TORONTO – Of all the advantages to being named a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, among the least of them is a potential paycheque, says Montreal writer Josip Novakovich.
A day after learning he was among 10 finalists vying for the $95,000 prize, the Croatian-born short-story writer and novelist says he’s revelling in the practical perks that come with global recognition.
“Already my publisher HarperCollins, who didn’t want to talk to me before, is talking to me,” Novakovich said Friday, admitting that sales of his last two books with the publisher “have not been great.”
“So hopefully it seems I’ll be publishing with them again and that is exciting.”
Novakovich is among 10 finalists for the Man Booker International Prize, awarded every two years for a lifetime’s work by a fiction author whose work is available in English.
This year’s list is comprised largely of lesser-known writers. Among the bigger names are Israel’s Aharon Appelfeld and U.S. author Marilynne Robinson, an Orange Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award winner who is the only one of the 10 who has been nominated before.
Unlike most contests, no submissions are allowed for the Man Booker International Prize, making the list of contenders solely the discretion of the judges. This year they are: Christopher Ricks, Elif Batuman, Aminatta Forna, Yiyun Li and Tim Parks.
Novakovich, who supports his craft by teaching creative writing at Concordia University, says he has no idea how he caught the judges’ attention or how he was designated Canadian by prize organizers.
“I suspect some Canadians must have (lobbied for me) because otherwise Americans would have said ‘Croatian-American’ or ‘American,’ or something like that,” says the 56-year-old, who holds U.S. and Croatian citizenship.
“But I like this better. And also I like that there’s absolutely no hyphen, no hesitation: ‘This guy’s ours. He’s Canadian.’ Great.”
Novakovich moved to Montreal in 2009 and said he’s set to receive his landed immigrant status this weekend.
“In a way, it feels like a bigger deal than the being a Booker finalist — being a Canadian finalist,” he quips.
Born in a small town near Zagreb called Daruvar, Novakovich left Croatia at age 19 to study medicine in Serbia.
A year later, he headed to the United States where he took various subjects including psychology, theology, philosophy and creative writing. He attended schools including Vassar College, Yale University and the University of Texas.
His first publication was a short story in the New England Review in 1988 when he was 32.
Since then, he established a darkly comic flair in writings about the Yugoslav war and its atrocities.
“They say when things are sad there’s always something that is so strange that you can in some way even see humour in it…. During the war I was going there and people kept telling jokes and strange events from the war that, whether true or not, became part of the lore,” says Novakovich.
“They would talk about how Croatians didn’t have enough tanks but they had money. And Serbs had a lot of tanks so sometimes they would make this arrangement to rent tanks from the Serbs in order to shoot at the Serbs. It’s totally absurd and probably true.”
Novakovich used that anecdote in the short story “The Enemy,” included in the short-story collection “Salvation and Other Disasters.” His other short-story collections include “Yolk” and “Infidelities: Stories of War and Lust.”
Novakovich says he had a good job as an English professor at Pennsylvania State University when he uprooted his family and moved to Montreal, fed up with the former George W. Bush administration.
“Canada seemed so much better, more humane, more responsible financially … and in many other ways just suits my political views better,” he says.
Winning the Man Booker International Prize would allow him to put a down payment on a small apartment, he says, noting that until he becomes a landed immigrant he cannot secure a bank loan: “Now I can start thinking in those terms.”
“That’s the best thing about the award — that I can basically continue to be a professional, just at a moment when I was full of doubt,” adds Novakovich, who says he’s revising a book about Russian life and politics that HarperCollins had previously passed on.
“The money, still, is not the main thing. The main thing is the recognition and convincing the publishers to publish me and also it makes it easier for them once they’re published to promote me.”
Novakovich’s previous awards include a Fulbright fellowship at Russia’s St. Petersburg University in 2006, a New York Public Library fellowship in 2001 worth $50,000 and a Whiting Writer’s Award worth $30,000 in 1997.
“Each time they came at the right moment,” he says. “They always seem to come at the moment when I felt that I was just terrible and hopeless.”
The winner of this year’s Man Booker International Prize will be announced in London on May 22 — when Novakovich says he’s slated to be at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as a visiting professor.
He said he won’t be worrying about how he fares on that day.
“This is the most important stage, to be selected in the top 10 in the world,” he says.
“This is already great. I’m not even thinking of anything more. If it happens, great, but if it doesn’t that’s fine. I’m not going to weep on that day.”