Interviewed by Sunil Yapa
Salvatore Scibona’s debut novel, The End, published in 2008, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and it won both the Young Lions Fiction Award from the New York Public Library and the Norman Mailer Cape Cod Award for Exceptional Writing. The novel earned comparisons to Faulkner, Stein, and even James Joyce. In 2009 Scibona was awarded a Whiting Writer’s Award, in 2010 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and he was recently highlighted by The New Yorker as one of “20 under 40” writers to watch. He is the coordinator of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
First, congratulations on being included on The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 list. From an outside perspective, your writing career seems filled with spectacular and early successes. Have there been any bumps in the road?
From an inside perspective, the last fifteen years have been one long failure to express what I was trying to say, punctuated by flickers of feeling a bit less incompetent. The flickers then die out, more or less instantaneously. And I’m left in my studio, pacing in circles, swinging a broom, raging over people no one knows but me. And I give up, I go for a swim in the harbor, I float on my back, I ask God to offer some more straightforward way of going about all this; and God does not respond.
When did you start writing?
Around the second grade, I decided I needed to make my own way in the world, so I tried to sell rocks, from a folding table, to passersby on the street. Then I tried selling half-rotten apples I stole from the neighbor’s orchard. These ventures did not succeed.
The obstacle, to my mind, was that I was a child. Adults held some prejudice against doing business with children. If only there was something I could do by mail. No one would know how old I was. So I started a novel in the fifth grade. I typed it on yellow paper in the root cellar. But after three years I had only gotten as far as two chapters, which I had revised in frustration about twenty times. I felt I could have so much to say, if I only I could figure out where the periods were supposed to go.
You have said, when discussing your first novel: “I always reminded myself of a piece of advice from the writer Roger Skillings—R.D. Skillings—that I must see as the character sees. That is, to empathize. If this weren’t a moral commandment, it would be a technical one.”
How does empathy relate to technical decisions in your work?
Roger was talking about seeing, thinking, judging, as the character would do. At the time I was writing about people all of whose racial attitudes would be distasteful to most contemporary readers, and were distasteful to me. In our political climate, race sucks the air out of any room it enters. I felt I had just two choices: either to make my characters saints or devils; both were flat, both were untrue.
Roger’s point was that my political opinions had nothing to do with these people. The more I empathized with most of the characters, the more obvious it was that they didn’t care whether their racial attitudes were distasteful to anybody. Most of them think of themselves as resenting blacks in the way they resent inflation or garden weeds. No amount of political theorizing would have led me to that conclusion. I simply had to empathize.
I think sympathy means feeling something like what another person feels. You sympathize with. You stand beside, you touch the other person. Empathy, on the other hand, is a deeper plunge. Empathy means actually feeling another person’s feelings directly. You don’t stand next to the person, touching, you somehow become the person.
That was the leap I’d been unwilling to make, and it was crippling the book. After that conversation with Roger, I wanted to forget my agenda, my judgment, my taste—forget myself altogether. To merge with the person. To be closer than married.
At the moments when that happens, crafty point-of-view questions float away. All you see is what the character sees, you hate what the character hates, and love what the character loves, and talk as the character talks.
You have bought the whole hog.
Has your work as the Writing Coordinator for the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown given you any insights into contemporary American fiction? Are there any young writers not on The New Yorker’s list, or not yet published, that you’d like to mention?
Oh, many, many.
Writers often apply to the Work Center in the first couple of years after they finish graduate school. Last year we had seven hundred applications for eight first-year fellowships. So I get to see a broad sampling every year of what emerging writers are doing. The people who’ve been on the jury since the olden days claim it’s much harder to judge than it used to be. The proliferation of MFA programs has taught young writers a lot—if nothing else, to avoid the elementary mistakes a writer might make if she’d never had a good reader look at her work. Nearly all the application manuscripts now are wicked clean. You can’t dismiss them for basic faults in competence.
Here’s something else I take from Roger Skillings, the chair of the Writing Committee and a fellow in the first year of the FAWC writing fellowship, in 1969. He thinks contemporary writers have lost the stomach for tragedy.
John Gardner says that beginning writers are often and understandably terrified of melodrama. But there is an equal and opposite problem this can cause—an aversion to deep suffering or grand love even when events cry out for them. Gardner calls this frigidity.
And you think this is a problem with American fiction.
It’s like that Andy Samberg mashup, “Cool Guys Don’t Look at Explosions.” One after another movie hero sets the time going on his bomb, strides away in slow motion toward the camera, and, as the building behind him erupts in fire, he ambles onward without a flinch. The thesis line of the accompanying song is “The more you ignore it, the cooler you look.” These guys are cool. And they are not human beings.
