Eyes on the Prize

2010 Giller Prize winner Johanna Skibsrud reads at King's this Monday

Johanna Skibsrud
Author Johanna Skibsrud, won the 2010 Giller Prize—and many hearts—with her novel The Sentimentalists (Gaspereau Press). She comes to the KTS Lecture Room (New Academic Building, 6350 Coburg) Monday, October 3 at 7pm. Skibsrud talks with the Coast about how she balances her writing (she will be reading on Monday from her new collection of short stories called This Will Be Difficult To Explain), fame and PhD studies while keeping a cool head.

Q: Will you be reading from This Will Be Difficult To Explain at the King's event? Can you tell me a bit about this new collection?

A: I will be reading from the new collection, released this month. The stories were written over a period of about eight years. The earliest ones date from 2003, and about half of them have appeared previously in literary journals. One of them—“The Electric Man”—was first published as a limited edition chapbook from Delirium Press, a small press run by Halifax writer Heather Jessup and 2010 Griffin Award nominee Kate Hall. However, even the previously published stories in the collection have been undergoing a constant process of revision over the past eight years, so to bring them—finally—to a state where I am happy to call them “complete,” and to see them collected, is a wonderful feeling.

Q: What influenced your decision to publish This Will Be Difficult To Explain with a larger press than Gaspereau?

A: The most obvious reason is that the exposure I have been lucky enough to gain for my work, thanks to the Giller Prize, has afforded me a potential readership larger than what Gaspereau Press has either the interest or capacity for providing. They are known for their beautiful, hand-crafted books and it is not in their (or our) best interest for them to sacrifice that approach. But that’s certainly not the only reason. When Gaspereau was forced to downsize shortly before the publication of The Sentimentalists in 2009 they gave up editor Kate Kennedy, leaving them without a dedicated full-time editor. Kate (now a Halifax-based poet and freelance editor) worked with me on my first collection of poetry, Late Nights With Wild Cowboys (2008) and later The Sentimentalists—in fact it was she who had picked up both manuscripts and drew my work to the attention of the publishers at Gaspereau.

For me, the most important consideration in deciding upon a publisher is the writer-editor relationship. The writer needs to trust the editor and have confidence that he or she will truly respect both the writer and the work. This trust and confidence are exactly what I have found with editor Nicole Winstanley at Hamish Hamilton Canada. She is one of the most passionate and dedicated readers and editors I have ever met and the only person in the publishing industry (small or large press) I have yet to hear say what I believe very strongly: there’s no reason why short fiction (or any other genre, for that matter) can’t and shouldn’t sell as well as the novel; it needs to be about the writing, not about current fads or previous marketing trends.

Q: What is coming up next on the Skibsrud horizon?

A: I am managing to balance my academic and creative writing (I am currently working on a second novel) and intend to defend my PhD dissertation (on the poetry of Wallace Stevens) in April, 2012. I like the contrast of the two projects, and intend to continue with both my scholarly and creative work.

Q: How did your life change after winning the Giller Prize? I'm curious about the immediate demands on your time and how one would balance writing and life in general after being catapulted into literary fame like that.

A: I definitely have been a lot busier since November! It’s been a really exciting year, with so many interesting opportunities (for example, I am writing this from Norway! I was invited here to promote the Norwegian edition of The Sentimentalists, which came out with Forlaget Press this month). I have had to become a little less rigid about where and when I write, but I think of this as a very good thing. Mostly, I just feel tremendously grateful for the exposure the Giller Prize has afforded my work at this early stage in my career. It’s been extremely rewarding to meet readers across the country—to have readers across the country—so I am very happy to make time in my schedule for them! Like most writers, I have spent a lot of time behind closed doors with little thought or expectation of recognition or appreciation of my work. When the doors swing open, you are certainly grateful.

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