The ProsenPeople

Imagining Buddy & Holly

Friday, October 30, 2015 | Permalink

The following is a redacted version of My Father’s Guitar and Other Imaginary Things: True Stories author Joseph Skibell original essay for Jewish Book Council. He is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople. You can read the full version of the essay here.

I was living at home with my parents, feeling kind of lost. Fresh out of college, I had no idea how to start a literary career. There were no want ads in the newspaper for Young Aspiring Novelists, of course. Somehow, a friend of our family, Maury Kalisky, a doctor who had grown up in Lubbock, like me, but now lived in glamorous San Francisco, got me an assignment with Rolling Stone magazine.

Yes, my first job was with Rolling Stone. The rest of my career has been basically downhill from there.

In any case, Rolling Stone wanted a story about how Lubbock remembered Buddy Holly, its most famous and— at that time, at least—most famously neglected son.

During the research phase of my article, I spoke to Holly’s father and to his brother Travis, and to Don Caldwell, a local record producer, but no interview was more memorable than the one I conducted with Bill Griggs, the founder and (I suppose self-appointed) president of the Buddy Holly Memorial Society. Wanting to be closer to Holly Ground Zero, he had moved to Lubbock from Hartford, Connecticut, only six months before.

Griggs welcomed me graciously into his small house. He was, as I recall, in his late 30s, a round-face man with long sideburns and a DA, wearing a striped t-shirt and a leather jacket. As he snapped his chewing gum, he looked like a stranded time-traveler from the 1950s, waiting for the Flux Capacitor to arrive and carry him back home, where he could return to his former life as a juvenile delinquent. Though a family man, Griggs had turned his life over to a similar quest, and at one point, his two small children, a boy and a girl, charged into the room, demanding his attention.

“This is Buddy,” he said, introducing them to me, “and my daughter Holly.”

Buddy and Holly began bouncing on the sofa.

“Here, let’s go into this room,” Griggs said, abandoning the kids to their mother. “It’ll be quieter in there.”

We moved into a room filled with the kind of wooden bins you’d see back then in a record store. These were stuffed with plastic-sheathed albums, each, Griggs told me, played only once—played, it seemed to me, reluctantly once—so the data could be transferred to tape and the vinyl left as pristine as possible. He played me a few rare things, while we talked about his life and how he’d become so interested in Buddy Holly.

Later, we sat on the couch in his living room. He turned on the television set, and we watched old kinescopes of Holly and the Crickets’ two performances on the Ed Sullivan Show. Griggs pointed out how Holly, in the seven weeks between these two appearances, seemed to have transformed himself, Clark Kent-to-Superman-like, from a gawky West Texas teen into a sexy adult rocker, his curly hair straight now, his 4-H Club farm-boy eyeglasses replaced by the suave Mexican Faiosas. Even his slender frame seemed to have filled out, and the music was less sweet, more aggressive, louder—so loud in fact, Griggs told me, that Holly and Sullivan had argued over the volume.

Unable to prevail upon Holly to turn things down, Sullivan ordered his stagehands to set the sound levels low without informing Holly. If you listen closely, Griggs pointed out, you can hear Sullivan introducing the act as “Buddy Holler and the Crickets,” and if you watch closely, he said, you can see Holly’s spidery fingers, between strums, vainly trying to turn the volume knob of his Stratocaster up.

The piece-de-resistance, though, was a photograph Griggs took from a folder and unwrapped from its protective wrapping. “There are only two copies of this photograph in the entire world,” Griggs said, handing it to me. “This one, right here in Lubbock, Texas, and the other one in London, England.” Griggs didn’t mention the name Paul McCartney, but it seemed to hover in the air. “Take a close look at that,” he said. “You see what that is?”

