Gov. Gen. Literary Awards hail 1st-time winners

The Governor General's Literary Awards crowned a new crop of winners in Montreal with 11 of this year's 14 recipients honoured for the first time.
Regina writer Dianne Warren has earned the 2010 Governor General's Literary Award in the English-language fiction category for her debut novel, Cool Water.

The Governor General's Literary Awards crowned a new crop of winners in Montreal on Tuesday with 11 of this year's 14 recipients honoured for the first time.

Two of the biggest winners, Dianne Warren, who won the prestigious English-language fiction prize with her first novel Cool Water, and Allan Casey of Saskatoon, who took the non-fiction prize for his first full-length book Lakeland: Journeys into the Soul of Canada, are from Saskatchewan.

Warren  triumphed over several high-profile finalists, including Emma Donoghue's Room and Kathleen Winter's Annabel,   among the literary season's most buzzed-about novels.

Author Élise Turcotte and illustrator Daniel Sylvestre, Montrealers who worked together on the children's book Rose: derrière le rideau de la folie, were honoured for their contributions in the French-language children's literature text and illustration categories, respectively.

"This year's recipients are excellent representatives of the talent and immense creativity of Canadian writers, illustrators and translators," Gov. Gen. David Johnston said in a release.

CBC.ca and Radio-Canada.ca are hosting live chats with some of this year's award winners.

Radio-Canada.ca's chat began at 11:15 a.m. ET and the CBC Books chat will follow at 2 p.m. ET.

"I would like to offer my sincerest congratulations to these artists, people who — through their passion — ignite our love of reading with every new book."

The awards honour 14 winners (including authors, illustrators and translators), with one English- and one French-language recipient named in seven categories.

The other winners are:

  • Poetry (English-language): Boxing the Compass, Richard Greene, Cobourg, Ont.
  • Poetry (French-language): Effleurés de lumière, Danielle Fournier, Montreal.
  • Drama (English): Afterimage, Robert Chafe, St. John's.
  • Drama (French): Porc-épic, David Paquet, Montreal.
  • Fiction (French): Ru, Kim Thuy, Montreal.
  • Non-fiction (French): C'est ma seigneurie que je réclame: la lutte des Hurons de Lorette pour la seigneurie de Sillery, 1650-1900,  Michel Lavoie, Saint-Raphaël, Que.
  • Children's literature, text (English): Fishtailing, Wendy Phillips, Richmond, B.C.
  • Children's literature, illustration (English): Cats’ Night Out, Jon Klassen, Los Angeles (originally from Niagara Falls, Ont.)
  • Translation (to English): Forests (Forêts, by Wajdi Mouawad), Linda Gaboriau, Montreal.
  • Translation (to French): Le cafard (Cockroach, by Rawi Hage), Sophie Voillot, Montreal.

In Cool Water, Warren writes about a contemporary farming community in a time of transition, telling the overlapping stories of an ensemble of characters in the fictional town of Juliet.

Warren, 60, calls it a "very Saskatchewan book." She said when she began writing she was thinking about the 100 years that have passed since her grandfather filed for a homestead in the province and the changes that people in small Saskatchewan towns now face.

"It's not just the story of one character, it's the story of five or six characters and the reason for that is not everybody is faced with the same thing," Warren told CBC News on Tuesday.

"When I look back to the stories I grew up with where my grandfather homesteaded which is north of Swift Current, I know there were stories way back then about homesteaders that came and stayed, homesteaders that left farms and farms that have not been with the original homesteader family for a long time. It was important to me that it not be just one story that this is what it's like because a town is a collection of stories."

The people of Juliet feel the weight of the past, yet their problems are contemporary — a young man retraces the route of a 160-kilometre horse race held a century ago and Vicki Dolson, a mother of six, is canning and freezing produce but doesn't want to do it.

"It's something people used to do, but she'd rather go to town and buy pizza pockets," Warren said. All of the action of the novel takes place over a single day.

Warren said she used the arid landscape of the Sandy Hills area as "metaphor for constant change." Warren has previously published three plays and three collections of short stories and is working on a second novel.

Allan Casey speaks in Montreal on Tuesday after winning the Governor General's Literary Award for non-fiction for his book Lakeland: Journeys into the Soul of Canada. ((Graham Hughes/Canadian Press))

Non-fiction winner Casey, 49, a freelance journalist who has worked for Canadian Geographic and other magazines, said his exploration of lakes in Lakeland began with a place he loves — Emma Lake in Saskatchewan's Lakeland area, where his family has had a cabin since 1960.

"It was a pretty humble sort of resort area and generally a pretty wild place, but in a very short time, less than half a generation, it's become urbanized," Casey said in an interview Tuesday. "It's consumer values and material excess and really irresponsible development [that] have changed it utterly very quickly."

Casey began to look at lakes across Canada, seeking out people who have a similar attachment to a specific lake with an eye to gathering their stories.

"When I travelled in some of those areas I took them as I found them, as travel writers do. A lot of things were left to chance. It always seemed to work out. I met wonderful people," he said, recalling how, despite not speaking French, he was embraced by an extended French-Canadian family in the Lac-St-Jean area of Quebec.

What he found, nearly everywhere, was that access to nature was rapidly becoming a "wealthy neighbourhood" with access to lakes tightly controlled.

"I take a strong position that what we're doing is excessive. Excessive materiality is out of place if our purpose is to enjoy the wilderness. Make no mistake, we need to do this. Human beings have a deep need to [be in nature]," he said.

Casey said he presents no solutions to preserving the Canadian relationship with lakes, as every place he travelled to was so different.

"My objective from the beginning to this day is really to get people talking, because really what's missing is a frank dialogue about what are our values as a nation. We steward one of the largest continuing really wild areas on the planet — that's our country," he said.

Fishtailing, a young adult book by B.C.'s Wendy Phillips, won the English-language children's literature, text category of the 2010 Governor General's Literary Awards in Montreal on Tuesday (Canada Council)
Children's literature winner Phillips, 51, has written all her life, but Fishtailing is her first published book. The young adult novel is written entirely in verse.

The high school teacher says she loves to teach poetry because it touches some inner chord in teenagers.

"It's always struck me what secrets sometimes you get from the students that you teach when you read poetry. I almost want to string some of those together," she told CBC News.

"They'll talk about their inner feelings ...  One interviewer talked about cringe-inducing teen poetry and there are a lot of times when you hear, 'Oh yes, a friend is someone who's always there for me,' but you also hear about their really true feelings."

The story focuses on four students in a high school and is told through their own poetry.

"There is a new student who comes into the school, and she begins to stir the pot and other students that she's just met she manipulates in ways for her own entertainment," Phillips said.

"As someone said to me once, 'No one goes through adolescence completely unscathed,' and they all have their inner pain that has to be dealt with and their insecurities that are preyed upon by this girl. In the end, it comes to a climax at a house party where the truth comes out."

Phillips said she enjoys writing for teens because they are coming at every new experience for the first time and "live so intensely."

Each of the 14 winners receives $25,000 and a specially created, leather-bound copy of his or her winning title. They will be honoured at an evening gala at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Nov. 25. 

The annual literary prize, funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, also provides $3,000 to each publisher of a winning title (for promotional support of the books) as well as $1,000 to each of the non-winning finalists in all categories.

French-language Governor General's Literary Award recipients David Paquet (drama) and Kim Thuy (fiction) holds up their winning books, Porc-épic and Ru, respectively, in Montreal on Tuesday. ((Graham Hughes/Canadian Press))

With files from The Canadian Press