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Skibsrud excited - not sentimental - about Giller Prize

Victoria College graduate is youngest winner in prize history

2010 Giller Prize Winner Johanna Skibsrud is a Victoria College graduate. (Victoria College photo)

When Victoria College graduate Johanna Skibsrud was called up to accept the 2010 Giller Prize, she didn’t quite hear her name.

“I just looked at the reaction of the people around me,” she said, still a little shocked. “It was the strangest thing —such an extreme surprise and thrill.”

Awarded at an elegant dinner each November, the Giller is Canada’s largest prize for fiction. The short list of finalists for the 2011 Giller Prize was announced Oct. 4.

In last year’s competition, debut novelist Skibsrud was definitely the dark horse. Her book, The Sentimentalists, is a lyrical, searing meditation on memory and denial in the wake of the Vietnam war. While Skibsrud is an experienced poet and short-story writer, she was originally published by a little-known company (Nova Scotia’s Gaspereau Press), and is still only 30 years old: the youngest winner in the Giller’s 17-year history.

Skibsrud knew, “from young childhood,” that she would one day be a writer; the question was how to get there. The Nova Scotia native first found her way into the field during a year studying creative writing at England’s Lancaster University. She was inspired to continue on her own later, after arriving at Vic to study English. In her final year, she found tremendous support in Professor A.F. Moritz’s creative writing class.

“It was very meaningful to me,” she said. “It was a small class, and a very supportive environment.”

The seeds were sown for an eventual MA in creative writing, which she later earned at Montreal’s Concordia University. It was there that she wrote The Sentimentalists, which served as her graduate thesis. She’s currently completing a PhD in English, living and working in Montreal.

The Sentimentalists was inspired by the experiences of Skibsrud’s late father, Olaf, a veteran of the Vietnam conflict. The author says her father found it difficult to speak about Vietnam, and didn’t do so until very late in his life.

“In large part it was painful to him and something that he very much wanted to bury in the past,” she said.

He finally chose to speak, she thinks, after seeing “real parallels” between Vietnam and the U.S. involvement in Iraq—“he felt like he was reliving history.”

Though Skibsrud’s novel is timeless, she knows that the publishing industry is changing. In the days following her Giller win, tiny Gaspereau Press was unable to supply a hungry public with all the copies it wanted. Consequently, throngs flocked to Amazon so they could download it onto
their Kindles.

Skibsrud sees irony here, since Gaspereau is known for their painstakingly beautiful, handmade books.

“But I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive,” she said. “We have a system that supports small presses, as well as e-books. And that’s a wonderful thing to me.”