Debut novelists Ian Williams and Megan Gail Coles shine on Giller short list

TORONTO — Vancouver-based writer Ian Williams says he tends to be a sound sleeper, but even he had difficulty getting a full night’s rest the night before the finalists for the Scotiabank Giller Prize were revealed.

It turns out he had nothing to lose sleep over: Williams earned a spot on the short list for the $100,000 honour for his debut novel, “Reproduction,” published by Random House Canada.

In an interview after Monday’s announcement in Toronto, the acclaimed poet said the recognition represents “the fulfillment of a dream.”

“We feel a kind of modesty in our profession. Because of that, we don’t want to dream too big or hope too much, and couple that with sort of Canadian humility and stuff, it just becomes a really complex emotional territory,” Williams, a Griffin Poetry Prize trustee, said by phone from Vancouver.

“The dream is there, even if it’s not articulated. It’s unspoken, but it’s still real and living inside of me. And then to have that sort of satisfied, that’s it.”

In their citation, jurors praised “Reproduction,” a sprawling tale of a cross-cultural family set in Williams’ hometown of Brampton, Ont., as “a masterful unfolding of unexpected connections and collisions.”

Fellow first-time novelist Megan Gail Coles, who has written several plays, was also named among this year’s six finalists for “Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club” (House of Anansi Press). Centred around a fine restaurant in St. John’s, the book is billed as a Newfoundland Gothic for the 21st century.

Raised in Savage Cove on Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula, Coles dedicates the novel to herself and her home province, and said she feels the Giller spotlight should be similarly shared.

“I certainly wouldn’t have the courage to write something like this if I didn’t feel supported by Newfoundland. If I didn’t feel like everything about the island was kind of influencing my choices,” Coles said by phone from Montreal, where’s she’s a PhD candidate at Concordia University.

“I’m not suggesting that I’m representative of Newfoundlanders, because we’re a very complex group. But … even though they don’t always understand my choices, my friends and family on the Great Northern Peninsula have always loved me through it.”

Previous Giller finalists in the running are Michael Crummey for “The Innocents” (Doubleday Canada) about two orphans fighting to survive on a craggy cove in Newfoundland, and Vancouver-based Alix Ohlin for “Dual Citizens” (House of Anansi Press) about the bond between sisters.

Rounding out the short list are Victoria-based Steven Price’s “Lampedusa” (McClelland & Stewart), set in the Italian aristocracy of the late 1950s, and Latvian-Canadian author and filmmaker David Bezmozgis for “Immigrant City” (HarperCollins Publishers), a short-story collection tracing immigrant experiences.

Two previous Giller winners on this year’s long list who didn’t make the final cut were Margaret Atwood for “The Testaments,” her blockbuster sequel to 1985’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and Andre Alexis for “Days by Moonlight,” part of his “The Quincunx Cycle” series of novels.

Alexis was the 2015 winner for “Fifteen Dogs,” while Atwood won the prize in 1996 for “Alias Grace.”

Organizers say this year’s Giller short list was selected from 117 submissions by a jury panel featuring Scottish-Sierra Leonean author Aminatta Forna and Bosnian-American author Aleksandar (Sasha) Hemon, alongside Canadian writers Donna Bailey Nurse, Randy Boyagoda and Jose Teodoro.

Teodoro, a Toronto-based playwright, said the selections were the result of “arduous” deliberations, as evidenced by the fact that there are six finalists rather than the traditional five.

“With so many contenders, it’s certainly no slight to not make the short list,” Teodoro said by phone. “I think in the end, we all went with our hearts and chose books that had really spectacular prose.”

The Giller prize awards $100,000 to the best Canadian novel or short story collection published in English, and $10,000 to each of the finalists.

This year’s winner will be named a Toronto gala on Nov. 18, hosted by singer-songwriter and actress Jann Arden.

Last year, Victoria-based Esi Edugyan won her second Giller prize for “Washington Black.”

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