December 12, 2013 Sections
The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
TORONTO - German-born Canadian writer Dan Vyleta had just entered his apartment door in England with an armful of potatoes and other groceries Tuesday when he got the call that his new novel had made the short list for the prestigious $50,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Scrambling to hold the phone and his shopping bags — while "over the moon" and "grinning like a fool" — Vyleta's spuds weren't the only thing that fell to the floor.
"I read the name of the jurors and my heart both sang and sank, I think," the 39-year-old said in a telephone interview from Durham in northeast England, where he's teaching at the local university. "It's quite intimidating."
Intimidating for Vyleta because his novel "The Crooked Maid" (HarperCollins Canada) — which is set in Vienna after the Second World War — was made a finalist by a jury that includes CanLit legend Margaret Atwood, who inspired his writing career.
"I remember being in university in the years (Atwood's) 'Alias Grace' came out, and I remember reading it and just thinking, '(Crap), I really want to write!'" he recalled with a laugh, using an unprintable salty word.
"There was just this inspiration, this drive to, you know, 'Yes, this is what I want to be doing.' She's such a powerful voice. It's great to see her on the jury, of course. But the other jurors, that's a pretty impressive trinity there."
This year's other jurors also include 2011 Giller winner Esi Edugyan and American author Jonathan Lethem, who culled the short list from a 13-entry long list, which had been narrowed from a broader field of 147 books submitted by 61 publishers.
The other contenders include Commonwealth Writers' Prize winner and former Giller finalist Lisa Moore of St. John's, N.L., for "Caught" (House of Anansi Press), which is also on the short list for this year's $25,000 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.
Also making both the Giller and Writers' Trust short lists is Edmonton's Lynn Coady, a 2011 Giller finalist, for her short story collection "Hellgoing" (House of Anansi Press).
Meanwhile, St. Catharines, Ont.-raised Craig Davidson — whose short story collection "Rust and Bone" became a 2012 Golden Globe-nominated film — is in the running for his novel "Cataract City" (Doubleday Canada).
And Toronto's Dennis Bock, a former finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and Commonwealth Writers' Prize, is up for his novel "Going Home Again" (HarperCollins Canada).
"The Crooked Maid" is Vyleta's third novel and inhabits the same universe as his previous effort, "The Quiet Twin," which is set in 1939 Berlin and was a finalist for the Writers' Trust.
"They're both part of something I, in my ambitious moments, think of as 'The Vienna Cycle,'" he said.
"'The Crooked Maid' is a post-war story, it's a story of homecoming. After the dust has settled, people who removed themselves from the war years return and they don't recognize their city entirely, they don't understand it and they are trying to reconnect to people."
Born in Gelsenkirchen in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, Vyleta is the son of Czech refugees and came to Canada with his wife in the mid-2000s. They first lived in Edmonton and have since lived in New Brunswick as well as Guelph, Ont.
Vyleta, who's also lived in Vienna, said research for both novels involved interviews with family members about their experiences during the war.
He figures the second novel captured the attention of the Giller jury because of a mixture of luck and the intensity that may have come through the writing.
"The one thing that makes this book for me very personal and difficult in some ways is that, and I don't want to be too personal, but my father died about halfway through my writing it," said Vyleta, whose debut novel, "Pavel & I," was published in 13 countries and translated into eight languages.
"So for me, the entire experience of it is laced with the experience of him being sick and passing away."
Atwood said "there were many good books" in contention for the 2013 Giller.
"I'm not saying that there's an upwards swing and it's going to get better and better forever and ever. This happened to be a year in which there were a lot of good books."
With a wealth of published writers and lucrative book prizes in Canada these days, literature in this country is being taken more seriously and "it ups the bar," she added.
"So if it were a race, you would say, 'OK, you have to run harder.' So there are a lot of people running harder. They've upped their game."
Edugyan called it "a very diverse list."
"It's very wide-ranging, there's no single theme running through them. It was really hard to come down to these particular five. I really feel like the short list, if we could've made it longer, that would've made us happier.
"It was an extremely strong year."
Toronto writer David Gilmour didn't manage the leap from the Giller long list to short list. The University of Toronto professor, who won a 2005 Governor General's Literary Award, recently made headlines when he told Random House of Canada's online magazine Hazlitt he's "not interested in teaching books by women."
The Giller jury members said they made their decision on the short list before the Gilmour controversy erupted last month.
"We had chosen the long list and the short list prior to ... those comments being published," said Edugyan. "But I will say that you really can't let that come to bear on the work. It's completely separate."
This is the 20th year of the prize, created by businessman Jack Rabinovitch in memory of his wife, literary journalist Doris Giller.
The winner will be unveiled at a Nov. 5 Toronto gala broadcast live on CBC-TV.