I looked at the black-and-white photo. Though I saw it only once and more than 30 years ago, I can still conjure up the image in my mind: at its center, an unusually swarthy Elvis Presley is standing in one-eyed profile in a leather sports coat—half trapped quarry, half visiting royalty, he is the very picture of stillness—while a flock of teenagers mobs him from all sides. Among this gaggle of star-struck adolescents, pushing in from the back, his face barely making it into the picture frame, is a gangly teenage Buddy Holly.

“That’s the only photograph of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly ever together taken,” Griggs told me, “and it was taken right here in Lubbock, Texas, right outside the Fair Park Coliseum.”

My article never ran. Though I’d subscribed to Rolling Stone my entire adolescence, I was reading too much John McPhee at the time, and I wrote the piece as though it were meant not for Rolling Stone but for the New Yorker. I received a small “kill fee” from my editor and never heard from the magazine again.

Over the years, I’ve told this story many times, but when I sat down recently to put it on paper, I couldn’t actually remember Bill Griggs’s name. I found it easily enough, via the Internet. Though I spent only a single afternoon in his company over 30 years ago, Griggs, in the picture I found online, looked exactly as I remembered him, though older, of course, and grey. I found a copy of the supposedly rare-as-the-Holy-Grail photo of Buddy and Elvis at the Fair Park Coliseum. Griggs or maybe the unnamed Englishman must’ve relaxed his grip on this treasure. Though I’d moved some of the figures around in it, my memory of the photograph was fairly accurate. My memory of the Crickets’ two performances on the Ed Sullivan Show, which I watched on YouTube, was scarily accurate. At 26 seconds in, you can see Buddy still fiddling with his volume knob.

Joseph Skibell is the author of three critically-acclaimed novels, A Blessing on the Moon, The English Disease, andA Curable Romantic; a collection of true stories, My Father’s Guitar & Other Imaginary Things; and a forthcoming study of the Talmudic tales, Six Memos from the Last Millennium: A Novelist Reads the Talmud.

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'Slice It Thin' by Sylvia Leland and Other Imaginary Books

Tuesday, October 27, 2015 | Permalink

The following is a redacted version of Joseph Skibell’s original essay for Jewish Book Council. He is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople, exploring the realm of the imaginary. You can read the full version of the essay here.

Throughout the ages—and we can pat ourselves on the back as a species for this—we’ve done a fairly good job of building real libraries for real books (although, let’s be honest, from Alexandria to Sarajevo, we’ve also done a pretty good job of burning them to the ground). Nobody, however, has given much thought about where to house all the imaginary books, and perhaps it’s time we did, because the world is full of imaginary books.

Yesterday, the author copies of my new book, My Father’s Guitar & Other Imaginary Things, arrived. Thanks to an agreement my agent made with my publisher, whenever I publish a book, I receive twenty copies in the mail. This should be a thrilling moment, opening the box and finding 20 spanking brand-new copies of your book there, and it actually is. It is a thrilling moment—in bulk, en masse, 20-strong, the book, imaginary up until that point, now insists upon its reality. But the truth is, after that first thrilling moment, as the book transitions from its glorious imaginary state into a flawed realness, there’s a kind of let down. It’s just a book, you realize, like any other book, like all the other books in the world, so many of which you don’t even notice or know about or which you might walk past in a bookshop or pick up and put down, never to think about again.

Is it any wonder I prefer imaginary books?

My mother had such a book, and in truth, that’s the real reason I’d like to build this library. My mother died when she was only 58. This year, I’ll be twice as old as I was when she died, which means that, so far, I’ve spent half my life as her son and half of it as her orphan. My mother’s book had a title, and she’d even constructed a pseudonym for herself. Her maiden name was Shirlene Lezan and the book, written by Sylvia Leland, was called Slice It Thin.

I’ve never read it, of course—I have no idea where to find a copy—but I recall my mother explaining its title to me. When you go into a butcher shop, she said, you ask the man behind the counter to “slice it thin,” to give you the thinnest possible cut so that you don’t have to chew through the fat. It was a metaphor, she said, for a life lived lean, for a life with no fat, no gristle, with nothing left over.

