Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Johanna Skibsrud has no faith in bestseller lists

The author of Quartet for the End of Time answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Johanna Skibsrud is the author of the novel Quartet for the End of Time. (Joe Passaretti)

Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Johanna Skibsrud's latest book, Quartet for the End of Time, tells the epic story of four characters forever changed by the First and Second World Wars. 

Below, Johanna Skibsrud answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A. 

1. Alexi Zentner asks, "What's your worst writing habit?"

Ugh. Email. I'd like to be able to cultivate this nice, meditative, empty and open frame of mind while writing, but I find that instead when I really get into it, my energy is very different than that — it's distracted, impatient, sometimes frustrated, sometimes jubilant. When I'm forced to stop for whatever reason — when I stumble over a word or an idea, and I'm suddenly met with blank space — that energy is always wanting to be quickly redirected somewhere. Email is the easy, and very lame, answer. 

2. Lynn Coady asks, "What are the common themes (or settings, symbols, etc) you always seem to come back to in your fiction? Where do those elements come from and what makes them so tenacious?"

Water (as comfort, as threat, as remedy), descriptions of the experience of subjectivity (why am I me, and not you?), descriptions of the experience of time (how will this moment turn into the next?), parental figures (blurred or distorted). 

3. William Deverell asks, "How much faith do you put in bestseller lists?"


4. Sharon Butala asks, "Do you know how the heck we separate the writer-self from the writer's life, that is, the writing from the writer's person?"

I don't think we do. I think the whole project of writing is to translate the experience of personhood into the work. Not in a direct, autobiographical, way, but in a submersive, generous, creative way. The point for me, at least, is not to recognize myself in my work after it's written, but to recognize the fact that I gave to it everything I had. 

5. Heather O'Neill asks, "What's the strangest thing you've done while researching a book?"

While searching permissions for my new novel, I called the human resources department at the Potomac Electric Company in Boston to inquire if they knew the first name of a Mr. Sharpe who (may have) worked for their company sometime in the early part of the 20th century.

While writing a short story, "A Horse, A Vine," included in the wonderful Kate Bernheimer collection of re-told myths, XO Orpheus (and speaking of bad electronic habits...), I googled "What does it feel like to get shot in the head?"

6. Zsuzsi Gartner asks, "Why do you write what you write and the way you write it?"

Everything I write begins with a question. Sometimes — often — it's a question that hasn't been articulated yet. That's the process of writing, for me. An attempt at working out not the answers, but the questions: why my attention is drawn by a particular idea or image, why a feeling or a thought snags suddenly in either my heart or my mind. I write the way that I do because I haven't yet come up with a better way. Writing is the process of trying to find one. 

7. Todd Babiak asks, "If you had to stop writing, due to some fantastical calamity, what career would you pursue and why?"

I'd like to think I'd choose something really worthwhile — like a high school teacher or a nurse or an environmental activist — but I think if I really got to choose, I'd choose folk-rock star, à la Steve Earle or Lucinda Williams. Or maybe punk rock: Patti Smith or Black Francis. Then I'd burn out and go live in the country somewhere and raise chickens and take up watercolours or something. 

8. Helen Humphreys asks, "If you write in a room with a window, what is the view out of that window?"

A barrel cactus, a rosemary bush, and a Yucca tree. Then the quiet residential street where we live — which, in the style of the Old West, is roughly the width of a four-lane highway. 


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