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It’s my prize

It’s my prize

Among the innumerable honours accrued by Margaret Atwood over the years – two Booker Prizes among them – the latest will be especially close to her heart. The Writers’ Trust of Canada supports the country’s writers through awards, fellowships, financial grants, and mentorships and among the founders back in the 1990s were Atwood and her partner, the conservationist and literary aficionado Graeme Gibson. The trust is now renaming its fiction prize in the couple’s honour (Gibson died in 2019). The new Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize is worth $60,000 and winners in its former incarnation include Bookerites such as Alice Munro and Emma Donoghue. Ironically, neither Atwood nor Gibson were ever nominated for the prize that now bears their names.

Emma Donoghue, meanwhile, is taking part in Vancouver’s (online) St Brigid’s Festival – “a week-long free festival featuring academic, cultural, and wellness sessions dedicated to celebrating women through the medium of Ireland’s mythical matriarchal figure, Brigid”. Donoghue, Booker Prize shortlisted in 2010 for Room, will present and discuss the photographs that inspired her latest novel, The Pull of the Stars, which is set during the 1918 flu pandemic. St Brigid is the patron saint of dairymaids, cattle, Irish nuns, midwives, and new-born babies, so it is not entirely clear what her relationship to stars or pandemics might be so you will need to log in on 6 February for all to become clear.

A big chunk of the Booker Prize class of 2020 is having a reunion. The prize this time round is America’s National Book Critics Circle Awards where Douglas Stuart, Brandon Taylor and C Pam Zhang are reunited in vying for the John Leonard Prize for Best First Book, for which they have all been shortlisted. The writers of Shuggie Bain, Real Life and How Much of These Hills is Gold seem such established figures these days that it is hard to remember that they are still wet-behind-the-ears in novelists’ years. Whether one of them comes out on top will be revealed on 25 March.

Perhaps one of the things that makers writers writers is that things happen to them with a slight twist. Yes, there’s no escaping the mundanities of life for them too but consider George Saunders, Booker Prize winner in 2017 with Lincoln in the Bardo. He recently named two of the books that had most influenced him. “A nun I was in love with gave me Johnny Tremain, a stylistic masterpiece by Esther Forbes; I was studying engineering at the Colorado School of Mines and used to obsessively read and reread In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway. I loved the tight sentences and also the implied writerly life: traveling around the world and dispassionately observing stuff and definitely, definitely not doing any calculus homework.” Saunders’s new book is about the great Russian short story writers of the 19th century, so just consider what they could have spun out of his matter-of-fact “a nun I was in love with” and an obsessive reader of Hemingway who is also studying to become a mining engineer. Writers are simply wired differently.

Chekhov and Tolstoy’s stories are apparently the favourite reading of another Booker Prize winner, Richard Flanagan (2014). He too has been talking about the books that shaped him (The Wind in the Willows, Jorge Luis Borges, Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude) and in the process reflected on the meaning of fiction. He doesn’t subscribe to novels having a clear-cut role but rather in the personal relationship between individual reader and individual work. “In every book we love we recognise our own rejected thoughts,” he says. “Thoughts that felt too shameful, too obvious, too stupid, too painful, too strange to admit to ourselves, far less others.” Naturally enough, some books just don’t work for him, but then “I return and discover that what refused me entry is now open, and a marvellous world arises. Books, like doors, sometimes need to be knocked on several times before opening.” So, pick up that novel you have hurled across the room in frustration and, after a decent break, try it again.