Suzette Mayr hopes the Scotiabank Giller Prize that will soon be residing on her shelf might finally quash her persistent impostor syndrome.
The Calgary author received the $100,000 award for her novel “The Sleeping Car Porter” during a televised gala at Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel on Monday night.
“I’ll just look at this award and think: OK, I accomplished something. I can do this. Somebody believes in me,” she said in an interview after the ceremony.
“The Sleeping Car Porter,” published by Coach House Books, follows a queer Black train porter on a particularly difficult trip out west in 1929. He stays up all night to serve the white passengers on board, as he grapples with sleep-deprivation-induced hallucinations.
The Giller jurors praised Mayr for rendering a work of historical fiction “alive and immediate — and eerily contemporary.”
Other than the effect she hopes it will have on her confidence, Mayr said it remains to be seen how the honour will affect her career.
“Part of the thing about winning a prize, I guess, is that it doesn’t write the next book,” she said.
But she’s glad this one is receiving so much attention, she said, particularly because it shines a spotlight on an under-represented part of Canadian history.
She said she’s long planned to write about sleeping car porters, the Black men who tended to passengers’ needs during train trips in the first quarter of the 20th century.
The book also tells a queer story.
In an emotional speech Monday, Mayr dedicated the book to her “LGBTQIA2S+ brothers, sisters and siblings.”
“I see you, I love you and this book is for you,” she said.
“The Sleeping Car Porter” is Mayr’s sixth novel. Her third, “Monoceros,” won the W. O. Mitchell Book Prize and was longlisted for the Giller.
Mayr is a former president of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta, and teaches creative writing at the University of Calgary.
Monday night’s glitzy affair was hosted by poet Rupi Kaur and actress-producer Sarah Gadon and broadcast on CBC.
This year’s runners-up, who each received $10,000, were: Kim Fu, nominated for their short story collection “Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century,” published by Coach House Books; Rawi Hage, nominated for his short story collection “Stray Dogs,” published by Knopf Canada; Tsering Yangzom Lama, nominated for her novel “We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies,” published by McClelland & Stewart; and Noor Naga, nominated for her novel “If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English,” published by Graywolf Press.
Giller executive Elana Rabinovitch said this year marks a return to form for the annual fete her father founded.
“Last year, it was very small. There was still a kind of frisson of nervousness in the air because of COVID,” she said ahead of the ceremony. “This year, it feels like almost the before times, but it’s better, because everybody is so excited to be here. People are thrilled to be out.”
Among the big names who turned out were CanLit legend Margaret Atwood, comedian Rick Mercer and American-Canadian novelist and screenwriter John Irving.
“It’s very interesting to see the different incarnations of the Giller,” said Atwood, a two-time winner and longtime attendee.
“Some people got older and died; other people grew up and wrote books.”
Sitting on this year’s prize jury were Canadian authors Casey Plett, Kaie Kellough, Waubgeshig Rice, and American authors Katie Kitamura and Scott Spencer.
The Giller awards $100,000 annually to the author of the best Canadian novel, graphic novel or short story collection published in English.
This year’s short list was culled from 138 books submitted by publishers across Canada, organizers said.
The Giller was established by Jack Rabinovitch in 1994 in memory of his late wife, literary journalist Doris Giller.
Last year’s winner was Omar El Akkad for his novel “What Strange Paradise.”
—Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press