Children, I’m told, often unconsciously live out the unlived lives of their parents, the fat or the gristle their parents, in Sylvia Leland’s resonant metaphor, have pushed to the side of their plate. I sometimes wonder if Sylvia Leland had actually published Slice it Thin, whether my books, real to a fault, might not have wound up in the Library of Imaginary Books instead.

In any case, most afternoons, that’s where you’ll find me, in the Library of Imaginary Books (built with the generous contributions of readers like you). Stroll past the theology section, past the illuminated manuscript of the Book of Raziel in its lighted display case, past the Waldo Salt Archive of Imaginary Screenplays. Walk into the fiction section. I’ll be near the Ls, reading Slice it Thin by Sylvia Leland. I’ve read the book so many times now I practically know it by heart. In fact, I usually just open it at random and read for thirty minutes or so, enjoying my mother’s dry wit, her acerbic observations, her sly turns of phrase. Marveling at the comedic brilliance of its scenes, I can almost hear her deep masculine-sounding voice in my inner ear as I read. I wish more people knew about Slice It Thin, but—please don’t tell anyone—when I’m done, I always hide the library’s one and only copy behind a stack of other books, so I know it’s always there.

Joseph Skibell is the author of three critically-acclaimed novels, A Blessing on the Moon, The English Disease, and A Curable Romantic; a collection of true stories, My Father’s Guitar & Other Imaginary Things; and a forthcoming study of the Talmudic tales, Six Memos from the Last Millennium: A Novelist Reads the Talmud.

Read the full version of this essay here.

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In Praise of Imaginary Things

Monday, October 26, 2015 | Permalink

The following is a redacted version of My Father’s Guitar and Other Imaginary Things: True Stories author Joseph Skibell's original essay for Jewish Book Council. He is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople. Read the full essay here.

In the wake of my father’s death, I became a little obsessed with guitars; and in the summer of 2009 I took my daughter Samantha, newly graduated from high school, on a road trip across North America, visiting master guitar-makers. It’s too long a story to tell here—and you can read about it in in the title story of my new book, My Father’s Guitar & Other Imaginary Things—but suffice it to say: I was searching for my father’s imaginary guitar. I was 49 and, for the first time in my life, I’d begun to feel old.

“Good luck being a guitar-hunting Don Quixote!” a student of mine wrote me after I’d told him of our plans, and because of that, I brought along a copy of Don Quixote on the trip. It’s a book I’ve never quite been able to finish, although I’ve started it maybe half a dozen times since I was a teenager. The novel, it turns out, proved more apt than I remembered: I’d forgotten that Alonso Quejana was also 49 when he goes mad and hits the road, assuming the identity of the knight errant Don Quixote. And like Senor Quejana’s friends and family, my friends and family were also concerned about me. Was it madness to believe I might find my father’s imaginary guitar somewhere out there on the road?

Just how porous is the membrane between the real and the imaginary, I wondered?

I thought about my father—and this is another story you can read in my new book. (Sorry for the shameless and/or shameful self-promotion!) Hallucinating in his hospital bed as Hurricane Katrina made its way towards the coast of Louisiana, Dad was worried that if we couldn’t live on the land and we couldn’t live in the air and we couldn’t live in the sea, we’d all have to live in Hyperspace, space with more than three dimensions.

Though, thanks to the dimension of time, it occurred to me on the plane, we’re all living in Hyperspace already. And, it further occurred to me, while material things exist in four dimensions (three of space and one of time), imaginary things exist only in time.

We often say that something is only imaginary, as though it weren’t quite real, but it’s funny how real imaginary things can be. The most important things in our lives are imaginary: love, knowledge, wisdom, health, kindness, beauty, desire, our wants, our fears. These things all exist without a physical presence, as do stories, songs, memories, our childhoods, our futures, all our relationships and our notions about ourselves and each other. Our very identities—who we are, what we’ve done, what we hope for—are imaginary. Taking up no physical space, these things exist only in the dimension of time.

