I first met Johanna Skibsrud at the 2008 Gaspereau Press Wayzgoose in Kentville, NS. On the Friday evening, we read together - I read from my play, Jerome: The Historical Spectacle, and Johanna read from her poetry collection, Late Nights With Wild Cowboys. From her first line, I knew she had "it."
This past summer I had the pleasure of accompanying the students in the Ross Creek Teen Writing Academy on a field trip to Gaspereau Press. Gary Dunfield and Andrew Steeves gave us a wonderful tour (you can view a slideshow below.) Near the end of the tour, I picked up a copy of Johanna's collection and read her beautiful, cheeky poem, I'd be a Hopper Painting to my students. Just before we left, Andrew gave us this advice, "If you want to be a writer, stay stubborn and curious."
I've carried those words with me ever since.
As a writer, and a human being, I need days and moments like the ones I've shared with Andrew, Gary and Johnana. They remind me of why I write. They make it easier to get up in the morning, put my feet on the cold wood floor and begin again.
The past few days have been a nothing short of a tempest for everyone involved with Johanna's now Giller Prize winning novel, The Sentimentalists. I, for one, am elated with the jury's recognition of Johanna's work, and also very proud of my dear friends at Gaspereau Press.
In my life I've had the great fortune to have been published by both Gaspereau Press and Knopf Canada - two Canadian houses very different in size and scope. Yet, when it came to honouring my words and humanity, they were very much the same.
It has been three days - just - since the Giller Prize was awarded. In that time there has been much talk of getting what's due, foul vs. fair, striking hot iron, windows - open and shut. But the thing I can't help thinking through all of it is that I know these people - they are people who care, passionately, about the fine art of stringing words together into meaning, about crafting books to meet those words, and above all else, about giving a writer's humanity, curiosity, and stubborness a worthy home. I have no doubt that they have and will continue to give that to Johanna and her work. Trust.
The Creeklings visit Gaspereau Press on PhotoPeach
My friend Michael Schellenberg, (one of the finest editors I know) sent this letter to the Globe and Mail the other day. It sums up a lot of how I feel as well.
As a reader who passionately fell in love with Johanna Skibsrud's novel The Sentimentalists, I have nothing but gratitude to Gaspereau Press. Imagine discovering a poet of such sensitive ability. And then having the faith to publish two gorgeous collections of that artist's poetry. And then imagine the excitement and trembling that must have ensued at the idea of publishing a novel of such urgency and enquiry and beauty.That is the beauty of old-fashioned publishing in which loyalty is rewarded.
Imagine that after having made the most beautiful act of faith that is getting a work of art into wider distribution, three incredibly passionate and smart people--two of the world's greatest writers and one of the country's most intelligent arts journalist-- choose that novel for a prize that honours one of our country's finest journalists and is itself a monument to passion and art. And then imagine that publisher being maligned in the national press--today's Globe and Mail says: "good books deserve a large audience, and that publishers that fail so spectacularly to seize the moment will soon be the last resort of promising new writers."
I can't imagine an artist that wouldn't be thrilled by the triumph of art over commerce that is the awarding of the Giller to Gaspereau Press's publication of Johanna Skibsrud's The Sentimentalists. (And then imagine a "disappointed publisher" telling a journalist with your paper that, "I think that the jury inadvertently screwed the Giller by giving the prize to this purist little press.") In the meantime Gaspereau is producing the novel as quickly as possible to their impeccable standards--and I have to say that it is one of the more beautiful objects that has come into my life of late. For those who don't have the patience to wait for it, the novel is widely available as an e-book from Kobo (which your editors failed to mention).
That Gaspereau Press has been reviled for this incredibly beautiful act of faith is a stunning collective failing of our collective imagination--but it doesn't surprise me given how debased our relationship with art has become. I do have to agree with the final sentence of today's editorial: "The true measure of any book's success is not a prize but its ability to connect with readers."
The Sentimentalists is a work of our time that will connect with readers for years to come. It is the perfect antidote to a culture in which the editors of our "national newspaper" attack a small cultural business for having the courage of its conviction. Perhaps a better ending to the story would be for the people who care about these things to pause and reflect on the miracle of what just happened. And for us all to marvel at the miracle that is The Sentimentalists--an incredibly brave novel by a young woman reckoning with the legacy of her father.
And on that note, I'll leave you with this...(it's the quote from the broadsheet pictured above.)
"Of all the inanimate objects, of all of man's creations, books are the nearest to us, for they contain our very thought, our ambitions, our indignations, our illusions, our fidelity to truth, and our persistent leaning towards error. But most of all they resemble us in their precarious hold on life." - Joseph Conrad