PRISM is delving into the archives for a Throwback Thursday! We went back to 2010 for Cara Woodruff’s interview with Johanna Skibsrud, whose latest novel, Quartet for the End of Time, was released this month. Enjoy!
Cara Woodruff, one of PRISM international’s former Fiction Editors, talked with Johanna about her Giller win and her upcoming projects.
With her novel The Sentimentalists, Johanna Skibsrud became the youngest writer ever to win the Giller Prize. Though she is only 30, Johanna, has an accomplished list of publications, including her coveted novel and two poetry collections, I Do Not Think I Could Love a Human Being, Gaspereau 2010, and Late Nights With Wild Cowboys, Gaspereau 2008 (shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award).
Johanna, congratulations on the Giller Prize for The Sentimentalists! I was fortunate to have a copy before the shortlist was announced. Your win has been celebrated across the country, and apparently the world—you said your mother was on a bus in Turkey when the announcement was made. Where are you now?
I’m back in Paris, now. I’ll be living here for about six months, working on my dissertation. I’m working toward my PhD in English Literature from Université de Montréal, which has a connection with the Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris III—one of my supervisors is a professor here.
You’ve said that you wanted to explore memory in the novel and the way things below the surface shape the surface. The narrator’s father, Napoleon Haskell, a veteran of Vietnam, remembers everything—songs, poems, movie dialogue, events—just in the wrong order. What interested you about examining memory in this way?
I really like what Sarah Selecky said in the Giller panel interview a couple of weeks ago—she said that people often ask her if her stories are true—if the things that she writes about “really happened” to her. She replies that “nothing is fact, and everything is true.” I think most of the time we experience our lives in this way – the idea that there is a real order or an objective point or perspective from which we can organize our memories or experience is an impossible one for me. I think our entire experience is a process of sifting through and rearranging the “facts” in order to come up with something that “rings true” for us. This is what literature is, too—just a more concentrated form of it.
After he has begun to open up to the narrator about his experiences in Vietnam, Napoleon quotes from a Keith Douglas poem (which you include in its entirety at the end of the novel): “Remember me when I am dead/ and simplify me when I am dead.” This comforts the narrator because it makes her feel that everything isn’t “such a big mystery after all.” Throughout the “Vietnam” section and the Epilogue, you explore the danger and the necessity in the simplification that occurs when we mine the past for details and facts from which we hope to know something, when really we can only get versions of truths, or stories. Can you talk more about this idea?
It’s really tricky. I think that there needs to be a space of reflection and critical thinking in our politics that just doesn’t exist. It has been relegated to the academy and the arts, and I think that’s become a huge problem for us. My title—The Sentimentalists—is purposefully ambiguous. I wanted it, and the book as a whole, to generate some reflection on the manner in which we necessarily simplify our experiences in order to process them—on a very small, as well as on a very large scale. This simplification, sentimentalization or its opposite, can be very, very dangerous, but it is also our only tool for understanding one another, as well. What is literature—what is a conversation with your best friend—but a necessary simplification of all the complicated feelings and impressions that you have that you can’t possibly begin to share or explain—even to yourself. I don’t pretend to offer any answers as to how we can begin to navigate the distance between that dangerous simplification and the vital, generative kind, but I do think that it is necessary to think about that in-between space of our perception and understanding of our world and one another. Fiction is a really good vehicle for exploring that space. History has a hard time getting in there. So does politics—at least the way we’ve been practicing it so far.
You’ve been out of the country since you won the Giller, and you’ve remained quiet about the controversy surrounding Gaspereau—for not being able to produce enough books to respond to the “Giller effect.” What has that been like for you?
I am really happy about the deal with Douglas and MacIntyre; it seems that everyone’s interests—Gaspereau’s, my own, and, most importantly, the reader’s—interests are being met through this agreement. But I never doubted that a solution would be arrived at. I admire Gaspereau precisely for the values that made a mass printing of my book on demand impossible for them post-Giller—they took the time that was necessary in order to make a considered decision, and arrived at a terrific solution. They knew that I was very much in favour of making the book more widely available and took that into account. Not many publishers take their authors’ personal feelings into account when they make their business decisions, and I feel really grateful to Gaspereau Press for that. If there was something that made me sad, it was the way that the media was so eager to write the story that they wanted to write that they twisted some things that I said to make it seem as if there was this “good guy, bad guy” story. It was never like that—it never is. But most people are smart enough to know that, and overall, I’m not too bothered by the whole thing.
You wrote The Sentimentalists (or began it) as your thesis for Concordia University’s Creative Writing Program. How did that program help your writing at that time? What was the process of completing The Sentimentalists after Concordia?
The Concordia program had allowed me the freedom to devote myself to my writing and that wasn’t possible after I graduated, so the book sat around for a couple of years before I was able to get back to it again. I think that waiting period was good for it, though—because when I went back to it, I was able to unflinchingly raze it to the ground and then begin building it back up again—that’s what it needed. I am really grateful to the assistance of grants that I received in 2007—one from the Nova Scotia Department of Tourism, Culture and Heritage and one from the Canada Council—which allowed me to return to the project full time. I wouldn’t have been able to complete the novel without them.
You also write poetry. Do you work in the two genres simultaneously? Do you have a preference?
More or less simultaneously. Working on a novel won’t stop me from writing poems, but I can only really concentrate on one major project at a time. I don’t have a preference. In fact, I don’t think that there is really a clear line for me where one ends and the other begins. To me, they are part of the same thing—just some things just work themselves out better in poetry and some things better in prose.
Are you willing to talk a bit about what you’re working on now?
Sure. Right now I am editing a collection of short stories and working on a second novel. The novel takes place in between the two world wars in the United States. A lot of the themes that emerge in The Sentimentalists emerge again: memory, guilt, responsibility.
Who do you love to read? What are you reading now?
My favourite things to read are poetry and philosophy—but of course I like novels, too. Right now I am reading Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting, and Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster.
You’ve been living between Paris and Montreal for the past couple years. How do those cities influence your writing?
Actually, this is the first time that I’ve been able to spend any extended amount of time in Paris. I love this city. I could walk and walk for hours here, and I do. I also spend a lot of time in art museums—I have an incredible tolerance for long museum visits—the Louvre on Friday nights, the Beaubourg anytime. I think this influences my writing, certainly. I have a lot fewer friends, and a lot more time to just walk around and look at things in Paris, and that has got to affect my writing. Montreal has been the place that I have done most of my concentrated writing, though. I wrote the first draft of The Sentimentalists there and then returned to Montreal when I got my grant in 2007 and finished it there. I feel good in Montreal—it’s an easy place to feel good in and I like it for that. It’s easy to write when you feel good.
Favourite place to go in Paris? Montreal?
Parc Monceau in Paris, Parc Lafontaine in Montreal.