Will Ferguson takes Giller Prize for novel 419

Calgary humourist Will Ferguson takes home Canada’s top fiction award, the $50,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize, for his dark novel 419.

Will Ferguson poses with his trophy after winning the Giller Prize Tuesday night at the Ritz-Carlton hotel.
Will Ferguson poses with his trophy after winning the Giller Prize Tuesday night at the Ritz-Carlton hotel.  (CARLOS OSORIO / TORONTO STAR) | Order this photo  

Calgary-based humourist Will Ferguson’s 419, a bleak mystery centred on the dark world of Nigerian Internet scams, was on Tuesday night named winner of the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize, the nation’s most prestigious literary award — and with a $50,000 purse, the most valuable.

“I’d like to thank my long-suffering editor and Penguin Canada for supporting my possibly ill-advised shift to fiction,” said Ferguson, 48, who attended the Giller Prize gala at Toronto’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel in full highland regalia, including kilt, dirk and sporran.

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The crowd favourite and a confident showman, Ferguson also thanked his Japanese wife, Terumi, his mother and siblings for their support, and Toronto doctor-turned-novelist Vincent Lam, a previous Giller winner, “for endorsing a very unlikely book.”

Standing on the Ritz-Carlton ballroom stage in front of 500 writers, publishers, politicians and arts supporters in all their finery and a full CBC-TV crew that was recording the proceedings for later broadcast Tuesday night, Ferguson dug into his sporran and withdrew a flask, then invited the crowd to “raise a toast for the written word.”

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Ferguson, a three-time Leacock Medal winner for humour and a successful writer of travel memoirs, said after the presentation that he had not started out to write a dark novel.

“It began with the thought that maybe there really is a Nigerian prince somewhere who can’t gain his freedom for lack of funds . . . but when I started writing it, the story began to turn dark, all by itself.”

Amid the flash and glamour drummed up with increasing ferocity by the CBC and Giller founder, businessman/philanthropist Jack Rabinovitch, Ferguson seemed perfectly at home.

“Look, I love that in Canada literature gets the red carpet treatment,” he grinned.

His next book will not follow the sombre fiction trail, he added.

“It’s a travel book about Rwanda. I try to switch between fiction and travel because each discipline uses different parts of the brain.”

Ferguson’s book was selected over Alix Ohlin’s sophomore novel, Inside, an exploration of the hidden dangers in human relationships; Nancy Richler’s The Imposter Bride, about a woman’s search for the mother who may or may not have abandoned her; Kim Thúy’s 2011 French-language Governor General’s Literary Award-winning memoir, Ru; and Russell Wangersky’s collection of death-dealing short stories, Whirl Away.

This year’s Giller jury comprised American satirist Gary Shteyngart, Irish author Roddy Doyle and Canadian publisher and writer Anna Porter. This is the Giller’s 19th year.

The jury read 142 works of fiction, submitted by 50 publishers from every region of the country.

Of all Canadian literary prizes, the Giller has emerged as the most glamorous and rewarding, thanks largely to Rabinovitch’s acumen and a deal he inked two years ago with CBC, turning an otherwise staid literary event into a major cross-promoting TV spectacle, complete with variety trappings.

On the bill this year as presenters of the five nominees were political satirist and CBC-TV comedian Rick Mercer, Golden Globe-winning actress Kim Cattrall, Juno-winning Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman, TV writer, producer and actor Allan Hawco, Olympic gold medal gymnast Rosie MacLennan, as well as CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi, the night’s MC.

Entertainment was provided by Jacob Hoggard, from the award-winning B.C. band Hedley, who was accompanied by a dance sequence choreographed by Jorden Morris, former principal dancer with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.