2 Manitoba authors up for Governor General's Literary Awards

Winnipeggers Michael Kaan and David Robertson are among the finalists for the 2017 Governor General's Literary Awards.

Michael Kaan, David Robertson named finalists for prestigious honour

Michael Kaan is the author of The Water Beetles. (Goose Lane Editions/Leif Norman)

Two Winnipeggers are amongst the finalists named Wednesday for the 2017 Governor General's Literary Awards.

Michael Kaan has been nominated in the fiction category for his family saga The Water Beetles, while David Alexander Robertson was named a finalist in the young people's illustrated category for his work with illustrator Julie Flett on When We Were Alone.

An elated Kaan said he learned of the honour via a text message.

"I picked up my phone and saw all these messages on it, and that's what they were [about]. The first person that messaged me was my best friend, who is also a writer. He said, 'Congratulations,' and I said, 'For what?'" Kaan said Wednesday.

"I was thrilled, very happy about it. I wasn't expecting it."

His dad's story

Kaan said The Water Beetles, his first book, is based loosely on the true story of his late father's harrowing childhood in wartime China — a story Kaan only learned the full extent of years after his father's death, when his mother gave him his dad's memoirs.

The book chronicles the story of a group of kids who are lost in southern China during the Second World War following the Japanese invasion.

"It's basically a story about a group of children who are lost and trying to get back home," Kaan said, noting the actual incidents and the rough order of events are pretty much what his father went through.

Kaan's book is nominated alongside Kathleen Winter's Lost in September, which imagines Gen. James Wolfe as a homeless veteran in modern-day Montreal; Joel Thomas Hynes' We'll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night, which tells the story of a petty criminal trying to turn his life around; Jocelyn Parr for her post-Russian Revolution novel Uncertain Weights and Measures; and All the Beloved Ghosts, a short-story collection by Alison MacLeod.

'Oh, by the way ...'

Robertson, meanwhile, said he learned the news of his nomination by scrolling through social media early Wednesday morning.

"I texted my publisher and asked, 'Did you know about this?' They said, 'No,'" Robertson told CBC Radio's Up to Speed. "They were getting excited about it, because I was breaking the news to them.

"I then called my mom at six in the morning and left a message. She never checked it, then she called me at noon about another thing. I said, 'Oh, by the way ...'"

Robertson's book tells the age-appropriate story of the residential school system through the eyes of a child learning about the dark chapter in Canadian history from her grandmother. For Robertson, the story is especially poignant.

"I didn't know my grandmother went to a residential school until I was an adult. In fact, I didn't know about residential schools at all until I was an adult," he said. "That was an inspiration for me to write my book."

In When We Were Alone by David A. Robertson, illustrated by Julie Flett, a young girl listens to her grandmother's stories about attending residential school. (TD Canadian Children's Literature Award)

Also nominated in the young people's illustrated category are Short Stories for Little Monsters, by Marie-Louise Gay; The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk, by Jan Thornhill; Town is by the Sea, by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith; and When the Moon Comes, by Paul Harbridge and Matt James.

The winners, to be announced Nov. 1, will be given $25,000 and formally receive their award from new Governor General Julie Payette in Ottawa on Nov. 29.

The prizes, administered by the Canada Council for the Arts, are given in seven English- and seven French-language cateogories.

Founded in 1936, the Governor General's Awards are among the country's oldest literary awards.

With files from Samantha Samson