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St. John’s women all up for lucrative Atlantic fiction award

The 2019 finalists for Atlantic Canada’s lucrative literary award are all St. John’s women. Sharon Bala, Elisabeth di Mariaffi and Lisa Moore sat down with The Telegram to discuss their shortlisted works and what readers can expect next.
The 2019 finalists for Atlantic Canada’s lucrative literary award are all St. John’s women. Sharon Bala, Elisabeth di Mariaffi and Lisa Moore sat down with The Telegram to discuss their shortlisted works and what readers can expect next. - Juanita Mercer

Atlantic Book Awards gala set for Thursday evening

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

When Lisa Moore was a child she was interested in filmmaking. Sharon Bala thought she’d become a lawyer or clinical psychologist. Elisabeth de Mariaffi pondered a career in international relations.

Isn’t it wonderful that some dreams die?

If not, all three St. John’s writers would never be nominated for the most lucrative literary prize in Atlantic Canada.

In a coincidence that would make one wonder if there’s something in the water in the capital city, the three of them are finalists for the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, valued at $25,000.

Bala was nominated for “The Boat People”, a fictionalized account of what happened when refugees fleeing civil war in Sri Lanka reached British Columbia’s shores; de Mariaffi was nominated for “Hysteria”, a psychological thriller set in 1950s America that highlights the still-present issue of abusive relationships; and Moore was nominated for “Something for Everyone”, her third collection of short stories.

The women spoke with The Telegram at the A.C. Hunter Library Monday morning in advance of the Atlantic Book Awards gala happening 7 p.m. Thursday at the Sheraton Hotel Newfoundland in downtown St. John's.

A display case featuring their books sits nearby as they sit around a table chatting about everything from feminism to the refugee crisis – both topics explored in their shortlisted works.

Asked how it feels to be nominated with their neighbours, Bala beamed: “I’m so proud of us,” and, “I think my head’s gotten really big,” she laughed.

What accounts for the success of these women amongst the ocean of literature released across the four provinces last year?

“There is a sense, I think, of being on the periphery, and let’s hold each other up,” Moore said in a voice that seemed she was thinking aloud.

“Trudy Morgan-Cole said, which I’ve been running through my head the whole time, ‘A rising tide floats all boats,’ and I think that’s true.”

It was as if the reporter asked the trio to engage in a compliment contest when they were asked if they seek one another out for help or advice – Moore commended Bala’s command of the “beautiful sentence”, Bala praised de Mariaffi’s ability to capture a particular mood, while de Mariaffi suggested there isn’t a writer in town who wouldn’t consider Moore a mentor.

And the answer is: Yes, they all support one another.

“One of the things that I think is really lovely about here, which I don’t know if it’s like that anywhere else, but you meet a writer and you’re just getting started, and the writer is Lisa.  And she says, ‘What do you do?’” said Bala.

“And you say, ‘I write’ – the verb – because you don’t feel like you can take on the noun. And then Lisa says to you, ‘But if you write, you’re a writer.’ And she was the first person who said that to me.

“Now when I meet other people who say, ‘I’m thinking about it’, or, ‘I’m starting…’, I just say, ‘Do it. Do it. Write – you’re a writer.’”

Importance of funding

The Thomas Raddall award was first presented in 1991 with an endowment from Raddall himself and continues with ongoing support from the Raddall family.

He envisioned the award would provide writers with the time and peace of mind that’s vital to creating new work.

However, for writers just beginning their careers, this year’s finalists also spoke about the importance of funding from the provincial arts council, ArtsNL.

De Mariaffi said she published her first book when she was a single mother living in Ontario. She got a grant from the Ontario Arts Council for $12,000 to write it.

“I cried because I had $20 left in the bank,” she recalled.

Bala described her first ArtsNL grant of just over $1,800 as “a miracle.”

She said if funding for artists doesn’t reach $5 million by 2021 – as promised by the Liberal government leading up to the provincial election – then “I just don’t know how we’re going to sustain. …There’s just not going to be anyone to come behind us.”

Upcoming works

When Bala arrived at the library at 9:30 a.m., she smiled that she had still managed to get in a bit of writing before the interview.

She said her current novel is “very different” from “The Boat People”, and while she didn’t give any hints about plot, she did say she’s currently “interrogating the characters.”

Moore indicated she’s nearly finished her latest novel because she’s written 80,000 words and her books tend to hover between 80,000 to 85,000 words.

“I’m writing about motherhood in some ways. Also sacrifice, and the notion of unconditional love.

“I’m really interested in this notion of unconditional love. What it means to love somebody no matter what, and when you don’t really have a choice, and what happens when that goes wrong.

“I think that is what it’s about,” Moore laughed.

Meanwhile, de Mariaffi said she’s “hoping to finish a draft really soon” for her latest work. She described it as a climate change thriller with a dancer as the protagonist.

Moore’s eyes widened.

“That’s fantastic!” she exclaimed. “I can’t wait to get my hands on it.”

When di Mariaffi said she’s spent two weeks “wanting to cry every day” because she can’t seem to write the ending perfectly, the women set about doing what they seem to do best – offering encouragement and praise.

Perhaps there’s nothing in the water in St. John’s at all – perhaps their coincidental success boils down to having supportive neighbours.

Twitter: @juanitamercer_


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