Fergus writer Ailsa Kay makes longlist for international literary award

It’s been an exciting week for local author and co-founder of the Elora Writer’s Festival Ailsa Kay.

Her first novel Under Budapest recently made the longlist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, whose nominees are recommended by public libraries around the globe.

Kay’s name was put forward by the Winnipeg Public Library and is one of 142 nominees for the 2015 honour, alongside other esteemed writers Margaret Atwood, Eleanor Catton and Donna Tartt.

Kay works full-time as a research facilitator at McMaster University in Hamilton and says for the most part since its publication, her novel has maintained a relatively low profile – so this nomination is huge.

“I’m absolutely thrilled and I feel like I’ve been yanked from obscurity into a very brief limelight,” she says. “It’s pretty exciting.”

Under Budapest combines historical fiction with mystery as it chronicles the tale of a Agnes and Tibor, mother and son returning to their native Hungary from North America – she to search for a sister missing since the revolution of 1956 and he to recoup from a tumultuous relationship.

The book weaves its way through affairs of love, murder and rivalries as their story is interwoven with Janos, a charlatan thug – and Agnes’ sister and former husband.

Eventually, their lives all become connected by war, violence and long-buried secrets from the past. Moving back and forth through time, Under Budapest explores the turmoil of the Hungarian revolution and the society that arose afterward.

Kay says inspiration for the novel came after she spent two sabbaticals in Hungary in the early 2000s. Her interest in history led her to make the acquaintance of a local historian who she says provided her with a unique perspective on the city – far outside typical tourist impressions gained strolling along the Danube.

“I was really fortunate to meet a Hungarian historian … and to get his tour of the terror museum in Budapest,” she says. “He provided such an interesting lens on history and on the adoption of revolutionary rhetoric. I was involving myself as much as I could in this conversation that was happening in Budapest around what this new nation was about.”

In literature circles, Kay is one of a growing group of writers stepping outside the box of long-held traditions associated with Canadian fiction. While she admits purveyors of the convention such as Alice Munro and Margaret Lawrence are still some of her favourite writers; the idea of what it means to be Canadian and a Canadian writer is becoming more diversified.

“[With] a stereotype there’s an element of truth and a huge element of falsity, but I would say that you can’t look at Canadian literature now and believe it’s all about small towns and small issues or small town divorced from the global,” she says. “My book is an example of a book that takes on topics that are not Canadian national topics.”

For many writers, award nominations come after a difficult period of self-doubt and risk-taking – there is no guarantee a work of art will be well received or successful.

Kay says she experienced uncertainty every day she was writing Under Budapest.

“I don’t think I can imagine writing without self-doubt,” she says. “That self-doubt can either be something that is really a hindrance and a barrier or sometimes it can be the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning.”

As is the case for many contemporary writers, Kay has a full-time “day job” and therefore making time for writing is something she consciously has to do. Since the publication of Under Budapest, she has put writing on hold to devote time to her family, but she says there are a couple projects on the back burner she is eager to start developing.

“It sort of starts with a feeling or an intuition – a kind of curiosity or an itch,” she says of her writing process. “Then I’ll start sketching out characters … just writing about [them] in different situations, and sometimes that makes it into the final draft, but often it goes into a folder and doesn’t go anywhere, but it helps me understand who that character is.”

As one of the founders of the Elora Writer’s Festival, literature and writing have always been a big part of Kay’s life – but publishing a novel was something she didn’t rush.

“I’ve always said that I would like to write, but I would also like to live a financially somewhat-secure life, so I never made the big gamble that I know a lot of other writers made early in their careers to dedicate their lives to writing,” she explains. “I’ve always written, I’ve never stopped writing … it’s always been a part of who I am.”

Though she is no longer explicitly involved in the writer’s festival, she says it makes her very happy to see it continue to grow year after year.

“It makes me so happy when I see people attending events like this because it really reassures me that people really are still reading books,” she says. “It’s awesome, digital or print – it doesn’t matter, people are still reading novels.”

The shortlist for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award will announced on April 15. The winner, revealed on June 17, will be awarded a top prize of €100,000 (approximately $141,413 Canadian).