Montrealer Madeleine Thien thrust into spotlight with Governor General's win

Heather O'Neill has some advice for fellow Montreal writer Madeleine Thien: "Never mind humility, step into the spotlight. Enjoy it."

Latest novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, also nominated Scotiabank Giller Prize

Writer Madeleine Thien, poses with her book "Do Not Say We Have Nothing" during a photocall for the 6 shortlisted authors for the Man Booker Prize for fiction. (Alastair Grant/Associated Press)

Heather O'Neill has some advice for fellow Montreal writer Madeleine Thien: "Never mind humility, step into the spotlight. Enjoy it."

Thien, who was born in Vancouver and now lives in Montreal's Plateau neighbourhood, won the Governor General's Literary Award this morning for fiction for her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

She was also nominated for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, which was awarded to U.S. author Paul Beatty for The Sellout at Tuesday's ceremony.

The cover of "Do Not Say We Have Nothing" by Madeleine Thien is seen in this undated handout photo. Thien is a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award. (Canadian Press/HO)

After quietly producing four books over a 15-year span, Thien is now getting international attention.

Winners of top literary awards typically see a huge jump in book sales.

"She's such a humble person, I would tell Madeleine, 'Don't be afraid to enjoy this moment,'" said O'Neill, whose wildly successful first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, catapulted her to fame.

O'Neill, who is close friends with Thien, said their first books came out around the same time. O'Neill's first book was short-listed for the Governor General's Award in 2007.

"She works so hard and a lot of her books haven't been recognized by big literary awards, and they've kind of been overlooked many times, so I would just say, 'Madeleine, it has nothing to do with luck.'"

Do Not Say We Have Nothing opens in Vancouver in 1990, as an expatriate Chinese family takes in a young woman who has fled China in the wake of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.

But much of the novel is set during the time of the Cultural Revolution and follows the lives of several musicians whose lives are thrown into tumult from the changes in their country.

Thien says her novel may have resonated so widely with readers and prize juries because it deals with themes of displacement and refugees fleeing political strife — issues that are on people's minds due to the Syrian crisis.

The executive director of the Quebec Writers' Federation, Lori Schubert, says she's not surprised that Thien is in the international limelight.

"She's been flying a little bit under the radar, in terms of big awards for all these years she's been a member of QWF but not in terms of critical acclaim," said Schubert.

"We're happy to see her finally having a year in which she has every possible nomination going her way."

In an interview on CBC Radio's q from London, she called the win a "beautiful moment."

"You're just amazed that this little light has shone on your book," she said.

with files from Nigel Hunt