Kitchener- born author earns prestigious nod

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Being nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award is a great honour when bestowed upon any author. 2011 shortlisted author Alexi Zentner describes the experience as “surreal.” “It’s wonderful and disorienting,” said Zentner sincerely, speaking to the The Cord.

Touch, Zentner’s debut novel, has been a long six years in the making. The Kitchener-born author admits that he was relatively new to the craft, saying, “I’d only been writing seriously for about a month before I started.”

“I was a stay at home dad. We hired a babysitter to come in two hours a week so I could write. The first day, I went out to a coffee shop and basically just surfed the Internet. Then I got home and realized I needed to pay the babysitter,” Zentner recalled jokingly.

The fictional Canadian town of Sawgamet provides the backdrop for Zentner’s debut novel. A mining boomtown in a bygone era, Sawgamet is a logging village nestled into the wilderness of Northern British Columbia.

The story follows the characters Jeannot and his wife Martine during the town’s early years, simultaneously telling the story of their grandson, Steven. Steven, born into family tragedy, returns to Sawgamet after 30 years of absence to be near to his dying mother.

Zentner first wrote Touch as a short story, which was published in the literary journal Tin House, and later became the first chapter in the novel. It also earned the author a spot in Cornell University’s prestigious MFA program in creative writing. “I always wanted to write it as a novel, but I didn’t want to write is as a novel until I thought I could do it like I wanted to,” Zentner explained.

“The book itself started from an image of this girl trapped under the ice,” said Zentner. “I was haunted by the question of what it would mean to have someone you loved be essentially unstable and yet, so close to you. Somebody who you loved and wanted to save, and yet you could do nothing for them. I was really trapped by that image.”

Brimming with mythical elements and folklore, Touch explores the experience of Canadian wilderness, and “what it would mean to be the first people in a place that really is wild and unsettled.” These elements of mythology and folklore are documented in the novel through the eyes of the first white settlers in Sawgamet.

“Some elements are taken from mythology, but I very consciously took them and turned them into my own versions of them. The story is very much about the white settlers versus the myths and the stories of Canadian folklore; the myths seen through the eyes of settlers,” Zentner said of the novel.

Zentner grew up in Kitchener with his mother, and father (a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University) before moving to Chicago and eventually settling in New York City, where he lives and works today. Touch has been shortlisted for the 2011 Governor General’s Literary Award, Canada’s oldest literary prize (winners announced Nov. 15) and was longlisted for the 2011 Giller Prize.

Speaking of the nominations, Zentner declared, “To have your name in a conversation that involves the writers you grew up idolizing and admiring is wonderful. I read these things and I feel like I’m reading about someone else. I think I wrote a good book, but it’s still amazing to me that people want to read it.”


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