Books·Q&A

The 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize finalists discuss the pandemic, their books and how they plan to celebrate

Jael Richardson hosted Between the Pages, a discussion with the five authors shortlisted for the $100,000 prize. Watch the conversation on CBC Books.

Jael Richardson hosted Between the Pages, a discussion with the five authors shortlisted for the annual prize

The five finalists for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize came together for Between the Pages, a virtual conversation hosted by q's book columnist Jael Richardson.

The 2020 shortlist is:

Souvankham Thammavongsa won the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize for How to Pronounce Knife.

What's it been like launching your most recent book in quarantine?

Shani Mootoo: When the shutdown occurred, that was exactly when my book was to be launched. I thought that the book was going to die. I was really worried. I thought this was a really, really good book that I'd written — and nothing was going to happen with it. But the festivals got on board. Everybody went to these virtual events, and so on. I was really surprised at how much support we were all getting through these kinds of events. I feel as if we're sort of learning a new way that may well translate into new abilities for us as writers.

David Bergen: My book came out just a day before the world shut down. I did a book launch where there were actually people. We were all sort of eyeing each other warily, like, "Why are we here?" After that, nothing. It was the strangest thing, it's like you fell into a vacuum. And I remember saying to my editor, "Books can have second lives. They can have third lives." And I feel like this is, for me and for my book, a wonderful second life.

Emily St. John Mandel: Life was generally pretty bad in New York over the spring. My pub date was March 24th. So this was about 12 days after the world shut down. I had a 25-city tour on the calendar, which we cancelled one city and one country at a time. Promoting a book via Zoom is actually much less weird than I thought it would be. I thought it would be this terrible, alienating experience. But it turns out that talking to people still feels like talking to people. In a lot of ways, it's been a lot better than I would have imagined — publishing a book during this time.

A book is a book. No pandemic can change what it is between the pages.- Souvankham Thammavongsa

Gil Adamson: My book came out in May. I worried, as other people did, that after spending more than a decade writing the book, it would just disappear. I didn't have very high hopes for it.  I was also worried about my publisher because nobody really knew how they were going to handle what could turn into two or three seasons of lost revenue. But it's amazing how people just got out and pushed and were still just as passionate about books and managed to figure out how to keep going.

Souvankham Thammavongsa: It didn't feel all that different from launching a poetry book. I didn't get to go out and meet readers. But everything that I could possibly do for the book had been done a year ago and I can't control what kind of world my book comes out to. A book is a book. No pandemic can change what it is between the pages.

Can you tell us about how your books emerged?

Gil Adamson: It came from a book clubber thinking about what was going to happen next. This is a sequel or a follow-up to my first novel, The Outlander. I was careful when I was writing it to make sure that it stands on its own. I went to a pretty big book club in Alberta. There was a woman sitting next to me and she was talking to herself. She was asking herself, "What are the characters in the book going to be like as parents?" The reason I loved that was because I knew exactly what they would be like as parents, because I'd created them. They're my characters. But the questions that fascinated me were, "What would their child be like? What kind of person would they produce? What kind of person would they nurture and teach?" Almost immediately, the child came to me as a character.

The original thing is really just an image. It's this very coherent notion or image. Sometimes it's just a phrase or a word. It comes packed with all of its own wonderful things that you can use to create the book. 

Shani Mootoo: I had a friend come to visit. And he told me a story, a really beautiful love story, his life story. He said to me, you're a writer. Please write the story for me. I thought, OK, fine, I'll start to write it, see where it goes, because it really was a lovely story. I began to enjoy the process of writing, but I wasn't interested in his story. I wanted to follow this character that he supposedly fell in love with. I began to take on her voice and she began to contradict everything that he said, and I wanted to follow that. I didn't know where the novel was going to go. That's how I've always written. I love that process of discovery.

