TORONTO - Rising Toronto author Krista Bridge was at home vacuuming and entertaining her toddler Monday when she received what she calls the biggest surprise of her life: Word that her debut novel, "The Eliot Girls," is a finalist for the $25,000 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.
"My agent called and told me, and I probably shouldn't say this, but I really thought she must be mistaken," the 37-year-old said by phone from her home shortly after learning of the honour.
"Like, I just couldn't believe it. I thought she had to have made a mistake. It wasn't until I saw the actual news on the computer screen that I thought, 'Oh, OK, she didn't mix it up.'"
Published by Douglas & McIntyre, Bridge's story of a teen adapting to life in a cliquey girls' private school made the short list along with four other well-established authors, including Commonwealth Writers' Prize winner and multi-award nominee Lisa Moore of St. John's for "Caught" (House of Anansi Press).
Moore's story of a pot-smuggling jailbird is also on the long list for this year's $50,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Meanwhile, Lynn Coady — a 2011 Giller finalist from Cape Breton, N.S. — is a Writers' Trust contender with "Hellgoing" (House of Anansi Press). The short story collection is also up for this year's Giller.
Colin McAdam, also a former Giller finalist who is based in Toronto, is up for the Writers' Trust fiction prize for "A Beautiful Truth" (Hamish Hamilton Canada). The story follows a couple and their chimpanzee.
And Cary Fagan, a Toronto native who's been on the Giller long list, is a finalist for "A Bird's Eye" (House of Anansi Press). The 1930s Toronto tale is about a boy and his love of magic in his Jewish neighbourhood.
"I'm just astounded to be included in their company and really grateful," said Bridge. "Lynn Coady is absolutely one of my favourite writers, and they're all wonderful writers."
The notion of being included in entrenched circles is also one facing "The Eliot Girls" protagonist Audrey Brindle, who worked hard to get into the fictional George Eliot Academy, where her teacher-mother is developing an attraction to a colleague.
Bridge — who first turned heads with her short story collection "The Virgin Spy" — knows the world of private schools well, having attended two of them in Toronto.
She opted for the public education system for her final two years of high school, though, because of a "personal situation with friends" at her private institution.
"I got accused of doing something I hadn't done and nobody was talking to me and it just felt like the end of the world for me, because there were fewer than 40 people in my class," she said. "Those private schools are so small and everybody knows everybody else's business, and so there's really no way to exist outside of the intensity of that climate."
Bridge said "The Eliot Girls" is "only very loosely based" on her private school experiences and Audrey is not modelled after her.
"But I was interested in the idea of how hard it is to integrate yourself into a private school, in high school, because I had the experience of seeing girls arrive at our school and then leaving because they found it so hard to break through the cliques," said the mother of two boys, one nearly six and the other 2 1/2.
"I was always interested in the way that culture of bullying was just the norm, and in the girl world it's so insidious and quiet, for the most part."
Bridge does have praise for private schools, noting they offer a great education, intimacy and sense of "community that people can believe in and invest themselves in."
But if she could afford to send her children to one, she probably wouldn't — especially if she has a girl.
"One of the things that I find as a parent is that you want to protect your children from all the pains you experienced. So I think I'd bring too much of my own personal bias to the idea of sending a girl to private school."
Writers' Trust fiction prize jury members Caroline Adderson, Alison Pick, and Miguel Syjuco read 115 books from 50 publishers to choose the five finalists, who will each receive $2,500.
Pick said the jury saw a bumper crop of strong works and asked organizers if they could include more than the limit of five finalists, but alas they had to stick with the set number.
"I feel like it was just a banner year for Canadian literature," she said. "The books were so strong and the deliberations were intense, and the books that we chose are certainly outstanding books, but there were also a lot of wonderful books that couldn't get on the list."
Winners for the award, as well as several others handed out by the Trust, will be announced on Nov. 20 in Toronto.
Last year's fiction winner was Waterloo, Ont.-based Tamas Dobozy for the short story collection "Siege 13."
The Writers' Trust of Canada is a charitable organization founded by authors including Margaret Atwood and the late Pierre Berton.
© Copyright 2013