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What you need to know about the 5 Canadian books up for the $60K Atwood Gibson Prize for fiction

One of these five books will be crowned the winner of the 2021 Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Prize for Fiction on Wed., Nov. 3.
The 2021 finalists for the Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Prize for Fiction. (Writers' Trust of Canada)

There are five writers up for the 2021 Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Prize for Fiction, one of Canada's top prizes for novels and short story collections. The $60,000 prize will be awarded on Wed., Nov. 3. It is one of the biggest fiction prizes in Canada.

This year's five finalists are selected by the jury from 130 titles submitted by 60 publishers. The jury is composed of Canadian fiction writers Rebecca Fisseha, Michelle Good and Steven Price.

The fiction prize has been awarded annually since 1997 and was recently renamed in honour of Canadian literary icons Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson, two of the five co-founders of Writers' Trust of Canada.

Last year's winner was Gil Adamson for her western novel Ridgerunner.

Here's everything you need to know about the 2021 finalists.

Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch by Rivka Galchen

Rivka Galchen is the author of Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch. (Sandy Tait, Harper Perennial)

The novel is set in 1618 in the German duchy of Württemberg. Plague is spreading throughout the Holy Roman Empire — so is fear. Amidst the war and chaos, Katharina Kepler is accused of being a witch. Rivka Galchen draws on real historical documents for this story, but infuses them with imagination and humour. Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch tells the story of how a community becomes implicated in collective aggression and hysterical fear.

"I wanted to learn about Johannes Kepler, who was such a fantastic scientist. But there was no modern biography of Kepler in English. That's how I came to this amazing scholarly book by Ulinka Rublack called The Astronomer and the Witch, which is really about Johannes Kepler's mother, Katharina Kepler — and how, at the end of her life, she was put on trial as a witch," Galchen said in an interview on Writers & Company.

"It's an amazing moment in science history as well, because magic and science hadn't separated themselves out yet. Magic, science, reason and instinct — at the time they were all barely beginning to disentangle themselves and to find themselves."

Magic, science, reason and instinct — at the time they were all barely beginning to disentangle themselves and to find themselves- Rivka Galchen

Galchen is a Canadian American writer. She is also the author of the novel Atmospheric Disturbances. She lives in New York City.

From the book: Herein I begin my account, with the help of my neighbour Simon Satler, since I am unable to read or write. I maintain that I am not a witch, never have been a witch, am a relative to no witches. But from very early in life, I had enemies. 

When I was a child, our cow Mare at my father's inn was cross and bitter toward me. I didn't know why. I wouldn't hesitate to put a blue silk ribbon on her neck if she were here today. She died from the milk fever, which was no doing of mine, though as a young child I felt it was my doing, because Mare had kicked me and I had then called her fat-kidneyed. Was she my enemy? It takes time and experience to gain a cow's trust.

Now I'm 70-some years old. I'll spend no more time on the enemies, or loves, of my youth and middle age. I'll say only that I've never before had even the smallest run-in with the law. Not for fighting, not for cursing, not for licentiousness, not for the pettiest theft. Yet attributed to me in this trial is the power to poison, to make lame, to pass through locked doors, to be the death of sheep, goats, cows, infants, and grapevines, even to cure — at will.

Atwood Gibson Prize jury citation: "Rivka Galchen's fiercely intelligent novel Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch chronicles a 17th-century accusation of witchcraft, but speaks with urgency to our world today. Katharina Kepler, the illiterate widow at the heart of the book — and mother to the famous mathematician — is wry, caustic and wickedly funny as she dictates her defense. Risking torture, social ruin and death, Katharina must navigate the perilousness of living in a world that denies her basic human rights. Here is a powerful indictment of misogyny, gossip and the casual cruelty of crowds. Galchen's novel shines with empathy and understanding, using the past to dissect and examine one of the essential crises of our time: the conflict between science and superstition, between what is true and what everyone believes to be true."

LISTEN | Rivka Galhen on Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch:

The Canadian-born American novelist talks about magic and science and her new book about the real-life witch trial of the mother of 17th century astronomer Johannes Kepler. 52:03

We Want What We Want by Alix Ohlin

Alix Ohlin is the author of We Want What We Want. (House of Anansi Press)

We Want What We Want is a short story collection that involves bad parents, burned potential and inescapable old flames. Vanessa comes back home to her father engaged to her childhood best friend; Amanda drives to Upstate New York to rescue her cousin from a cult, but ends up discovering well-dressed men living together in a beautiful house; Angela insists she's allergic to electricity and shuts herself away from her family in a remote cabin.  Each story conveys humour, pain and beauty, as characters contend with a intense desire to change everything about themselves and their lives.

