With the BMO Winterset Award and the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award under her belt for “Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome,” Coles has now been announced as a winner of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Five x Five program.
The emerging writer program asked five accomplished Canadian writers — Michael Crummey, Ken Babstock, Madeleine Thien, Joseph Boyden and Esi Edugyan — to select a worthy emerging Canadian writer. Crummey, who was a Winterset Award finalist this year, gave his nod to Coles, the woman who won it.
“I had no idea that I was even being considered for it, so it’s quite a surprise. It’s really flattering,” said Coles, who met Crummey for the first time this winter at a protest.
Each of the five emerging artists takes home $5,000 and gets to enjoy some national exposure.
“When you’re just starting out in the fiction world, there are so many other books that have great merit published in the same year you’re published in that sometimes it’s really hard to get a readership because they don’t know you,” she said.
“When all the Winterset stuff was happening, my face in The Telegram was wedged in between Michael Crummey’s and Alan Doyle’s, and I kept thinking that everyone who looked at those pictures were going to be like, ‘Who’s the chick in the middle?’
She said winning the award also gives her a confidence boost.
“When a fellow writer has some admiration for your work, it makes you feel like maybe I’m getting something right. It gives you a little bit of fuel to keep going,” she said.
When she spoke with The Telegram Saturday, Coles was busting to find out who the other finalists were — the details were embargoed until Tuesday morning. She’s joined by Linda Besner of Montreal (selected by Babstock), Ghalib Islam of Toronto (selected by Thien), Eliza Robertson of Norwich, U.K. (selected by Boyden) and Melanie Siebert of Victoria (selected by Edugyan).
On women and humour
Despite the success of Coles’ first book, like many emerging writers, she has taken criticism of some of characters to heart. She’s been told her female characters are not “likable.”
“Apparently some of the readers have wondered aloud why they are not nice women. And I find this whole concept of a female character having to be nice to be valued in a piece of fiction really disturbing. Also I don’t think they’re un-nice — they just have the same range of emotions as any male character in their 20s and 30s and 40s.
“I think it’s kind of a reflection on what qualities we value in women in general. … We’ve come a long way, but we still have a way to go. And also, those are the type of women I choose to spend my time with. They’re my favourite characters.”
Coles, the proud owner of a dark sense of humour, said there were a few readers whose funnybones were unaffected by her writing.
“I find it shocking that certain people don’t find the stories funny, because I think they’re hilarious. I’m like, look at the nonsense people get themselves into. We’re all so flawed,” she said.
Coles hopes the Five x Five program, which is described now as a one-time program, can continue. She said writers — and other artists — need all the help they can get in these parts.
She calls the level of financial support Newfoundland and Labrador artists receives “shockingly poor considering the way we parade our arts and culture professionals around when we’re talking about tourism, or sense of self or pride, or anything of that nature.”
She said financial hurdles make it difficult to make it as a writer, and if she hadn’t been so “dogged,” she wouldn’t be enjoying the success she is now.
“People still have to pay their rent; they still have to eat and keep the lights on. There are daily standard of living requirements that you must have, and when you’re under the amount of pressure that you sometimes find yourself under as an emerging writer, it’s not a very amicable environment for creativity,” she said.
“The stakes would be in our favour — quite a bit higher — if there was more funding in general. And I encourage everybody to apply, because some of this money is based on the number of applications.”
Between working as a publicist for Breakwater Books and her role as co-founder and co-artistic director of Poverty Cove Theatre Company, Coles tries to squeeze in weekend writing binges where she can. She’s working on a stage adaptation of Lisa Moore’s story “Grace,” and getting ready to lead a playwriting unit in October.
When asked if she’s working on another book, she wouldn’t spill.
“I’m always working on something. I mean, I’m writing plays all the time. Everybody knows about the plays. … I might be writing some prose,” she said.
Whatever she’s doing, being named as one of the five in Five x Five has given her the confidence to proceed.
“I’m so grateful that some of my peers have enjoyed or respected the work that I’m putting out there, and it gives me the courage to keep pushing forward,” she said.