Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Toronto Book Award Wagers

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Toronto Book Award Wagers

On a recent Thursday night at the Toronto Reference Library, the Toronto Books Awards marked its 40th edition. A crowd of publishing, library-going and CBC-listening types gathered to drink some bubbly drinks and maybe bet some friendly bets (cuz, hey, Toronto may be Good but it can still have a flutter). They perused the posters that greeted them on arrival, showcasing 40 years of winners with names both familiar and forgotten. When an abrupt silence fell across the crowd at 8pm sharp, none of us quite knew how it had happened but all of us knew it meant SHOWTIME!

I shout-whispered to a publisher: “Why did it suddenly get so quiet?”

“I know! It’s like we’re in a library!” she shout-whispered back.

We giggled.

We shuffled off to our seats.

With regular Toronto Book Award emcee Matt Galloway busy chairing a mayoral debate in another part of town, Gill Deacon, host of CBC’s Here & Now stepped up to the podium to welcome us all. “Apparently we’ve doubled the turnout [from previous years],” she said. “Take that Matt Galloway.” As Gill spoke of the event format and this year’s nominees, clusters of support groups in the audience, perhaps spurred on by Gill’s on-stage fighting talk, got a little rowdy and a “whoop” or two filled the air. So much for the “shush, we’re in a library” thing.

The Toronto Book Awards honour “books of literary or artistic merit that are evocative of Toronto.” Common misconception: you don’t have to be from Toronto to win it, you just have to set your (literary, meritorious) book here. This year’s finalists included three novels, a book about a famous murder in a Toronto family, and a food-politics bible. The winner — who, after technical difficulties left her Skype-less gamely made her acceptance speech via cell phone held at the podium mic — was Charlotte Gray for The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial that Shocked a Country. The book beat out more than 70 entries that, Deacon told us, “truly reflect this city’s diversity.” The last time I checked, The Massey Murder had 230 holds against it at the Toronto Public Library, so maybe take a trip to your friendly local bookstore instead if you have designs on reading it any time soon.

In a format that was somewhere between late-night talk show and Canada Reads face-off, each nominated book had a champion, and each champion got three minutes on stage with Deacon to make a case for why their (adopted) book should win the prize. Some of the champions seemed a little bored by their subject. Others were extremely persuasive. I wondered if any of the judges (whose decision was presumably a done deal before the night’s festivities had even commenced) found their opinion swayed. I certainly did.

As the big reveal drew closer, my buddy in the seat beside me whispered, “Let’s make a bet.”

“OK,” I said. “What are we betting?”

“If I win I want a car,” he said.

“How about a beer?” I countered.

And though he never technically agreed to my adjusted wager, we shook on it anyway.

I work for a number of Canadian literary awards (you can read about them (shameless plug alert!) here), but man is it ever nail-biting to be in the audience when instead of having show-flows to manage and secrets to keep you have only notes to take and sporting bets to make on the outcome. If I were an actual nominee I don’t know how I’d sit still.

It’s notable that an award for books about this place has been handed out more often than not to books that tell the stories of people from another. Four out of five of this year’s nominees featured immigrants and immigrant communities. Anthony de Sa’s Kicking the Sky is the fictionalized account of how a real-life murder shook and then shaped Toronto’s Portuguese community, Carrianne K.Y. Leung’s Scarborough-set The Wondrous Woo is the coming-of-age story of a Chinese-Canadian girl, and Shyam Selvadurai’s The Hungry Ghosts is a story of coming out and coming to terms with family ghosts for a Sri Lankan man. Gray’s winning book is about a British serving girl’s role in the murder of a member of one of Toronto’s most prominent families. And if you look back through 40 years and 50-some winners (in the ’70s there was frequently a tie), you can see that it’s a theme shared by about two thirds of all Toronto Book Award champions. Indeed, it’s a trait shared by many of the authors of those books, too; writers from away telling stories of coming to be from here.

So Charlotte Gray (who is, like your trusty correspondent, also from “away”) was named the winner, and when I spoke to her afterwards about researching a book about Toronto she said the best part is “the walking around research” — unearthing the stories of the city as though in an archaeological dig. I ended my night with a detour past the house where the Massey murder took place. A perfectly atmospheric end to an evening of stories about the past, present and people of a place. Oh, and did I win my bet? Nope. But nor did I have to buy anybody a car. We both guessed wrong, though really, it was a pretty tough call to make.

Toronto Book Award winner Charlotte Gray will be appearing at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto three events:

  • Friday, October 31, 7:30pm
    WOMEN AT WAR: Moderating a panel about WWI writing, with authors Anna Hope, Frances Itani and Kate Pullinger
  • Saturday, November 1, 4:00pm
    OVER THERE: Moderating a panel about WWI writing, with J.L. Granatstein, David Macfarlane and Michael Winter
  • Sunday, November 2, 12:00pm
    READING: David Bergen, Michael Crummey, Charlotte Gray, Claire Holden Rothman


Becky Toyne is a freelance books columnist, editor and literary event publicist. She is a regular contributor to CBC Radio One and Open Book: Toronto, a host and interviewer at literary events including Word On The Street and the Toronto Literary Salon, and a freelance publicist for the Writers' Trust of Canada. Follow her on Twitter at @MsRebeccs or find her online at beckytoyne.com.

You can find past columns by Becky Toyne in the Open Book Archives.

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