"A lot of what's happening in the stories is people pursuing their desires, even to their own detriment, like wanting to remake themselves or wanting to seek out a connection with someone else and making messy choices and consequences as a result of their desires. It's a messy place in our lives, but messy places are good for stories. So it makes sense that a lot of these characters are caught in that moment of wishing and wanting," Ohlin said in an interview with CBC Books.

"The characters are driven by some wish, perhaps not even fully articulated to themselves, to change their lives, to seek something new, to find the next chapter, or to find intimacy or connection or clarity."

The characters are driven by some wish, perhaps not even fully articulated to themselves, to change their lives, to seek something new, to find the next chapter, or to find intimacy or connection or clarity.- Alix Ohlin

Ohlin is a writer from Vancouver and the current chair of the creative writing program at the University of British Columbia. Her books include the novels Inside and Dual Citizens, both of which were finalists for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

From the book: When Trisha comes to town we have to go out. She's the bitterest soccer mom of all time and as part of her escape from home she wants to get drunk and complain about her workaholic husband and overscheduled, ungrateful children. No one appreciates how much she does for them. All she does is give, give, give, without getting anything back, et cetera.

I don't really mind — I enjoy a good martini, and while Trisha rants I don't have to worry about getting sloppy, given that she's always sloppier — except that even her complaints are part boast. She has to mention her busy husband and the $200,000 he rakes in a year. Her children's after-school activities for the gifted are just so freaking expensive and time consuming. There's a needle in every one of these remarks, pricking at my skin, saying, See, Sherri? See? I do see. I see it perfectly clearly.

This year she shows up with new hair. Her old hair was nicer — she inherited our mother's dark, shiny waves instead of the thin, blond frizz I got from our dad's side — but now she's highlighted it two or maybe three different shades, I can't really tell. There are some blond stripes in there, some red, something she calls "caramel." Her head looks like candy corn.

Atwood Gibson Prize jury citation: "Every story in this exquisite collection is a gem full of startling surprises and insights into human nature. The collection demands and rewards repeated readings, the better to savour Ohlin's near magical ability to achieve such depth with seemingly plain language and plotting. Ohlin packs entire lives into mere pages, allowing readers to join the flow of fully realized, complex scenarios whose key moments exude the inevitable open-endedness of real life. These stories bring us into the company of people who want what we all want: to connect, to matter, to heal, and to cross into unfamiliar territory, hoping that the risk will be worthwhile."

LISTEN | Alix Ohlin discusses her approach to writing fiction:

Alix Ohlin isn't quite a household name, but she's already been nominated for Canada's most prestigious fiction award as many times as Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Miriam Toews. Ohlin received her second nomination for the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her new book, Dual Citizens, in which she explores the intensity and messiness of relationships – familial and otherwise. 30:17

Fight Night by Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews is the author of Fight Night. (Knopf Canada)

Miriam Toews's novel, Fight Nighttakes the form of a nine-year-old's letter to her absent father. Expelled from school for fighting, Swiv keeps a detailed record of life at home — from her irrepressible, sports fan grandmother, Elvira, who takes on the role of homeschool teacher, to her pregnant mother's fight for her mental health. Swiv's entries explore the crushing impact of mental illness, the patriarchal attitudes embedded in fundamentalist religion and, above all, the will to live a good life across three generations of women in a close-knit family.

"I remember being eight. I was a very carefree, happy-go-lucky, playful eight-year-old. Then I turned nine and something happened ... like a switch went off in my head. I thought, 'Really? What the hell is going on here? What the hell is going on here with my family, with my town, with the world, with me?' It was an entry into the story. I thought, 'Oh, that's a good base to tell the story from and through Swiv's eyes,'"Toews said in an interview on The Next Chapter.