The original thing is really just an image... It comes packed with all of its own wonderful things that you can use to create the book.- Gil Adamson

Emily St. John Mandel: The final version of The Glass Hotel is a million miles away from what I thought the book would be when I first started. The central crime is based on Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme, which collapsed in New York City in 2008. I was fascinated by that crime, not really for the scale of it. Although that was astounding, that was a $65 billion U.S. financial fraud. What fascinated me was that crime required a staff. At the time, I had a really great day job for a writer. I was a part-time administrative assistant in a cancer research lab. It was an interesting environment with interesting and intelligent people. I loved seeing them every day. What I found myself thinking about was the camaraderie that you have with any group of people who work together. You're coming to the office with a sense of shared mission. I found myself thinking how much stranger and more complex and wilder would that camaraderie be if you were bound together by a crime. If you were showing up at work to perpetuate a massive financial fraud. It's just astounding to me to think about people doing that day in, day out, over a period of years.

It is a process of discovery for me, figuring out what the book is going to be. At the end of this long process, I found I'd written a ghost story that had a crime in it.

Souvankham Thammavongsa: I wanted to write a short story collection where they orbited around the opening story, How to Pronounce Knife. That was based on a real event. When I was a kid, I didn't know how to pronounce the word knife. I asked my father and he told me it's ka-nife. I went to school and I read that word in front of the class and I was told that it was wrong. But I refused to say it the way that I was being told to say it. I thought, well, there's a letter right in front. Why do we not give a letter that's right in front any sound? What is it there for, then? And in my own experience, I did not feel sad or ashamed or humiliated. What I felt was alone with that language. I wanted to capture that moment.

Failure is something all the stories circle around. Often when we hear stories about immigrants and refugees, we hear about them when they become a success. But sometimes the person that's trying to get to the next minute, the next hour or the next year, that's a hero, too. And they deserve to be at the centre of the story.

David Bergen: There is no plan. I wrote my first book with short stories because I didn't know how to write a novel and a story seemed the easiest way to write fiction for me. I thought, well, if I can learn how to write a story, then I can put together a collection. That's great. Then I discovered that maybe I could write a novel and I did. In between those novels, I would write stories. The collection itself was written over 21 years. The first story written in the collection, I entered it in the CBC Short Story Prize, and it won. And that gave me impetus to write more. I wrote about one story a year. It was a long process, but I'm happy. I'm happy it all came together.

I wanted to ask about the places that you've lived and the places that you've visited — and how they shape the choice you made about where your stories are set. How did that come about? What was behind that choice?

Emily St. John Mandel: I'm from British Columbia originally. Then I lived in Toronto and Montreal before I came to New York City. When I think about setting, I'm not really comfortable setting a novel in a place where I haven't lived. Because if you get the smallest detail wrong, you'll get 300 emails from readers saying, "Well, there's actually no candy store on Main Street in that particular town." I find it a little bit less fraught to set fiction in places that I know very well. If it's not a place I know very, very well, then I'll fictionalize the place. I'll create a village where none exists, that kind of thing. So for The Glass Hotel, it's Vancouver Island and then it's New York City, where I've lived for quite a while now. Those are two places that I'm very comfortable with.

David Bergen: These stories, they go far and wide. There's one set in Vietnam, where I lived for a number of years. There's one set near Guatemala, where I go to. The novella, of course, is set in southern Manitoba, where I grew up. But the stories in Winnipeg are definitely Winnipeg. And sometimes I think, "Well, who wants to read about Winnipeg?" There's a love-hate affair that I have with the city. And yet it is a place that is ripe for great stories. If a person goes on a two-week trip, they'll write a novel. If they go and live in the place for a year, they'll have a short story. If they lived there for three years, they'll have nothing. The longer you live in the place, the more you realize how little you know about the place.

