The book for which author Suzette Mayr won the prestigious 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize was nearly 20 years in the making and an idea she had initially pegged as “Plan B.”
The idea for The Sleeping Car Porter came from a former professor and percolated in her mind while she wrote several other novels. But once Mayr got some funding that allowed her to delve into research, she learned a lot about the role the porters played in Black North American history and a book began to take shape.
When her name was announced as the winner of the literary award − and the $100,000 prize money that comes with it − she was in disbelief and overwhelmed. It was also validation of the hard work she has put in over the years.
“It was kind of a confirmation that, OK, you know what? I made the right choice,” Mayr said. “I made the right choice to just follow my dreams.”
Mayr was announced as the winner of the award, which goes to the best Canadian novel, short story collection or graphic novel published in English, on Nov. 7.
The Calgary-based author and University of Calgary professor spoke with Perspectives about the “surreal” win, her advice for aspiring authors, who she was most excited to see at the award ceremony and the new book she has in the works (in an unexpected genre).
Q: How do you feel after winning the award?
Suzette Mayr: It's still sinking in. I'm elated. I mean, what a huge privilege. What an honour to have been chosen by a jury of my peers for this major, major award. And to be part of that group of writers who have won the award, who've been shortlisted and longlisted for the award. It's an amazing feeling.
Q: What was your first thought when you heard your name as the winner?
SM: I couldn't actually hear my name. It was suddenly as if the alphabet completely scrambled and so I didn't really realize that my name was being called. I felt mostly just disbelief and shock and being overwhelmed. I was talking to somebody else who had won the award and she said that when your name is called, you feel a lot of complicated feelings, and there are just no words for it. Suddenly, you realize that all of these eyes are on you. And this little book you wrote suddenly is going to be in a lot of hands. I was shocked.
Q: How did you feel being up on stage, seeing the standing ovation after your acceptance speech?
SM: That's such a good question, and I think I'm still processing it. It's such an honour. And to be in that room with so many people, so many writers I respect so much. It was a dream. I wish I could be more articulate about it, but words fail me because the whole experience was so surreal anyway. Even doing the shortlist Between The Pages book tour was surreal. The tour had these four other writers and me being flown from city to city and doing our readings in a way most of us had never experienced before. And there are these audiences. I'm used to reading to audiences of maybe three or five, or I’ll be invited to writers festivals and I'll maybe have one or two people who want me to autograph their books. It's thrilling and amazing. During the tour, I just decided that I was enjoy the ride because I didn’t know how long it was going to last. I still can't quite believe it. During the pandemic it was really rare to be in large groups, so it was overwhelming on so many levels, to be at a big, amazing banquet, just gorgeous, with so many people. How wonderful is it that there's this event where you have, not the whole country, but a good chunk of the country talking about books. How amazing is that? It's so beautiful.
Q: Was there anyone in the room you were excited to see or had hoped to see?
SM: My brother and sister-in-law were in a hotel room upstairs because there wasn't enough room for them to be at our table. But just through coincidence, there were two empty spots at our table and they came down and were sitting with me. And that meant the world to me to have my family there. It kept me grounded just to see my brother kind of smirking across the table the way brothers do and it was great to be able to share it with them. There were so many people there. I couldn't believe I was in the same room as John Irving.
Q: This is your sixth novel, and you have an accomplished track record of being a writer and author. But you mentioned in your speech about having a feeling of impostor syndrome as a writer that you finally let go of. Could you elaborate on that?
SM: I think it's because I have written six books, but it hasn't been necessarily an easy path the whole time. Some of those books definitely did a lot better than others. Some of them, it was like dropping a pebble down a well in terms of reception, even though I worked my heart out on them. So you never know. And at one point I was fired by my agent; at another point I had an American book contract cut. I'm kind of used to the ups and downs, and I've never been able to make a living at writing. I teach at the University of Calgary as my day job, and I love my job, but I have to keep my job because I cannot live off my writing. And to receive a major award like this, it was kind of a confirmation that, OK, you know what? I made the right choice. I made the right choice to just follow my dreams and do my little writing thing. But, now it feels like the writing actually matters. There was a jury of my peers who thought my book was good enough to put forward as their top choice. The impostor syndrome I referred to in my acceptance speech is a result of many years of working really hard and sometimes failing. But this time it's like, OK, I can write a book now and not be worried that I'm making a mistake and wasting my time or other people's time.
Q: What kind of impact do you think winning this award will have both from a recognition standpoint, but also the $100,000 prize that comes with it?
SM: Well, already I'm getting inundated with emails, invited to do this, that or the other thing, come and talk to this book club, whatever. So I'm pretty sure this year is going to be pretty topsy turvy in terms of the demands that are going to be asked of me. I was talking to another former winner and she said, “Be careful of that because, when you get hit with that much success, the writing time dwindles away. So you have to be protective of your time.” I think probably at the very least I'm going to maybe buy myself some time. I live close to Banff and so maybe I'll go to the writers colony there and just hole up for a couple weeks and get my nails into another manuscript. And then as far as the money goes, I mean, I have a day job, but this sure is a relief in some ways and in all kinds of ways that are a bit private, so I can't really go too deeply into them. But, I want to help out some family here and there, and there are some charities that are dear to my heart that I would like to help.
