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Patrick deWitt among Writers’ Trust prizewinners

Patrick deWitt has won the 2011 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for The Sisters Brothers (House of Anansi Press), kicking off the prize season for Canadian literary fiction and setting up a possible awards sweep for his novel about a pair of gunslingers on the trail of a California prospector.

Along with fellow B.C. author Esi Edugyan, deWitt has been nominated for all three major Canadian literary prizes, including the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction, both of which are being handed out in the coming two weeks. The literary odd couple was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, awarded earlier this month to Julian Barnes.

DeWitt said all the attention comes as a relief after his first book, Ablutions (published in the U.S. by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and in the U.K. by Granta), did not appear here. “That was sort of a heartbreaker for me, because I really wanted my work to come out here and be discussed here,” he told Q&Q, after accepting the $25,000 prize at a gala in Toronto Tuesday night. “It’s been great to be with Anansi, who have shepherded the book through all this so gracefully and with such passion. I’m elated.”

DeWitt added that he had had “a lot of trepidation” before The Sisters Brothers came out last spring: “I was concerned that the Western fans wouldn’t like it because it strayed, and that the literary fans wouldn’t like it because it was a Western, or close enough to a Western. I found the opposite to be true in both cases. It’s had a charmed life so far, and that’s a meaningful thing.”

Besides Edugyan’s novel, Half-Blood Blues (Thomas Allen Publishers), deWitt beat out a pair of short story collections, Clarke Blaise’s The Meager Tarmac (Biblioasis) and Michael Christie’s The Beggar’s Garden (HarperCollins Canada), as well as Dan Vyleta’s sophomore novel, The Quiet Twin (HarperCollins Canada).

In addition to the fiction prize, the Writers’ Trust handed out three awards, totaling $65,000, given to authors for their bodies of work. Novelist Wayne Johnston received the $25,000 Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley Award, prolific YA author Iain Lawrence took home the $20,000 Vicky Metcalf Award for Children’s Literature, and David Adams Richards, who this year published a novel (Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul) and memoir (Facing the Hunter), was given the Matt Cohen Award, which “recognizes a lifetime of distinguished work by a Canadian writer.”

The Writers’ Trust Distinguished Contribution Award, given to an individual or organization for their long-standing involvement with the organization, was given to Alma Lee, the first executive director hired by The Writers’ Union of Canada and founding artistic director of the Vancouver International Writers Festival.

Also among the night’s winners was Miranda Hill, who won the $10,000 Writers’ Trust of Canada/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize for “Petitions to Saint Chronic,” a story published by The Dalhousie Review. Hill, who lives in Hamilton, is the founder and executive director of Project Bookmark Canada, a not-for-profit organization that has erected plaques across Ontario commemorating real-life settings found in Canadian literature. She is also the wife of author Lawrence Hill, whose The Book of Negroes won the 2007 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize on its way to becoming one of the best-selling Canadian novels of all time.

Hill said that winning the Journey Prize had been a dream of sorts since she began, six years ago, avidly reading and collecting the prize anthology, which is published each year by McClelland & Stewart and includes all of the finalists. “I wanted to see what people were doing who were considered up-and-coming and promising, and I wanted to see what I could learn from that,” said Hill, whose debut collection is forthcoming from Doubleday Canada. “As I became confident and more practiced in my own writing I started thinking, ‘Someday I want to be considered a peer to these writers in this anthology.’”

Last week, the Writers’ Trust held a separate gala to hand out the inaugural Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize. Canada’s richest prize for non-fiction, worth $65,000, went to Charles Foran for Mordecai: The Life and Times.

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