By Andreae Prozesky
When I try to get in touch with Sara Tilley about Skin Room, her début novel, she’s on her way out of town. Can I send her a few questions over e-mail? Sure.
I’m interested in her narrator, Teresa Norman. Teresa tells her story from two points in time and space; the action of the book alternates, chapter by chapter, between the remote Inuit community of Sanikiluaq, where Teresa is an awkward, bookish twelve-year-old, and St. John’s, where she has grown to become an early-twenty-something photographer, taking head shots of Theatre People by day and snapping tormented self-portraits by night.
Throughout the novel there are elements of the magical, of mythology and mysticism. Teresa’s dream world is vivid and portentous, and her waking life is filled with symbolism and coincidence that may seem at first glance to be a little over the top. And yet, even with all the weirdness that surrounds her, she is startlingly like people I have known, strangely normal in a damaged, neurotic kind of way.
A snippet of my interview with Sara follows.
Why was it important to you to set Skin Room in ‘real-life’ St. John’s?
Both the Newfoundland and Nunavut sections of the book are set in real places. I wanted readers who know the city to feel like they’ve sat next to this character before, or seen her walking down the street, and for readers who had never been here to feel as though they had been. Because the St. John’s portions are set in ‘real’ places, hopefully the reader is also able to read the Sanikiluaq sections and get the same sense of being grounded. Teresa is a character looking for somewhere to belong, and she is fiercely connected to the physical world around her, making the writing about place as important as anything else in her story, I think.
There are times when Skin Room veers into magical realist territory. Not just the spiritualism and sorcery of Sanikiluaq, but also the Catholic imagery writ large, certain moments of larger-than-life-ness. You make reference in the book to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work—do you feel a connection to that sort of writing?
I think my favorite writers have all ventured into magic realist territory. [They] are writing into the real meat of the mystery of being alive: our subconscious, our dreams, our internal, distorted reality versus the outside world. I want a reading experience to move me in ways I don’t even really understand. I want to know the unknowable or at least to sense that is there, just out of reach.
In a review of Catherine Safer’s novel, Bishop’s Road, someone suggested there might be a movement called Magical Realism from the Rock. As much as I object to anything being called “Whatever… from the Rock,” I can see a tradition emerging that might suggest that such a school could exist.
It’s funny, but I didn’t think of my book as having any magic realist elements to it, really, ’til you brought it up. As for belonging to a school of writers, that’s a first. I thought I was in total isolation! Perhaps as a culture we are struggling with our place in the world and our writers are likewise searching for deeper ways to express that struggle. Certainly the dominance of Catholicism in Newfoundland has helped steer literature in that direction, as [would] our tradition of oral storytelling: fairies, fetches, the Old Hag. It’s embedded in our collective subconscious.
Teresa has a way of giving objects great meaning while, at the same time, objectifying humans. Where do you think that comes from?
She is a damaged person who has been habitually guarding herself from intimacy with others for most of her life, even while she craves it. This is the heart of the whole novel—she is at once outside of herself and craving the connection with others that she cannot seem to actualize, and she is terrified of making that connection. She is not an analytical thinker but rather experiences things in terms of the senses, making rocks and sunlight and cliffsides as important to her psyche as the nuances of her friend’s personalities.
Did you struggle with your representation of Sanikiluaq and the Inuit?
It took me a really long time to start writing about the Inuit. [I thought] that I didn’t have the authority to go there. Since the character is a young girl experiencing the culture for the first time, it gave me license to write about the North in an authentic way that didn’t try to ‘get inside’ the Inuit way of life, but to see it with fresh eyes. What I hope I have accomplished is to give readers a sense of the wonder and mystery that Teresa sees in the Inuit culture, as well as the harshness of that world and of surviving in it. I wanted to treat the culture respectfully but to write from an honest, innocent perspective that is unbiased about what it sees.
How does it feel to have the actual book in your actual hands? Are you sleeping with it under your pillow, or does the very sight of it totally make you want to puke?
It feels very surreal. That’s the only proper word for it. After seven years of living almost entirely inside my head, Teresa now has a solid home. . . In a way it’s freeing, but if I stop to think about it for too long I do feel like puking. Just a little.