© Carlos Ferguson.
conducted by Bret
Bret Anthony Johnston:
First, congratulations on being a finalist for the National
Book Award! How did the news reach you? What was your
Scibona: I was reading in my studio.
Then I came upstairs and a message was waiting on my
answering machine. Did I listen to the message? No!
I went to the kitchen and refilled my coffee cup and
ate a stale crust of bread. Then I listened to the message,
which was from Harold Augenbraum at the National Book
Foundation. I called him back and had a very pleasant
and reasonable conversation for about five minutes.
Then we hung up and I fell down on the floor screaming
out my guts.
BAJ: How long did you
work on The End before it was published? What
is your writing process?
For ten years. I write longhand, then I type what I’ve
written on a manual typewriter, then revise with a pen,
retype, rewrite, retype, rewrite, and finally throw
the whole thing away. The throwing away may be the most
important part: I slowly learn what is true about the
character by writing long passages that turn out to
be mistaken in an instructive way.
It’s like a relationship
in that my hopes and selfish misconceptions and projections
prove one-by-one to be untrue of this person I love,
the character, until I finally succumb to her strangeness,
her rightful insistence that she is not what I have
The character Mrs. Marini says
near the end of the book, “Ideas are trash,”
by which I think she means that our ideas about each
other often impede our understanding of each other,
and we have to get past them.
BAJ: The End, which takes place amid
the racial upheaval of the 1950s, centers around Elephant
Park, an Italian immigrant enclave in Ohio. How did
the setting—cultural, political, and geographic—inform
the writing of the book?
The original setting was the first of
the ideas I had to get past. I’m a fourth-generation
Clevelander, though I haven’t lived there in a
long time. I was probably qualified to write about Cleveland,
but at first I was still writing about it through the
distorted lens of homesickness. My original notions
of the place bore all the stains of my missing it. I
was too invested in everything I admired about it and
felt I needed to defend and explain.
At first, I set the book in
the early 20th-century Cleveland that I knew from my
grandparents, who were all born there. But in the final
version, I hope, the setting is not my romantic notion
of my grandparents’ Ohio, but the characters’
Ohio, a more complicated place.
BAJ: One of the most powerful and revelatory
elements of the novel is how the characters confront
the issue of race. You’ve said that you tried
not to think about race as you were writing The
End, but finally you realized there was no way
around it. What was your initial hesitation?
Race has such an enormous gravitational field, you know?
It threatens to make everything about itself. It’s
a freighted intellectual category, and in our public
discourse we treat it as such. But the people in Elephant
Park would never have thought of it in such refined
abstractions. They would not have talked about race,
the idea. They would have talked about the coloreds.
I felt unqualified to take a general position about
race; and I was sure the reader was uneager
to be proselytized by me anyway.
But eventually consistency
demanded that I treat race as I treated everything else,
from the point of view of the characters. It was a new
chore but also a new freedom. Instead of trying to make
a grand or even just an accurate statement about why
so many white ethnics abandoned the inner cities so
quickly, I tried to show the reader a cast of characters
and to treat the characters as they are, not as I think
they should be. Many of them hold racial opinions I
may find repugnant, but my job is neither to protect
the characters from the reader’s judgment nor
to sit in judgment myself.
I don’t think I’m
staking out a moral position about race in the book.
But I do adopt a moral position in my relationship to
the characters: I try to understand them on their own
terms, independent of my judgment of those terms.
BAJ: What was the most difficult aspect of writing
Spite, malice, cynicism, shame, contempt,
rage, disgust. All my own, and all directed at the book
for not doing what I wanted it to do, and all of it
a kind of egoism. When I was really in the character’s
mind, all of that evaporated. And I felt so free—free
from self, the way love feels.
BAJ: An interesting similarity among the fiction finalists
this year is how all of the novels focus on the past.
What is it about the past that so captivates readers
We write about the past because there is so much more
of it than the present.
I once asked Marilynne Robinson,
who was my teacher at the time, why most novels were
written in the past tense. This was at a party in honor
of her book of essays, The Death of Adam, which
has been a life-shaping book to me. And she said, “Excuse
me—who lives in the present?”
We spend most of our time focusing
on five seconds ago, or five minutes ago, or twenty-five
BAJ: For some writers, the engine that powers their
fiction is character. For others, it’s language.
For others still, the engine might loosely be called
“theme.” Do you identify with any of those?
What sparked the initial idea for you?
I suppose I changed engines a couple of times while
keeping the same car. When I was first starting out—fresh
from a college that treated geometry, music, physics,
and even literature all as departments of philosophy—abstract
ideas probably inspired and organized what I was doing
more than anything else did.
Later on, my sense of the characters
as real human beings—what they desired and felt
and did—took over, and I tried much harder to
submerge the ideas in the characters. So the people
became the driving force.
But then while working through
the last drafts, I read Flannery O’Connor’s
Mystery and Manners, in which she repeats over
and over that fiction relies first and foremost on sensory
experience. Also I read the famous essay of T.S. Eliot’s
in which he describes the “objective correlative,”
the thing in a piece of art that holds the
idea or the emotion. I became persuaded that I could
replace most of the ideas and the overt descriptions
of feelings in the book with physical description that
was haunted by the ghost of the idea it had replaced.
