It’s Really Hard, Writing a Book

Damian Tarnopolsky attends the First Novel Award

THREE RED FERRARIS parked in a line on Yorkville Avenue on a Thursday night, behind a Lamborghini, ahead of a McLaren. A funeral march of black SUVs slops out of the hotel drive, as if the Prime Minister’s just leaving, but a blue Bentley blocks them, and there’s a middle aged blonde woman turning round in the front seat as she reaches for something in the back, half in, half out of her gown. And then they’re all gone.

The screen says there’s a charity ball going on in the hotel at the same time as The First Novel Award, on the same floor, and sure enough there’s a man in black tie in the elevator—but we wind up going the same way, left, past the wide window over sunny midtown, past great shining posters of blown-up book covers, to a reception table to give our names. He goes first (I always let people in black tie go first), and when I say my name the young woman crosses me out in purple highlighter, which is refreshingly old fashioned. (No tablet, no headset.) She smiles, and says “You’re in,” establishing my conceit. Who’s in, who’s out, and what the hell does any of this have to do with writing? 

THE EXECUTIVE FROM Amazon congratulates the nominees (and himself) and tells us that his wife is writing a book now, and you know what he’s noticed? He’s noticed she really has to work at it—It’s really hard, writing a book, he tells us.

 Everyone laughs, tentatively, because Amazon has a lot of power. But difficulty is going to become a theme this evening. Asked on stage what he learned writing his novel, one of the nominees says, very charmingly, “I learned how hard it is to write a book.” Life is hard. Writing is hard. Writing is failing every day, someone once told me. What on earth could success have to do with sitting down each day to write?

At the bar I talk to an established and acclaimed novelist who also has a demanding job, and he says that he thinks of his day job as his break from writing, not the other way around. Work gets easier, he says, as he gets better at it. But writing doesn’t get easier. You can make too much of this—we’re talking about sitting down at a desk—and yet there’s truth to it. Writing is hard. Life is hard. Publishing is in crisis, as it always is.

 When I was an intern at Books in Canada, eight million years ago, the Books in Canada/Chapters First Novel Prize (an earlier incarnation of the Amazon award) went to Anne Michaels, who was especially flown in from a book tour in Germany. She was sick with flu, could barely stand up to read from her book, and certainly didn’t have the energy to act surprised when she won. 

Writing is hard. Life is hard. Publishing is in crisis, as it always is.

A few years ago my book Goya’s Dog was nominated, and I got a night at the Gladstone Hotel and took home a gift token from Amazon (not $4000, or anything close to it) which I used to buy some expensive books I otherwise would never have thought about. That was nice. I was surprised; I wasn’t surprised. I remember the moment when I didn’t win: the people waiting with me melted away instantaneously to congratulate the winner, and I admit that part of me is still waiting for them to come back.

The fact that there have been many incarnations of this prize is worrying, suggesting that writing is a sickly enterprise, requiring frequent infusions of plasma. But The Walrus and the ballroom and the erasure of those previous incarnations—the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the sponsorship by SmithBooks, the collaboration with Chapters—seem to suggest a countervailing desire to say that, well, perhaps things used to be like that, but the patient’s just fine now.

The people waiting with me melted away instantaneously to congratulate the winner, and I admit that part of me is still waiting for them to come back.

So we have drinks, and people talk about this banal cliché that’s nevertheless on my mind, how little prizes have to do with writing. You’re the best one, so you win, and the rest of you, you’re shit. We all know it’s nonsense, but we all play along. It gets books some press, it puts books in people’s hands, what’s the problem with that?

Magazine editors talk to writing teachers, photographers talk to publicists—there’s a pecking order. The people at the front of the room matter more, and possess better tans, than the people off to the side of the bar, at the back. Behind that door is where the nominated authors go, singly and together, to get their picture taken, to be interviewed, and when they come out, smiling like members of a wedding party, they each wear a white flower. 

Writers! Aren’t they supposed to be deep? I wonder if it’s like this in Buddhist monasteries: all the monks size up the new monk as he comes in, assessing how good he is at meditating, where he gets his robes.

