Will Ferguson has won the C$50,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel 419, published by Viking Canada/Penguin Canada. He accepted the award at a nationally televised gala last night in Toronto.
Ferguson is a versatile novelist and travel writer, who has previously been nominated for an IMPAC Dublin Award and a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, but he is best known for his humor. He has won the Leacock Medal for humor an unprecedented three times. So, 419, a dark literary thriller in which a daughter travels to the underworld of Lagos City in Nigeria to confront her father’s killer, appeared to some to be a departure.
Ferguson, however, pointed out connections to his other work. His last novel, Spanish Fly, was also about criminals, con artists in the 1930s dust bowl. And he is drawn to writing about tragic places in his travel writing. “I try to go there ands see the humanity and humor in tragic places. So I did a book on Northern Ireland, and I want to do the same type of thing with Rwanda,” he said. Ferguson alternates between fiction and non-fiction with each book. “It’s fun,” he says. “You use different parts of the brain.”
The three-person jury — Irish author and screenwriter Roddy Doyle, American author and satirist Gary Shteyngart, and Canadian publisher and author Anna Porter — selected a longlist of 13 out of 142 submissions from 51 publishers. The five shortlisted titles also included: Inside by Alix Ohlin (House of Anansi Press); The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler (HarperCollins Canada); Ru by Kim Thúy (translated by Sheila Fischman) (Random House Canada); and Whirl Away by Russell Wangersky (Thomas Allen Publishers). Each of the finalists received C$5,000.
The jury said 419 “points in the direction of something entirely new: the Global Novel. It is a novel emotionally and physically at home in the poverty of Lagos and in the day-to-day of North America.”
After the awards ceremony, Doyle said that the characters in 419 made it stand out. “There’s a woman walking across the desert very early on in the book. She’s a brilliant character…. If the book had been just about her, I’d have quite happily read on, and it’s the same with a lot of the other characters, particularly the African characters. They’re just brilliant and the dialogue between them is really great.” He added that “the fact that it could be categorized as a thriller or crime novel is really irrelevant. It’s just a really vivid, well-written book.”
Ferguson said he “wanted to tell both sides of the story. We say that but usually it’s the Western heroine’s story that matters. So what different in this book, I think what stands out, is that the Western woman who goes there is actually the least detailed character in the story. She’s the catalyst but it’s actually not her story.“
A Giller win can bump sales of a title up by as much as 500%, and Penguin Canada has ordered an additional print run of more than 50,000 copies to keep up with demand. The book will be published by Penguin U.S. in the spring.