Literature and gambling are odd bedfellows. But that hasn't stopped bookies from setting the odds for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, which announced its six-author short list on Tuesday.
"It's like a game, and there's something funny being in the same category as a race horse," said Ruth Ozeki in an interview from British Columbia. "At this point, there's nothing more I can do."
Ozeki's novel A Tale For The Time Being was among the six finalists for the prize recognizing the finest fiction in the Commonwealth, with Ozeki representing one of two authors with Canadian ties.
In fact, the B.C.-based author herself defied the odds set by online betmaker William Hill, who listed her book as the longest shot to make it after the 13-author long list was whittled down.
"So how seriously can you take them?" she said, with a laugh.
New Zealand-based Eleanor Catton, whose novel The Luminaries also made the cut and who was born in London, Ont., found the Booker-bookie connection bemusing too.
"I suppose people will bet on anything, won't they?" she said in an interview from England. "I feel a bit uncomfortable with that, the idea of having someone bet on me. It's almost like as if I found out that someone was betting on whether or not my current relationship would last.
"Obviously, these books haven't changed at all since they were on the long list, or before that — they're still the same experience."
Catton and Ozeki reflect a deeply diverse short list. Catton's 800-page historical epic covers several interconnected narratives in the gold mines of 1866 New Zealand; Zen Buddhist priest Ozeki's book is a delicate, sprawling novel that takes readers from isolated Whaletown, B.C., to tsunami-stricken Tokyo, as well as across time. They are also two of the four women to have made the final six, joining NoViolet Bulawayo for We Need New Names and Jhumpa Lahiri for The Lowland.
Bulawayo, a fellow at Stanford University in California, is the first writer from Zimbabwe to be a Booker finalist and the only debut novelist on the list.
The British-born Lahiri is U.S.-based and is a member of U.S. President Barack Obama's President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
Veterans Colm Toibin from Ireland and Jim Crace from England round out the kaleidoscopic list for The Testament of Mary and Harvest respectively.
While Ozeki has been a Canadian citizen since 2005, and steeped her book in B.C.'s mists, the work of Catton — who was born in London while her father was studying at what was then known as the University of Western Ontario but left for New Zealand at the age of six — is less informed by the Canadian experience. Still, she said her memories of living in southwestern Ontario are still surprisingly vivid, recalling a place she and her siblings called Frog Pond, where they caught tadpoles in jars and watched them become frogs. She also spent some time studying in North America, attending the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 2010.
"As soon as I got off the plane (in Iowa), I just absolutely felt so much nostalgia being in the middle of the North American continent," said Catton.
"There was something about the sense of the air and the smells and the quality of life that just seemed completely familiar to me. And so I'm sure that atmospherically, that there's a lot of very strong kind of primal connections back to Canada for me, for sure.
"It's hard to quantify how interactions and experiences shape you as a person, but it's one of those things maybe you only recognize in retrospect, how something's affected you."
But while both authors acknowledge that the Booker is an incredible honour — coming with a 50,000-pound (C$81,000) prize and a huge publicity and sales boost for winners — both are also taking it in stride.
Catton, the youngest nominee at 27, said she still finds it "strange" that people are interested in listening to her speak.
"I'm trying to keep my head on my shoulders about it," she said. "That's one of the really nice things about living in New Zealand, when things get too mad overseas, you can always just go home and kind of be treated like an ordinary person."
Ozeki said she was particularly moved by an email she received in the wake of the short-list announcement, from a journalist who had interviewed her in the media buzz after her novel was long-listed and who had endured a personally difficult year.
"He said the book had somehow helped him. And when you get an email like that, it kind of shifts everything around a little bit. ... The prizes are great, but really what it's about is the book making friends among readers, and if the book is out there doing that, that seems to me to be the most important thing."
Founded in 1969, the Man Booker Prize is named after its sponsor, financial services firm Man Group PLC. Last year's winner was Hilary Mantel for her Tudor political saga Bring Up the Bodies.
The winner will be announced on Oct. 15.
— The Canadian Press