TORONTO — British-Canadian author Kathy Page choked back tears as she thanked her parents for the love letters that inspired her book, “Dear Evelyn,” which won the $50,000 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize on Wednesday night.
The wartime romance, published by Biblioasis, tracks the 70-year union between the working-class Harry Miles and the strong-willed Evelyn Hill as their relationship is tested by global conflict, the challenges of child rearing and the pursuit of individual meaning in a shared life.
Page, who lives in Salt Spring Island, B.C., told the crowd at CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto that it took her eight years to write “Dear Evelyn,” partly because of her struggle to wrestle with its unusually personal subject matter.
In an interview after accepting the award, Page said that in a sense, she felt she was sharing the honour with her parents.
“So much of our shared life was behind the writing of it,” she said. “And the whole of my life, which they obviously deeply influenced, propelled me ultimately to this book.”
She said some passages in the novel were adapted verbatim from her father’s correspondences with her mother during the Second World War, making him a “co-author” of sorts. But she said it was only when she permitted herself to take liberties with the source material that the story revealed itself.
“It was so emotionally intense … that although I wanted to do it, I also resisted doing it,” said Page. “I feel I understood them both differently, and understood quite a lot about life.”
Page, who has twice been nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her works of short fiction, beat out four other contenders, including awards darlings Esi Edugyan and Rawi Hage, for the $50,000 prize.
Jury members Ann Y.K. Choi, Mireille Silcoff and Robert Wiersema, who read 128 books submitted by 54 publishers in the selection process, praised “Dear Evelyn” as a “timeless page-turning masterpiece.”
Page was among seven authors being honoured at the 2018 Writers’ Trust Awards, which gave out more than $260,000 in prizes Wednesday night.
Ottawa-based author Elizabeth Hay won the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for ”All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir” (McClelland & Stewart), which details her experience acting as a guardian and caregiver to her parents.
“Hay’s prose elevates this ordinary rite of passage — the death of one’s parents — to something rare and poetic,” raved jury members Michael Harris, Donna Bailey Nurse and Joel Yanofsky. “Page after page this is a master class in observation — a lesson in how meaning can emerge from grief.”
Hay said in an interview that she intended the memoir as a tribute to her late parents, and while she thinks they would be thrilled about her win, she wouldn’t want them to read the book.
“It’s a book I couldn’t have written when they were alive, because there were things in it that would have hurt them,” said Hay. “(Parents) are our first characters. My parents were a formidable pair…. I studied them, I endured them, I loved them for 60 years, so that means I spent 60 years with these characters. For a writer, that’s a gift.”
Hay, who won the 2002 Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley Award and the Giller in 2007, was among five finalists who made the short list for the $60,000 prize, billed as the richest annual literary award for a book of non-fiction by a Canadian writer.
The finalists for the fiction and non-fiction prizes each received $5,000.
Acclaimed Winnipeg-based author David Bergen, who won the Giller in 2005 for “The Time in Between,” was honoured with the $25,000 Matt Cohen Award celebrating a lifetime of distinguished work by a Canadian writer.
Toronto’s Alissa York received the $25,000 Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley Award recognizing a writer of fiction for their mid-career body of work.
Jordan Scott of Royston, B.C., took home the $25,000 Latner Writers’ Trust Poetry Prize, which honours a mid-career poet for their mastery of the form.
Windsor, Ont.-based Christopher Paul Curtis, a former Michigan auto worker who has written several books of historical fiction for children, won the $25,000 Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People.
Shashi Bhat of New Westminster, B.C., was the winner of the $10,000 Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize, which honours the best short story published by an emerging writer in a Canadian literary magazine, for “Mute,” which jurors described as a darkly funny take on academia and pop culture.
“Mute” was published by The Dalhousie Review, which was awarded $2,000. The other two short story finalists received $1,000.