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Interviews, Recommendations, and More

Giller Prize Special 2022: The Chat with Suzette Mayr


Our third interview in this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize special coverage is with Calgary author Suzette Mayr. Her novel The Sleeping Car Porter (Coach House Books) is a finalist for the 2022 award. UPDATE: Congratulations are in order! Suzette Mayr has won the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel! After the interview below, there is an excerpt from The Sleeping Car Porter for you to check out.

The 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize Jury says,

"Suzette Mayr brings 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. The sleeping car porter in this sleek, stylish novel is named R.T. Baxter—called George by the people upon whom he waits, as is every other Black porter. Baxter’s dream of one day going to school to learn dentistry coexists with his secret life as a gay man, and in Mayr’s triumphant novel we follow him not only from Montreal to Calgary, but into and out of the lives of an indelibly etched cast of supporting characters, and, finally, into a beautifully rendered radiance."

Suzette Mayr is the author of the novels Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, Monoceros, Moon Honey, The Widows, and Venous Hum. The Widows was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book in the Canada-Caribbean region, and has been translated into German. Moon Honey was shortlisted for the Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s Best First Book and Best Novel Awards. Monoceros won the ReLit Award, the City of Calgary W. O. Mitchell Book Prize, was longlisted for the 2011 Giller Prize, and shortlisted for a Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction, and the Georges Bugnet Award for Fiction. She and her partner live in a house in Calgary close to a park teeming with coyotes.


What advice would you give your ten-year-old self about the future?

This is my advice to ten-year-old me: Sing it, little sister! You keep doing what you’re doing even when other people think it’s weird. Also, fix your posture and stop wearing your school backpack on only one shoulder because your right rotator cuff’s going to pay for that big time when you turn 40.

In an alternate version of the world—one in which you are not a writer—what career would you choose?


A musician? Or a professional Tetris player. Maybe a lawyer? Probably not—I wouldn’t be able to handle the hours. I would probably be an unemployed lawyer.

If you could take a road trip with any author, living or dead, who would it be and where would you go?

I’ve figured out over time that it’s probably best to never meet your heroes because it’s usually disappointing. I’m crossing my fingers that a road trip from Calgary to Winnipeg with Gertrude Stein wouldn’t be terrible.

What’s the last Canadian book that changed you in some way?

Kalila by Rosemary Nixon really opened my eyes to different kinds of motherhood and the rock-solid love some parents can have for their children.

The Sleeping Car Porter tells the story of a Black queer man in 1929. In your opinion, why is it important to "queer" history through fiction? Why was this particular story compelling to you?

History without some recognition of queer presence is an incomplete history. The story was compelling to me because it was nowhere. No one had written about it—it was as though it could never have happened, and that there were never any queer sleeping car porters. Of course there were—they were just exceptionally good at covering their tracks.


Excerpt from The Sleeping Car Porter

He delivers the pairs of shoes as he completes them, slides them back under curtained berths, opens the individual lockers and shoves them in, toes to the front, heels to the back.

He blacks boots, polishes, he buffs, he polishes again.

Edwin Drew once told him and a group of other student porters a story about how one time he collected all the shoes from a car full of passengers, and then when he went to return the shoes, saw that the passengers’ car had uncoupled from the rest of the train when the train stopped at the last station, and that he now had a bag full of shoes and no passengers, and the passengers had no shoes.

Baxter and the other greenhorns shuddered with laughter, Edwin Drew grabbing Baxter by the arm to hold himself up as he guffawed, and Baxter feels buttery inside at the memory, at the glowing warmth and strength of Edwin Drew’s grip through his sleeve.

As he returns the pairs of shoes one by one, the fact that he doesn’t have enough brown shoeshine to last out this run picks at the back of his head. Eugene two cars over might have extra brown shine. Yes, he can ask Eugene for some brown shoeshine. He will brush aside Eugene’s childishness, his sulkiness. After all, as porters they are all brothers, Eugene chattering on about the Brotherhood.

Once upon a time Eugene still treated Baxter like one of his own: he taught Baxter new card games whenever they met up at porters’ quarters, then he’d lick him at the exact same card games. He joked with Baxter like a little brother about the books Baxter read, how his nose was always in a book or a magazine and he seemed to like books better than people.

– Maybe if you weren’t reading so many weird books you’d find yourself a wife, Martian! Eugene would say. – Har har! Pass me that deck of cards. I have another game I can teach you to lose.

Eugene fanning the cards out on the table between them, his straw sailor hat perched toward the back of his head, his bony fingers and wrists flicking and dancing in the air as the cards fell in precise, geometric formation.

– Nothing wrong with being from Mars, Baxter would say, and Eugene would just snicker, – Sure, Martian.

Then, after the Edwin Drew matter happened, Eugene started making a face like Baxter was a charred piece of meat whenever he saw Baxter. Suddenly. Sadly. Baxter never knew who told Eugene; it could have been Eugene’s sister, Edwin’s wife. Or Edwin himself.

Edwin would never do that.

Baxter passes through the vestibules between their cars and almost trips over a pair of men’s shoes sprawled in his way, the shoes polished so hard the uppers mirror his face.

Before he touches them, his face and fingers reflected back oblong and jagged in the leather, he realizes the soles glow like embers, they don’t belong to anybody on this train, and so he steps over them so they won’t contaminate him. No one else will bother with or even notice figmental shoes like these.

He worries that one day the lack of sleep will drive him into the lunatic asylum.

At first Eugene pretends not to hear Baxter as he buffs and turns a shoe, his elbows pointed out too far, then drops it next to its mate, his feet buried in multiple pairs of passengers’ shoes, exactly the way porters are not supposed to do it.

– Got none to spare, says Eugene. His mouth flattens into a disappointed slice. Baxter’s chest contracts. Eugene has the longest eyelashes Baxter has ever seen on a man.

Eugene’s call board chimes, and he tosses the shoe back into the pile. He unfolds his stick-figure self up from the stool, one limb at a time, not hurrying one bit.

Baxter retreats from the doorway as Eugene pushes past him.

Baxter returns to his car, the ground rocking as he moves. He’ll ask the freckled porter to watch his car.


Excerpted from THE SLEEPING CAR PORTER. Copyright © 2022 by Suzette Mayr. Excerpted by permission of Coach House Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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