In a week filled with (yet more) talk about how little Canadian writers earn, prompted this time by articles in The Globe and Mail by Elizabeth Renzetti and Camilla Gibb, it felt good, so good, to sit in an audience and watch a total of $139,000 be awarded to Canadian writers.
At last night’s 2014 Writers’ Trust Awards, hosted by Globe and Mail Arts Editor Jared Bland, six writers won prizes of either $10,000 (Journey Prize), $20,000 (Matt Cohen and Vicky Metcalf Awards) or $25,000 (Latner Poetry Prize, Engel/Findley Award, Rogers Fiction Prize). I think Vicky Metcalf Award winner Cary Fagan summed up the bittersweet moment when he showed us his new boots from the stage and said that the next morning he’d be running to the bank to deposit his cheque to pay off some bills. There is really nothing at all glamorous about being a Canadian writer. Except the award ceremonies.
If you’ve never been to an event like this I can assure you that it’s pretty much what you covet and fear most. It’s fun to see the people you recognize from book jackets and television interviews in the flesh. Last night there was free wine and beer and fancy appetizers, all delivered around the room by good looking servers wielding silver trays. The place seemed full of very tall and slim and beautifully dressed people who have the keen and skilled eye to look past you if they don’t know you. Even the people you do know will look past you to find someone more… connected. It’s the kind of event that most writers would hate, were it not for the public recognition and the big fat cheque.
Three hundred guests filled the Glenn Gould Studio of the CBC building for the event. It’s the perfect size venue to encourage a sense of celebration but also neighbourliness. Although I was not in reserved seating, Miriam Toews was sitting in front of me and I easily spotted many writers, both well-known and emerging, sitting around me. There was even a woman sitting on an aisle seat who spent the time knitting. The occasional flash of her knitting needles was no more distracting than the glow of mad tweeting that was going on in a room full of family, friends and publicists. The stage was filled with a stunning set decoration of stylized book spines, by Kalpna Patel (if you live in Toronto you may be familiar with her work in the windows of Type Books). I would suggest to the organizers that next year they crank up the music that accompanies each winner to the stage. The faraway strains of The Lemon Bucket Orkestra sounded more like someone in the front row was trying helpfully to play something on their phone.
The Writers’ Trust was founded in 1976 by Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, Pierre Berton, David Young and Margaret Laurence and has since given almost $4,000,000 to Canadian writers. No other NGOs or foundation give as much financial support to Canadian writers. Each year, The Writers’ Trust gives almost 100 writers a total of more than $400,000. Through their Woodcock Fund, they have helped “writers in crisis” with a total of more than $1 million.
“The Woodcock Fund is a quick-access emergency resource that aids established Canadian writers who face an unforeseen financial crisis. Help is given to writers in many different situations providing them momentary relief, a period of financial stability, and the opportunity to complete their current writing projects.
It is the only program of its kind available to writers in Canada, and is often the last place authors can turn for help.”
I know people who have benefitted from this program. I have writer friends who are struggling to hold down several jobs (by “several” I mean three in one case, and four in another), or to get off social assistance (two national award-winning authors in this case). So yes, we need an office of Writers In Crisis. When a writer is awarded ten or twenty thousand dollars, it goes to plugging holes, not exotic trips, new cars and fancy clothes. Cary Fagan‘s boots looked very serviceable to me. Probably chosen to last him another 10 years. Or more.
Susan Musgrave was awarded the Matt Cohen Prize for “living a writing life,” a life supported by the income generated through one’s writing, something not possible anymore, noted her prize-giver. The award-winning BC poet told us the story of how she came to choose her outfit for the evening. Though she’s normally a jeans-and-t-shirt person who wears “two left-foot gumboots I found years ago, although one has a rip in it now,” she explained that her silk patterned shirt and black blouse were bought while shopping with Matt Cohen, many years ago in Yorkville (yes, they cost a fortune even then, I overheard her say later). She said that when she knew Matt (he died in 1999), they joked that if they ever won lifetime achievement awards, they’d know the jurors had been talking to their doctors. And there she was, standing on the stage accepting her lifetime achievement award, named after her friend Matt, with whom she went shopping forty years ago and bought a swanky outfit… just in case.
