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Mount Forest author longlisted for Scotiabank Giller Prize

André Forget's debut novel 'In The City of Pigs' is built from a short story

An author with Wellington County roots is in the running for a prestigious literary award.

André Forget, who grew up in Mount Forest, is one of 14 authors long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The announcement was made on Sept. 6 with the short list expected to come out on Sept. 27.

The novel that made the list is called In The City of Pigs. Forget, who has been writing since 2010, said this is his first published fiction novel and debut novel. He learned the news of his nomination the same time everyone else did.

"It was unexpected," said Forget. "I was watching the live announcement and I hadn't been contacted before, so I assumed that meant I wasn't on the list, but then they read my name out and I had a mini heart attack."

Forget's website said In The City of Pigs is about classical music, Toronto real estate, modernity and the difficulty of creating art under the conditions of late capitalism. The book follows the main character, Alexander Otkazov, a failed artist from Montreal who moves to Toronto to become a journalist and learns about an ambitious experimental music collective.

The novel was built out of a short story Forget wrote for an organist and composer friend, named Joel Peters, in 2017.

"He started this collaborative arts group and the idea was to bring classical music together with literature and other fine arts, and he had asked me to write a short story about an underwater organ, and that was the prop he gave me," Forget said about Peters. "So I wrote a story, and I sent it off to him, he liked it so we made a concert around the idea of these underwater organs. The concert happened in 2018, and a lot of people liked it and a lot of people attended, and people seemed to have thought that the underwater organs were real.

"As a writer, when you get that kind of feedback, you realize you're doing something right if I made this idea vivid enough."

Forget said they held a few more story concerts and reported on other arts events before he began writing the novel. Forget, who has written for news organizations like The Walrus and The Globe and Mail, said writers incorporate real-life experiences. 

"I don't know what it's like to wake up in the morning to be a banker, or an accountant, or a politician, right? But I do know what it's like to work at a newspaper," said Forget. "I gravitate towards those things because to me, they have a lot of texture and I can write about them in a way that feels real."

While comfortable writing about the experiences of being a journalist and living in Toronto, Forget said he consulted with different classical music professionals and read books on classical music to write about it in the novel. Forget estimates he spent two years gathering background knowledge on classical music.

"I had to do a huge amount of research for the music side, to be able to talk about the classical music side where somebody could see their reality in that, and I hope I did that."

While the main character spends time in Toronto, Forget said anyone from southern Ontario would know he's from Guelph.

"My character doesn't really spend time there, but in my mind, he was from there," said Forget.

Forget now lives in Sheffield, England, but he remembers growing up in Mount Forest as the kid who always wrote stories. Forget credits two Wellington Heights Secondary School teachers for shaping his writing skills; Kim Stewart and Barbara Illingworth.

"She was just one of those people who knew how to make music exciting and how to make English exciting," said Forget about Stewart. "My ability to understand music, and music theory, goes back to her class, which I didn't do very well in, but something stuck."

Coming from rural Ontario, Forget said he felt there is kind of an assumption that a place like Mount Forest doesn't produce artists, which can be hard to overcome. 

"I was able to overcome it because, fortunately, my parents really supported me because they always believed that art really matters," said Forget, "but, I think about the situations many people in Ontario are in, especially people of colour or queer artists, and I think about the magnification of those challenges from those backgrounds face, especially in terms of being able to get their work out there, get recognized, get celebrated, and most of all, make a living. If you can't make a living, then you don't have time to create art."

Forget said the novel wouldn't have been possible without the help of other people. While honoured to be long listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, he said what matters to artists and in writing is that you're doing good work and that people are able to connect with it.

"Prizes are nice, recognition is nice, but the end goal of any artist is to connect with other people through their work, so you keep your eye on that prize rather than the cash prize," said Forget.