When the winner of the C$100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize was announced at a gala in Toronto Monday night, the spotlight was on a new writer, Sean Michaels, and his debut novel Us Conductors, published by Random House Canada.
Michaels, a music journalist, told PW he was “delighted and bewildered." Turning to his wife, he asked: “What’s that expression when you are a scuba diver? I have a bit of the bends.”
Winning Canada’s biggest fiction prize, particularly for a debut author, is indeed a notable feat. Aside from the prize money, which doubled this year from the previous amount of C$50,000, there is the national exposure authors receive from the live CBC television broadcast of the awards ceremony, which is watched by hundreds of thousands of people across the country. But perhaps most importantly, a win typically results in a spike in book sales that has been nicknamed “the Giller effect.” In recent years, the sales increase has averaged more than 500%.
Penguin Random House Canada president and CEO Brad Martin said that the company was ordering a new print run of 50,000 hardcover copies. Us Conductors was originally published as a trade paperback, but Martin said a hardcover format could be done sooner. “If we do French flaps, it takes us an extra three days, so we’d rather get the books into the market,” he said, after the awards ceremony.
A three-person jury—Canadian author Shauna Singh Baldwin, British novelist Justin Cartwright and American writer Francine Prose—selected the book from among 161 titles submitted from publishers across the country.
Us Conductors, the jury wrote in its citation, “is based on the life of Lev Thermen, the Russian-born inventor of the Theremin, the most ethereal of musical instruments. As the narrative shifts countries and climates, from the glittery brightness of New York in the 1920s to the leaden cold of the Soviet Union under Stalin, the grace of Michaels's style makes these times and places seem entirely new. He succeeds at one of the hardest things a writer can do: he makes music seem to sing from the pages of a novel."
Baldwin told PW that what lifted this book above the other shortlisted titles was “the sheer originality and the beauty with which [Michaels] described music. It’s a book written with such heart and such love, and yet it was also a book written with a relentless logic.”
Random House Canada acquired the book in an auction from the U.S. agency DeFiore and Company, which also sold U.S. rights to Tin House; in the States, Tin House published the novel this summer. “I snapped him up out of the submissions, and utterly fell in love with the work he was presenting,” said Michaels' agent, Meredith Kaffel.
Michaels' editor at Random House, publisher Anne Collins, said that her first impression when she read the manuscript was “that I was in the presence of a really unique new voice writing something fresh.... I’m so proud of him."
Asked what he would do with the prize, Michaels said: “I’m going to try to live the fiction writer's life, I think, for a bit… It can be a tough racket, and this sure makes it a hell of a lot easier.”
Each of the other finalists receive C$10,000. They are:
• David Bezmozgis for his novel The Betrayers published by HarperCollins Canada
• Frances Itani for her book Tell published by HarperCollins Canada
• Heather O'Neill for her novel The Girl Who Was Saturday Night published by HarperCollins Canada
• Miriam Toews for her novel All My Puny Sorrows published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada
• Padma Viswanathan for her book The Ever After of Ashwin Rao published by Random House Canada.
The televised awards gala was hosted by satirist and author Rick Mercer who quipped that he was the "Giller filler," replacing Jian Ghomeshi who was slated to host the awards before he was dismissed over allegations of sexual harassment and assault.