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Quartet for the End of Time: A new novel by Giller Prize winning author Johanna Skibsrud

-by Susan Paddon

It feels somehow right that Johanna Skibsrud’s first interview for her new novel, Quartet for the End of Time, is for The Inverness Oran and takes place in her home in St. Joseph du Moine. We chat over a blueberry and peach cobbler that is still warm from her oven with vanilla ice cream melting into the crumb. Olive, her darling six-week-old daughter, rests against Skibsrud’s chest as we chat. Around the rim of my bowl of dessert, the words “A friend is someone that likes you” are written. “It was a present from my aunt for Olive,” she explains about the bowl. Skibsrud is not only a writer I deeply admire, she is my dear friend.

When Skibsrud’s first novel, The Sentimentalists (that went on to win the Giller prize in 2010), first came out, we celebrated at my old apartment on rue Sainte-Catherine in Montreal. I remember setting the Gaspereau Press cover up on a music stand, and a group of us toasted with the most expensive champagne we could afford. Skibsrud was not yet the internationally acclaimed novelist that she is now and neither one of us knew we would one day buy houses on Cape Breton Island. Many things have changed in her life since that evening that feels like so many moons ago: she has lived in Paris, finished a PhD, got married, landed a tenure track position at the University of Arizona, and gave birth to baby Olive, not to mention put out a book of short stories, a book of poems, and now has a second novel, Quartet For the End of Time, coming out next month.

“A lot of time has passed in reality and I have been very fortunate to have had a lot of positive change and support.” Skibsrud has always been very modest about her accomplishments. She also credits her husband John Mellilo for his support and a post-doctoral project that allowed her to continue working on her own academic and creative projects. “And I was very fortunate to have a lot of time over the last four years for writing.” But there is no denying she is already hugely prolific at the age of 34. 

Quartet For the End of Time, Skibrud’s new novel takes its title from the famous quartet of the same name by French composer Olivier Messiaen. The idea for the novel first came to her in 2007 when she heard the quartet for the first time. “It was played in the free concert series in Toronto at the Canadian Opera Company,” Skibsrud explains. “I was completely struck by the piece of music itself and the story of its creation that was written on the back of our program.” The quartet was composed while Messiaen was a prisoner of war in a German prison camp. “He used only the instruments that were available to him – a cello, clarinet, violin, and piano and the first performance took place in the prison camp.” 

The novel begins in 1932 and follows Arthur and Douglas Sinclair, an impoverished veteran and his son, who make the arduous journey from Kansas to Washington DC to join the Bonus Army March—a band of Angry WWI veterans who march on Washington to demand payment of the wartime bonus promised to them for their service during the WWI. 

“Most people I talked to had never heard of the bonus army,” Skibsrud says and I admit to having no prior knowledge of the army or the march. “To me it seemed so connected to so many elements, not only of our North American history, but to our current situation – Occupy Wall Street comes to mind and all sorts of veterans’ issues today. There are so many continuities and yet this whole episode seemed to have been swept under the rug.” 

As a writer, Skibsrud is often drawn to telling stories that would otherwise remain either “swept under the rug” or rarely mentioned, if discussed at all. “The project of good art,” she adds, “is to look back, as well as look forward, reclaim, reframe, and see anew what we have passed over.” Quartet For the End of Time further weaves other unexpected stories and places, taking us from the underground world of a Soviet spy to Hemingway’s Florida, to occupied Paris and the fall of Berlin. 

So what is Skibrud’s secret to being the prolific writer that she is? Fellow novelist, friend, and Skibrud’s next door neighbour in St. Joseph du Moine, Rebecca Silver Slayter (In the Land of Birdfishes) once told me that Skibsrud once told her (loose quote): “Writing a novel is easy. All you have to do is write ten pages a day. In twenty days, you have a novel.” 

“Comment?” Skibsrud says laughing when I bring this up. “Well, I am so embarrassed that I ever said that,” she begins, “the thing is, when I told Rebecca that, I was so excited about this experience…seeing the pages pile up. I was doing it. I was writing a lot of pages, but” she continues,  “I was leaving out the most important part of the work – the revision process. At least that’s the most important part for me.” This new book was in the revision process for the last few years.

Still, it seems, after some deliberation on the subject of process (and a few novels later, including her latest novel Quartet For the End of Time and another one that she is working on now) that Skibsrud’s strategy hasn’t actually changed that much. “I thought after that,” (referring to writing The Sentimentalists), “‘next time I’m going to write a smarter novel. I’m going to know what I’m writing in advance, I’m going to write good pages that are in the right order that I don’t have to revise, so much at least.’ But I’ve found myself in the same situation, piling page after page.” I tell her I think it’s working.

When I ask Skibsrud, who has been compared to Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro, and is often called one of Canada’s “most original voices,” how this book is different from what she has done before she says, “I hope that everything I write would be hugely different from the last thing that I wrote. With this, I really did have a sense of taking on something that was too big for me and I wanted to do that...I really set out to do that...and it was. And I don’t claim to have conquered that thing that was too big for me at all, but it was something that I wanted to do.” 

As a writer, Skibsrud is interested in people and relationships rather than “those events” that make up the popular collective memory. “I have always been intrigued, appalled, heartbroken by what I see, read and experience, but mostly – luckily – from a distance about our world and our history. Writing is a way to get in between those small very personal episodes, or ways of experiencing life, and the broader sweeping experiences that we label history.” 

Quartet for the End of Time will be released at the end of September. You can hear Skibsrud read next July as part of the Canada Day reading event at the Coady and Tompkins Memorial Library in Margaree Forks.



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