In recounting the story of Baxter, a closeted gay railway porter in 1920s Canada, the Scotiabank Giller Prize jury credits author Suzette Mayr with “[bringing] to life – believably, achingly, thrillingly – a whole world contained in a passenger train moving across the Canadian vastness, nearly one hundred years ago. As only occurs in the finest historical novels, every page in The Sleeping Car Porter feels alive and immediate –and eerily contemporary.”
We caught up with Mayr shortly after her win to ask her a few questions about Baxter, about the progress of LGBTQ+ and Black persons in Canada, and about what’s next for her.
What would Baxter make of the economic and social progress made by LGBTQ+ and Black Canadians in the years between then and now?
I think he would be pretty impressed given that he’s time-travelling from 1929 to 2022, and the difference in terms of acceptance and rights is enormous. From what I researched over the years, there were few – if any – black dentists in Canada, and that’s of course changed, although as a black man, daily living is still always potentially dangerous.
North America in 2022 would be astonishing for him. He’s a quiet person though, so I can imagine him being more of an eager spectator at a Pride parade than one of the guys twirling around topless on a float. He’d watch the parade, and then he’d go check out the closest bathhouse.
How do you envision your life changing as a result of winning the Giller?
I’m not sure yet as it’s still early days. What I’m noticing right off the bat though is that some people and organizations are treating me differently, that’s for sure. I’ve been invited to a number of writers’ festivals that I was never invited to before, for example – some of which I’ve never even heard of.
I can also feel that I have a little more confidence as a writer in the world, and I’m gradually shedding that feeling of “I-don’t-belong” in terms of the literary scene.
My private writing life is more or less the same: I’m worried about where the next book will come from, which is a normal state of being for me. That anxiety will never go away. Writing the next book never gets easier. Blah.
Any plans to return to New York?
I hope so! I love New York – especially the NYPL with the marble lions, Patience and Fortitude. I’m sure I will be back soon to say hello to the lions again.
I believe even more fiercely that you should write what interests you and what gives you joy, even if it feels like an esoteric, niche topic that no one but you might be interested in. Don’t worry about all the noise about being “successful.
Do you have any ideas regarding your next novel?
I hope to write a haunted house novel like Stephen King’s The Shining or Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. We’ll see. I’ve got big plans, but I’m not a horror writer so my horror novel will probably be something else entirely once I’m properly into the process of writing it.
What advice would you offer your students now that you may not have before winning?
I believe even more fiercely that you should write what interests you and what gives you joy, even if it feels like an esoteric, niche topic that no one but you might be interested in. Don’t worry about all the noise about being “successful” – nobody knows for sure what’s going to be successful because if we did, we’d all be writing best-sellers.
Just do your work, and do good work. Don’t rush it if it doesn’t want to be rushed, but at the same time don’t be a perfectionist if it’s turning into self-sabotage. Sometimes you just have to put that baby to bed, and move on to the next thing.
I had no idea that my quirky little novel that I wrote just for me about a gay sleeping car porter in 1929 would be received and read by so many people – I never expected anyone to understand it but me. I’m glad I stuck to doing what I wanted to do, and didn’t compromise because of the possibility that the story might not resonate with other readers.
You dedicated your win to your LGBTQIA2S+ sisters, brothers, and siblings. What would you like to say to them now? What would Baxter say to them?
I love you all, and we are wonderful, special individuals who deserve respect. It’s so rare to feel 100% embraced and loved as a whole person when you’re LGBTQIA2S+.
It doesn’t matter how many rainbow flags are flying – we still have to come home at the end of the day and maybe face the parent who doesn’t accept us, or the work colleague who avoids us, or the aunt or uncle or cousin or sibling or child who doesn’t want to speak to us.
We’re still being beaten and killed in parts of the world; lots of us still have to hide and lie to protect ourselves. It’s bullsh*t.
Baxter and I are giving you all big, big hugs, and letting you know that you are amazing and worth your weight in gold and emeralds.
The Sleeping Car Porter is available in various formats from Coach House Press.