It happened in the Mariposa Inn in Orillia, the centre of all things Leacockian. A large bust of Stephen Leacock himself sat prominently on the stage before a big, ornate room filled with a jovial group of literature lovers. These are people who appreciate a chuckle as much as a well-turned phrase and a scintillating idea, and who have worked — many of them for years now — to reward books that share those affections. I sat in my seat, beside my regal editor Lara Hinchberger, and across from fellow nominee Terry Fallis — who, by the way, may be the nicest man in Canadian literature — growing ever more anxious as the big announcement approached.
I’m not going to lie to you — I wanted to win this award. And not only because I’d come close in others without taking home the prize. I’d been fully aware of the Leacock Medal ever since one of my CanLit heroes, Paul Quarrington, won it in 1988, for his novel King Leary. It has been won by many of the country’s most famous authors: Mordecai Richler, W.O. Mitchell, Pierre Burton, Farley Mowat, Stuart McLean, Robertson Davies. Earle Birney had won it in 1950 for Turvey, a comic novel about a wartime private that was, sixteen years later, adapted into a stage musical in which my father appeared in a featured role. It had history, and I had a personal connection to that history. And so, when I began to write novels more than a decade ago, it was a hope, shyly sequestered in the back of my mind, that I might one day win it myself.
But on this occasion I didn’t like my odds. First of all, the competition was fierce. Terry Fallis, David Rakoff and Todd Babiak are all accomplished and respected authors. Fallis had won the Leacock medal before, and also Canada Reads. Babiak had been long-listed for the Giller. Rakoff had even been a guest on The Daily Show, for heaven’s sake. And the other guy — Red Green, the character created by Steve Smith — was arguably more famous as a humourist than any of us.
Adding to the unlikelihood of my winning was the fact that the Leacock Medal has often gone to books dealing in a lighter kind of humour. Practical Jean, in contrast, is risky and dark: Thoughts about death … scenes of murder, intergenerational sex, lesbian sex. I mean, there’s a reason that former Leacock winner Bill Richardson said this might be “the blackest comedy ever written about the white middle class.” (And indeed, Mike Hill, the president of the Stephen Leacock Association, admitted to the Barrie Examiner later that as a Leacock Medal winner, Practical Jean was “a little darker than usual.”)
But still, as I sat waiting for the announcement, frozen in the moment, I thought what a gift it would be to win. Not just for what the award might do for the book, but for what it symbolized for me, personally. It had been a difficult year. My marriage had ended in the spring of 2010 (and by strange coincidence, the worst of those terrible days, according to the journal I was keeping at the time, came on April 28, exactly one year to the day before the Leacock announcement.) Not only that, but a few months after, in August, my mother had died unexpectedly, of complications from a medical procedure. The process of rising out of that combined grief was slow and difficult. But what helped pull me up was the anticipation of Practical Jean’s publication in the fall, and then the joy of sharing Jean’s story with audiences. Hearing their laughter, looking up from the page and seeing the smiles on their faces, was a great salve, and made those days much brighter than they would otherwise have been.
Winning the Leacock Medal really has nothing to do with all that, of course. But somehow, for me, it does.