I think Roger’s right. Contemporary American fiction too often suffers from a slightly less ludicrous version of the Samberg Effect. As stylistically edgy as the writing might be, as audacious in its subject matter and form, its embrace of previously distant cultures—it rarely takes me all the way to the heights and bottoms of the emotions that we really feel. Either this kind of writing avoids a tragic event itself, or else it refuses to evoke the human passions that the great explosion would have to compel. Richard Yates was unafraid of this. Virginia Woolf, Halldór Laxness, Saul Bellow likewise. They were more interested in people than in attitudes.
Maybe it’s the fancy new psychopharmaceuticals, or the end of the Cold War, when total annihilation seemed a closer prospect. Who knows. We have no less to dread or love than our grandparents did. Are we too distracted by technology to know it?
There are so many, many young writers that have lived in Provincetown lately, both as fellows and as young writers drawn to live here, whose work I admire for the way they do not shrink from those passions. To limit this list arbitrarily to a few recent fiction fellows with recent or forthcoming books: Daniyal Mueenuddin, Justin Tussing, Nadia Kalman, Nam Le, Lydia Peelle, Charles McLeod, Paul Harding, Anne Sanow. Another, not a FAWC fellow but a young writer who lived here, is Sarah Braunstein, whose first novel, The Sweet Relief of Missing Children blew me completely away when I read the galleys recently. It comes out from Norton early next year. It performs that profound empathy on all manner of decidedly not-nice emotions, among parents and children. And the writing is on fire.
I just read your story “The Kid” in The New Yorker’s summer fiction issue. I loved it, but it also seemed very different than The End. Do you feel more comfortable with one form or the other?
I usually write stories by accident. Sometimes a part of a novel will start to turn back on itself, to close itself to the rest of the concerns of the book and point to one of its own. My first love is the novel, and I’ll feel lucky if I can keep on working in that form for—well, forever. But novels take a long time; and it’s so satisfying to finish something. For me a story is a long meditation, an attempt to concentrate on one elusive thing. A novel is a life.
You’ve said, “Reading has a nutritional effect on my body as well as my imagination.” What else is nutritional for a writer?
The baker in my first novel asks the old lady, if he didn’t go to work, what would he do all day? And she responds, “Entertain, read, garden, pray, converse.” That’s more or less what I do, though I substitute walking for praying.
What has been the biggest surprise, so far, of your writing life?
That (the normal agonies notwithstanding) writing itself has brought me more and more multifarious and strange joys. I had expected to be quite miserable by now.
Longhand, typewriter, or computer?
First longhand. The next day, I type out what I have on a manual typewriter I’ve owned since the sixth grade. Then I make changes with a pen on the typewritten page, then retype, continue in longhand. Retype. Rewrite. Retype. And, more often than not, I throw it all away.
When I have to put something in the mail, I type it onto the stupid computer (I just bought my first one a couple of years ago) and that’s where it starts to die.
Writing and reading fiction. Is using the imagination a moral act?
What a wonderful question. Let me think.
No. Everything else is a moral act for me, unfortunately. I have a loud and obtrusive superego, which has made me cause unnecessary pain to other people and to myself. If reading and writing fiction have shown me anything, it’s that we’re all so different from one another. Sympathy makes you say, “I get you, because you’re like me.” Imaginative empathy and the best fiction make you say, “I get you, because you’re like you.” It may be morally good to engage in empathy, but you can’t engage in it with the goal of doing good. That would be like planning to sneeze.
Saint Paul (who can be otherwise, often, in my heretical opinion, a maddening scold) says: “One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind….Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves.”
I wish I could wrap my mind around that.
The structure of The End seems very unique. Can you talk about how you arrived at that structure? Was the process a conscious redrafting, or did that story emerge more naturally, or unconsciously, as you wrote it?
I made a structure to house the materials that the writing had produced.
I had a long manuscript, about 600 pages, involving about five main characters in this Italian neighborhood from about 1920 to 1953. Those characters were all up in each others’ videos (is that what the kool kids say?). But there were two other characters who were in this place, at this time, doing things that were indispensable to the plot and to the thematic thrust of the book; yet they were not part of the daily life of the central characters. And I wanted to give all the characters the full treatment, a proper place to live in the book. A straightforward sequence of continuous time would not have accommodated all of them. I needed to make a house that suited them, even if it would not have suited any other characters in any other fictional world.
I worked out a structure, sort of a building, in which the criminal—who is alone, not of the neighborhood, not of the culture, unknown in any personal way to the main characters, but who changes all their lives—would have his own closets within the novel, a chapter here and there might appear just where he matters most to the larger story.
Meantime, the baker, abandoned by his family and yet living in the hive of this crowded neighborhood, gets his own wing of the book, like an atrium, at the beginning. The other main characters live in the more traditionally structured middle of the novel. Each of the characters lives his own life in his own way, in his own voice, but they all share the same time and place, and the same novel. And they’re all speaking to one another whether they know it or not.
I suppose the thrust of the thing is that we are all together, all alone, all at once.