Q: What is the importance of awards like this for the industry or for authors overall?
SM: I was talking to André Alexis, who is a former Scotiabank Giller Prize winner, and he said what's amazing about this award is that it's one period of the year when everybody's talking about books, when everybody's talking about the shortlist, when they're talking about that one book. As a society, as a culture, we're inundated with so many possibilities of entertainment in terms of streaming, social media, and all kinds of things. But there is nothing like a good book to get you out of your head and make you think about what it's like to live in somebody else's shoes, walk in somebody else's shoes. I love how this award brings us back to books, which for me are sacred objects. They're magical objects. They help us think about and understand other perspectives in a way that I think other media just don't. So valuable.
Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
SM: I would say just go for it. Shut out the noise. Do what you love. Follow the joy. If writing is something that gives you joy, if it's something you have to do because if you don't do it, you're not a whole person, then just keep on going. And I think the beauty of writing too is that, for most people, if you can read, you can write. Even if you don't eventually get published, but you can find great solace and joy and comfort in writing, just do it. I would never, never, never discourage someone from writing, if it was something that made them happy. Do what makes you happy.
Q: What was the inspiration for this book?
SM: It was many, many years ago, but it was an old professor of mine in creative writing, Fred Wah, who is now a former Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada, who said to me out of the blue, “Suzette, you have to write about the sleeping car porters.” I didn't know what a sleeping car porter was. When he was in his teens in the 1950s, he was a boy scout and he was riding a train to a jamboree and he got talking to one of the sleeping car porters and told the porter that he liked playing the trumpet. And so that porter, later on in the trip, took out his trombone and started playing for Fred and for the other kids. And this really stuck with Fred. So I thought, I'm just going to have this sleeping car porter book as sort of a background project because my big fear always is I don't know what the next book is going to be about, so I always need a Plan B. The sleeping car porter book was my Plan B for a really long time and then, as I was writing other novels and publishing them, at a certain point I received a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant that gave me enough money to hire a research assistant and to travel to the different archives across the country and one or two in the United States. And I realized that the sleeping car porters were a complicated bunch of men. They were a really important group of men who helped create the Black middle class. The famous pianist Oscar Peterson's father was a sleeping car porter. They were men who were very cultured, who were artistic, were very ambitious, even though they were, up to a certain point in the 20th century, they could never, at least in Canada, they could never be promoted beyond sleeping car porter and they couldn't become conductors. They couldn't become any of those other positions because of racism. The more I dug into these archives, the more I traveled, the more I just thought about trains and rode trains, I realized this is a book I could do. Between 1929 to 1930 has always been really fascinating to me as a period because of how people went from great prosperity to sudden devastation financially. The manuscript meshed together all kinds of interests for me. I've always really loved reading literature from the 1920s, and these sleeping car porters seemed really interesting. They were a cagey bunch of guys who were very protective of their reputations, they didn't want to share very much with other people. Doing research into them as a group was partly me acting as a sort of psychologist trying to figure out what it was about them that made them protective of their reputations, and how they coped with the difficulty of the job, the 24/7 demands in that job. Then at a certain point, I realized that I was reading a lot about porters, but I wasn't reading anything about LGBTQ or about gay men among the porters. And so that became another rabbit hole that I fell down. I found this character, fell in love with him and wanted to give him a happy ending.
Q: How long did the writing process take?
SM: That's so hard. I remember talking about this book, I was going to write about a sleeping car porter way back when I applied for my job at the University of Calgary, which would have been 2002. I didn't get the job that time, but then I applied the next year, 2003, and I got the job. So I was clearly thinking about it then. But I do remember that prior to that I was wanting to write a book set in the ’20s. I just didn't know what it would be about yet. So I would say that probably it was 18, 19 years, but it could have been even longer. But I didn't know that, because I find too, with my whole writing process that the book I come out with at the end, that manuscript, has usually gone through multiple iterations. The first few iterations, they have almost nothing to do with that final version. So, it's really difficult to say when I started writing the book because in a way it might have started from a seed that I’d been thinking about for my whole life.
Q: What’s next for you? Is there another book in the works?
SM: Right now, all I have is a few pages for the next book, but I know I like to challenge myself, and I don't want to write the same book again and again. I want to make it harder each time, I guess. And I really, really, really want to write a haunted house novel. A scary haunted house novel, like a Stephen King scary novel, that actually scares readers. That's what I think I'm going to start out with. But who knows what these few pages will look like five, six, seven years from now. It might not turn out to be a haunted house novel at all because I have tried to write a horror novel before and failed terribly and wrote other books as a result. So that's my plan. I'm crossing my fingers. Hope I can get there.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
To receive a major award like that, was kind of a confirmation that I made the right choice. I made the right choice to just follow my dreams.