Thanks to the wise investments of his son, the namesake prize of Thomas Raddall gives Atlantic fiction writers the gift of time
On a warm, early June evening at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic on the Halifax waterfront, Fredericton short fiction author R.W. Gray stepped to a podium fighting back tears of joy. His second collection of short stories, Entropic, had just been awarded the $25,000 Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award. It came with a medallion and an autographed copy of Raddall’s memoir, In My Time.
But it wasn’t just these mementos, nor even the money or the gift of writing time it represented, that brought tears to Gray’s eyes. “I was so touched by the family, their presence, their stories,” he says now. “It was such a beautiful event.”
Gray compliments the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia, which has hosted the Raddall Prize since its inception in 1991, on their ability to honour writers. “I was sitting there with [fellow nominees] Elisabeth [de Mariaffi] and Mark [Anthony Jarman], listening to other people read excerpts from our books and we were like, ‘Wow, that’s so nice!’”
One of the more touching moments of the evening was hearing Thomas II tell stories about his dad, his struggles and successes. “When I heard his typewriter going, all was right with the world,” he said before presenting the award to Gray.
The award itself, and its substantial cash (and therefore time) value, is directly attributable to the Raddall family, including Thomas Raddall himself. It started when he refused to accept payment for his public lending rights (PLR) – the amount paid to all authors with books widely available in public libraries. “I have money and other people can use it,” Raddall told his son, Thomas II.
To which Thomas II replied, “Dad, it doesn’t work that way.”
But they made it work that way, in a sense. Thomas II called the writers federation and spoke with Jane Buss, who was the director at the time. Buss said that she would be “happy to do the work.” Raddall had about $5,000 in PLR funds due to him at that time. He got a cheque and endorsed it for the writers federation. That year, the first Raddall Prize was given, worth $1,000.
The rest of the money went into a trust fund. When Raddall died, his son Thomas II topped it up with his own funds and continued investing. It has since grown into the largest literary prize in Atlantic Canada, on par with some significant national awards.
“Very few writers can make a living on writing alone,” Raddall II says. “This is to give them time off to take a breather.”
He notes that the prize has been won by regional heavyweights like David Adams Richards as well as relative unknowns with incredible promise and talent.
For Gray, the prize is also a validation of sorts, of all the many hours of isolation working on his craft. “We writers spend so much time not going off and having fun adventures,” he says. “I love the work and this ices the cake, the recognition that it’s not for nothing.”
At the moment Gray, who is also a filmmaker, is working on a movie based on one of his short stories. But he has a new collection in the works and a draft of a novel he needs to revisit. “For me,” he says, “It means I can take time to go off to my own world. I mean I’m always going to show up and do the work but with this award it’s definitely provided a little more sunshine, like an extra cup of coffee.”
There is also a slight downside: “I was attached to being the underdog and now I have identity issues,” Gray quips.
He also notes that his mother on the west coast had never before heard of Raddall, and is now reading one of his books. “The family wants to keep his legacy alive and it seems to be working.”
Thomas Raddall II is rightly proud of this legacy that he helped build. “Dad,” he says, “I think he would just shake his head and be very pleased.”