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Cover to cover: Giller Prize winner talks writing

Creative writing alum Johanna Skibsrud discusses balancing her busy academic life
August 2, 2016
By James Gibbons

Johann Skibsrud, MA (Eng.) 05, defied expectations — including her own — when she won Canada’s top literary prize for her debut novel, a slim paperback with an initial publication run of 800 copies called The Sentimentalists (Gaspereau Press, 2010).

“I was living in Paris when the shortlist came out,” says Skibsrud. “I was finishing up my doctoral dissertation on Wallace Stevens, and my thoughts were very far away from The Sentimentalists and the sort of attention is was about to receive.”

Johanna Skibsrud Johanna Skibsrud, MA 05, splits her time between the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz., and Cape Breton, N.S.

The father character in the work is a Vietnam War veteran, based on Skibsrud’s own father.

The main character is a young woman trying to unpack and reconcile her father’s wartime experiences with their 21st-century lives.

Skibsrud’s second novel, Quartet for the End of Time (Hamish Hamilton, 2014), shares thematic qualities with her debut.

“Somehow in the course of my research for The Sentimentalists, I came across an account of how World War I veterans were received back home after serving in the war,” says Skibsrud. “I was struck by the similarities between these two very different periods in history and I wanted to explore some of these continuities across time.”

A rough-around-the-edges version of The Sentimentalists was submitted as Skibsrud’s MA thesis for the creative writing program in Concordia’s Department of English. “I had the option of presenting a creative work for my main project,” says Skibsrud.

She adds that the Concordia program was a perfect fit for her. “I knew I wanted to write and to live in Montreal,” says Skibsrud, who’s from Meadowville, N.S. “Luckily, the Concordia MA combines literary academic study with creative writing.”

 Quartet for the End of Time Johanna Skibsrud’s novel Quartet for the End of Time (Hamish Hamilton, 2014) is structured after a work by French composer Olivier Messiaen.

After graduating, Skibsrud shelved The Sentimentalists to pursue projects that included teaching in South Korea and working in the publishing industry in Toronto.

Her first book in print was a poetry collection, called Late Nights with Wild Cowboys (Gaspereau Press, 2008).

Thanks to some inspiring literature classes at Concordia, it wasn’t long before Skibsrud was ready to head back to school. She enrolled in an English literature PhD program at Université de Montréal, which she completed in 2012 — a stint that included nine months in Paris.

During her doctoral studies she submitted The Sentimentalists to Gaspereau Press, a boutique publishing house located in Kentville, N.S, which had published her poetry collection.

“Gaspereau Press was extremely good to me,” says Skibsrud. Three of her five works were first printed with them. The Sentimentalists will be reissued by Penguin Group Canada in fall 2016.

Genres that suit different thoughts

Skibsrud maintains a busy schedule, working as an assistant professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz., and spending summers in Cape Breton, N.S.

“I was a little skeptical about how successful I would be in dividing my time between research, teaching and my own creative writing,” says Skibsrud, who began instructing fulltime in 2013. Her courses are on 20th-century contemporary American literature — generally defined as post-Second World War writing.

“But I like that I can shift gears. I’ll be thinking about an academic piece, then — for example —be able to consider the same piece of writing from an entirely different angle in a poem,” says Skibsrud about her busy schedule, which includes caring for her two-year-old daughter.

The author says that sometimes she’ll begin in one genre — such as poetry — and find that output would fit better as an observation revealed by a character in a short story, or a novel.

“I like having a bunch of different projects at once,” says Skibsrud, who is working on her third novel and a collection of short stories.

Her advice to aspiring writers? “Read a lot and think about structure and ideas. Contemplate what you love in those readings and try to press the boundaries of what literature can do,” Skibsrud says.

She adds that some of her favourite books challenge reader expectations and what can be accomplished with words.

“Virginia Woolf’s Waves was one of those works,” says Skibsrud. She further lists Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as important to her.


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