Johanna Skibsrud’s name has been heard time and time again these past few months and for much good reason. Her first poetry collection, Late Nights with Wild Cowboys, was published in 2008 by Gaspereau Press and was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award. A second book of poetry, I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being, was published in 2010, and her debut novel, The Sentimentalists, won The 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most prestigious literary award. She currently lives between Paris and Montreal.
You have signed a two-book deal with Penguin for a book of short stories due out this fall and a novel. Do you feel the pressure of winning the Giller and the expectations that will come with your next publication?
I am tremendously grateful for the exposure that the Giller Prize has afforded my work, and right now the idea of having any sort of readership for my future work is just very exciting and invigorating for me. Every project is—needs to be—so different, and therefore, it’s impossible to expect them to be received in the same way. Especially because as far as I am concerned one of the beauties of literature is that both the impulse behind it and the reaction to it is always extremely subjective. So, no, I don’t feel a lot pressure from outside expectations – I do feel a lot of pressure from myself, though, just as I always have. I always want, and expect, that each new project I embark on will turn out better than the last. This is the good sort of pressure , I think, and I want to make sure it continues to come from that place. From inside.
Your writing style in The Sentimentalists reminds me of Virginia Woolf–sometimes stream of consciousness with some complicated sentence structures–have you heard that before and what do you think about that comparison?
I haven’t actually, but I am so pleased to have you make the comparison. I read The Waves in 2001, and it revolutionized my idea of what fiction—what language—was able to do. Influence is a hard thing to trace, but if I had to name one person who inspired and influenced my style early on, it would be Woolf.
You are doing your Ph.D. on the work of Wallace Stevens. What is it about his work that fascinates you?
What I love most about Stevens is the way that ideas and language in his poems are integral to one another. He is not a philosophical poet or a poetical philosopher as he’s been variously pegged. Instead, he breaks down the boundaries between those categories. This is what, I think, all literature at some level strives to do—Stevens does it with remarkable success.
Can you tell us a little about your book of short stories?
The earliest story dates back to 2004, and the majority of them were written between 2005-2007. It’s an eclectic collection, but there are connective threads between a few of the stories, and common to all them—as the title, This Will Be Difficult to Explain and Other Stories, suggests—is a preoccupation with the complexities of understanding and communicating human experience.
You write poetry, the novel and short fiction. Do you write on a computer, type-writer, free hand and what is the daily writing life like for you?
Sometimes I’ll make free-hand notes on scrap paper until it gets too illegible and I can’t read it anymore, then I’ll start over on the computer. All my ideas always get worked out in the process of actually writing them down, which for me is a process that always takes place on the computer. In my ideal world I have a good solid chunk of uninterrupted time every morning to write. I haven’t had that lately with any sort of consistency because I have been moving around so much. I’m learning to work whenever and wherever I can, but I still hold onto my ideal.
You said in a previous interview with Prism that “fiction is a really good vehicle for exploring… that in between space of our perception and understanding of our world and one another.” Can you elaborate on this?
Our everyday experience— our relationships, ideas, memories, judgements and assumptions—always takes place in a space neither strictly of fact or of fiction but instead in a constantly evolving space of interpretation and reflection in between. Literature is particularly adept at exploring and elaborating that space.
Can you recommend one novel, one book of poetry, and one short story collection for BF readers?
A few of my all-time favourites: Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov. The Rock, by Wallace Stevens — but I have to also mention the critical work, The Life of Poetry, by Muriel Rukeyser—and In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories, by Delmore Schwartz.