York alumnus wins the Governor General’s Literary Award

How does winning the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction change a writer’s life? For York alumnus Nino Ricci (BA Spec. Hons. ’81), winner of this year’s GG award, the world stays remarkably the same. The dog still needs walking, groceries still need to be bought and his children still scramble for his attention. On the other hand, it changes everything.

“It’s a big boost to my writing career,” says Ricci. “This will allow me to keep on writing and writing what I want.” It’s the writing what he wants part that is sometimes fraught. There’s a big push today to discover the new, young sexy writers and less fuss paid to mid-career writers, says Ricci, Tuesday’s winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction for his latest novel, The Origin of Species. “It’s become a real struggle getting through that without falling off the map. There’s less and less space for people who are not the big sellers. There’s a lot more pressure for every book to be a big book.”

Ricci, 49, beat fellow contenders David Adams Richards (The Lost Highway), Rawi Hage (Cockroach), Fred Stenson (The Great Karoo) and Rivka Galchen (Atmospheric Disturbances) for the $25,000 Governor General’s Literary Award. The Origin of Species was also long-listed for this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, won by another York alumnus Joseph Boyden (see YFile, Nov. 13).

This is the second time Ricci has won the prestigious Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. His first win was in 1990 for his debut novel, Lives of the Saints, which later became part of a trilogy.

Despite winning two Governor General’s Literary Awards, and many more honours, self-doubt remains Ricci’s constant demon. “Am I on the right track? When it takes four to five years to do a project and you’ve already been doing it for three years without any outside confirmation that what you’re doing has any value, that’s difficult,” he says. “The big demon is always doubt. There’s always the possibility that I’ve gone off in the wrong direction or lost my touch. When I finish a project, I right away put my emotional eggs in the next basket. So if one doesn’t do well, I’ve got the next one. I’d be quite terrified if I’d finished one project and didn’t have anything else ahead.”

Left: Nino Ricci

Ever humble, Ricci puts his latest win down to happenstance. “There’s a large amount of chance and luck – who is on the jury or what the zeitgeist is at that moment,” he says. It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate the award. He does. “It’s cherished,” he says. This second win even more than the first as he now grasps the importance of it. Still, he says, “they’re a bit of a lottery these things.”

This year’s English fiction jury members, authors Shauna Singh Baldwin, Greg Hollingshead and Jane Urquhart, have this to say about The Origin of Species: “[It] is written with great humanity, realism and wit. Told in windowpane prose, this story reads as if it has come up through our collective memory. With the shock of recognition, we gain a new understanding of our fragility and our strength.”

Set in 1980s Montreal against a backdrop of Brian Mulroney leading Canada, Margaret Thatcher in England and Ronald Reagan in the US, The Origin of Species (Doubleday Canada, 2008) follows the travails of Alex Fratarcangeli, a 30-something graduate student, as he explores his tattered life with the help of a psychoanalyst. Alex faces his demons – guilt over former relationships, a desire for love and, at the same time, unencumbered sex. A disastrous trip to the Galapagos Islands figures prominently in his psyche and is only now slowly unravelling truths he failed to recognize earlier. Throughout, Alex continues to struggle with his dissertation on Darwin’s theory of evolution and to grapple with human emotions he now feels are obsolete, evolutionary leftovers. In the midst of this he meets characters who embrace life despite great physical and mental hardships and gradually he begins to discover life isn’t as meaningless as he once thought.

“In this book there are a lot of things that have an autobiographical base, but they are twisted and changed,” Ricci says. “I had some fun with that – what is fact and what is fiction.”

Ricci was born in Leamington, Ont. to Italian immigrant parents. He is a multi-award-winning author of five books of fiction, many of them mining the Italian-Canadian immigrant experience. “I’ll mine anything. I’m not picky about what I mine – other people’s experiences…anecdotes I’ve heard in bars – however it comes to me,” says Ricci, who studied English at York and creative writing at Concordia University. “I had some life-changing profs at York. Probably half the courses I took there had profs who were quite seminal to me,” he says. That includes W. O. Mitchell. “I was told by him I didn’t have what it takes to be a writer. It could have been quite devastating. Fortunately, I really had no other life plan and I had to make it work. It gave me something to fight against, something to prove. So in some ways I’m quite indebted to him.” (See YorkU, Summer 2004, "Big Ideas" and "The Lifetime Reading Plan".)

Later, Ricci took up Italian studies at the University of Florence, Italy. He was also a writer-in-residence under the auspices of the Mariano A. Elia Chair in Italian-Canadian Studies at York in 2000. In 2006, Ricci won the inaugural Alistair MacLeod Award for Literary Achievement. The past president of PEN Canada, he now writes at his Toronto home where he lives with his wife, fellow writer Erika de Vasconcelos.

Lives of the Saints, on The Globe and Mail’s bestseller list for 75 weeks, won the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Betty Trask Award, the Winifred Holtby Prize and the F.G. Bressani Prize. It was also shortlisted for the Giller Prize. The trilogy, which included In A Glass House (1993) and Where She has Gone (1997) and followed an Italian family in Italy and after their move to Canada, was made into a miniseries staring Sophia Loren, Sabrina Ferilli and Kris Kristofferson. It was directed by Jerry Ciccoritti.

Testament (Doubleday, 2002) his fourth novel and winner of Ontario’s Trillium Book Award, is set in the time of the Roman Empire and is about the life of Jesus as Ricci sees it, following his journey as he changes the course of humanity. Testament was also shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was a Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year.

Ricci is already at work on his next book, a non-fiction piece about Pierre Trudeau due out in 2009. It is part of the Penguin series Extraordinary Canadians edited by John Ralston Saul.

Some habits, like self-doubt, are hard to break, but Ricci seems firmly established as an internationally recognized writer. As fellow author Timothy Findley once commented: “Ricci belongs on the shelf reserved for writers such as Chatwin, Ondaatje and Flannery O’Connor.”

The Governor General’s Literary Awards will be presented to the winners on Dec. 10 at Rideau Hall in Ottawa by the Governor General of Canada Michaëlle Jean. The Governor General’s Literary Awards, funded and administered by the Canada Council, are Canada’s oldest awards for English- and French-language Canadian literature, having been around for 72 years.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer