Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015
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Eye on the Prize

Booklovers Diane Miljours & Elana Rabinovitch discuss their work at two of Canada's biggest literary awards
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Over a 48-Hour period, Diane Miljours, Officer in charge of the Governor General’s Literary Awards, and Elana Rabinovitch of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and also founder and director of the media-relations company Propaganda Ink, talked about their career paths, writing and the pleasure of overseeing two of Canada's biggest literary awards.

Diane Miljours:

I am very pleased to meet you. It is a wonderful opportunity to get to know each other and to exchange ideas.

I’ll start from a personal perspective, and look forward to hearing your story, too. How did I get to this amazing place in my life, where my passions and career align?

I came to the Canada Council for the Arts four years ago, for a very specific job that had been posted on their site: Officer in charge of the Governor General’s Literary Awards (or the GGLAs to make it short). It seemed to me at that time that it was the exact job I was looking for, even if it was just for a while (to replace someone). I was confident that, once there, something more permanent would occur. And it worked! So, here I am, four years later, in charge of the GGLAs, exactly where I wanted to be.

The red thread in my life is made of all these particles: literature, writing, words, even grammar (that I love!). First, I have always been a reader. Then, I worked as a book-seller, a French teacher and a journalist, after that I turned to the theatre world — a world of words again —, on and off the stage. Before coming to the Canada Council, my previous jobs were Performing Arts Officer at the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris and General Executive at the Centre des auteurs dramatiques (CEAD), the only French development centre for playwrights in Canada. All my life, through my work, my drive has been believing in the arts and artists and my pleasure has been working for them.

The Governor General Literary Awards fulfills these personal goals. Each year, 70 finalists (35 English, 35 French) in the categories of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, children’s literature (text and illustration) and translation receive recognition from other artists for a book they have written, translated or illustrated. Later on, the Canada Council announces and celebrates 14 winners (seven in English, seven in French) At each step, we are in contact with artists (the writers, the assessors) and their words (the books). Without forgetting the publishers, the essential books’ providers. They send us around 1500 books a year for the juries to read and assess. Imagine! It’s like having your own huge library where you can pick up whatever you want to read.

So, I am a very lucky and happy person! What about you?

Elana Rabinovitch:

That is quite the impressive resumé! It also sounds impressively linear, which my own background is decidedly not, with the caveat that language and literature have been constants.

I completed my undergraduate studies in Montreal at Concordia, in English literature. It set me up for extended, gainful unemployment, so I returned to school for Journalism studies at Carleton U in Ottawa. My first job fresh out of J school was as a cub reporter in Fort McMurray, Alberta where one of the beats was transcribing the police blotter of drunk-driving convictions. I then embarked on a career in broadcast journalism, first at Global TV, then at CBC National News and The Journal. I also did a stint at Southam News, which will likely date me since it’s now called CanWest News Service.

A screeching right turn followed when I was offered — and accepted — a gig at Sony Music Canada managing their Media and Artist Relations department. Though I wouldn’t be working in media per se, I’d be working with many of the journalists I knew and respected. Being a devoted record geek, the music part of the equation made the industry part more palatable.

After four years, I was recruited by PolyGram (later bought out by Universal) and spent some wonderful years promoting artists on labels like Island, Motown, A&M and others. The people I met, the travel the job afforded and the sheer joy of being introduced to exciting new music or working with favorite artists, was unbeatable.

After 10 years in the music business, it was time to do something new. Since I’d become somewhat proficient at P.R., I started my own firm, Propaganda Ink, and worked primarily in TV and film doing unit publicity. Three years ago, I also accepted a position as Books Editor at The Women’s Post, which (hopefully) keeps my writerly muscles from atrophying too badly.

In 1994, my father, Jack Rabinovitch, set up a literary prize in memory of his wife Doris Giller — my stepmother, who’d died that spring. I went to the ceremony in support every November. Beginning around 2002, I started to take over some responsibilities for the Giller Prize, primarily administration, marketing and publicity. The years wore on until I was looking after the prize with Jack in the role of wise counsel. Much like the music industry and journalism before that, it felt right — right to be working with books, with authors I knew and admired, being introduced to new writers and helping to promote Canadian literary excellence, both here and abroad.

And so here we are in 2010, the 17th year of the prize. I feel fortunate and privileged to have worked with some of Canada’s most outstanding writers. It’s also been gratifying to work alongside my father who’s a Shakespearean scholar with a steel trap of a memory, especially for jokes and off-colour anecdotes.

What’s your favourite part of the job? And, I’ll put the question to you since I’ve been asked this periodically: Have you ever considered writing a book?

DM:

There is a lot that I like in my job. First, talking with potential jury members, reaching artists all over Canada, discussing our process with them, but also hearing their own stories and their views about the awards, their professional lives or why they are thrilled or afraid (it’s a real personal involvement from them) to be asked to be a jury member. This is my first contact with some of these writers, translators or illustrators.

Then again, I like receiving all the books, looking, browsing through them all year long, reading in different categories, in English or in French, not even knowing whether they will be shortlisted or selected as winners. Just for the pleasure of reading. Shifting from experimental poetry to an historical essay, from a social play to a moving youth novel or a beautifully-illustrated book, from a French translation of an English short stories book to theatre....

Then come the meetings with the jury members. They are nourishing and stimulating and after an all-day meeting, instead of being tired or empty, on the contrary, I’m totally energized. The reason for that is very simple: all day long, I’ve been listening to an enthusiastic discussion about good literature. Of course, this notion of “good” could be discussed forever, and different juries would choose different books within the same category. We ask them to choose the best work in its category, based on literary and artistic excellence. They make their decision based solely on the quality of the books, not, for instance, on the complete body of work or the reputation of an author or whether or not the person has previously been a winner. They consider elements such as style and form, originality of theme or treatment, and/or impact (emotional, intellectual or social). But we are talking of human beings writing, human beings reading and human beings assessing, so we cannot forget that emotions do come into play. So, the system is as perfect as the human race itself!

There are a many jury meetings happening at the Canada Council. This is part of our life, part of the work. The Council strongly believes in peer assessment, and all the officers, in every discipline, love to organize and chair juries. But there is a little difference between the juries for the GGLAs and the others. Where most juries generally answer to requests made by artists or by organizations for financial support in order to create, present or disseminate new work, the GGLAs’ juries recognize a particular work already completed by an artist. Since the publisher submits the book for consideration, the artist is less dependent on the outcome, and the financial reward is a welcome surprise. So, I think this helps the juries when they discuss the books and they can focus on literature and literary and artistic excellence.

Another moment I love is calling all the winners and the finalists to give them the results. I like it because, again, it’s a direct contact with the writers or the translators or the illustrators. Of course, they are disappointed if they are not selected as winners, but, at least, having a personal call gives them the opportunity to express themselves and talk it through. On one hand, they might be disappointed, but on the other hand, they are actually happy, grateful and honoured. And as for me, it gives me the opportunity to tell everyone that the jury had to make difficult decisions but that the Council will promote all the finalists and winners’ books.

The final moment that I love is when we meet with the winners, first at the public announcement and then when they come to Ottawa for the official ceremony at Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s official residence. For the few days that we are with them, we try to make their life the easiest and the most agreeable possible. On their side, they like to meet with the other winners and share experiences. They always appreciate the fact that they will meet their “vis-à-vis” in the other language. For that week, I get to spend time with fourteen artists and fourteen publishers who deliver touching and often brilliant speeches, and I tell myself: Wow! Am I lucky! It’s my job!

Except maybe in my childhood, I have never wanted to be a writer myself, so my role as officer at the Council is simple and clear. And I feel that I am where I belong: as a supporter in a strong artistic environment. I do like to write but simply letters, or emails, like with you for instance. If I had had the desire, or the necessity, to write a book, I would have certainly done so.

But enough about me. What do you like, or not, in your job? And when you do go back to your writing, what will it be? A pure novel? A non-fiction book about all your experiences or your fascinating father? Why not start off with one of your father’s famous jokes?

Meanwhile, take care!

ER:

Thanks for such a thoughtful note. It’s clear you adore your work and all the distinct and varied elements intrinsic to the GGLAs. I enjoy many of the same aspects of the work as you do, especially helping to select and work with the juries and getting to know and work with the finalists in the month between the shortlist and winner announcement.

The Scotiabank Giller Prize (so named in 2005 after our partnership with the bank) is a bit of a different animal though. The biggest difference perhaps is that the Giller deals only in one category — fiction. The mandate has always been to focus on celebrating Canadian literary excellence and expanding its audience by promoting that literature both within Canada and abroad. The notion of helping to market Canadian fiction outside these borders is also what prompted us to bring in international jurors several years ago. The logic, as we saw it, was that Canadian literature had become increasingly recognized internationally so it was only right and good that international writers and critics be involved in judging that literature.

