Q & A
Johanna Skibsrud is a novelist and poet and is currently working on her PhD in English Literature at the Université de Montréal. In 2010, Johanna won The Scotiabank Giller Prize for her debut novel The Sentimentalists. She is also the author of two collections of poetry: Late Nights With Wild Cowboys and I Do Not Think that I Could Love a Human Being. All three works were first published by Gaspereau Press. Currently, Johanna is working on her dissertation and a second novel. In addition, her short story collection, This Will Be Difficult To Explain and Other Stories, will appear in Fall, 2011, through Hamish Hamilton Canada. You can read two of Johanna’s poems, When I Am Called to Stand and Bruno Helps Himself to Tomatoes, from I Do Not Think that I Could Love a Human Being.

carte blanche’s Alexandra Pasian interviewed Johanna by email at the beginning of February 2011.

cb: So, can you describe the moment when Jack Rabinovitch stood at that lectern and announced your name?

Skibsrud: It’s really hard to describe that moment, mostly because I don’t really remember it happening. Or, it was like it happened in reverse. I had to work my way back to it from the reactions of the people around me, especially my sister’s: she had this incredible expression on her face, both panic and joy.

It was funny when I watched the event later to hear myself say, at the beginning of my speech, “This is really hard.” It was—I had to concentrate very hard in order to make any sort of sense up there and not just burst into tears—but I didn’t think that I actually said those words out loud. I don’t think I was thinking much at all on the way up to the stage, except maybe something like “Is this really happening?” I felt disconnected, like I was watching everything from the outside, so didn’t feel totally sure.

Has winning The Scotiabank Giller Prize changed your life and/or your writing?

Yes, of course. I never expected this novel to receive the sort of readership and attention that it is now receiving, and one of the consequences is that the six months or so following were pretty well shaped around reading events and festivals, including those associated with the launch of the UK and US editions in April and May 2011, respectively.

I don’t think that has affected my writing very much, though—at least not directly. For now, I still have about the same amount of time to work on my new writing as I had before and am working on the same project. I do think that I have a renewed sense of optimism as far as my career goes, and that must certainly affect my work positively at a certain level. I don’t find the idea of a large or expectant readership of future books daunting. I feel incredibly grateful for the exposure the Giller Prize has granted my work, and the idea of an expectant readership is, at this point, only very exciting.

Are you feeling under pressure to produce a second novel (as opposed to a collection of poems or a dissertation)?

I was working on a second novel prior to the Giller, and I’m continuing work on it now. I am not sure how I would feel if that hadn’t been the case. Certainly there have been a lot of people who have inquired if I was working on one, and I have been able to satisfy them—and myself—with a “yes.”

I suppose the thing that I am concerned about in this regard would be more that I don’t want to feel pressured (most particularly by myself) to publish a second novel before I’m ready. I don’t mean “ready” in the sense of “finished, complete.” I have a strong sense that most creative work is never “ready” in that way. But I do think that new work needs to be given some breathing room, that it needs to be reworked from a few different angles before it should be let go.

These days, do you consider yourself to be primarily a poet, novelist, or academic?

I don’t really feel the need to choose, and, in fact, I don’t think that I differentiate between the three very clearly in my mind. Not that I believe in any way that these genres are, or should be, interchangeable: I see each as having its very particular purpose and strength. I do think of all three, however, as fundamentally investigative and creative–as governed, in this way, by the same driving force.

For me, it’s just a question of how to most fully and appropriately explore a particular observation or idea. Sometimes, for example, I’ll be working on a poem and find that it is actually the beginning of a story or even something that needs to get worked out with the help of outside sources, as with an academic paper. My approach in all cases is to follow the thread of an idea as best as I can according to the constraints of the form, all the while remaining, on the one hand, as open as possible to the connections and the diversions that necessarily arise, and, on the other, trying never to lose sight of the project’s inspiration or goal.

One of the things that strikes me about The Sentimentalists is your use of complex syntax. You require your reader’s full attention and energy to move through the narrative, and then you reward her with grammatically perfect sentence structure and a rich and beautiful story. Are you conscious of your sentence construction as you write?

