From bankruptcy bin to Giller Prize

Shortlisted for Governor General’s Literary Award, Man Booker Prize and the Writers’ Trust Award, Esi Edugyan has had a whirlwind year.

Shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Man Booker Prize, and the Writers’ Trust Award. New mother Esi Edugyan has had a whirlwind year.

Winner of the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Man Booker Prize, and the Writers’ Trust Award. New mother Esi Edugyan has had a whirlwind year. This November she took home the $50,000 Giller for Half-Blood Blues in a nationally televised event in which fellow Victorian Nelly Furtado presented the novel during the ceremony.

With the overwhelming response to Edugyan’s second novel, it is surprising to learn that it almost missed out when the book’s original publishing company went bankrupt, and it was only guaranteed publication in the U.K.

Half-Blood Blues explores the lives of jazz musicians Sid, Hieronymous and Chip in 1920s Berlin and Paris, and what became of them half a decade later. Coming from a reality seeped in extreme prejudice, Sid (the narrator) wants to remove himself from his tragic experience in Nazi Germany, but half a century later is confronted with the issue of witnessing his story told inaccurately.

In preparation for inhabiting Sid’s mind, Edugyan read autobiographies to master the distinct voice of the narrator, and watched Louis Armstrong footage to capture the essence of the story’s characters. The lyrical tone of the prose has been lauded for its musical quality, something the author confirms when she says she described what she heard in the music.

Her dedication to achieving this authenticity was no easy feat and took three and a half years and five drafts to complete. The genesis of the novel came from Stuttgart, Germany where Edugyan was completing a writing residency.

Growing up in Calgary with Ghanaian immigrant parents, 2011’s breakout author recently experienced an enthusiastic reception after a six-year absence from her hometown when she returned for a reading at her former haunt – the library.

“It was great,” Edugyan recalls. “There was a huge contingent from my high school, and a teacher who was really helpful and recommended UVic to me — everyone applauded her.”

A former instructor at the University of Victoria, where she also received a degree in writing, Edugyan learned from some of Canada’s top literary stars in an environment she describes as a “guided model.”

“I studied with so many great teachers. Patrick Lane was my first great teacher. I found myself following poetry because he was so inspiring. The calibre of guidance was so amazing. Jack Hodgins, Lorna Crozier, Bill Gaston – such a high level of instruction. They can’t teach you to write if you’re not inclined that way. But what [school] does is cut the apprenticeship time down. Peer reviews prepare writers for working with an editor in a professional capacity.”

Her geographical separation out here on the West Coast helps Edugyan maintain a sense of calm and is part of the reason — along with the fact her husband, writer Steven Price, has roots here — that she has called Victoria home for the past 17 years.

In a stark contrast to the solitude of writing, which Edugyan admits can be claustrophobic, she managed to adapt to the chaos associated with the accolades for Half-Blood Blues while simultaneously caring for her newborn.

“The thought of taking a seven-week-old overseas — I’m amazed that we did that! You’re running off adrenaline, going from zero to sixty.”

The achievements continue to stack up for Edugyan. One day after winning the Giller Prize, Half-Blood Blues jumped from 3,376th on Amazon’s bestsellers list for Kindle e-books to 360th. Two weeks after winning, sales were up 500 per cent. Half Blood Blues also ranked first on Indigo’s list of best fiction titles of 2011 and Munro’s Books in Victoria hosted Edugyan for an unprecedented two signings in one season.

Next up for Edugyan is some much-deserved rest, enjoying her baby daughter after having spent the past several months “in the thick of sleeplessness.” She also plans to work on her next novel. M

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