Canlit favourite Michael Ondaatje — whose The Cat’s Table is a Giller nominee — was not considered for a nomination as his book was not submitted.

Ondaatje asked that his book be withheld from competition for the GG to make room for other writers, his publisher said.

"This was done as I have received it many times and felt I should not enter a book again.  The GG Award has been very important to me and I greatly respect it and what it has done for our literature," Ondaatje said in a statement.

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Deborah Ellis wrote No Ordinary Day, a novel for children about a little Indian girl who is a leper. (Canadian Press)

The children’s literature finalists include some of Canada’s most beloved children’s authors, including Kenneth Oppel, who created the Silverwing trilogy and Airborn, winner of the 2004 Governor General's Award for children's literature. His newest book is the gothic tale, This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein. 

In his gothic tale of the young Victor Frankenstein, Oppel recalled a couple of lines in Mary Shelley’s book, including Dr. Frankenstein's assertion that "no childhood could have passed more happily than mine" and that he had as a youth begun to search for the elixir of life.

"I latched onto that and said 'Wow, there is such potential there, what a great story!'" Oppel told CBC News.

In This Dark Endeavor,  the young Victor and his cousin Elizabeth are drawn into a search for the elixir after Victor’s twin brother Konrad becomes ill. Opel says he sees the book as both an adventure tale and an examination of the character of the man who would eventually create a monster.

"He was obsessive, he was ambitious, ambitious to the point of madness, and the quintessential bad parent. He creates this creature and then abandons it … as if it was a malevolent little baby," he said.

Also on the list is Deborah Ellis, a Simcoe, Ont.-based activist who has written about children’s lives in Afghanistan and Africa. She turns to the subject of leprosy in India with No Ordinary Day.

Other finalists for children's literature:

  • Jan L. Coates, Wolfville, N.S.: A Hare in the Elephant’s Trunk.
  • Christopher Moore, Toronto: From Then to Now: A Short History of the World.
  • Tim Wynne-Jones, Perth, Ont.: Blink & Caution.

The nominees for children’s literature — illustration:

  • Isabelle Arsenault, Montreal: Migrant, text by Maxine Trottier.
  • Kim La Fave, Roberts Creek, B.C.: Fishing with Gubby, text by Gary Kent.
  • Renata Liwska, Calgary: Red Wagon, text by Renata Liwska.
  • Frank Viva, Toronto: Along a Long Road, text by Frank Viva.
  • Cybèle Young, Toronto: Ten Birds, text by Cybèle Young.

The nominees for poetry:

  • Michael Boughn, Toronto: Cosmographia: A Post-Lucretian Faux Micro-Epic.
  • Kate Eichhorn, New York City and Montreal: Fieldnotes, A Forensic.
  • Phil Hall, Perth, Ont. : Killdeer.
  • Garry Thomas Morse, Vancouver: Discovery Passages.
  • Susan Musgrave, Sidney and Masset B.C.: Origami Dove.

The nominees for drama:

  • Brendan Gall, Toronto: Minor Complications: Two Plays.
  • Jonathan Garfinkel, Toronto: House of Many Tongues.
  • Erin Shields, Toronto: If We Were Birds.
  • Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, Toronto: Gas Girls.
  • Vern Thiessen, Astoria, N.Y., and Winnipeg: Lenin’s Embalmers.

The nominees for translation (French to English):

  • Judith Cowan, Trois-Rivières, Que: Meridian Line, translation of Origine des méridiens by Paul Bélanger.
  • David Scott Hamilton, Vancouver:Exit, translation of Paradis, clef en main by Nelly Arcan.
  • Lazer Lederhendler, Montreal: Apocalypse for Beginners, translation of Tarmac by Nicolas Dickner.
  • Lazer Lederhendler, Montreal: Dirty Feet, translation of Les pieds sales by Edem Awumey.
  • Donald Winkler, Montreal: Partita for Glenn Gould, translation of Partita pour Glenn Gould by Georges Leroux.

Nominations were also announced Tuesday for fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama and children's literature in French.

The winners of the Governor General's Literary Awards will be announced Nov. 15 in Toronto, and Gov.-Gen. David Johnston will present the awards on Nov. 24 at Rideau Hall.