As a humourist and travel writer, Will Ferguson is already well known to Canadian readers. After winning this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Calgary author is poised to become even more renowned for his work as a serious novelist.
Ferguson won the $50,000 prize, handed out in Toronto Tuesday night, for his third novel, 419 (Viking Canada), a fast-paced thriller that delves into the world of Nigerian email fraud. It is a thematic companion of sorts to his previous novel, Spanish Fly, which follows a gang of con artists in 1930s America.
Before winning the Giller, Ferguson was best known for his humour books and travel memoirs, which include Beyond Belfast, Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw, and Canadian Pie. He alluded to this eclectic background in accepting the award, thanking the jury – which comprised authors Anna Porter, Roddy Doyle, and Gary Shteyngart – for “taking books on their own merit, without any preconceptions.”
In addition to thanking his family, Ferguson singled out his editor, Vancouver freelancer Barbara Pulling, and his publisher, Penguin Canada, saying, “I am proud to be a Penguin, I must say.”
Porter said the jury was conscious of breaking with precedent in awarding the prize to 419, which she compared to the work of John le Carré. “I think it’s got both great story and literary values,” she said.
When asked if the novel was the jury’s unanimous pick as the winner, Porter said that all three jurors “unanimously loved the book” and that “from the very beginning, we all unanimously agreed that it would be on the shortlist.”
Speaking to Q&Q after the announcement, Ferguson emphasized his gratitude for the support he has received throughout his writing career. “My publisher took more of a risk than I did, to be honest, when I switched to literary fiction,” he said.
Ferguson added that he views 419 as a companion to his previous novel. “Everyone’s saying it’s a departure, which is understandable, but I think it’s a continuum with Spanish Fly,” he said. “I didn’t think of it as out of the blue.”
For her part, Penguin Canada publisher Nicole Winstanley described Ferguson as “a man who wears several hats. He’s an author who knows how to tell a remarkable story in an interesting way.”
Winstanley added that the book will be reprinted in hardcover into the new year. The title has also been added to Pintail, a U.S. imprint for Penguin Canada titles with sales potential south of the border.
As for his next book, Ferguson plans to return to his earlier passion with a travel memoir about an upcoming journey through Rwanda.
“When I started out my dream was to work for Lonely Planet,” said Ferguson, who wrote one guide book before realizing he couldn’t hack it. “My initial dream was to be a hardcore travel writer, but I write what grabs my attention.”