I remember being eight. I was a very carefree, happy-go-lucky, playful eight-year-old. Then I turned nine and something happened ... like a switch went off in my head.- Miriam Toews

Toews is a writer originally from Steinbach, Man., who now lives in Toronto. Her novel A Complicated Kindness won the Governor General's Literary Award for English-language fiction in 2004 and Canada Reads in 2006. She is also the author of the novel All My Puny SorrowsWomen Talking and memoir Swing Low.

From the book:

Dear Dad,

How are you? I was expelled. Have you ever heard of Choice Time? That's my favourite class.

I do Choice Time at the Take-Apart Centre, which is the place in our classroom where we put on safety goggles and take things apart. It's a bit dangerous. The first half of the class we take things apart and then Madame rings a bell, which means it's the second half of the class and we're supposed to put things back together.

It doesn't make sense because it takes way longer to put things back together than take them apart. I tried to talk to Mom about it, and she said I should just start putting things back together sooner, before Madame rings the bell, but when I did that Madame told me I had to wait for the bell.

I told Madame about the problem with time but she didn't like my tone, which was a lashing out tone, which I'm supposed to be working on. Mom is in her third trimester. She's cracking up. Gord is trapped inside her. I asked her what she wanted for her birthday and she said a cold IPA and a holiday. Grandma lives with us now. She has one foot in the grave. She's not afraid of anything.

Atwood Gibson Prize jury citation: "Miriam Toews does not disappoint with her latest outing. Fight Night is a novel well-conceived and executed with prose that is powerful and subtle in equal measure — the weight of a lightly crafted sentence will, after a second's suspension, come back with a punch. We're given a unique and quirky take on the world through the eyes of precocious nine-year-old Swiv. Her observations, sometime hilarious, sometimes poignant, illustrate the lives of her mother and grandmother with a careful balance of wit, irony, dark humour, and philosophical musings. Fight Night is a thoughtful and thoroughly enjoyable read about women and girls navigating the world together."

LISTEN | Miriam Toews discusses Fight Night:

Miriam Toews talks to Shelagh Rogers about her latest novel, Fight Night. 16:26

August into Winter by Guy Vanderhaeghe

Guy Vanderhaeghe is the author of August into Winter. (McClelland & Stewart)

August into Winter takes place in 1939 in a world on the brink of global war. Residents of a sleepy Manitoba town are rocked by a series of late-night break-ins and sick pranks. The culprit, Ernie Sickert, is a spoiled and narcissistic young man who, when cornered, commits a series of violent crimes. It's up to two veterans of the First World War, brothers Oliver and Jack Dill, as well as a street-wise schoolteacher named Vidalia Taggart, to bring the dangerous man to justice. 

"When I was 10 years old, my mother took me to the RCMP Museum in Regina. That was 60 years ago. She pointed out one of the exhibits, which was a rather grisly exhibit that I don't think would happen today. It was an RCMP Stetson hat with a big dent in it. The officer who had been under the hat had been murdered in my hometown by a young man who belonged to one of the more prominent families in town. One of my aunts was very good friends with the wife of the officer who had been killed, and one of my uncles had been a good friend of the murderer when they were young children. This stuck in my head and I heard stories about [the murderer] in the years following," Vanderhaeghe said in an interview with CBC Books.

There's a line in my book about everybody carrying the past on their backs — and the past hugging them more tightly with every step.- Guy Vanderhaeghe

"I'm a man of a certain age. I was raised with a certain ethos that has changed over time. It's not exactly how it is, but there's a line in my book about everybody carrying the past on their backs — and the past hugging them more tightly with every step."

Born in Esterhazy, Sask. in 1951, Vanderhaeghe is the author of books like Man DescendingThe Englishman's BoyDaddy Lenin and Other Stories. He is a three-time winner of the Governor General's Literary Awards and has received the Order of Canada.

From the book: One blustery, rainy evening in the spring of 1939 Mr. and Mrs. Turcotte, upstanding citizens of the town of Connaught, returned from a card party at the home of friends and discovered a half‑eaten cheese sandwich abandoned on the kitchen counter. After a short discussion, they determined that neither one of them had left it there and presumed that a hobo looking for a handout had knocked and, failing to get a response and finding the door unlocked, had entered the house and made free with their icebox. Then, hearing them at the front door, he had bolted out the back.