Absolutely. I suppose that is one way that I don’t differentiate between poetry and fiction. I don’t feel any less tied in fiction to the placement of each word on the page than I do in poetry. And I’m glad you say that the sentences make you slow down. I like that literature can do that for us: cause us to slow down and actually notice the structure and rhythm of language and, therefore, also of the world around us.

Do you envision different readers for your poetry and prose?

No. I don’t really have a sense of the readership being different or of the genres even being that different. They are certainly different in their scope and intensity of focus, but not in the sense of what they do or are trying to do. Maybe poetry is like looking through a microscope at some detail in a landscape, and a novel is like being carried over it in an airplane or a balloon with a more or less specific flight path. A short story would be somewhere in between. It would be like standing on a plateau with a very good view in the middle of that landscape. In any case, it’s all about looking.

Speaking of looking, in Late Nights With Wild Cowboys, you create a relationship between loss and photographs in both “The Arsonists” and “The Pompidou Piano.” What does photography mean to you?

Some years ago, I fell in love with Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida because of the way that he articulates very clearly what I have always found to be so fascinating about photography: the simultaneity, in a photograph, of the abstract and the concrete. Barthes detects, for example, “the lineaments of truth” in a childhood photograph of his deceased mother at the same time that he acknowledges the impossibilities and limitations of the form.

The photograph, “platitudinous in the true sense of the term,” exists only at its own surface. The subject is exposed, but there is nothing to reveal. For Barthes, the exposure of the past as if it were present spells “death in the future.” These are some of the ideas that permeate my dissertation on the poetry of Wallace Stevens, which I am currently working on, but they are also explored in my creative work.

The photograph in the poem “The Pompidou Piano,” for example, explores to some extent the idea of “death in the future.” The aunt in the poem who refers to a certain photograph cannot recall the context of the photograph she recalls, but only the presentness of the moment that it indicates, a presentness which is belied by the actual present moment in which it is already past. The speaker has a sense of being caught in a sort of continuous present, sensing both the possibility and limitation of a future that will at the same time arrive too soon and never arrive.

I Do Not Think that I Could Love a Human Being begins with that amazing sequence about a boat on water. The Sentimentalists also contains a wonderful image of the submerged town and of the characters rowing over it. Can you talk about the importance of water and/or boating to you?

Water is just material enough to convey the reality of its weight—of its substance and power—while still maintaining a certain transparence, the idea of immateriality. We are still able to conceptualize, quite simply, what water has covered or concealed.

In The Sentimentalists, the protagonist reflects that she finds it difficult to believe that “anything is ever buried in the way that [she] had once supposed.” She says, “I believe instead that everything remains. At the very limit; the exact surface of things. So that in the end it is not so much what has been subtracted from a life that really matters, but the distances, instead, between the things which remain.” I think that this quite explicitly expresses the role that I intended water to play in the novel.

Water shows up in my poems for some of the same ideational reasons, but its presence can often also be more concretely linked to my own life and experience. I grew up by the ocean and like to be out on the water whenever I can. I love swimming and canoeing, and would like to learn to sail properly one day.

You end I Do Not Think that I Could Love a Human Being with the poem “Everything Remains to be Spoken Of.” This title suggests that the poem does not cover what it sets out to cover. And, in fact, the poem’s speaker says “we had not yet acquired language.” Can you talk about why you ended the book with this? Why did you end with an inability to communicate?

You are right that the title suggests that the poem does not cover what it sets out to cover, but I understand this more or less in terms of the possibilities and limitations of language in general.

There are always those inevitable gaps between the wanting to say, the saying, and the said, but these can be tremendously positive. It is within these gaps that language is able to continually regenerate itself. I mean, it is only because we are continuously unable to “cover what we set out to cover” that there is always more and more to say, and it is only through a concerted attempt at “saying” and “re-saying” that anything is ever “said.” I see this poem as the most hopeful poem of the book.
That “we had not yet acquired language” does not presuppose that we won’t. Or, at least, that we won’t continue to try. The speaker, rejecting reticence, chooses that possibility.

What can we look forward to from Johanna Skibsrud?

I am currently working on the novel I’ve mentioned and am also editing a collection of short stories entitled, This Will Be Difficult To Explain, And Other Stories, which will appear in Fall, 2011, published by Hamish Hamilton Canada. One story from that collection recently appeared in Zoetrope’s “All-Story” issue of March, 2011.