When St. John's, N.L.-native Joel Thomas Hynes found out he won this year's Governor General's Literary Award for English-language fiction, he had a hard time believing the good news.

"I thought it was a mistake at first," said Hynes in a phone interview from Atlanta, admitting he was still trying to wrap his head around the news.

"We'll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night" (HarperCollins), a darkly comic novel about a petty criminal trying to turn his life around, was praised by judges as "an act of full-throttle imagination and narrative invention."

The Governor General's Awards, founded in 1936, are among the country's oldest literary honours. English and French awards are handed out in seven categories with the winners receiving $25,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, which administers the prizes.

Winning the prestigious award felt like a "longshot aspiration for a fringe writer like myself," Hynes said.

Finding a publisher was a long and demoralizing process, Hynes added, even though he had already authored several books.

"Seeking publication is the act of seeking approval for what you've done," he said.

"Not receiving the kind of connection that you would hope for in the industry ... you think, 'I'm way off the mark in terms of what's palatable for readers."'

Hynes said repeated rejection led to a lot of self-doubt.

"I'm not in tune with the rest of the world, writing dirty books, indulging myself, and nobody wants to read this," he remembers thinking.

"I was very tempted at times to just put it in the bottom drawer.... But there was something about this one that I just really wanted to stick with, and I really felt like I couldn't move on in my life until I had it out of my system and out into the world, published."

Hynes said he was hesitant to speak so candidly about his difficulties getting published, but feels he owes it to other aspiring writers to be honest.

"I feel a kind of sense of obligation to people who are struggling to get a book published, or struggling to get their ... tenth book published, or struggling to just give themselves permission to write or to have a voice," he said. "The journey is hard. It doesn't get easier."

This year's English non-fiction prize went to journalist and Yale lecturer Graeme Wood for "The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State" (Random House), which examines how and why ISIS attracts supporters.

Hiro Kanagawa of Port Moody, B.C., won the drama award for "Indian Arm" (Playwrights Canada Press), a modern adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's "Little Eyolf" about Indigenous and non-Indigenous characters struggling with their relationships to land and ownership.

Calgary's Richard Harrison won the poetry award for his collection "On Not Losing My Father's Ashes in the Flood" (Buckrider Books), set against the backdrop of the Alberta flood of 2013.

In the young people's literature category, the text award went to Cherie Dimaline's speculative fiction novel "The Marrow Thieves" (Dancing Cat Books). The winner for illustrated book was David Alexander Robertson and Julie Flett's "When We Were Alone" (HighWater Press), about the history of residential schools.

The winner in the French-to-English translation category is Oana Avasilichioaei for "Readopolis" (BookThug), her translation of Bertrand Laverdure's "Lectodome" (Le Quartanier).

The awards will be handed out by Gov. Gen. Julie Payette at a gala event in Ottawa on Nov. 29.

Publishers of award winners also receive $3,000 and the finalists for each award get $1,000.