Interview with Alexandra Latos: W.O. Mitchell book prize winner for 2021

Latos' book Under Shifting Stars won the award and the $5,000 prize

Alexandra Latos, winner of the 2021 W.O Mitchell prize and the author of Under Shifting Stars. PHOTO/ Provided by Alexandra Latos

Gender identity, LGBTQ representation, and family dynamics were the stars of the show in this year’s winner of the W.O Mitchell book prize.

It was another online-only year for the Calgary Awards as the winners were announced on June 21 at a combined meeting of council.

Mayor Nenshi and the other councillors all helped in doling out the awards.

Alexandra Latos was the winner of this year’s W.O. Mitchell book prize for the novel, Under Shifting Stars.

The book follows two siblings who are both reeling after the tragic death of their brother. The pair begin to drift apart in the fallout of the tragedy and as they grapple with their identities.

The award was especially gratifying as this book an especially timely piece of fiction. Focusing on gender identity and family dynamics in the wake of tragedy, Under Shifting Stars was a meaningful opportunity for Latos.  

The writing process

Under Shifting Stars deals with many heavy themes. To make sure Latos handled them with care and respect, she decided to seek outside help while writing. Sensitivity readers were hired to ensure the terminology used wasn’t disrespectful.

Hugh Mitchell, son of W.O. Mitchell, was one of the presenters of the award and noted how the book handled these themes.

“Under Shifting Stars is a story of our time. It covers the wide ground of friendships, love, bullying, and gender and sexual diversity with compassion, respect, and clarity,” Mitchell said.

This process was a departure for the author but made the experience one to remember. Under Shifting Stars also made Latos think about the writing process more carefully and made her change the way she will approach writing in the future.

“I’m one of those writers that doesn’t outline. I sat down and wrote not worrying about where it was going. Each scene was on its own, which made it a mess at first. They were all written on little pieces of paper, and I had to rearrange them to make the timeline work. I’ve now learned the importance of making an outline beforehand,” Latos laughed.

The journey behind the novel

This journey originally started out as a short story following one of the siblings. That sibling would later be one of the novel’s stars. Latos quickly realized that both siblings needed to be represented, which lengthened the story into a full-fledged novel.

Initially, Latos wasn’t confident in her chances to win the prize. She said she’s still shocked about winning.

Latos is already focused on her next work. She said she won’t let the award get to her head. She also doesn’t want the pressure of performing better and winning more awards to affect her writing.

“I just said this to my husband a few days ago, but I wonder how I’ll ever top this. I guess I just have to keep writing and not think about it too much. If I get my head wrapped around it, it’ll stunt my creativity, and I won’t write at all,” Latos said.

The award was a shocking surprise and capped off the journey of Under Shifting Stars. In some ways, it was more just a piece of fiction. One of the main charters, Audrey, and their family, are caught up in the Calgary flood. Audrey is later considered the hero of the family after they save some precious family items during the event. This is something that hit close to home for Latos.

“My childhood home flooded in 2013, and my family lost a lot of memories and sentimental items. It was a cathartic experience for me to write about Audrey saving those items for her family,” Latos said.

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