Toronto author Andre Alexis says his second Writers’ Trust fiction win came as an even greater surprise than his first.
Alexis told the crowd he was “speechless” as he took to the stage on Tuesday evening to receive the $50,000 honour for “Days by Moonlight” from Coach House Books.
The Trinidad-born, Ottawa-raised writer said he had an inkling he would take home the Writers’ Trust trophy four years ago, but was shocked to hear his name called this time around.
“It was surreal. It was like there had been a mistake,” Alexis said in an interview. He was among seven winners feted at the Toronto ceremony.
“Days by Moonlight” tracks a road trip through a warped version of southern Ontario where small towns are haunted by strange practices, such as a law prohibiting black people from talking during the day.
It’s the fourth work to be published as part of Alexis’ “quincunx” of five thematically linked novels. The second instalment in the series, “Fifteen Dogs,” swept up the Writers’ Trust fiction award and Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2015.
Alexis, who also won Yale University’s Windham-Campbell Prize in 2017, said his success on the awards circuit has had little bearing on his original vision for the series, which he conceived all at once in 2009.
The books are all set around southern Ontario, and in a sense, Alexis said “Days by Moonlight” reflects the region through “the drug of grief,” which he personally experienced when his father died in February.
“I was anticipating something that I’ve now gone through,” he said. “Going through it is worse than anticipating it though.”
In their citation, the jury hailed “Days by Moonlight” as a “funny, moving, and wholly original take on the quest narrative that liberates the imagination with a loud whoop of joy.”
This is the fourth time Alexis has been nominated for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. He is the second author to take home the trophy twice after Miriam Toews scored repeat wins in 2014 and 2008.
The other 2019 fiction finalists were Michael Crummey, Alix Ohlin, Sharon Butala and Tea Mutonji.
Of the more than $260,000 in prizes doled out Tuesday, Winnipeg’s Jenny Heijun Wills took home the biggest haul as the winner of the $60,000 non-fiction prize.
Wills apologized for shaking as she accepted the award for “Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related.”
The memoir, published by McClelland & Stewart, follows Wills’ journey reconnecting with her Korean family after being raised by adoptive parents in small-town Canada.
“Thank you to my families,” Wills told the crowd, choking back tears. “Some of you are here tonight. Some of you are far away. Some of you are elsewhere in the world.”
The University of Winnipeg professor also gave a shout-out to her fellow nominees on the all-female short list: Tanya Talaga, Alicia Elliott, Ayelet Tsabari and Anna Mehler Paperny.
The runners-up in the fiction and non-fiction categories each receive $5,000.
The Writers’ Trust also celebrated the careers of wordsmiths such as Toronto-based Olive Senior, who was decorated with the $25,000 Matt Cohen Award for a lifetime of distinguished work by a Canadian writer.
Acclaimed Lebanese-Canadian author Rawi Hage received the $25,000 Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley Award, which is given to a mid-career writer in recognition of their contributions to fiction.
Stephen Collis, who lives near Vancouver, took home the $25,000 Latner Writers’ Trust Poetry Prize honouring a mid-career poet for mastery of the form.
The $25,000 Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People was awarded to Susin Nielsen of Vancouver.
Angelique Lalonde, who grew up in Ktunaxa territory in British Columbia, won the $10,000 honour for best short fiction published by an emerging writer in a Canadian literary magazine.
Her story “Pooka,” about an artist wrestling with his mental health, was published by PRISM International, which was also awarded $2,000.
The two other short-story finalists each receive $1,000.
During the awards ceremony, speakers paid tribute to novelist and environmentalist Graeme Gibson, who died in September at age 85.
In 1976, Gibson and other prominent writers — including longtime partner Margaret Atwood — founded the Writers’ Trust of Canada to support the longevity of Canadian literary culture.