Canadian author Will Ferguson says he was fully prepared not to win this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize.
“I had been practicing my best runner-up smile all week,” jokes the 48 year-old novelist over the phone from Toronto. “You know – it’s the smile you see from the 2nd place contestants in beauty pageants.”
Instead, the multi-award winning humourist and travel writer found himself center-stage, accepting Canada’s highest literary honour for his latest effort 419, the strange and stirring story of an insidious internet scam and a woman’s quest to find her father’s killer.
“Thank God I had a flask of whisky in my sporran,” he laughs with a mild Scottish brogue, noting his Clan attire from the previous evening.
“I was all done up in traditional Scottish regalia,” he beams; “A Prince Charlie jacket, and the Flowers of Scotland pattern – which is very similar to the ancient Ferguson Clan tartan – on the kilt.”
The outfit, he admits, brought about some good-natured ribbing.
“As I was making my way to the podium, the great Irish writer Roddy Doyle, who was one of the judges for this year’s event, said to me If I knew you would be wearing your kilt to this thing I wouldn’t have given you the award.”
“Then he said, thankfully your wife’s Kimono (Ferguson’s partner Terumi is Japanese) cancelled it out.”
Centuries old Irish-Scottish jesting aside, the Calgary native was proud to wear his Celtic roots on his sleeve.
“I’m actually Irish-Scottish myself,” he beams. “My dad’s family is from Scotland, and my mom’s family is from Belfast. My blood is a meeting place for these two cultures, and it certainly explains my chattiness and my penchant for storytelling and humour.”
They are traits that he shares with his siblings.
“We are a family of black sheep,” points out the wordsmith. “I have one brother who is a composer in Montreal, another who is a playwright and another who is a journalist, and my sister is a sculptor.”
Growing up, the Ferguson kin were encouraged to partake in the arts.
“My parents never told us what to do when we were young. They believed that the arts were a noble vocation and they were always very supportive of our endeavours in that field. I think they were only disappointed in me when I became a teacher.”
Ferguson’s years at the blackboard in the Far East were fruitful, however, both personally and professionally.
“It where I fell in love with Terumi,” smiles the scribe, “and it is where I opted to take a stab at writing full-time.”
It was a decision that would pay-off in spades for the aspiring author, with 15 critically-acclaimed works in 15 years, including three that have won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour; Generica (later renamed Happiness) in 2002, Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw in 2005, and Beyond Belfast – a travel memoir – in 2010.
He can now add the Giller silverware to his trophy case.
“Suffice to say that Terumi is relieved and that I have been quite surprised by all of the success,” confides Ferguson.
“Maybe I should start thinking about practicing an acceptance speech.”
By Will Ferguson
Penguin / 416 pp / $32
419 signals a well-played departure of sorts for Ferguson. Gone is the light-headed humour of previous works, replaced with a heavy-hearted hand that follows protagonist Laura Curtis as she crosses continents in search of justice and redemption for her father’s murder. En route, she encounters a quirky cast of characters that bring out both the best and the worst in her own. Despite the newfound darkness, however – and as with the author’s past works – the writing and pacing are fluid and fresh, fleshed-out atop a strong narrative arc. Setting, mood and tone emerge with the subtle touches of a master-craftsman, as the dialogue invites readers to dive into murky moral depths. An excellent read and one that is well-worthy of all the accolades.