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2008 National Book Award Fiction Finalist Salvatore Scibona Interview

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Photo © Carlos Ferguson.
Salvatore Scibona
The End
Graywolf Press

Interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.

Bret Anthony Johnston: First, congratulations on being a finalist for the National Book Award! How did the news reach you? What was your reaction?

Salvatore 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?

SS: 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 assumed.

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?

SS: 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?

SS: 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 the novel?

SS: 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 and writers?

SS: 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 years ago.


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?

SS: 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 and significance.

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?

SS: 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 current work?

SS: 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 polls.

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 potatoes in.


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?

SS: 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 wills.

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 literature?

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 to do.


Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of internationally acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World, 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.

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