A long red rose landed on my desk, along with an embossed invitation. It was one of the most coveted events in the city – and I was on the list. Writers, publicists, book editors, book sellers, publishers – we were excited about a celebration of Canadian books the likes of which this country hadn’t seen before.
When the Giller Prize was established back in 1994, the Canadian publishing industry had prizes, but nothing as rich as this. $25,000? The amount said a lot: it told us that writing was worth something. It had value. It could be a viable profession. Finally, we all thought, someone is taking us seriously. The prize was founded by Toronto businessman Jack Rabinovitch in memory of his wife Doris Giller, who had been books editor at the Montreal Gazette and, later, Toronto Star. She died of cancer in 1993.
The first Giller Prize ceremony was held at the city’s premier venue, the Four Seasons hotel. We were unsure what to expect – both of the awards and ourselves. I remember one publicist noting “I wonder what black tie means to writers?” Most rose to the occasion.
There were literary greats there: Alice Munro, Mordechai Richler, Michael Ondaatje and publishing industry denizens with a lower profile, those who edit, encourage and publicize. That year’s short list nominees were M.G. Vassanji, Bonnie Burnard, Eliza Clark, Shyam Salvadurai and Steve Weiner. Vassanji won.
Over the years, the awards has gained more profile. They’re now televised, with two of the country’s biggest networks vying for the right. And after the awards partnered with Scotiabank in 2005, the prize pot rose to $50,000.
The long list of nominees for this year’s Giller Prize came out this past week. I was lucky enough to review two of them (click the titles in blue to read the reviews): Dan Vyleta’s The Crooked Maid and Craig Davidson’s Cataract City.
And watch to see who wins on Tuesday November 5 (they’ll be broadcast on the CBC). The shortlist will be announced in Toronto on October 8.