Will Ferguson has won the 2012 Giller Prize, the $50,000 award considered one of Canada’s most prestigious literary honours.
Though best known for his humour and travel writing, the Calgary writer won for his dark novel 419 on Tuesday night, accepting the prize at a star-studded gala in Toronto.
“I want to thank the jury for putting together such a fresh list of books,” Ferguson, who was dressed in a traditional kilt, said after taking the stage to accept the prize.
“I commend them for taking the books on their own merit, without preconceptions — which is how a jury should act.”
Then, reaching into his sporran for a flask, the author concluded his speech by leading the audience in a toast.
“Ladies and gentlemen: To the written word,” Ferguson said before taking a sip from the flask he procured from the pouch.
“And finally, to answer the question you’re all wondering — yes I have something on underneath!”
A departure and a continuation
419 is a provocative tale of an email scam and a woman who sets out on a wide-ranging search for those she believes responsible for her father’s death. It’s different sort of writing for many fans of Ferguson, a three-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal.
“Everyone’s saying it’s a departure, which is understandable, but I think it’s a continuum from Spanish Fly,” he told reporters after the ceremony, referencing his earlier book.
“Spanish Fly was about con artists in the 1930s. It was a historical novel. So I didn’t think of  as out of the blue, but I think of it as a continuation.”
Ferguson didn’t worry as much about writing in a genre for which he isn’t as known.
“I think my publisher really took more of a risk than I did, to be honest, when I switched to literary fiction,” he said.
Despite the kudos he’s received for 419, he not ready to limit himself to one type of writing either.
“If a funny story grabs you, it grabs you. If travel grabs you, it grabs you,” he said, noting that his next book will be a travel narrative about Rwanda, Burundi and potentially eastern Congo.
“I try to switch between fiction and travel. It uses different parts of your brain. No, I’m not giving up on travel writing, but I’m certainly enjoying fiction.”
Along with the $50,000 cash prize, Ferguson will likely see a healthy sales boost for 419 — a post-prize bump dubbed “the Giller effect.”
Audience of notable Canadians
Satirist Rick Mercer, Olympian Rosie MacLennan, actress Kim Cattrall, soprano Measha Brueggergosman and actor Allan Hawco each introduced one of the evening’s finalists.
Ferguson’s fellow shortlisted authors included St. John’s writer Russell Wangersky (Whirl Away) and Montreal authors Nancy Richler (The Imposter Bride), Alix Ohlin (Inside) and Kim Thuy (Ru) — each of whom will receive $5,000.
Tuesday night’s ceremony opened with a dance piece by two members of the National Ballet of Canada, performing to an acoustic version of I Won’t Let You Go (Darling) sung by rocker Jacob Hoggard.
CBC personality Jian Ghomeshi hosted the gala, which he described as a celebration of authors, at Toronto’s Ritz-Carleton Hotel.
Actor Gordon Pinsent, interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae and Conrad Black were among the notable figures who attended the posh awards gala. Past Giller-winners Margaret Atwood, Vincent Lam and Linden Macintyre were also in the audience.
This year’s jury — Irish author Roddy Doyle, Canadian publisher and writer Anna Porter and American satirist Gary Shteyngart — read more than 140 books in approximately 4½ months, according to businessman and prize founder Jack Rabinovitch.
Awarded annually since 1994, the prize was established by Rabinovitch in memory of his late wife, literary journalist Doris Giller.
Honouring the best book of English-language fiction written in the past year, the Giller has previously gone to writers such as Mordecai Richler, Rohinton Mistry, Alice Munro and Esi Edugyan.