Winning fame and honours for a first novel can be a mixed blessing. But for Johanna Skibsrud, the outsider who won last year's Scotiabank Giller Prize for her slim, small-press debut, The Sentimentalists – first published in an edition of a few hundred, going on to become one of the bestselling Canadian novels of the past year – the publicity was nothing but good.
Far from being intimidated, Skibsrud was fully prepared for her magic moment. "I really didn't feel any pressure," she said in an interview recently, having stopped overnight in Toronto en route to Norway to launch the latest foreign-language edition of The Sentimentalists.
What she perceived instead was opportunity. "There was an opening for the sort of attention that I really hadn't dreamed of," she said, "but was really ready to receive."
It didn't seem that way a year ago: Amid the controversy that followed her surprise win, with pundits yelping about the book's unavailability and her publisher vowing not to compromise its principles by printing a second edition, Skibsrud appeared to shrink away like a fragile ingénue, taking no part in a national dispute of which she was the ostensible focus. A day after her win, she disappeared on a plane for a long-planned holiday in Turkey.
But what really happened is that Skibsrud seized the day with both hands, hiring a London agent to sort out the mess she left behind while getting busy both with her next novel and a collection of short fiction, This Will Be Difficult to Explain and Other Stories, which her new, multinational publisher (Penguin) is currently shipping coast to coast in bulk.
Although most of the stories were published previously in small literary magazines, they couldn't have been planned better to upset the snob's view of Skibsrud as a dewy-eyed hippie poetess lost in her own tender feelings. In their economy and complexity, their intimately observed details and crystalline insights into human motives and feelings – not to mention their sheer assuredness – Skibsrud's stories stand boldly at the door of the Canadian short-fiction pantheon: Alice Munro, prop. If nothing else, they affirm her as a major new voice in Canadian literature.
Writing short stories suits her ambition "to pack as much as possible" onto the page, according to Skibsrud. "Because they're short they force you to do it in a really concise and tight way that reveals the connections between things," she added. They "hold up as much a mirror as we can bear."
Although plainly written and lacking the literary furbelows some critics detected in The Sentimentalists, Skibsrud's stories make no concessions on the issue of voice. "I think all good writing should be and is poetic," she said, dismissing any "hard distinction" between the two modes of literary expression. "Poetic language is language that recognizes and pays attention to how much power it has on the page.... It has nothing to do with style, it has to do with that awareness and attention to language."
Skibsrud names Virginia Woolf's most challenging novel, The Waves, as a major source of inspiration for her own work, which likewise demands concentration from readers. "A lot of times people don't want to pay that attention," she said. "I don't know. That's not how I read, so that's not how I write."
Skibsrud demonstrates her own technique by imitating one of her characters with a habit of shaping her hand into a "lens-less telescope" in order to "look at the world in little isolated circles." A short story is like a microscope, she said, "but what's revealed is the complexity of that small area you're focusing on."
"I'm so interested in the layers of time, how much every moment, every relationship includes all of the layers of history and the layers of possibility," she said. Each story begins in the middle, and nothing is linear: "This is what makes reading short stories difficult and rewarding."
Unlike Munro, who has spent her career microscopically examining her neighbours in southwestern Ontario, Skibsrud ranges around the world in search of settings, finding them throughout Europe, the United States and Japan – although never in Canada. The diversity reflects her own biography, itself remarkably packed for a woman of 31. It includes study abroad in England and Greece, graduate work at Concordia University in Montreal and the University of Toronto, volunteering on organic farms in Europe and New Zealand, working for Outward Bound, teaching English in Korea and working with aboriginal youth at risk in Inuvik, NWT.
In addition to "rambling around in the first draft of another novel," Skibsrud is currently completing a PhD thesis at the University of Montreal on the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Last month, she moved to Tucson to be with her fiancé, John Melillo, a visiting professor of English at the University of Arizona.
Skibsrud attributes her lifelong wanderlust in part to a deep sense of belonging to her old Nova Scotia home. Both her parents emigrated from the United States – her father to pursue a career building wooden boats – "and made their home very specifically and lovingly in Nova Scotia." Growing up in a formerly abandoned farmhouse near Pictou, N.S., initially without electricity, she inherited their sense of attachment.
"I almost feel, because of that deep sense of home, that I've also been able to have this real wanderlust as well," she said.
Wherever she ends up, there can no longer be any doubt that Johanna Skibsrud has arrived.