MONTREAL — Toronto writer Linda Spalding, who won the 2012 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction on Tuesday, agrees that novels like hers might make history more interesting for people who say they don’t know much about the past.
The author, who has said she read slave narratives, medicinal primers and even a PhD thesis she found online to get a sense of 18th-century Virginia, had to make history come alive for herself as she crafted the tale of a Quaker-turned-slave owner in The Purchase.
She said hopefully such novels would not simply entertain readers but also help them understand what people lived through.
“For me, to understand why a man who is an abolitionist would buy a slave — and I know that historically is true because it happened to my great-great-great grandfather — to understand how he would have come to that, I had to go through a huge amount of searching and reflection myself,” she said Tuesday.
“That, hopefully, is what a reader will do.”
Spalding said one of the key things she learned in writing the book was how to apply her research gingerly because she wasn’t writing a textbook.
The jury said Spalding’s The Purchase was “refreshingly free of retrospective judgment.”
Writing the book was no easy task.
“It was very challenging,” Spalding said in an interview moments after she picked up the $25,000 prize at a ceremony on Tuesday.
“I thought I understood what I was writing about and it got more and more complicated as I began to think about why people did things that they did and the fact that my people are not goodies or baddies, they’re flawed,” Spalding explained.
Everyone in the story has things to work out and sometimes that meant helping or hurting other characters as events unfolded, said the author, who loosely based the protagonist on one of her own ancestors.
“It was hard for me to actually develop a plot around all of that. I like characters, I like words, I like sentences but plot is hard. And this one is very complicated. It’s got lots of layers.”
The Purchase — published by McClelland & Stewart — was also shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize but lost to Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy, one of Spalding’s fellow nominees for the Governor General’s Award.
Born in Kansas, Spalding moved to Toronto from Hawaii in 1982 after marrying writer Michael Ondaatje.
In her acceptance speech, she recalled how she had an unpublished novel in her suitcase when she arrived in Canada.
“I came not to be a writer but because I had fallen in love,” she said.
“Nevertheless, my novel and I both found a home in this country of artists, writers and musicians, of poets and publishers and readers.”
She praised the work of the Canada Council in promoting the arts, describing the Canadian arts scene when she found it in 1982 “to be the most civilized, emancipated and surprising situation imaginable and it seems exactly as civilized and emancipating to me now.”
The author described the award as “absolutely wonderful” and said she felt “great, fantastic! Fantastique!”
Although the winners are notified in advance, Spalding said Tuesday’s ceremony made the award feel more tangible.
“It feels real because you can’t tell anybody. The whole time you’re thinking maybe it’s a fantasy.”
Spalding previously wrote the acclaimed work of non-fiction, “Who Named the Knife.”
Other recipients of the Governor General’s Awards include Saskatchewan-raised Ross King, who took the non-fiction prize for “Leonardo and the Last Supper” and Nova Scotia’s Catherine Banks, who picked up the drama award for “Sambro.”
Julie Bruck, a Montrealer now living in California, won the prize for poetry for “Monkey Ranch.” Nigel Spencer of Montreal won his third Governor General’s Award for Translation. Each time Spencer won it was for interpreting a work by Quebec author Marie-Claire Blais and this year it was for her “Mai at the Predator’s Ball.”
Spencer agreed that translators are playing a greater and greater role as books cross linguistic borders.
“Certainly in Canada more and more, and of course in Europe with the European Community,” Spencer said, noting that he found it ironic that the Canada Council doesn’t have an exact counterpart anywhere else as Europe experiences a growing mix of amateurs and professionals thrashing around translating not just books but movies and TV.
As well, Vancouver’s Susin Nielsen won the award for children’s literature — text for “The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen,” which looks at the effects of bullying. Interestingly, the award was announced as Canada marks Bullying Awareness Week.
“The timing is oddly bizarre,” said Nielsen. “It does make it that much more timely and certainly special for me.”
Her story is about the ripple effects of bullying and how one victim dealt with it in a way that affected everyone around him. Nielsen says it was difficult to write although it does have some humour in it as it’s written from the point of view of a 13-year-old.
“I’m hoping the experience will be a ’you’ll laugh, you’ll cry’ experience but it was a tough book to write. It was tougher than my first two.”
She said the book has been particularly well-received by teachers who want to see it on reading lists.
“I think that would be great if that could happen because I think it is an important subject,” Nielsen said, although she said she isn’t trying to hammer people with an issue. “I want to write about really, hopefully, believable people that you’ll feel compassion for.”
Each year, about 1,600 books are submitted to the Governor General’s Awards for consideration before judges narrow the list down to a handful of finalists in each category and language group.
The awards have been given out for the last 75 years. Gov. Gen. David Johnson will host an official ceremony for the winners at Rideau Hall on Nov. 28.