Writing grad Esi Edugyan makes shortlist trifecta

Booker, Giller and Writer’s Trust shortlists for Esi Edugyan

Most writers hope their new book will get some attention—a review, maybe, or an author profile. But getting attention hasn’t exactly been a problem for Esi Edugyan. Not only is she one of six authors shortlisted for the prestigious £50,000 UK Man Booker Prize, but she is also one of six authors on the $50,000 Giller Prize shortlist and one of five authors up for the $25,000 Writers’ Trust fiction award. That makes a trifecta of shorlists for her second novel, Half-Blood Blues, published in Canada by Thomas Allen.

“It’s amazing, like nothing you could expect,” says Edugyan, a former Department of Writing sessional instructor and graduate of UVic’s Department of Writing. Half-Blood Blues is set in the world of black jazz musicians in Nazi Germany and occupied Paris, and has been described by award-winning Book of Negroes author Lawrence Hill as “a truly beautiful novel . . . both taut and expansive, like great jazz [with] exquisite language throughout.”

With a Masters in Writing from Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, Edugyan’s work has appeared in several anthologies, including Best New American Voices 2003  and Revival: An Anthology of Black Canadian Writing (2006). Her debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, was published internationally and was nominated for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, was a More Book Lust selection, and was chosen by the New York Public Library as one of 2004’s Books to Remember. Edugyan has held fellowships in the US, Scotland, Iceland, Germany, Hungary, Finland, Spain and Belgium. She has taught creative writing at both Johns Hopkins University and the University of Victoria, and has sat on many international panels, including the LesART Literary Festival in Esslingen, Germany, the Budapest Book Fair in Hungary, and Barnard College in New York City. She is also the wife of fellow UVic Writing instructor Steven Price, with whom she had their first child in August 2011.

Edugyan is philosophical when asked if she felt pressure to follow up her first novel with something equally powerful. “I was only 24 when my first book came out, and I felt a lot of pressure and felt quite tossed around in the publishing industry,” she says. “But now, I just feel grateful. I honestly don’t feel any great pressure to produce something that people will love or will get me critical acclaim. There’s no formula; you just do what you like and write what you want to write. I don’t think anybody can predict in this business what’s going to do well. Things become popular that you would never think would become popular; something that worked last fall won’t necessarily work next year. You just do what you do.”

Given the reception Half-Blood Blues has been getting, Edugyan is doing just fine doing what she does.

The winner of the Man Booker Prize is announced October 18, with the winner of the Writer’s Trust Award announced November 1 and the Giller Prize announced November 8.

Edugyan & Price at Russell’s

Good news for local literature lovers—not only is Russell’s Books expanding again, but they’re also kicking off a new reading series! In an age where independent bookstores seem to be vanishing faster than space in newspapers for book reviews, it’s great to see a local outfit like Russell’s breaking new ground.

Edugyan & Price

Edugyan & Price

As part of their latest expansion, Russell’s Books is now opening Russell’s Vintage, which collects all their antiquarian books in one handy spot—the former Fort Café location, downstairs at 742 Fort Street. Better still, Russell’s Vintage will also offer a stage which will host a new reading series. This week, the series kicks off with multiple award-winning author Esi Edugyan (Half-Blood Blues) and local poet and novelist Steven Price (Into That Darkness), plus poet Marita Daschsel, at 7pm Tuesday, May 14.

Books x 2Like Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane for the next generation, the husband-and-wife team of Edugyan and Price both hail from the Writing program and have both taught for the Writing department. (They’ve even been nominated for the same award at the same time.) Come on out and support them on Tuesday night . . . after you vote. And you are going to vote, right?

Year of Edugyan

In the no-big-surprise department, former Writing instructor, celebrated alumna and 2011 literary It-girl Esi Edugyan appeared in a number of year-end best-of lists for her Giller Prize-winning and Man Booker/ Governor General/ Writer’s Trust-nominated sophomore novel, Half-Blood Blues. (Heck, my mom even got it for Christmas!)

Adrian Chamberlain of the local Times Colonist newspaper noted that “Victoria’s writerly reputation was confirmed dramatically” by Edugyan’s “astonishing year,” Mark Medley of the National Post named her one of the two Canadian authors of the year (along with fellow multi-nominated writer Patrick DeWitt) and John Barber of the Globe and Mail said that, with the collapse of publisher H.B. Fenn and its Key Porter imprint, “2011 began ominously for independent Canadian publishers and then quickly turned to roses. Rescued from the Key Porter wreckage, Half-Blood Blues became the most popular title ever published by Thomas Allen & Son, with 100,000 copies on the market and a stable perch overlooking James Patterson and Stephen King on Canadian bestseller lists.”

Quill and Quire also reports it was the most popular title in the Toronto Public Library in 2011, with Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table in second place and DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers rounding out the top three. Alas, if you were hoping to check it out of the Greater Victoria Public Library system, you’d better get in line—as of this post, there are 399 holds on 82 copies . . . but you could always reserve Edugyan’s debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, which currently only has 41 holds on five copies.

Edugyan also appeared on the year-end cover of local entertainment weekly Monday Magazine, where writer Reyhana Heatherington said she “learned from some of Canada’s top literary stars” while studying here at UVic.

“I studied with so many great teachers,” Edugyan is quoted as saying. “Patrick Lane was my first great teacher. I found myself following poetry because he was so inspiring. The calibre of guidance was so amazing. Jack Hodgins, Lorna Crozier, Bill Gaston—such a high level of instruction. They can’t teach you to write if you’re not inclined that way. But what [school] does is cut the apprenticeship time down. Peer reviews prepare writers for working with an editor in a professional capacity.”

And in the January 8, 2012, edition of the Times Colonist, Adrian Chamberlain ran a new interview with Edugyan, a long profile featuring insights from her former Department of Writing instructors, Bill Gaston (“You always say, ‘this one could be the next Michael Ondaatje.’ You can’t predict, but she was one of those”) and Jack Hodgins (who was “amazed at her ability to inhabit the voices of vastly different characters authentically.”) Chamberlain also mentions rumours of a Half-Blood Blues film adaptation, about which a “close-lipped” Edugyan says, while noting there is nothing concrete, “There’s some discussion—yeah, actually.”