A big cheer went up for the inaugural Latner Poetry Prize winner, Ken Babstock and I know why. I’ve met him at a couple of literary events and he’s unpretentious, warm and funny. Okay, and talented. Like the other award recipients, his voice cracked when he thanked his partner (and young son, Samuel). The Latner Poetry Prize is awarded “to a Canadian poet in recognition of a remarkable body of work [at least three collections] and in hope of future contributions to Canadian poetry.” Ken joked that his wife might indeed be glad if the award was for lifetime achievement (versus mid-career), alluding again to the difficulties of trying to make a writing life, especially with a family.
My personal interest in attending the ceremony had to do with the Journey Prize. Lori McNulty’s short story “Monsoon Season” was published in Descant 163 earlier this year and was one of the three shortlisted stories for the Journey Prize, along with Tyler Keevil (“Sealskin” in The New Orphic Review) and Clea Young (“Juvenile” in The Fiddlehead). The Wales-based Tyler Keevil won the $10K prize coveted by short story writers.
I was struck by the eloquence of Jennifer Lambert’s introduction of Joan Thomas for her mid-career Engel/Findley Award. Moments before the writer took her place at the podium, the chair of the Writers’ Trust Board of Directors and editorial director at HarperCollins Canada described the winning prose as “lightning-bright” and full of “those small vanities that undo us, those veins of bravery that sustain us.”
Miriam Toews‘ acceptance and thank yous required another kind of bravery. Her winning novel, All My Puny Sorrows, is based on the real-life fact that her sister committed suicide in 2010. Evidently struggling to maintain her composure, she said that her book is in part a testament to her beloved sister’s long struggle with mental illness and the love they had for one another. It never bothers me at all when people are emotional in front of an audience even though it’s often horrifying for the person on the stage, under the bright lights. When Miriam Toews thanked her family (clearly the loud cheering section seated in front of me), she informed us that, sadly, her mother “couldn’t be with us tonight because… she’s at a Raptor’s game!” Biggest laugh of the night, within seconds of the most tears shed, just like All My Puny Sorrows. Miriam Toews‘ words to her publicist, a woman without whom she “would be curled up at home in the fetal position,” were as moving as the thanks given to family members that night. She said her publicist “is my lighthouse… my pal.”
After the ceremony the room emptied quickly for the post-reception (there was one before and one after the ceremony). I stayed near the stage to take some photographs and talk to the winners (I was honestly surprised at how few guests took this opportunity; was it the free booze?). To my delight, when I congratulated Cary Fagan, he asked me my name and when I said I’m a Descant co-editor his face lit up and he told me that Descant published his first story back in 1977. How nice was that?
Joan Thomas‘ acceptance speech was memorable in its big picture and political scope and I took the opportunity to tell her this. She looked relieved and said she felt badly that she wasn’t as funny in her thank yous as the other winners. So you see, writers? The self doubt and recriminations apparently never end. It’s god-awful normal.
On my way out of the auditorium there was this moment when the din of the reception hit me; a cacophony of unintelligible chatter. I was so stunned by the suddenness of it that I stepped back into the auditorium for a second in order to brace myself. There’s no point in attending these events unless one is willing to participate, meet new people, chat up famous faces (or try). But for many of us, it does take some bracing. Maybe in fact for all of us. After all, we were there to celebrate, honour and award the work of people who make something beautiful of our miseries.
Congratulations to all the nominees, jurors (a stunning list of CanLit who’s who), and winners of the 2014 Writers’ Trust Awards. As Elizabeth Renzetti says in her Globe article, it’s not true that no one ‘has to’ write books. Without works of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, children and young people’s fiction, we would have no culture: no shared expression for all our puny sorrows.
In writers, we trust.