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Interview with Jocelyn Parr, GG Award nominee for Uncertain Weights and Measures

As you may know, Goose Lane author Jocelyn Parr's debut novel Uncertain Weights and Measures has been recently shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award for Adult Fiction (as well as the Concordia University First Book Prize from the Quebec Writers' Federation).

Jocelyn was nice enough to find time in her busy schedule to answer a few questions for us.

1.      What was the impetus behind Uncertain Weights and Measures?

A friend happened to loan me a tremendous book called Making Things Public: Atmospheres of DemocracyIn it, I found a very short, very intriguing article which described the brain institute that displayed Lenin's brain in the early Stalin years. The way the institute combined science, politics and something akin to a reliquary intrigued me, so I wanted to read everything I could find about it.

It turns out, there wasn't much published about it because the history of the institute had been systematically erased once the cult of Stalin surpassed the cult of Lenin. When my sources ran dry, I started inventing.

2.      Did your novel change at all once it was accepted for publication? 

It changed quite a bit. My editor, Bethany Gibson, was the perfect combination of challenging and encouraging, so in part due to her, I cut one character and vastly expanded another. In total, I added about 15,000 words, or 60 pages, to the manuscript that year, but I probably added even more, given how much I cut.

3.      How do you feel having your debut novel be nominated for The Governor General's Award for Adult Fiction?

It's a tremendous recognition. I feel very lucky.

4.      Did you ever think such your work would achieve such an honour?

I hoped it would happen one day!

5.      What has the reaction been to the nomination?

It's been a dream: my loved ones are over the moon, my students and colleagues are surprised and impressed to see me cast in the new light of "writer" as opposed to "historian," and the community more broadly has shown an excitement about the book that has been very rewarding.  

6.      In Canada, the big literary awards are the GG, the Giller Prize, and the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. What do you think of the fact that, for the first time since all three awards have co-existed, not one single book appears in more than one list?

I'm really glad you asked this question. This year, publishers had to deal with different constraints on how many books they could submit to a given award, so this may explain, in part, why the lists are so different, but I think a broader explanation is that there were likely many, many excellent books vying for those coveted top spots. 

What these lists tell me, and what I hope they tell readers in Canada, is that there is something beautifully arbitrary about which books make lists like these. The juries are composed of people, after all, and although they are esteemed writers themselves, I doubt they'd describe themselves as the perfect judges of all things literary. Instead, they know a good sentence when they see one, and they recognize craft, and they fall in love with characters, and they are intrigued and moved and awed in mercurial ways, just like the rest of us. 

I can only imagine that the juries had long and difficult conversations as they tried to convince each other which books deserved the kind of attention that comes with such nominations. That the lists they produced are so different could be due to different books having been submitted, but I think they're also due to different readers making the selections, which is to say that had there been other juries, a whole other set of books might have been nominated. Our question, then, as readers, should be about those yet-to-be-discovered books, the ones that might have nominated had the jury (or wind, or universe) been different. 

8.      Can you say what's next for you, or is it a secret?

The next book I'm working on is a book that explores the relationship between my family's history and settler colonialism. For the past two hundred years, my ancestors have lived all over the so-called Commonwealth and our movements have manifested the patterns of settlers the world over. The book is a reckoning with that in light of the calls to action put forth by 2015's Truth and Reconciliation CommissionIt's written as a series of short interlockingpieces, some tender, some hard.

Thanks, Jocelyn!
Reminder: Winners of The Governor General's Literary Awards will be announced on November 1, 2017!
Jocelyn Parr was born in New Zealand, but grew up on Canada's West Coast. Her writing has been published in France, Germany, and Canada and in magazines such as Matrix, Grain, and Brick Magazine. She now lives in Montreal, where she teaches history at Dawson College.
awards Governor General's Literary Award Jocelyn Parr

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