But this year’s books sound wonderful. The authors read from their work. Some people check their phones, more or less openly; some go back to the bar to refill. But if you listen, every reading has a moment in it that makes you stop. The books are about nature, about autism, about science and careerism, about Egypt, about fat, about mechanics. Seep sounds good, a novel about a town being taken away, brick by brick, a dam, and how the past is also being taken away, brick by brick. The Book of Sand, too. (Neither won.)

But it’s odd when the judge takes the stage to share his thinking about how he came up with the shortlist. It’s odd to hear him say that these novels represent Canadian voices from all around the country, that they are telling us about our society as it is, about the fabric of contemporary life as it is now—all of which might seem like valuable things for a novel to do, but which are things that Tristram Shandy and Metamorphosis and Ada, or Ardour and C don’t bother much with. The novel is dream and magic and philosophy and adventure, along with current affairs. That’s why it stays news. 

These prizes are like oracles. They promise something like authority, something like justice.

Asked how they could judge such different works against each other, the other judges got it right: they hemmed and hawed, a bit disingenuously; they invoked apples and oranges. They said that you know it’s art when it hits you, physically, and that all they’re looking for is the beauty of the sentence and a story that careens forwards.

After each author’s thankfully brief reading (being read to is awful) Shelagh Rogers, the host, kept them on stage. She only had one question for each, which made it better. She’s a champion though, she had us all eating out of the palm of her hand with jokes about referring to her “derrière” instead of her past when she tried to give a speech in French. The authors had the option of standing in front of the two chairs, awkwardly, as if they’d just met on the subway, or sitting for sixty seconds, ridiculously, like they were doing a job interview skit. She had no time to warm them up, and the questions she asked—deep and personal questions about inspiration, composition, commitment and meaning—you thought they could really only answer honestly with silence, or by saying If I could tell you, I wouldn’t have had to write the book.

They were nicer than that. They were ready. But one of the writers couldn’t quite play along. He started to talk, and stopped; he did it again. He sweated; he’d put his flower behind his ear, not in his lapel, and it sagged. We thought he was quoting the smoother, more experienced authors who had played at not wanting to answer her questions, the judges who had been disingenuous. So at first we laughed, but then we realized he wasn’t trying to make us laugh. He was really trying to talk, but he couldn’t. Then he was trying inarticulately to say something about his real pain, and it wouldn’t come smoothly; he almost broke down. But Shelagh was moved, and she thanked him; I felt like we were all feasting on his pain, like that’s what this was all about. And then he was ushered off the stage, because it was time to give the prize to the winner.

And it’s kind of like a suspense thriller, where the tension is being ratcheted up all along, but when you find out who it is—Mona Awad, as the person behind me had clairvoyantly whispered—it’s satisfying for a moment, and then you’re deflated, and you long to be back where you were, when you were curious, and didn’t know anything, and could just read and find out.

These prizes are like oracles. They promise something like authority, something like justice. They tell you that you’re finally going to know how things stand. Come up here with me and I’ll tell you. Come closer. I’ll tell you what it all means. But what they say never makes sense. You’re left with as many questions as answers, and the same messy feelings you walked in with, wriggling out from under a new clamp.

She won forty thousand dollars (“Awad Awarded A Wad As Award” my friend texted me from across the room), a nice glass sculpture thing, and she thanked a few mentors, one of whom had helped start her writing career and was now, er, one of the judges, so she had to thank him twice. She said she’d had a hard time getting here and I believe it. She said she was honoured to join the list of winners of this award. She thanked her fellow nominees. 

THE PARTY AFTER was the best part, but I didn’t stay long. I went down through the lobby towards the hot evening, I passed by a shimmering fountain rolling down an interior wall as low jazz played, and I went towards the doors.

I remembered that she was half in, half out of her dress, that woman I saw earlier, bare arm reaching back over the front seat. And her husband giggled as he drove on round the block as she changed, and so I never saw her arrive in her appointed ballroom, whichever one it was.  I never saw her settle on a shape. I never saw her as the one thing.

DAMIAN TARNOPOLSKY is the author of the novel Goya’s Dog and an editor at Slingsby and Dixon. 

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