The longer you live in the place, the more you realize how little you know about the place.- David Bergen

Shani Mootoo: Leaving a place in which you grew up, where all your memories, your history, your family. Everything you learn. Everything that has touched you, food, colours, carnival. I'm talking about Trinidad. You leave that place and you leave all the people behind. I find I keep wanting to recapture that, to write it. I had, for a long time, been writing to Trinidad, as it were. Living in cities in Canada, I find that people like me, people who have come from elsewhere, particularly people of colour: we live in cities and we write about the cities. We write about our interactions, the good parts, the bad parts. It's almost like the city is a bit of a jail.

When I moved to Prince Edward County, I thought to myself, this is a really, really good opportunity to try to learn Canada. What I loved in Trinidad was landscape. It was the water, the trees. This novel gave me an opportunity to exercise that: trying to get the landscape of Canada into a Trinidad mouth. I would write it with some kind of Trinidad accent, but a Canadian landscape.

This novel gave me an opportunity to exercise that: trying to get the landscape of Canada into a Trinidad mouth.- Shani Mootoo

Souvankham Thammavongsa: I don't know about the country where I'm actually from. My parents are refugees. They built a raft made of bamboo to get to a refugee camp in Thailand. And that's where I was born. When you're born in a refugee camp, you're considered stateless. You belong to no country. So in my stories, none of my characters are sentimental about home. In fact, I build all my stories out of a place that I just referred to with the word here. I don't give readers their bearings. I don't tell them where we are or where we will be. I have no fidelity to home.

Gil Adamson: I was born in downtown Toronto and I've spent so much of my life in a big city. I'm not from out west, but my mother was from Edmonton. I believe, for me anyway, the two places that I can write about are either home, a great big Canadian city, or the place where I really felt free and on my own. I think everybody has that, maybe one or two places where they feel like it's their other home, and they think about it when they're not there. And if you're a writer, you may imagine yourself there. I have intermittently spent time out there and I keep going back, almost obsessively. The research for Ridgerunner and also for The Outlander involved just going out there and actually standing where the characters would have stood.

November 9th is Giller night. How are you going to celebrate?

Shani Mootoo: I have a body of photographs on show in a gallery in Prince Edward County. That was planned for quite a while ago, long before the longlist came out. When the shortlist came out, Colin Moulton, who's the director of the gallery, said to me, 'We have to do it. Socially distanced, yes. Masked, yes, But we have to do it at the gallery. We will organize a really nice little thing with a few of my friends, my agent, my publisher and my partner and two other friends. And we will have fun. This is the fourth novel I've had on the Giller list. And what I know at this point is that you should enjoy it tremendously, right to the end.

Gil Adamson: We're probably just going to open a very nice bottle of wine and say we made it. We made it through the very exciting event and all the events that the Giller has put together for us. And it will be nice.

Souvankham Thammavongsa: I didn't tell anyone. I didn't tell my mom and dad. They don't know what the Giller is. My mom works in a factory and my dad makes signs. They're very far from that. I hope they don't accidentally catch me on TV. I want to spend the night alone. I know in the instructions or the manifest that was sent over, we should spend it with family and people who love us. But you can be a family by yourself. You can be loved by yourself. That's how I'm going to spend it.

Emily St. John Mandel: I don't want to bring anybody down too horribly. Given what the pandemic has been like in New York City, I'm just not comfortable with any kind of gathering indoors. I think it'll just be me and a camera guy on my terrace, which sounds depressing. But you know what? It's such an honour. I'm so happy to have been nominated for this with all of you. It doesn't feel sad to me when I think about that evening.

It's such an honour. I'm so happy to have been nominated for this with all of you. It doesn't feel sad to me when I think about that evening.- Emily St. John Mandel

David Bergen: I have three sons living in Winnipeg with their partners. When this first came out, I wrote them and said it'd be great to get together. This was before Winnipeg started to get high numbers and go with. But I think that'll have to be cancelled. So it'll be my wife and myself. It'll be the two of us, drinking wine. And of course, the cameraman. And I think that should be great fun for him.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

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