‘Canada Reads’ long lists local author’s debut novel

MABOU: The debut novel from a local author is getting even more exposure.

Morgan Murray’s Dirty Birds was long listed in the 20th season of CBC Radio’s annual series Canada Reads. Although he failed to make the short list last Friday, Murray said the experience has definitely been worthwhile.

“Already we’ve seen a lot more interest online just because it’s been on the CBC,” the author pointed out. “We’ve actually sold out of the first print run of books and they’re sending another batch to the printer as we speak. So that’s a very exciting thing to happen too.”

Billed as the “battle of the books,” CBC Radio notes that every book that has won Canada Reads has become a national bestseller.

Several Atlantic Canadian authors have graced the Canada Reads long list, however, Murray’s accomplishment marks one of the few Atlantic Canadian published books to be selected, including the first since 2014.

“The publisher was also pretty surprised,” Murray said. “This kind of thing doesn’t happen to books like this all the time so it’s a huge honour to be in there with some pretty big books that everybody knows about.”

Each year, a long list of 15 Canadian books is chosen by celebrity panellists, with the help of the CBC Radio Books team. These books are ones the panellists feel the nation needs to read, said CBC Radio.

“I’m still in shock and it’s been a week,” Murray said last week. “It’s really exciting and thrilling. It totally came out of the blue. I didn’t expect it at all and it’s a huge honour just to be on the long list. Some of those books that are on there are just really great books.”

Dirty Birds has been described by its publisher, Breakwater Books Ltd., as a quest novel for the 21st century; a coming-of-age, rom-com, crime-farce thriller, where the hero, Milton Ontario, battles his own crippling mediocrity, and getting out of bed before noon, as he pursues fame, fortune, and his hero, Leonard Cohen.

In late 2007, as the world economy crumbles and Barack Obama prepares to become president, the remarkably unremarkable Milton Ontario leaves his parents’ basement in Saskatchewan, and sets out to find fame, fortune, and love in Montreal, the publisher said.

The author said Milton doesn’t have many positive male role models, noting that Cohen is portrayed as a “villainous ladies’ man,” while his Newfoundland roommate is a “scum bag.”

“He’s young, just out of college, he’s 22-23 years old and he’s trying to figure out what his life is about and what he should be doing; he’s trying to figure out how to be a decent human being,” Murray explained. “He encounters a lot of examples of really negative masculinity.”

Murray grew up on a farm in central Alberta and now lives in Mabou with his wife, cartoonist Kate Beaton, along with his daughter Mary.

Before writing, Murray said he has been a farmer, a rancher, a roustabout, a secretary, a reporter, a designer, a Tweeter, a tour guide, a schemer, a variety show host, and a student.

“It’s a hard gig to write for a living, period, no matter who you are,” Murray said of his recent success. “I don’t think I could’ve dreamed it up any better for a first book to do as well as it has coming out of Mabou. It sets me up really well for future books and it’ll be a lot easier to get a bigger audience and sell more books in the future, get different writing gigs and things. I’m a lot closer to the dream of writing for a day job than I was a year ago but there’s still a little ways to go.”

His writing has appeared in publications like The Scope, The Walrus, Newfoundland Quarterly, and Echolocation. His short story “KC Accidental” won the Broken Social Scene Story Contest in 2013, and was anthologized in Racket: New Writing from Newfoundland in 2015.

Murray has previously appeared at the THIN AIR Winnipeg International Writers’ Festival and Word on the Street Toronto. He is scheduled to appear at the ImagiNation Writers’ Festival in April 2021.

“I was in Toronto, and Winnipeg, and Vancouver, I think, in the same week in November,” he recalled. “It was handy to do virtual then that way.”

This past fall, Murray attended an outdoor event for the Cabot Trail Literary Festival in Margaree.

“That was really nice, there was about 80 people in their lawn chairs, sitting on the grass,” he recounted.

Just before the start of the second wave, and resulting public health restrictions, Murray took part in an in-person event at the Inverness County Centre for the Arts in Inverness.

“It was just great to see people react to your writing in-person because it’s hard on Zoom,” he said. “As handy as the virtual stuff has been, and it’s been a life-saver because I have been able to reach a lot more people than I would have otherwise, I am looking forward to seeing real people again; talk to them about it and get their reaction.”

Murray added he will be participating in an event through the new On Paper book store in Sydney on Feb. 4, either in-person or virtually.

“The publisher and I have managed this week to arrange a series of events,” he added. “For the next six weeks, I’ve pretty much got a virtual event of some kind happening each week. People can tune into different interviews, readings and things like that.”