LINDSEY BAKER

The New Seattle

An Alberta city emerges as the new (literary) Seattle.

By Wayne Arthurson

Imagine a Canadian prairie city in which four separate, relatively unknown artists sign major label deals, three with US companies, in less than a year. What would happen?

 “If four local bands—whether they be innovative or mere clones of commercial successes—were signed to major labels, attention would immediately focus on that city,” says Tom Murray, an Edmonton-based musician and freelance journalist whose work regularly appears in the Edmonton Journal. “Labels would rush in, snap up the most commercially viable [other bands]. The mainstream media would anoint the city.”

When grunge broke in the early ’90s, Rolling Stone called Seattle “the new Liverpool.” Nowadays, any city that has a hot music scene hopes to be called “the new Seattle.” 

Edmonton is the new Seattle. But I’m talking about writers, not music. So let me clarify: Edmonton is the literary equivalent of the new Seattle. 

I know I’m going against conventional wisdom—not least of which because most members of the literary establishment believe that Calgary is “the” hot lit city in Canada. When I queried the Book Publishers Association of Alberta (BPAA) about what’s new and exciting in the province, I received a 175-word essay on the future of print-on-demand and ebooks, plus 18 points about what’s hot in Alberta. Only two of those points concerned Edmonton: Alice Major’s winning the BPAA Trade Book of the Year Award for The Office Tower Tales, and a comment about Marina Endicott’s novel Good to a Fault being shortlisted for the Giller Prize. But that comment itself was only a footnote to the success of Calgary’s Broadview Press’s new imprint, Freehand Books. 

When I asked the Writers Guild of Alberta (WGA) the same question, I initially got a list of the 2009 Alberta Literary Awards winners. When I pressed for more, specifically mentioning Edmonton, I received some information on the Edmonton Book Prize, plus a couple of listings about successful Calgary writers. As well, it was relayed to me that a WGA staffer overheard an Alberta publisher noting that they read manuscripts from Calgary writers much faster “because there’s a lot of good stuff coming out of Calgary.”

And there is a lot of good stuff coming out of Calgary: up-and-coming writers such as Samantha Warwick, William Neil Scott, Jaspreet Singh and Andrew Wedderburn; established writers such as Fred Stenson, Weyman Chan, Andrew Nikiforuk and Chris Turner; the University of Calgary’s highly respected creative writing program; a vibrant new imprint in Freehand Books; the continued thriving of publishing houses such as Rocky Mountain Books, Frontenac House and Bayeux Arts; and the always entertaining Spoken Word Festival and WordFest.

“If four local bands were signed to major labels, the mainstream media would anoint the city.”

Still, I’m firm in my assertion that Edmonton is the new literary Seattle. And others agree. “The writers in Edmonton are amazing,” says novelist Thomas Trofimuk. “This scene is diverse. The voices are incredible. It’s nurturing and supportive, and it’s bearing fruit.”

The fruit Trofimuk is talking about comes from many trees. There are the awards and/or shortlists, the typical measure of success in CanLit. Marina Endicott, Dianne Lindens, Thomas Wharton, Caterina Edwards, Alice Major, Rudy Wiebe and Lisa Martin-Demore (among others) all recently won or were shortlisted for various writing awards. Drew Karpyshyn’s third novel set in the Star Wars universe, Darth Bane: Dynasty of Evil, will be released this month (his first two were major successes; the first hit #11 on The New York Times bestseller list). Marty Chan released his first picture book, A True Story, in May; The Mystery of the Cyber Bully, the fourth book in his bestselling young adult mystery series, is due in the spring. Cora Taylor published two books, Victoria Callihoo and The Spy Who Wasn’t There: Chaos in China, in 2009. And a two-time finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award, Minister Faust, completed the manuscript for his third novel, which is now being shopped by his New York agent. And then there’s the stable of up-and-coming writers, many unpublished, but with talent and stories matching anything being published today.

But this in itself could describe many Canadian writing scenes. Here’s the kicker. Remember Tom Murray’s quote about what would happen if four bands were signed to major label deals in less than year? Well, that’s what’s happened in the City of Champions. 

In May 2008, Trofimuk signed a $200,000 (US$) deal with Doubleday US for his third novel, Waiting for Columbus. McClelland & Stewart is the Canadian publisher and the book was released in North America in August. It was also sold to publishers in the UK, Serbia and Brazil. In August 2008, Edmonton Journal columnist Todd Babiak signed a five-figure, two-book deal with Harper/Collins Canada. The first book, Toby: A Man, will be published in March 2010. Last January, Mar’ce Merrell (author and mother of five children) signed a five-figure deal with Feiwel & Friends—a major young adult imprint of Macmillan US—for her novel The Cake Princess (working title). It’s scheduled for release in spring 2011. And last, and hopefully not least, in October of 2008, I signed a five-figure, two-book deal with Tor/Forge to begin a mystery series set in Edmonton. The publication date for the first novel (working title: Fall from Grace) hasn’t been determined, but signs point to 2011.

So that’s four Edmonton writers with major books deals, three from major US publishers, in under eight months. If such a thing had happened in the music scene, Edmonton would be the music hotspot of the country. The local media have written about the specific deals, but no one has yet connected the dots to reveal the bigger picture. Or at the very least, no one has decided to climb out on the same limb I’m on.

So climb out with me and shout it out: Edmonton is the new literary Seattle! 

Forget what the local literary establishment thinks—even though the money represented by those four deals signed by Edmonton writers is essentially one-third of the entire funding assistance Alberta publishers get annually from the provincial government. Heck, the WGA didn’t even mention that rapper Cadence Weapon was named Edmonton’s Poet Laureate in 2008, and that news hit everywhere—even on CBC’s The National. (I was later shocked to find out that Calgary doesn’t even have a poet laureate, which is almost criminal considering the strength of its poetry scene. Let me hereby get the ball rolling by nominating Sheri-D Wilson.)

And that is another reason why Edmonton is the new Seattle. We have the writers, we have the awards, we have the deals, big and small, plus we have the coolest poet laureate on the planet. Jump on the bandwagon because—at the moment—there’s plenty of room. 

Wayne Arthurson lives in Edmonton. His second and third novels will be published by Tor/Forge sometime in the next 18 months.

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