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Atwood, MacIntyre, Vassanji and Clarke talk writing and the Gillers

Rachel Idzerda/The Globe and Mail

Farewell, awkward teenage years: The Scotiabank Giller Prize is all grown up, and celebrating its 20th birthday. The award, started by Jack Rabinovitch to honour his late wife, journalist Doris Giller, has become the premier metric for success in Canadian fiction. Win it, and you'll sell tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of books. Don't win it, and you can easily become dust in the wind. Its dominance is impressive to some, scary to others. And it is almost single-handedly responsible for changing our literary culture to one driven by awards rather than word of mouth.

To mark this occasion, we today begin a month-long exploration of all things Giller. The Globe will interview more than a dozen winners of the prize, and some of its most illustrious jurors. We'll ask them big questions about the art and the industry, where we've been and where we're going – painting a portrait of a prize, and the writing and reading culture it has shaped.

To begin, we talk writing with four of the Giller's most prominent winners: Margaret Atwood, Austin Clarke, Linden MacIntyre, and M.G. Vassanji (who has won twice). We convened the panel on a late summer day in stately Hart House Library on the campus of the University of Toronto. Over the course of the discussion, the writers, seated around a handsome wooden table, were reflective and sharp, challenging not only the questions asked of them, but each other's understanding of their craft, their methods, and, perhaps most compellingly, their sense of a writer's responsibility (or lack of one) to a prize-driven but passionate literary culture.

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Why did you want to become a writer?

Margaret Atwood: Why don't you start with "When did you want to become a writer?"

Okay, when did you want to become a writer?

Atwood: When I was 16. There wasn't any why at that moment in my life because when you're at that age, you don't think in those terms. But let's just say that it was more fun than anything else I was doing.

What else were you doing?

Atwood: Other things that were less fun. It was going to be more fun than being in home economics, let's put it that way.

Linden MacIntyre: Shortly after I started to be a reader, I realized this is a wonderful, magical power to have. Never crossed my mind that I could become a writer, but I wanted to be a cowboy, I wanted to be a sailor in the 19th-century sense of the word. Being a writer was kind of in that space. It stayed with me until I was in university and I was advised by a creative-writing instructor never to write. So I became a journalist.

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Atwood: You take those aptitude tests, and mine included car mechanic.

M.G. Vassanji: I don't understand the question. What kind of writing do you mean – as a kid, formally? To formally become a writer is to publish and to do something. Many of us just enjoyed writing when we were kids. The question is more complex than you might imagine. I'd done some dabbling in writing in school, and enjoyed my composition lessons in high school, but it was not formal, it was not a career option. Once I came to Toronto, I had a job at the University of Toronto and I realized that I might not go back home, and therefore I would lose a lot of the stories, the history, that made me what I am. I thought maybe I should write it down, and I started to do that.

Austin Clarke: My experience is much more romantic and ordinary. The brightest boy in the village challenged me to a reading race. He decided on the books to be read; he took one and I took one. I became fascinated and I wanted to become a writer, because it was amazing to me that anybody could remember what he'd written on the first page and be consistent on page 300. So I would take pages from my exercise book, because each subject taught to us in those days had a different colour. I chose English, which was red, and I wrote, "Once upon a time, there was a man." And I couldn't think of anything else, so I wrote wavy lines for many pages. And at the end said, "The End. By Austin Clarke."

It's a good reminder, though, that it isn't a romantic thing you switch on and off. It's an evolutionary process. When you started, what was the hardest part?

Atwood: How are you going to make your living. There wasn't any idea in Canada at the time – we're talking the late fifties that you would suddenly burst into bestsellerdom and make your living from it. So the real question was: What's the day job gonna be? My first idea was to get something called Writer's Markets, which told you where you could sell things to magazines and how much they'd pay you. You could make the most money writing true-romance stories, so I went out and got a bunch of true-romance magazines. I thought I should be able to whip up a few of these and sell them to magazines. I set out to do that, but I could not master the language. The plots were not hard, but that kind of language was beyond me. I laughed too much. To write those kinds of stories successfully, you have to believe them.

MacIntyre: Did you keep them? Did you lock them in a drawer someplace?

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Atwood: Alas, no. I do have one in which somebody goes mad. I was quite fond of writing those. People go mad in peculiar ways. I was reading Poe. Then I thought I was going to be a journalist. I announced this to my long-suffering parents, and they were biting their tongues so hard they practically choked. They dredged up a real journalist, they knew one, so he came over and had dinner, and said female journalists who worked at his paper worked either on the obituaries or the ladies' pages. And I could not expect anything else. So that was the end of that.

MacIntyre: There was also a widely held view back in those days that if you wanted to be a serious writer of fiction, you should avoid a day job that required you to type a lot, and you should avoid taking English in university.

Atwood: Yes, I understood that later, and had several well-meaning male poets telling me I would never amount to a hill of beans unless I was a truck driver.

MacIntyre: For me, the hard part was learning how to do it. You read a lot, and you grow up in a storytelling culture, where the most failed human beings in the place seem to be able to tell stories. When I sat down to write page one, I made a whole bunch of mistakes. I didn't understand the consequences of setting out in the first-person voice, for example.

