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Alumna turns dissertation into winning novel

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May 13, 2010

Jessica Grant, PhD ’07, has won the First Novel Award. The novel, Come, Thou Tortoise, which was also Grant’s dissertation for her PhD in English, was selected from six finalists by a jury that included poet and novelist Priscila Uppal, author and past winner Joseph Boyden, artistic director of the Vancouver International Writer’s Festival Hal Wake, and editor of Quill and Quire Stuart Woods. The annual award was announced this spring and honours a first novel published in 2009.

“The genesis for the novel was a story I heard on CBC’s As It Happens,” says Grant. “Aubrey de Grey, a biogerontologist at Cambridge University, was being interviewed about the Methuselah Mouse Prize, a worldwide contest for scientists to determine who could keep a lab mouse alive the longest. The idea stuck with me, and longevity became a theme in the book.”

The book’s central characters are Audrey Flowers and her pet tortoise, Winnifred, who is thought to be 300-years old. The tortoise lives in an apartment and is inherited by each new resident, including Audrey. After having been abandoned by her boyfriend and discovering that her biogerontologist father is ill, the quirky Audrey leaves Winnifred for her childhood home in St. John’s Newfoundland and ends up on a journey of self discovery and a quest to reunite with the aged tortoise.

“Audrey – also known as Oddly – has many blind spots,” says Grant. “She thinks of herself as a detective, but she is curiously inept at solving mysteries – indeed she has trouble even identifying the mysteries that need to be solved. There are questions she never thinks to ask, let alone answer. Her father’s death presents her with an unsolvable puzzle. The book is about her coming to terms with his death.” First Novel Award juror Stuart Woods describes the novel as “a heartfelt tale full to the brim with warm sentiment and the gentle absurdities of contemporary life.”

Completing her PhD at U of C provided Grant with the time and support she needed to write Come, Thou Tortoise. U of C is the only university in the country to offer a PhD in English with a specialty in creative writing.

“I am very fortunate to have been part of such an extraordinary program and to have had the generous guidance of Professor Aritha van Herk, my supervisor.”