Gil Adamson, Jessica Lee win book prizes at virtual Writers' Trust Awards

·3 min read

COVID-19 constraints may have muted the spectacle of the literary awards circuit, but Toronto author Gil Adamson says that didn't diminish the excitement of winning this year's Writers' Trust fiction prize.

The Writers' Trust of Canada presented the $50,000 prize to Adamson at a virtual ceremony on Wednesday for "Ridgerunner," published by House of Anansi Press.

The western-meets-mystery tale, which was a runner-up for the Giller Prize, is a followup to Adamson's 2007 debut novel "The Outlander," which won the Amazon Canada First Novel Award.

Writers' Trust jurors praised Adamson for immersing readers in a "Wild West never before seen in an adventure as sprawling and impeccably rendered as the land itself."

Adamson said she wasn't too disappointed that she couldn't shake hands with the literary tastemakers who typically attend the annual Writers' Trust bash.

"I don't have a lot to compare it to," Adamson, 59, said in an interview ahead of the announcement. "I've never been in this kind of position before."

What Adamson said she misses the most about pre-pandemic book promotion is engaging directly with readers. In fact, she credits one such interaction with giving her the spark to write "Ridgerunner."

The inspiration struck when she was attending a book event in Banff, Alta., for "The Outlander," she said. During a break, she heard a reader wonder aloud about what the book's characters would be like as parents.

She said that question partly prompted her to return to early 20th century Western Canada to follow their child's story in "Ridgerunner."

"If the (book event) was on Zoom, the reader would have turned off her feed," said Adamson. "We are hobbled to a degree by this kind of distance."

The Writers' Trust also awarded its $60,000 non-fiction honour to London, Ont.-raised nature writer Jessica Lee for "Two Trees Make a Forest: In Search of My Family's Past Among Taiwan's Mountains and Coasts."

The memoir, published by Hamish Hamilton Canada, traces Lee's family history through the shifting landscapes of her ancestral homeland.

The Writers' Trust of Canada says the Hilary Weston Prize is the only national award recognizing Canadian writers who published literary non-fiction in 2020.

The RBC Taylor Prize was discontinued this year, and the Governor General's Literary Awards have been postponed.

Lee, who won the RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award in 2019, said that opportunity helped her gain a foothold in Canada's book scene.

The 34-year-old environmental historian said when she was writing her first book, "Turning," she had to work as a nanny and a waitress to make ends meet.

Now a professor at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., Lee said the Writers' Trust prize money will allow time to devote herself to her next project with fewer distractions.

"It's that basic level of stability that a prize like this offers, which gives me the mental freedom to think," Lee said in a video-chat interview from London, England.

"I can put a roof over our heads and also feel like I can keep writing."

The runners-up for both prizes each received $5,000.

The other fiction finalists were Thomas King, Maria Reva, Michelle Good and Zsuzsi Gartner.

The non-fiction short list included Lorna Crozier, Steven Heighton, Tessa McWatt and David Neel.

The Writers' Trust of Canada will hand out career honours on Dec. 2.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2020.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press