Saturday, March 24, 2012

The truth about shortlists and awards nominations

Might as well get to the breaking news headline:

This week, Moonlight Sketches was nominated for its first major literary word. Along with Kevin Major and Patrick Warner, I've been shortlisted for the 2012 NL Book Awards, to be handed out at a gala affair on May 15. It's convenient for me that the Atlantic Book Awards--which, in conjunction with WANL (Writers's Allicance of Newfoundland and Labrador) administers the award--is being held outside of Halifax for the first time ever.

Let's be honest here. I don't expect to win. Kevin Major is practically a literary institution in Atlantic Canada, and deservedly so. I read his novels, Dear Bruce Springsteen, Hold Fast, and No Man's Land, and Blood Red Ochre years ago and enjoyed them all. I intend to read his newest one, New Under the Sun (Cormorant Book) soon. I know it's a cliche, but just to be included in this category with him is an enormous honour. If I had any designs on winning the thing, I'd have the good sense to be intimidated. If he wins, there'll be no quibbling with the choice.

The same is true of Patrick Warner, an established poet and now a novelist whose double talk is also nominated in this category. He's got three critically acclaimed books of poetry to his credit and shows great range in producing a likewise much-praised novel (which, again, I own, and will read very soon). Patrick could easily win the NL Book Award for this year, no slight intended to either Kevin Major or myself.

As for me, well, come on. I had no expectations and barely even a glimmer of hope that Moonlight Sketches would be noiminated for any major awards. I was a longshot to be shortlisted and, while my chances would appear to be 1 in 3, the reality is that I'm a darkhorse to win the award. The fact is, I truly am honoured to be included, to be invited to the party, to get to take part in the festivities that week, as St. John's comes alive with literature and literary events in the way that only the ECMAs usually can manage. To me, it's not only an honour, but a big deal in many ways.

So what does it mean? Let's assume I don't win (I won't). The offshoot is immediate notice from publishers, agents and, potentially, other writers, as well as book bloggers, readers and anyone else who pays attention to awards nominations. How that translates to sales is anyone's guess, of course, but I imagine it will make some difference, particularly since I have a brand new novel coming out next month in the form of Finton Moon, which, in its rawest form, has already won the Percy Janes First Novel Award a few years back. Book sales are important because, let's face it, they allow me to keep writing, to make more time for my favourite passion.

The nomination carries a fair amount of validation with it as well, and that's probably the most gratifying part about it. As most of you know, I was a writer for nearly twenty years before I landed my first publishing contract. There were lots of moments of validation along the way, but it took a long time to get that first acceptance. Lots of editors and agents would say, "We like what you do and how you do it, but we wish it was a different book." Almost always, in fact. Of course, I'd spend years on revising a manuscript without ever sending anything out for consideration, and that was part of the issue there. I was always reluctant, once I'd published Moonlight Sketches, to mention how long it took me to get published. But there's a difference between getting published and the book being well recieved.

Now I feel that I can go on with the rest of my publishing career--and, in a very real sense, it has now officially become a "career"--without the kinds of self doubt that lingers when it's taken so long to receive acceptance. I've always written for the sake of writing, of telling stories, and never concerned myself with validation from other sources. I'd long ago let go of worrying about the outcome of either finishing a story or of publishing it. I just needed and wanted to write.

I still feel that way. I will always keep writing, always need to explain the world to myself. The awards nomination simply makes it easier to tell other people what I do and maybe even validates their own choice in reading it. Although, truthfully, I think people just want a good read; they're mostly not concerned with awards. That's mostly an industry thing, though not exclusively.

I look at the week of May 10-17 in St. John's as a chance to celebrate books of all kinds, as well as honouring the rare, strange creature that is the author, and also to pay homage to the place I call home--how proud I am to live in a place where good writers--like Don McKay and Stan Dragland and Patrick Warner, and others--feel at home, even when their origin stories occur elsewhere. But it's also a place Lisa Moore, Michael Crummey, Jessica Grant, Kevin Major and many other fantastic writers have called home for much of their lives. We grow great writers here and we make great writers. And I'm very proud to be part of that tradition now, especially after so many years of feeling like an outsider. In that past year, there have been many wonderful moments when the long-established and the newly-established have not only made me feel welcome, but have supported and encouraged what I do. I know my writing is not for everyone--I have more than my share of those who dislike, even despise, what I write. I'm fine with that. All I want to do is write and to be in the company of those who not only write, but know why they do: for the pure love, desire, and personal necessity of doing it.

I've heard it said that no one but a fool will write if they're not being paid for it. But I feel the opposite--particularly having written in obscurity for so long--only a fool writes purely for money or the possibility of awards or fame or any such thing. If that's your game, fine; you can play that. I can only hope it gives you satisfaction. But for me, it's just a matter of telling a story you need to tell, one that gives you joy and, yes, satisfaction, in some way.

The rest is just gravy. It's fun, though.

And if it's not fun, why do it? As Sheryl Crow once sang, "If it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad?"

I don't delude myself into thinking most people will care about my writing or failures or success as much as I do. And I don't for a minute think that being nominated for an award means I'm somehow a "better" writer than anyone else. I know for a fact there are dozens of high quality books of fiction produced in this province every couple of years (the NL Book Award covers a two year period), and any number of them are just as good as Moonlight Sketches, if not better. But that's not for me to judge; that's other people's jobs, and I am grateful that they liked my work. But, to be real and frank about it, an awful lot depends on who does the reading and whether they're open to the story you've chosen to tell in your book. That's it.  Some readers/ judges won't even like short stories all that much. Some won't like the dark subject matter, or some other subject matter. Some prefer a more postmodern approach to crafting a story, while others want something a little more traditional, and still others want something quite complex, and so on.

All a writer can do is write what they enjoy writing (and reading), hopefully get it published, then promoted, then, ultimately, move on to the next project.

I'm already there.

In between, though, it's fun to get out and meet other writers, to listen to authors on stage, reading from their works that they put their hearts, souls, and minds into for long stretches of time, most of them struggling at some point with the very right to call themselvs a "writer." We're all in the same leaky boat together, all struggling for the same goal: for the presumed privilege of living to row another day, to be able to sit at the computer or in a coffee shop tomorrow, faced with the same bloody challenge as the day before: to get the story right.

Did I (does anyone) get it right? Well, that's a story for another day.



  1. Congratulations, my friend! The nomination is well-deserved and I hope that you will walk away with the award this year!

    I agree with absolutely everything you have written above. In fact, it's the sort of thing that should be shared with anyone who writes or desires to be a writer. I hope you don't mind if I share your wisdom with others.

    All the best, Gerard.

  2. Thank you, Stuart. It means a lot coming from a friend who has, himself, achieved so much in the past years(s) with you own writing, awards nominations and general recognition for the fine work you've produced.

    I'm glad you like the post. Feel free to share it wherever you wish.