The Giller Aftermath: Life After Winning Canadian Fiction's Biggest Prize

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André Alexis, author of Fifteen Dogs and the latest winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

André Alexis won the Scotiabank Giller Prize last month. 

But it wasn't this André Alexis, the soft-spoken man sitting in the corner of a dressing room at the Banff Centre, sneaking a cup of coffee between appearances.

This one is a different man working on a different book.

“[The Giller win], which has been incredibly positive, part of it feels like it's meant for someone else. I wrote it, but that Andre Alexis is a couple of years gone now,” he says.

“It almost feels like it has nothing to do with me.”

While Alexis wants to focus on what he does next, everyone else wants to ask him about what he did last.

Fifteen Dogs, his tale about a pack of canines granted human intelligence after a bar bet between Greek gods, won Canada’s top fiction prize on November 10.

The Giller can be a huge disruption in a writer’s life. Aside from the $100,000 purse, it inevitably means greater book sales, a wider readership and a higher profile for the author. And, of course, endless requests for interviews, readings and appearances.

Alexis seems to be eager to avoid a lot of that. There have been some media sit-downs and book readings, including a Banff Centre Talk recorded live on December 9. But Alexis is already far away from his winning novel — focused on finishing his next work, The Hidden Keys, due out next year.

That next novel has brought him to The Banff Centre, where he is spending time working on the next draft of the work. Earlier this fall, the Centre announced it would offer a two-week residency to the winner of the Giller Prize, starting this year.

“For all intents and purposes, Fifteen Dogs is over for me," Alexis says.

Fifteen Dogs and The Hidden Keys are part of a series of five linked novels examining what Alexis calls “divine invasion” — the wonderful and terrible results of gods meddling in mortal lives.  

That idea seems to mirror his feelings towards the Giller: he calls it “infection” that he says could be both a boon and a distraction.

“It’s a positive infection, but nevertheless an infection, the effects of which are not known.”

Alexis is far from the only winner who has had to deal with life as a Giller winner. Every one seems to find the prize affects their career in different ways.

The Time-Thief

“The first 10 seconds felt like this telescoping, yawning moment. The next 24 hours felt like a sprint. The next year was transformative for me as a writer.”

A little more than a year ago, Sean Michaels spent most of his mornings in a coffeeshop near his Montreal home. That’s where he worked on his debut novel, Us Conductors.

Then the book won the 2014 Giller Prize. Since then, Michaels hasn’t found much time for coffee. Or writing.

“[It] was a really … absolutely disorienting, unexpected, insane moment,” he said.

“The first 10 seconds felt like this telescoping, yawning moment. The next 24 hours felt like a sprint. The next year was transformative for me as a writer.”

Michaels soon found out that the Giller will steal as much time as you let it. He called the prize “a beautiful and extremely disruptive thing to the work of a solitary writer.”

The author says the jury’s decision “catapulted” his work into the public eye. However, he wasn’t quite prepared for what it would do to his schedule; Michaels said since his win, he’s been doing an event about every 10 days across the country.

That doesn’t leave much time for writing.

That’s changed somewhat now, with the attention shifting towards the newest winner. These days, Michaels is now finding more time for fiction; he’s working on an interactive fiction project at The Banff Centre. However, he said he’s still feeling the aftershocks of the win.

He’s also learned that when it comes to requests, it’s sometimes better to just say “no.”

“It’s definitely been a lesson.”

The High-Water Mark

“I was disappointed. I felt like a loser.” 

Elizabeth Hay, whose Late Nights on Air won the prize in 2007, called it the “Giller aftermath.”

Her book saw the expected attention and increased sales that usually come along with a Giller win. And, of course, anytime someone wanted to talk about fiction writing in Canada, her phone would ring.

“By the end of the year, I was sick to death of myself … time is no longer your own.”

By the time Late Nights On Air won, Hay was already deep into writing her next book.

When that next novel, Alone in the Classroom, was published in 2011, it was well-received and sold well. Still, it didn’t get anything close to the attention as its Giller-winning predecessor — it wasn’t shortlisted for any awards. That left her with an ego in need of repair.

“I was disappointed. I felt like a loser,” Hay said.

She said it took a while to come to grips with the differences between the two books, and forced her to look at why she was writing. It wasn’t for the rewards, or the acclaim. When it came time to work on her newest work, His Whole Life, she was able to separate that past success with her present expectations.

“I decided no matter what, I’d keep on writing. I can live without one award, “ she said.  

“You can find a kind of inner fortitude and your self-respect.”

The Way Forward

“You get this feeling that what you’re reading is actually getting read.”

Half Blood Blues won the country’s top fiction prize in 2011. But it almost never existed.

Esi Edugyan’s first novel had done well and attracted a decent readership. But a stretch of bad luck and tepid interest from publishing houses meant that her follow-up, a historical novel about blues musicians caught up in the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, almost didn’t get made.  

“It was a great disaster. No one wanted to publish it,” she said.

The book was eventually picked up by Thomas Allen and published. That October, it won the Giller prize, as well as making it to the shortlist of other fiction awards.

Edugyan is blunt about the impact the prize had on her career.

“If there's one thing the Giller Prize did, it has enabled me to keep working.” she said.

“I was not going to write another novel after writing Half Blood Blues [if] something didn’t change in my situation.”

Edugyan said the financial boost, both the prize money and increased sales, were a great help to a writer with a young family. But for her, the most invaluable part was the way it put her book into the hands of readers who would otherwise have never known about it.

“You get this feeling that what you’re reading is actually getting read.”

A new readership with expectations. Edugyan had to fight the pressure to make her next work more marketable, more palatable and less personal than what she had written before.

So instead, she went the other direction and is now working on another historical novel, one inspired by a photograph. While the Giller may have been vital in securing her future as as fiction writer, she’s not interested in letting the prize define it.

“I want to challenge myself. Wanting to produce something that I personally think is a better novel,” she said.

“Everybody has their own journey that they’re going on.”