Mordecai Richler bio wins GG Literary Award

Charles Foran and Patrick deWitt are among the 14 winners of the Governor General's Literary Awards, Canada's oldest prize for English- and French-language literature.

Awards season favourite Patrick deWitt wins fiction title

Charles Foran added a Governor General's Literary Award for non-fiction to the previous accolades for his Mordecai Richler bio. (Tom Sandler/Canadian Press)

Mordecai Richler biographer Charles Foran earned further accolades on Tuesday, earning the Governor General's Literary Award for his engaging portrait of the Montreal writer.

Foran was among the 14 winners of Canada's oldest award for English and French-language literature, who were announced Tuesday in Toronto by the Canada Council.

Each winner receives $25,000 and a specially bound copy of his or her book. The short-listed finalists receive $1,000 each.

Former Montreal writer and journalist Foran — now based in Peterborough, Ont. — adds the GG English-language non-fiction title to the earlier laurels for Mordecai: The Life & Times, his exploration of the famously contrarian Richler.

Patrick deWitt's second novel, The Sisters Brothers, has earned wide praise during the fall literary awards season. (House of Anansi/Canadian Press)

In October, Foran received the inaugural Hilary Weston Prize for non-fiction for the Richler bio and, in February, won the Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction.

In his acceptance of the Governor General’s Literary Award, Foran said he is "standing on the shoulders of a giant." Richler was a GG winner himself in 1968 and 1971 for Cocksure and St. Urbain’s Horseman.

Foran thanked Richler’s widow, Florence Richler, who worked with him over the four years he wrote Life & Times.

"But thanking her husband is awkward," he added. "If he were true to his principles, he might not have liked the book that much."

"He was very adamant about the notion, the idea, which was a very popular notion in his time that all that matters about the writer is the books," Foran said in a later interview with CBC News. "It was a kind of aesthetic. So in that sense he would say, 'Oh well it's all well and good but you know really [this biography] doesn't matter. Are my books any good? Are my books still worth reading?'" 

Foran said he tried to capture Richler's "outsized, outrageous deeply human character " with the biography.

"I wanted the book in a sense to be big enough, bold enough...to be worthy of Mordecai Richler. To have written a small timid biography with 200 pages of footnotes and 200 pages of text would have been a disservice to this man who was so full of appetite, so full of energy. In his books and in his life."

West Coast writer Patrick deWitt, originally from Vancouver Island but now based in Portland, earned the GG English-language fiction prize for his sophomore novel The Sisters Brothers.

The darkly comic Western, which follows two outlaw brothers hunting down a man during California's 19th-century gold rush, won the Writers' Trust fiction prize earlier this month, and was also a finalist for the Giller Prize and the Man Booker Prize.

Money means 'time to write,' deWitt says

DeWitt recalled receiving a Canada Council grant that helped him complete The Sisters Brothers at a time when he thought he might have to give up on it and get another job.

"I returned to my book with the feeling I was doing precisely what I should be doing," he said. "Money represents different things to different people. To me it means time  — time to write with the distraction of the wider world."

DeWitt said he had high hopes for the film adaptation of his book, though he cannot release details of the project. He is eager to return to writing, after a whirlwind fall on the literary circuit.

"I've got about 100 pages of a new book that I'm keen to get back to. I think by January I'll be left alone back in my office once again and I'm looking forward to getting back to it. "

 Other English-language winners include:

  • Poetry: Phil Hall (Perth, Ont.) for Killdeer.
  • Drama: Erin Shields (Toronto) for If We Were Birds.
  • Children's literature, text: Christopher Moore (Toronto) for From Then to Now: A Short History of the World.
  • Children's literature, illustration: Cybèle Young (Toronto) for Ten Birds. 
  • Translation (to English): Donald Winkler (Montreal) for Partita for Glenn Gould.

Moore’s win is rare recognition of a non-fiction work for young people by the Governor General. He was competing in the children’s category against four novels. In his acceptance speech, he acknowledged the very fine creative fiction now being written in Canada for young readers.

His From Then to Now is a short history of the human race.

"It was tremendously exciting for me to write the story of our species, from our origins in Africa, moving across the continents and diversifying to the enormous diversity that we have," he said.

"In some ways, information books are kind of a solitary pleasure – kids don’t necessarily talk to you about it – they want to burrow in and read," he told CBC News, adding he loves creating a work that children will read under the covers with a flashlight.

Erin Shields delivers her acceptance speech after winning the 2011 Governor General's Literary Award for Drama for If We were Birds. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)
Young, who won the award for children’s illustration, began her book Ten Birds 16 years ago, when she had just given birth to her first child. It began as a series of pen and ink drawings.

"The images always come first with me. I was in a very happy space after doing a workshop with big sculptures as I was working in a private space with pen and paper, informed by my new parenthood," she told CBC News.

The story came later as she learned to balance a career as a visual artist with creating works for children.

"I feel really blessed that I can interest myself in both worlds. I find without that balance I am not as complete and not as inspired," she said.

Drama winner Shields wrote about rape as an act of war in her play If We Were Birds, which began as a bare bones production with Summerworks in Toronto and was further developed at Alberta Theatre Projects before being given a more lavish staging at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre.

"I knew I needed a very bold container to hold this old and very current story, so the play is in the form of a Greek tragedy, so it does have that epic presence and yet the chorus is comprised of survivors from the 20th century conflicts who are survivors of rape in times of war, and their stories are throughout the play as well," Sharp said in an interview.

She said she hopes her win will lead to more productions of If We Were Birds.

The French-language winners are:

  • Fiction: Perrine Leblanc (Montreal), L'homme blanc.
  • Non-fiction: Georges Leroux (Montreal), Wanderer: essai sur le Voyage d'hiver de Franz Schubert.
  • Poetry: Louise Dupré (Montreal), Plus haut que les flammes.
  • Drama: Normand Chaurette (Montreal), Ce qui meurt en dernier.
  • Children's literature, text: Martin Fournier (Quebec), Les aventures de Radisson - 1. L'enfer ne brûle pas.
  • Children's literature, illustration: Caroline Merola (Montreal), Lili et les poilus.
  • Translation (to French): Maryse Warda (Montreal), Toxique ou L'incident dans l'autobus.

Gov. Gen. David Johnston will present the awards to this year's winners at a Rideau Hall gala on Nov. 24.