Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Johanna Skibsrud

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Johanna Skibsrud

Only a year after winning the Giller Prize for her novel The Sentimentalists, Johanna Skibsrud returns with a collection of short fiction, This Will Be Difficult to Explain (Penguin Canada).

Johanna talks with Open Book about the value of short fiction, the attraction of song and the important influences found (very) close to home.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, This Will Be Difficult To Explain.

Johanna Skibsrud:

The nine stories in the collection are various, both in terms of content and location — the settings range from a farm in South Dakota to museums in Paris, from small-town Nova Scotia to Hiroshima, Japan. There is a story of a twelve-year-old boy on a hunting trip with his father; of two siblings forced to deal with the troubling — and possibly false — recollections of their Croatian-born father; of a young journalist faced with his first major assignment — and its surprising results. Although some of the stories are explicitly linked by shared characters and settings (four of the stories concern a network of middle-aged women friends, all American ex-patriots living in Paris), most are not. All nine stories share an impulse to question — and ultimately push past — the ordinary limits of perspective, communication and understanding. The characters are forced to confront what is, for them (for various reasons and to varying degrees), most “difficult to explain.”

OB:

How did you choose which stories to include in the collection? What brings the collection together as a coherent whole?

JS:

The stories were written over a long period of time, about seven years — the earliest dating back to 2004. I returned to them again and again over that time, revising them constantly, and working to bring out what I thought was most important to each. In 2008 I put together my favourites and began to work on them explicitly as a collection. This does not mean that I think of the book as a “coherent whole,” however. I wanted it to be more like life than that. There are so many things: fleeting perceptions, emotions, relationships, ideas, that ultimately exceed language, and any notion of a comprehensive “whole”— I wanted my book to reflect that. At the same time, though, my characters — like myself — are bound by the desire to express themselves — to try to make sense of things, nevertheless, through ideas and language.

OB:

Is there a character in This Will Be Difficult To Explain with whom you particularly identify? Or, was there someone who was particularly difficult to write?

JS:

I probably identify with Daniel from “The Limit” the most. He is the young boy who goes out on a disappointing hunting trip with his father. He is constantly wishing that he could see farther — think more clearly, honestly and deeply. “Fat Man and Little Boy” was the hardest to write. Not because of the character — but because of what I was trying to do with the flashback sequence, the way I was trying to turn the whole story on a single moment.

OB:

What recurring themes or obsessions do you notice turning up in your writing?

JS:

I’ve pretty much said it. Limitations — personal and historical. The desire to move past them, but also the stifling sense of being bound to those limitations by the structure and pattern of your own language, culture, and way of thinking.

OB:

You've spoken about the value of short fiction, which coincides with this year's YOSS campaign. What unique reading experience is provided by short stories?

JS:

I think of short-fiction as the poetry of the fiction genre — it is able to borrow significant strengths from both poetry and longer-form fiction. Through poetry, we are able to focus in on specific images, and ideas. Like a microscope, it can allow us to glimpse the complexity that at every time exists within particulars, but so often goes unseen. Long-form fiction — which includes the novel, certainly, but also feature-length films and plays in several acts — allows us to explore the relationships between these images, and ideas. It is also well-suited to character development and the representation and examination of complex “real life” situations. In other words, it is better at being mimetic or representational. Where poetry tends to be epiphanic, fiction is narrative. Short fiction falls somewhere in between.

The mistake that so often gets made, though, is to think of short fiction as a very short novel or (this more rarely) very a long poem. A good short story is neither of these things, but both at once. It is entirely its own genre, has a different set of concerns and requires a different set of skills to write. The short-story writer has to maximize imagistic and narrative power within a deliberately limited time/space constraint. A good story plays with those limits — it knows what to include and what to leave out. It has the ability to say “everything” with just a single scene, sometimes just a single well-placed word.

OB:

Who are some people who have deeply influenced (fellow writers or not) your writing life?

JS:

Growing up, I never doubted that anything was possible for me if I only worked hard enough at it — this was mostly thanks to my mother. She always encouraged me to pursue my writing because she saw that it was something that I took joy in, but she also instilled in me a sense of the hard work that would be necessary along the way. That inherent confidence, a sense of legitimacy in the (often very solitary) pursuit of what you love and an acceptance of the hard work integral to that pursuit, is crucial, I think, to almost any career — certainly to a career in writing.

The books that impacted me the most — that served as revelations to me of what writing could do — were Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Lost Time and Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Also the work of poets Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery and Lyn Hejinian.

OB:

Is there a book you’ve read recently that you wished you had written?

JS:

I wish I could have written Michael Hurley’s First Songs — and sang it, too.

OB:

What are you working on now?

JS:

A second novel and my PhD dissertation on the poetry of Wallace Stevens.


Johanna Skibsrud was born in Nova Scotia, Canada in 1980. She completed her BA in English Literature from the University of Toronto, her MA in English and Creative Writing from Concordia University in Montreal, and is currently completing her PhD in English Literature at the Université de Montréal, with a focus on the poetry of Wallace Stevens. She has held a variety of different jobs in the meantime, including working with youth at risk in the Canadian arctic, as a wilderness instructor in Florida and Maine, teaching ESL in Asia, and as a sales associate for Canadian Scholars’ Press and Women’s Press in Toronto. Her first book of poetry, Late Nights With Wild Cowboys, was published in 2008 and shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award for the best first book of poetry by a Canadian poet. A second book of poetry, I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being, was published in April, 2010 and was short-listed for the Atlantic Poetry Prize. Her debut novel, The Sentimentalists, was awarded the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize, making her the youngest writer to ever win Canada’s most prestigious literary prize. Johanna currently lives in Tucson, Arizona.

For more information about This Will Be Difficult to Explain please visit the Penguin Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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