The day I won a Giller prize

November 8, 2010 – 2:44 pm

The who’s who of Canada’s cultural elite — that is to say, Toronto’s glitterati — will all be at the Scotiabank Giller Awards Tuesday. I won’t be there. And not only because I happen to live in Montreal.

I’ll never get an invitation to a Giller evening, because I’ve been very rude in some of my columns about certain Giller nominees. But even though I won’t be there in person, I will raise a glass to Doris Giller tonight. For I am the winner of a unique Giller prize that won’t be awarded to anyone else in my lifetime without my say-so.

Confused? Intrigued? Hearken.

My story begins with a Hallowe’en party my husband Ronny and I were invited to about 25 years ago. We’ve been to many parties during our marriage. But this one stands out in my memory with unusual clarity.

Our hosts lived nearby us, in a contemporary, redbrick two-storey townhouse in lower Westmount — “on the flat,” where unpretentious folks of modest needs like us hang out, far from the rich and fancy Upper Westmount types.

With its two-car interior garage and straight, unadorned lines, one of three attached in a distinctive row, the 1964-built house and its siblings stand apart from the area’s architectural norm, which tends heavily to much older, ornate Edwardian stone redoubts, where you get a lot of house, but are lucky to get any garage, let alone double, and virtually never integrated with the house.

The party rocked. Our hosts were successful, cultured, convivial types. The husband was suave and quiet. The charismatic hostess knew how to make any social scene crackle with energy. I was pretty dazzled by the company. I remember standing near the fireplace, chatting with Edward O. Phillips, a charming and witty Montreal novelist with a specialty in nostalgic but subtly biting observation of pre-diversity Westmount WASP social mores. I was feeling particularly elated, because I had just days before been informed that I had won the third prize in a short story contest and had received a cheque for $25 in token thereof. Edward had won the first prize. He was talking to me as if I were an actual literary peer, even though my prize was a lucky one-off and he was a much-published literary fixture. Heady stuff.

And I remember looking around the room, taking in the tall modern windows that would fill the house with light in daytime, and wandering through the foyer into the dining room and looking out at the sweet, small backyard. And here is what I thought, almost to the word: “What an absolute gem of a house this is. It flows. It’s cozy for two, but made for entertaining. It’s practical, yet gracious, and — be still, my heart — a warm garage to boot. It’s perfect for a couple. When our kids move out, and we can downsize, this is exactly the kind of house I would want to live in.”

Fast forward 25 years. Our kids moved out many years ago, but we are still in our rambling pile of an Edwardian house. For ten years I have been nagging my change-resistant husband that it is past time to downsize. Lately he started to crack.

My son-in-law, a real estate aficionado, set himself the task of impresario, constantly emailing me prospective houses for sale. I took a Goldilocks position on all of them: too big, too small, too uphill, too old, too modern, too expensive. Three weeks ago he sent me an ad and I wrote back: This is it!

Ronny and I drove past the house. I said the house looked familiar. Ronny said it should look familiar because it was. “Remember the Hallowe’en party?” he asked. Omigawd. It was the couple’s house of my dreams. Our hosts of the Hallowe’en party, as you may have already guessed, were Jack Rabinovitch and Doris Giller. The price was right. Reader, we bought the house the next day.

Jack, you created the Giller prize to spread happiness for writers in a material way in Doris’s name. No literary prize winner could be happier than I am right now. Be assured that Doris will be in my thoughts every day for as long as we live there. Many years, I hope. By the way, I hope you won’t be offended, but those mirrored closet doors just have to go. Have fun tonight giving out prizes. Thank you for inviting us to that party.

National Post