Clarke: Getting the character from this table to the front door; I thought I had to follow every step and explain the problems.

Vassanji: For me, I come from a culture where there's no writing about ourselves as such. There are a lot of oral tales, and so for the first time to write something about people who've not been written about at an intimate level, there's a big hurdle. I overcame it, for some reason, I found the guts to do it. But living here, I thought, 'They'll never read it anyway!'

Atwood: And you were wrong!

What do you tell young writers if they ask for help?

Atwood: Stop, now!

Vassanji: I tell them: Talk less, write more. These young writers just love to talk about what they're doing. I think they wear themselves out. Maybe it's the new generation; they don't know how to do it. But if I start talking about what I'm doing, I'll never be able to write.

MacIntyre: For me, writing is something that goes on all the time in your head. Then sometimes you have a moment to sit down and type it up. Sometimes you type it up prematurely, and that stuff gets thrown out. Sometimes you type it up and you know, as you're typing, that somebody's going to read this. The challenge is always original invention, turning ideas into activity, as opposed to just writing up the idea, which is always the temptation of the amateur. Mercifully, I don't sleep well after about 4:30 in the morning, so I've been making use of the time to get stuff typed up. It's amazing how frequently you just slide into a zone and suddenly it's three or four hours later, and you've got a thousand words on the page.

Atwood: Must be a nice feeling.

MacIntyre: Until you read it!

Vassanji: I used to do that when I started: wake up and write something down. Then I realized, much later, that if it was worth it, it'd come back.

MacIntyre: Exactly, if it's worth remembering, you'll remember.

Atwood: That holds true up to a certain age.

One of the things that's impressive about the Giller is how aggressively it puts literature in front of the public. The volume is turned up on writers in society. What do you understand to be your responsibilities, if any?

Clarke: Why must we have a role and responsibilities?

Vassanji: I think the public puts an expectation on you.

Atwood: But why do they put that on writers?

Vassanji: There are people who feel their histories, their stories – they would like them to be told. And when you do that in your writing, they feel that you have done something for them, and that puts a burden on you.

Atwood: I think it's because writers don't have jobs. You're not employed by the government to be a writer. Unless you are employed by the government to be a writer.

MacIntyre: In which case, you're not a writer!

Atwood: If you're self-employed, you can't be fired. A lot of people have jobs, and they might wish to have expressed themselves, to have said something on some public occasion. But they're afraid to do it, because they are afraid of getting fired. Writers are not part of that culture – I wouldn't call it of fear, exactly, but of consequences.

What does the public demand of you?

Atwood: They want you to be their spokesperson, and therefore to subordinate your primary responsibility, which is to your writing. They want you to subordinate that responsibility to whatever it is they want you to say.

Vassanji: And pressure you on the kind of writing. When the prize is around, it puts pressure on the writers. And young writers wonder, "How do I win that prize?" This is the downside. There may be great books which are nominated, but if you're not careful with a filtering process in terms of trends …

Atwood: You mean you might want to write the kind of book that would win a prize.

Vassanji: Right, especially if you're young, there might be people who are pressured to think like that, by the public, by their friends, by their families.

Atwood: As my sister-in-law once said to me, "Why don't you write a novel about a great white shark and make a lot of money?"

MacIntyre: I think the downside of the big prize, and the publicity, is toxic celebrity. Suddenly authors are supposed to behave like rock stars, or appear to have a kind of charisma.

Atwood: You have a problem with that? [laughs]

MacIntyre: Well, it does get in the way of the more serious point I was going to make [laughs]. Which is: I think this is, commendably, a country of really avid readers. And you see that in just the number of book clubs out there. I often wish there were a way we could confederate those book clubs into a political, cultural force. When that community, disparate as it is, wants to hear more from you, about what you think, or how you did it, or what you're doing next, I personally feel an obligation to this community who are dedicated readers. They believe in books, and they believe in writers for all the right reasons. When the prize brings that huge light and singles you out, you feel good, that's human. But it does bring a responsibility to the culture of reading.

Atwood: So, first responsibility, therefore, to your writing, and your readers.

MacIntyre: I don't want to be false about this and say that I hated winning, after I picked myself up off the floor and swallowed the rest of my Scotch. But after that immediate and shallow kind of feeling, this sense sets in that now people know who you are, and they're buying your bloody book, and it better be good. And it's going to take a lot of your time. And I would rather be doing something else with my time, but it's something that comes along with all the goodies. And so you live with it, and hopefully, as a writer, you grow and mature on the human energy and connections with people.

Clarke: I take it and run with it. As a reward. But it makes you uncomfortable, since you want to duplicate, or have another book that's just as good. So you start writing for the Giller. And I think that's a problem with young people: They want to write a Giller book.

Atwood: But there is really no such thing. There's been a huge variety.

MacIntyre: You have to write for some internal compulsion, some drive.

Vassanji: For me, I'm looking for a place to hide. You reach a certain age, and you can write as honestly as you want. And you don't want to be a part of a lot of the things that go on around you, the literary politics, the prize announcements and so on. At some point you just want to write, because you're not going to live forever. So you just go away somewhere. I haven't found a place yet, but I just want to get away.

Clarke: Try Barbados.

This discussion has been condensed and edited.

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