Finalist for Giller Prize honed her craft writing software instructions

A Saint John-born author who has made the short list for the prestigious Giller Prize with her debut novel says she honed her craft by writing software instructions.

Saint John-born author Michelle Winters says being shortlisted for debut novel is mind-blowing

I Am a Truck by Michelle Winters is on the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize short list. (Invisible Publishing/Sara Heinonen)

A Saint John-born author who has made the short list for the prestigious Giller Prize with her debut novel says she honed her craft by writing software instructions.

Michelle Winters admits it might sound strange that technical writing ultimately led her to write I Am a Truck, but for her, it was "totally organic."

"Learning to write helpful concise software instructions, I started to think about applying that rule to … bigger human concepts like grief and love and friendship, and how to write in the briskest manner to get the reader where they're going and feel the maximum impact emotionally at the same time," she said.

Winters, who now lives in Toronto, has been through "a few permutations" over the years. She started out as a visual artist, became an actress, then a playwright and technical writer.

But she believes some people are born to write.

"It's just in you … It's unavoidable."

She remembers writing fiction when she was as young as 10 and the "excitement" of sitting down with a Duo-Tang full of loose leaf and scribbling away. "It was amazing," she said.

"It's your brain just being able to do exactly as it pleases, which you're not always allowed to do in life … It's so liberating it's hard to not want to."

Winters has a full-time office job because, as she puts it, she has a mortgage to pay and enjoys expensive dinners. But she writes "in tiny little dribs and drabs" every chance she gets.

Not an overnight success

Her short-listed novel took her 10 years to write. "It's been a real labour of love," she said.

It was her "emotional connection" to the story's characters — Agathe and Réjean Lapointe — that kept her driven.

The Lapointes are from French-speaking Acadia, but move for work reasons to a fictional English-speaking town in New Brunswick. They are about to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary when Réjean disappears without a trace.

"It's Agathe learning to live with the grief and the unknown, and then it's the story of what happened to Réjean and what happens afterward," said Winters. "It's a mystery unfolding in a very preposterous kind of way."

The Giller Prize jury described it as "an original, offbeat novel that explores the gaps between what people are and what they want to be."

"For a short book I Am a Truck is bursting with huge appetites, for love and le rock-and-roll and cheese, for male friendship and takeout tea with the bag left in," the jury said.

"Within the novel's distinctive Acadian setting French and English co-exist like old friends — comfortable, supple to each other's whims and rhythms, sometimes bickering but always contributing to this fine, very funny, fully-achieved novel about connection and misunderstanding. And trucks."

Honour is 'too much'

Winters said she never expected to be longlisted for the $100,000 prize — the richest literary prize in Canada.

"I didn't even know the announcement was coming out because I had conditioned myself not to look," she said.

Waiting for the short list to be announced wasn't as easy. She was in her office boardroom for a meeting that day and had placed her cellphone face-down on the table so she wouldn't see any messages coming in, she said.

A co-worker was checking her own cellphone, however, and the look on her face gave it away, said Winters. "It was, oh man, yeah — I can't even describe it; it's too much," she said of the honour.

"It's blowing my mind."

The response of her hometown has also been unbelievable, she said.

"Saint John is super excited … I've been hearing from a lot of childhood friends and the moms of childhood friends. They're incredibly supportive," said Winters.

"Saint John loves its own."

The other authors in the running for the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize are: Rachel Cusk for her novel Transit, Ed O'Loughlin for Minds of Winter, Michael Redhill for Bellevue Square and Eden Robinson for Son of a Trickster.

Winters said she hasn't read any of them yet, but plans to and is looking forward to meeting her fellow finalists.

The winner will be announced on Nov. 20. 

With files from Shift