Neither of them bothered to ask why the intruder hadn't scampered with the sandwich. A quick inventory of household goods showed nothing of value missing. The Turcottes secured their doors for the first time in twenty years and turned in. With so many men hungry, out of work, riding the rails, a purloined cheese sandwich was hardly a case for the police.

Two weeks later something happened that was definitely a case for the police. Two elderly spinster ladies, the Middleton sisters, showed up in a highly agitated state on the doorstep of their neighbour Mrs. Sickert. In breathless whispers, they disclosed that they had found something shocking and indecent in their home when they returned from church. Mrs. Sickert's adult son, Ernie, who lived at home with his mother, was immediately sent to fetch the RCMP.

Atwood Gibson Prize jury citation: "August into Winter is a story true to its time and yet reflective of our own. Readers are welcome to take their time reveling in the work of a writer who does the same. Vanderhaeghe launches his novel on a grippingly suspenseful and hilarious note — and maintains it until the last word. His mastery of the craft and generosity toward his characters' struggles, both honourable and horrifying, are a delight to behold. August into Winter is equal parts mature love story, tension-packed manhunt, and nuanced exploration of the pursuit of personal and societal ideals."

LISTEN | Guy Vanderhaeghe discusses August into Winter:

In his first novel in a decade, celebrated author Guy Vanderhaeghe zooms in on a small town in Saskatchewan in the lead up to the Second World War. August into Winter follows two brothers, veterans racked with their own guilt and trauma, who are enlisted to chase down a murder suspect after the town's only constable is killed. The three-time Governor General's Award winner speaks with Piya Chattopadhyay about how times of crisis can expose the worst in us – but also provide an opportunity for immense kindness and humanity. 19:49

The Strangers by Katherena Vermette

Katherena Vermette is the author of The Strangers. (Hamish Hamilton Canada)

Katherena Vermette's novel brings readers into the dynamic world of the Stranger family. Cedar goes to live with her estranged father after a series of foster homes. Her older sister Phoenix gives birth while serving time in a youth detention centre. Their mother Elsie is determined to bring all her girls home, but is struggling in the grip of drug addiction. The Strangers is an exploration of race, class, inherited trauma and matrilineal bonds that, despite everything, refuse to be broken. 

"There's a lot of disjointedness with these family members, and that's part of the idea of The Strangers. They are very disconnected — not only by the systems that were imposed upon them and separate them very deliberately, but also by their own pain and trauma. Elsie, Phoenix's mom, was estranged from her mom just out of their own fighting and their own disagreements. By consequence, her children became estranged from her mother," Vermette said in an interview on The Next Chapter.

"We're all different people to different people, right? Phoenix was a good sister, even though she wasn't always a good person to other people."

We're all different people to different people, right?- Katherena Vermette

Vermette is a Métis writer living in Winnipeg. Her other books include her debut novel The Break, the poetry collections North End Love Songs and river woman. She also wrote the story of Annie of Red River for This Place: 150 Years Retold.

From the book: "Can you believe it, Cedar-Sage?" Mama says. Her voice cracks so I can tell she's not really as happy as she's trying to seem. "You have a nephew! You're an aunty!"

I don't say anything, just push my annoying hair behind my ears and look down at my old leggings. There's a small mustard stain by my knee because I'm such a slob. I pick at it and don't look up. I want to be excited, but mostly I only feel sad. I pull the cuffs of my sweater down all awkward, pull them over my hands, and then remember to nod. Pretend I'm happy. For Mama. But I don't look up. I don't want to.

Mama sighs. Gets up and paces around the small room. I know what that means. She's getting impatient with me.

"There's no air in here," Mama says. "Don't they think to ventilate these rooms? We need air, for Christ's sakes."

Atwood Gibson Prize jury citation: "Reminiscent of the hard-scrabble tales of the Métis in the Road Allowance days, Vermette offers up a beautiful, raw testament to those living on the margins. Brilliantly weaving the lives of the Strangers into stories within stories within stories, Vermette's confident, understated prose walks the reader through the unforgiving reality of the descendants of those who stood with Riel and Dumont, grasping for survival in a world committed to a long-established campaign of dispossession. Cathartic and disturbing, The Strangers offers vital insight into the colonial brutality that still haunts the lives of the Métis."

LISTEN | Katherena Vermette discusses The Strangers:

Katherena Vermette talks to Shelagh Rogers about her latest novel, The Strangers. 17:18

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