I’ve been so gratified to work with all of the writers (and in other cases, a bookseller, two broadcasters, a Supreme Court Justice and a politician) who’ve made up Giller Prize juries since the very beginning. Whatever alchemy is at play with our different collectives of three over the years has always created a fascinating dynamic. Bringing international jurors into the mix has been a big change and a heady process. It became very clear, very quickly, that these "non-Canadians" were eminently familiar with — not to mention big fans of — the work, not only of our best-known writers but also of new and emerging artists.

Unlike the GGLAs, the Giller jury is left entirely alone to conduct their deliberations. Neither Jack nor I sit in on the conference calls or meetings the jury has to winnow down the approximately 100 titles to a longlist of 10–15, to a shortlist of five and then, ultimately, a winner. I am available, as is the redoubtable David Staines, to provide advice on things like eligibility, the judging process and any other issues that require elucidation.

Like you, I love the exploratory ritual of leafing through new books and reading about the authors. The feel and smell of new books are always intoxicating. The experience seems almost illicit, as though I’ve been handed a rare and valuable dispensation.

Another aspect of the process that I’ve come to rely on is the Closing Night readings of the Giller finalists at the International Festival of Authors. The opportunity to hear an author read from their book surrounded by a roomful of people can be a dramatic departure from the experience of reading the same book yourself, alone and silently. It’s always a revelation when I hear authors give voice to their words.

We’ve always made it a practice not to tip our hand to any of the finalists. It’s partly so that someone directly involved with the book — agent, editor, partner — has the luxury of calling the author to let he or she know they’ve been A/ longlisted and/or B/ shortlisted. The winner isn’t known by anyone, including myself and Jack, until the actual announcement the night of the ceremony. I’m always dying of curiosity but have discovered that the payoff is greatest when I’m as on the edge of my seat as everyone else in the room.

I can foresee going back into journalism, but I’m not at all sure I have a book in me! Now Jack — Jack has a book in him, if only about those storied days in Montreal when his father hawked newspapers on the side of the road and his mother ran the Light Lunch diner. My father and his older brother Sam helped out at the diner after their father had a heart attack and their mother was tending to him. Sam had recently returned from Purdue after receiving his doctorate. Their cooking styles were wildly different, night and day - Jack was fast and furious behind the grill, Sam was neat and meticulous. One after another, customers came in, looked at my dad ready to take their breakfast order and said; “No. I vant the PhD should make my eggs.”

I can’t believe our time is almost up. Over to you!

DM:

This “48-hour conversation” turned out to be an enlightening one for me. I hope you feel the same. I can see some similarities but also differences between our work. It is obvious that you share the same passion for literature and reading!

I’m so glad we had this chat — what a wonderful opportunity to get to know each other while talking about our awards. But it also went by faster than I expected! Hopefully, one of these days we can actually meet in person and chat some more.

Until then, rest up, because it’s going to be a busy fall and book season....

ER:

Forgive me for throwing a spanner into the works but I wanted to make sure to touch on an issue that almost always comes up in a discussion of literary prizes, at least regarding the Giller. That is, whether prizes are good or bad. Do they disproportionately highlight the "losers" by rewarding the "winners"? Do they turn the art of writing into an unseemly commercial venture, distracting from the raison d’être of any creative work? Are they the lazy way of deciding what to put on one’s reading list for the season?

To all these comers, I would say, emphatically, no. I understand the leeriness of those who mistrust the commoditization of books but, let’s face it — books are written by people who would prefer they get read rather than not. Anything that helps a writer gain attention and continue to write is, in my estimation, a good thing. I think it’s wonderful that writers are earning well-deserved recognition for their art, through the GGLAs, the Giller, the Trillium et al, as well as through exposure via the media and social networking. And I think a lot of that is due to worker bees like us, behind the scenes, making it happen.

Hopefully we’ll meet in person one of these days. It’s been a real pleasure corresponding.

Diane Miljours

Diane Miljours has been with the Canada Council for the Arts for four years. She is the Officer in charge of the Governor General’s Literary Awards program and also co-administers the Literary and Art Magazines program. Previously, she was General Executive Director for eight years of the Centre des auteurs dramatiques (CEAD) — the only French development centre for playwrights in Canada — and for 12 years, the Performing Arts Officer at the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris, linked with the Canadian Embassy and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. Native of Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec, the arts have always been a part of her personal and professional life.

Elana Rabinovitch

Elana Rabinovitch was born in Ottawa, raised in Montreal and, notwithstanding the odd trip, has been largely confined to Toronto since the late Eighties. A former journalist and music industry executive, Rabinovitch today focuses her efforts on her media relations company, Propaganda Ink and acting as books editor and columnist for The Women's Post. Two and a half years ago, she had a baby, which totally changed her life.

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