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Johanna Skibsrud marks several firsts with Giller win

Johanna Skibsrud, the 30-year-old author of The Sentimentalists, became the youngest winner of the $50,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize on Tuesday night, and publisher Gaspereau Press became the first small press to win the award in its 17-year history. It’s so exciting, said Skibsrud after the win, her voice quaking. I am in utter shock.

Skibsrud, a Nova Scotia native who is currently a student at the University of Montreal (where she is working on a Ph.D. thesis about poet Wallace Stevens), based the debut novel on her late father’s experiences in the Vietnam War. She ended her short acceptance speech by thanking him for his encouragement and support. I can’t even imagine how proud he would have been, she said.

Described as trip-wire taut by Giller jurors Ali Smith, Claire Messud, and Michael Enright, The Sentimentalists began as the author’s M.A. dissertation in creative writing at Concordia University. According to Skibsrud, the book has subsequently changed a lot, and contains far more of her father’s experiences than originally planned. Though the senior Skibsrud succumbed to lung cancer in 2008, he had a chance to read an early draft of the novel and gave it his seal of approval.

The Sentimentalists is easily the most surprising Giller winner since the prize was first awarded in 1994, due mostly to its origins with the tiny Kentville, Nova Scotia-based Gaspereau Press. Published late in 2009 in a limited run of a few hundred copies, the book flew almost completely under the radar until the Giller jury named it to the prize longlist in September. In the lead-up to Skibsrud’s win last night, booksellers across Canada have had trouble getting hold of copies, because Gaspereau prints all of its titles itself and has a maximum capacity of about 1,000 copies per week.

There definitely are times I wish [the book] was out there in more readers’ hands, but I know that Gaspereau has been working very hard to get copies in stores, said Skibsrud, who has also published two volumes of poetry with Gaspereau. They said they will keep up as best they can, and I have faith in them.

Gaspereau co-publisher Gary Dunfield acknowledged that keeping up with demand has been a challenge. We will print books as quick as we can, and that’s about all we can do, he said, adding that he filled all outstanding orders to indie retailers just before heading off to Toronto for the ceremony. [But] I don’t even want to think about what Friday’s going to be like. (According to Dunfield, new orders won’t be fielded until Friday, as he won’t be back in the office until then and co-publisher Andrew Steeves is currently doing repairs on his house.)

Shortly after the shortlist announcement, several larger publishers, including House of Anansi Press, approached Gaspereau about handling printing and distribution for The Sentimentalists, but Steeves turned down the offers, preferring to stick to the slow-and-steady approach. After Skibsrud’s win, Anansi president and publisher Sarah MacLachlan told Q&Q the offer remains on the table, should Steeves change his mind.

For her part, Skibsrud said she would welcome such a move. Personally, I would absolutely support that decision, she said. My interest is simply to have the book read as widely as possible. But the business end of things is not up to me.

Regardless of whether The Sentimentalists becomes widely available in Canada, the book is set to be published in the U.K. in March by William Heinemann, an imprint of Random House U.K. Earlier this month, Heinemann acquired U.K. and commonwealth rights (excluding Canada) to the novel from Skibsrud’s agent, Tracy Bohan of the Wylie Agency.

Readers who can’t wait to get their hands on The Sentimentalists can buy it as an e-book from Kobo, the Indigo-owned digital reading platform. As for Indigo itself, Gaspereau is currently shipping print copies to the chain, and patrons can expect to see them on shelves shortly. But Dunfield isn’t sending the bulk quantities Indigo usually requires. The chains want you to send 2,000 to 3,000 copies, and then they’ll return 80% of them. That’s financially feasible for them, but it’s not financially feasible for me, he said.

Skibsrud beat out prior Giller winner David Bergen’s The Matter With Morris (HarperCollins Canada) as well as several other dark horse candidates: Alexander MacLeod’s debut story collection Light Lifting (Biblioasis), Sarah Selecky’s debut story collection This Cake Is for the Party (Thomas Allen Publishers), and Kathleen Winter’s debut novel Annabel (House of Anansi Press). Each of the finalists took home $5,000.

THIS STORY HAS BEEN UPDATED: The original version of this story incorrectly attributed comments to Gasperau Press co-publisher Andrew Steeves. Q&Q regrets the error.