Books

The Scotiabank Giller Prize finalists discuss how geography and a sense of place shaped their work

David Bezmozgis, Alix Ohlin, Ian Williams, Steven Price, Megan Gail Coles and Michael Crummey are the finalists for Canada's biggest literary prize. The winner will be revealed on Nov. 18, 2019.
The winner of the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize will be announced on Nov. 18, 2019. (CBC)

The 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize will be awarded to one of six authors at a gala in Toronto on Monday, Nov. 18.

The ceremony will air on CBC, CBC Radio One and will be livestreamed on CBC Books.

At a Between the Pages panel discussion hosted by The Next Chapter's Shelagh Rogers in Toronto, the shortlisted authors were asked: How much did location and a sense of place shape their work?

Here's what they had to say.

Immigrant City by David Bezmozgis

Immigrant City is a short story collection by David Bezmozgis. (HarperCollins Canada)

In Bezmozgis's short story collection Immigrant City, a wannabe boxer finds work as a security guard in the Toronto suburbs, a father and daughter end up in a strange rendition of his immigrant childhood and a young man unwittingly makes contact with the underworld. 

"Most of the writing work that I've done has been set in Toronto, in the northwest corner of the city. Which is fairly obscure, even for Toronto. Toronto is two places often at once: the city itself and wherever it is that the immigrants I write about have come from.

Toronto is two places often at once: the city itself and wherever it is that the immigrants I write about have come from.- David Bezmozgis

"There's a sense I'm writing in the contemporary time, about what's happening now. I'm trying to engage with the issues that are affecting not just Toronto, but wider and beyond it. That's possible to do in this city. I guess that's the idea of place: hyper, hyper local." 

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club by Megan Gail Coles

Megan Gail Coles's debut novel is Small Game Hunting At The Local Coward Gun Club. (House of Anansi Press)

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, Megan Gail Coles's debut novel, revolves around a cast of flawed characters who are implicated in each other's hopes, dreams and pains as they try to survive harsh economic times in the province. 

"I'm originally from a small fishing village on the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland. It's not the kind of community that will ever be featured in a tourism ad. It is not picturesque. Our lives are not easy or simple. The place that I was writing for was very much this place that made me who I am. 

"This place gave me all of my best bits but also all of my bad bits. The place that claims us —  that being the country of Canada — should know us fully for who we are and understand our lived experience to a greater degree.

This place gave me all of my best bits but also all of my bad bits. The place that claims us —that being the country of Canada — should know us fully for who we are and understand our lived experience to a greater degree.- Megan Gail Coles

"I don't think that feeling is specific to Newfoundland. I think that is how many marginalized communities feel across the country. It is about showing you the parts of a place that you might not see or might not want to look at. But is still a thing that is very valuable and it is important to do so."

The Innocents by Michael Crummey

Michael Crummey's new book is called The Innocents. (Doubleday Canada, Holly Hogan)

In Crummey's novel The Innocents, a young brother and sister live in isolation in Newfoundland, surviving alone on the bits of knowledge their parents left behind. Their loyalty to one another is the reason they are able to persist through storms and illness, but their relationship is tested as they grow older.

"I also write about Newfoundland, but in a very different way from Megan. That's because most of the writing that I do about the place is set in the past. I think that speaks to a difference in our experiences growing up in Newfoundland. Megan lived in what I always thought of as 'real Newfoundland,' whereas I was born in a mining town that was pretty much the geographical centre of the island. It is as far from salt water as you can get and still be in Newfoundland.

Writing about the past is a way to make some connection to that world my parents came out of.- Michael Crummey

"What I knew of that world, I knew from my parents who both grew up in outports. My father fished with his father down on the Labrador. I had the sense that I was removed from the world that they came from. Writing about the past is a way to make some connection to that world my parents came out of."

Dual Citizens by Alix Ohlin

Dual Citizens is a novel by Alix Ohlin. (House of Anansi Press)

In Ohlin's novel Dual Citizens, Lark Brossard is a supporting character in the lives of her artistically talented loved ones: her sister Robin is a wild and brilliant pianist, while her sometime lover Lawrence is a famous filmmaker. When Lawrence tells her he doesn't want children, Lark re-examines her life and takes control of her story.

"My work has a lot of duality and movement. That can be traced back to my own experience growing up in Montreal and then having moved away to live in a lot of different places since then. I tend to write not just about sense of place, but more like sense of places — the feeling that you have a foot in more than one culture or one country — and your family comes from one place and you live in another place.

My work has a lot of duality and movement. That can be traced back to my own experience growing up in Montreal and then having moved away to live in a lot of different places since then.- Alix Ohlin

"That is also an experience of place that is increasingly common. It's an experience of home that is multi-faceted. It's a way of thinking about what your story is, when rooted in more than one place."

Lampedusa by Steven Price

Steven Price is the author of Lampedusa. (McClelland & Stewart)

In Price's novel Lampedusa, the last prince of Lampedusa, Giuseppe Tomasi, faces the end of his life in 1950s Sicily. He spends his final days labouring over the manuscript of his novel, The Leopard, which he believes will be his lasting legacy.

"Sicily is amazing. It's beautiful. I got to go there in researching the book.

"There's exterior and interior landscapes. For writers, a part of their interior landscape is made up of the books that they've read that have influenced them — that have affected how they write and how they think about books.

Although the book is squarely set in Sicily in the 1950s at a specific time and place, on a deeper level it's very much a portrait of this novel and the writing of this novel that mattered a lot to me.- Steven Price

"Although the book is squarely set in Sicily in the 1950s at a specific time and place, on a deeper level it's very much a portrait of this novel and the writing of this novel that mattered a lot to me."

Reproduction by Ian Williams

Ian Williams the author of the novel Reproduction. (CBC, Penguin Random House )

Reproduction is about Felicia and her teenage son Army. After they move into a basement apartment, they bond with the house's owner and his two children. But strange gifts from Army's wealthy, absent father begin to arrive at their doorstep, inviting new tensions into the makeshift family's lives. 

"Most of the novel is set in Brampton, Ont., outside of Toronto. The interesting thing about Brampton, and suburbs in general, is that they're so close to centres of power. I grew up in Brampton and it's like you're looking in on something; you're close enough to sniff it and touch it, but you don't quite have access to it.

Brampton is the setting for the novel but it's really a meeting place of many different cultures, much like Toronto is.- Ian Williams

"It seems to function as a metaphor for that immigrant experience, where you are close enough to power but you can't quite locate yourself and belong and sort of stretch out inside of it. Brampton is the setting for the novel but it's really a meeting place of many different cultures, much like Toronto is."

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