The National·Profile

Michelle Winters: Cubicle worker by day, Giller-nominated novelist by night

Michelle Winters, a New Brunswick writer who lives in Toronto, is on the shortlist for the Giller Prize for her debut novel I am a Truck. She has a 9-to-5 job as a translator, and writes on weekends and at night.

Michelle Winters works a 9-5 job in a cubicle and wrote her novel in secret on the side

Michelle Winters' debut novel "I am a Truck" is on the shortlist to win the $100,000 Giller Prize. (Nick Purdon/CBC )

Until recently, Michelle Winters always wrote in secret.

She scribbled away in her apartment on weekends and after she finished her 9-to-5 shift as a translator for a software company in Toronto. 

"I wrote stealthily for 10 years," Winters says, "without talking much about it, because there's so little to talk about when you're writing. You're the only one who really finds it interesting."

That's all changed now that Winters' is one of five Canadian writers shortlisted for the Giller Prize — one of Canada's most prestigious fiction awards — for her book I am a truck

Michelle Winters, seen here in her Toronto apartment, is a painter as well as a writer. (Nick Purdon/CBC )

Winters, originally from New Brunswick, was in her cubicle at work when she got the news. The trouble was, none of her colleagues even knew the 45-year-old wrote fiction. 

"I thought I was going cry and throw up spontaneously, and I had to calm myself down," Winters says. "It's the best thing that's ever happened to you and you have to keep quiet."

In the company of giants

Since its inception in 1994 the Giller prize has been won by a who's who of Canadian literary giants, from Margaret Atwood to Mordecai Richler to Alice Munro.

The winner takes home $100,000. 

"I'd probably do something really sensible with it, like invest it or put it toward a house," says Winters. "I'm trying to be really reasonable about all of this."

Still, Winters admits to being a little like Cinderella these days because her nomination feels too good to be true. Her book I am a truck only sold 300 copies when it came out last year.

"I can't stress how little expectation I had that this book would get noticed by the Giller jury," she says. 

Two years on the 'slush pile'

Leigh Nash, the publisher and only full-time employee at Invisible publishing, in the office she shares with the owner of Picton, Ontario's independent bookstore. (Photo provided)

Winters says it took her 10 years to write I am a Truck, a story about Agathe and Réjean Lapointe, an Acadian couple living in English-speaking New Brunswick. A week before their 20th anniversary, Réjean goes missing. The book deals with Agathe's grief and what happened to Réjean.

Winters sent her manuscript off to as many publishers as she could think of, but they either ignored her or rejected it outright — all except one. 

Even at Invisible Publishing, the tiny non-profit in Picton, Ont., that eventually accepted the novel, it sat on their "slush pile" for two years before anyone read it.

"I didn't give up," Winters says. "I would email them every three months and check in."     

Leigh Nash, a founder of Invisible Publishing (which she admits is actually just a single office inside the independent bookstore in Picton), remembers reading the manuscript in 2015.

"Oh my god, we are sitting on a gem," said Nash at the time.

An underdog story 

Giller Prize

5 years ago
Duration 5:17
Watch novelist Michelle Winters dissect the elements that make up a good story and how they relate to her own roller coaster ride to being a Giller nominee

Winters says no matter what happens at the Gillers, she's already won.

"If you froze today and I kept living, I would be having a great time," Winters says. 

And she hopes her story is an inspiration for others who have dreams.

"I think anyone can get out and write a book or create something that they love," Winters says. "If you have an hour a night to work on that thing, you eventually get that thing finished. It really can happen."

The winner of the 2017 Giller award will be announced on Monday Nov. 20. 


Nick Purdon

Current Affairs Correspondent

Nick Purdon is a Current Affairs Correspondent with CBC News' The National. You can follow him on Twitter at @nickpurdoncbc