This is probably the most basic
lesson anybody could learn about writing fiction—to
write from the five senses, to locate the action in
the world rather than in the mind—but somehow
I had missed it.
And I have to say that it’s
made a—well, a spiritual change in my life. When
you observe the physical details of the world this way,
then the present moment holds the promise of a new urgency
I guess I’m saying that
the kind of meditation that a writer does—looking
for a word that’s as faithful to a thing’s
appearance as to its meaning in the story—trains
the mind to be present to what the eye is showing it.
In her story “Train,”
Joy Williams interrupts a conversation to say of a man
in a dining car, “He cracked ice noisily with
his white teeth”: a modest and unambiguous piece
of physical observation that carries with it all the
weight of this man’s suave despair.
In this way, writing fiction
wakes you up to the surfaces of life, and you start
to regard every moment as a chance to see the physical
world and especially other people not as what you assume
but as what they really are.
BAJ: Who is your ideal reader?
To be honest, I used to think, Marilynne Robinson! But
I haven’t thought much lately about an ideal reader.
The little notes I’ve gotten from people who had
no special previous interest in the setting, or in me,
or in the political issues the book raises—those
notes have been immensely exciting. Because that’s
the way I read—I mean I had no special interest
in Iceland or in sheep before I read Halldór
Laxness and he changed my life forever.
But if I had to answer I might
say, old people. I was close to all my grandparents.
The book is dedicated to them. I had a lot of second-hand
access to their long experience and knowledge. And they
had such prestige in my mind. I admired their sense
of economy, their partially broken physical selves,
the way they smelled, their syntax. I studied their
way of talking, perfectly accentless American, although
they’d grown up speaking Italian and Polish at
home. Little phrases that have become uncommon, vestiges
of another time. My one grandmother would never say
“Jesus”; she would say “the good Lord.”
A niece or cousin was not “Janet,” but “our
Janet.” Or my grandfather would call my brother
or me “k-niff”—as in, I thought, a
little knife. But after he died I realized he was using
the Yiddish word ganef, meaning “rascal,”
which he must have picked up working in the Jewish laborers’
union as a teenager during the ’30s. He was Catholic,
of course, but the other union wouldn’t let him
in because he was underage. This is how a word comes
to us carrying its history on its back.
I can only hope the book is
worthy of the attention of old people who have so much
more life experience to bring to the reading a novel.
All my grandparents were alive
when I started writing the book. The last one, my mother’s
mother, died a few months before it was published.
BAJ: What books or writers do you find yourself
rereading? Do you see any of their influence in your
I reread Virginia Woolf, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison,
Homer, Annie Dillard, Freud (who I think of a literary
writer), Pascal, Plato, Aristotle, the Bible,
Mark Twain, Saul Bellow, Laxness, and the daily tracking
I don’t see their influence,
no. But I sort of smell it, and that’s just the
way I want to keep things. Ideally, the reading is all
for curiosity and pleasure; then the things I read get
buried in the mind, go to rot, and make a nice, rich,
stinking compost for me to plant my meager little seed
BAJ: We’re in an election year. The country
is engaged in two wars. The economy is all but collapsing.
Other wars are being waged around the world. The environment
is suffering on every front. In light of all of these
pressures, why does fiction matter?
Speaking in over-broad terms, we might put down all
the crises you mention to our failure to think about
one another humanely. Kant’s fundamental moral
rule is that we must always treat other people as subjects
rather than objects. I think that’s a good definition
of what it means to be humane.
But it does not come to us
naturally. It’s a product of civilization. We
have to learn it. And I learn it from reading fiction.
A novel-reader’s absorption in another person’s
sympathies and confusions and hopes compels the reader
toward a higher and higher regard for other people’s
We were told that the people
of Iraq would greet our troops as liberators. Only a
person who had no investment in literature could have
believed such a thing. It ignored the individual Iraqi’s
pride, a faculty all credible literary characters possess.
It ignored that Iraqi’s natural resistance to
another civilization’s imposition of its values
on his own. Nobody who has read Henry James in a conscious
way would have expected that.
I’m not trying to say
that reading fiction makes us good, but that it explains
other people to us. To treat other people as subjects
rather than objects is good, but we have no way of doing
that unless we understand them as they understand themselves.
Or take last week, when Alan
Greenspan admitted that the mortgage crisis had revealed
a flaw in his model of how the world works. He had maintained
that a banker’s self-interest makes him prudent,
so government regulation of mortgage-backed securities
would have been unnecessary and inefficient. But as
it turned out, the bankers’ selfishness blinded
them to risk. It did not make them prudent; it made
them reckless, as Greenspan now agrees. Isn’t
this the kind of thing we ought to know already from
In the run-up to the war in
Iraq, the president made a failure of judgment that
was predicated on a failure of imagination. He could
not conceive that the Iraqis might not want the freedom
he was going to arrange for them. He could not imagine
himself into the minds of people fundamentally different
from himself. And that is all a novel asks a reader
Anthony Johnston is the author of internationally acclaimed
and the editor of Naming
both from Random House. In 2006, he received the “5
Under 35” fiction honor from the National
Book Foundation. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’
Workshop, and is currently the Director of Creative
Writing at Harvard University. For more information,
please visit: www.bretanthonyjohnston.com.