And of course, time itself is probably the most imaginary thing of all. I mean, when you think about it, there’s nothing more imaginary than a day. The Earth spins in space, half of it, at any given moment, facing the sun, half of it facing away. We call this alternating pattern of light and darkness a day, but really, there is no day. There’s only the sun, somehow poised in the middle of nothingness, and the earth, spinning within the sphere of its illuminated space, and yet this daily spin, this daily journeying from darkness into light through the three dimensions of space somehow produces the fourth dimension of time.

It makes no rational sense. It makes no sense at all. It’s as if, as a child, you could make yourself grow up faster by opening and closing your eyes while spinning in a circle. And yet, despite the utter imaginariness of time, we age: we grow up, we grow old, and we die.

My father died in the evening of January 5, 2008, in Dallas, Texas. My sister and I went to visit him in the hospital that morning, but we got lost along the way. His eyes had lit up in greeting when Susan and I came in, but almost immediately afterwards, he lost consciousness and, except for a brief moment or two, never really woke up again. His heart stopped later that night; the official cause of death was pneumonia.

After the arrangements had been made and the rest of the family went home, I sat with his body. Twice, I pulled back the sheet covering my father and looked at his face. That’s my father, I thought. On the third time, though, something had changed and he was no longer there. He’d become imaginary, existing now only in time.

Returning from my trip, I’ll board with a new guitar, name Fig (for Father’s Imaginary Guitar),onto the airplane and into the overhead compartment without any trouble, and that night at home I’ll sit up late at my kitchen table, playing Fig softly, so as not to awaken my wife, Barbara, singing those old great songs from the 1920s and the 1930s, songs my father loved, while the Earth spins beneath me, spinning beneath the threshold of my senses, and though the darkness of the night presses in against the windows, I’ll know there’s nothing out there, really, but light.

Read the full version of this essay here.

Joseph Skibell is the author of three critically-acclaimed novels, A Blessing on the Moon, The English Disease, and A Curable Romantic; a collection of true stories, My Father’s Guitar & Other Imaginary Things; and a forthcoming study of the Talmudic tales, Six Memos from the Last Millennium: A Novelist Reads the Talmud.

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2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature Finalists

Thursday, February 10, 2011 | Permalink




CONTACT: Kathleen Zrelak
Goldberg McDuffie Communications

February 2011 (New York, NY) – The Jewish Book Council today named five finalists for the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize in fiction for Jewish Literature, the largest monetary award of its kind given to writers of exceptional talent and promise in early career. Established in 2006, the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature awards $100,000 to its top winner, with a $25,000 Choice Award given to its first runner-up.

Hailed as a transformative award for emerging writers, the annual Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature honors the contribution of contemporary writers in the exploration and transmission of Jewish values and is intended to encourage and promote outstanding writing of Jewish interest in the future. Fiction and non-fiction books are considered in alternate years.

Today’s announcement caps a year-long process of reviewing books by a select panel of judges. On March 15th, the finalists will meet with the fiction judges of the Sami Rohr Prize in New York, and the winners will be announced shortly thereafter. The 2011 award ceremony will be held in New York City on May 31.

This year’s finalists for the fifth annual Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature are:

Allison Amend – Stations West (Louisiana State University Press)
Nadia KalmanThe Cosmopolitans (Livingston Press)
Julie OrringerThe Invisible Bridge (Knopf)
Austin Ratner – The Jump Artist (Bellevue Literary Press)
Joseph Skibell –A Curable Romantic (Algonquin Books)

Previous winners of the Sami Rohr Prize include Sarah Abrevaya Stein, for her book Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce(Yale University Press) and Kenneth B. Moss for his book Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution (Harvard University Press) in 2010; Sana Krasikov in 2009 for her story collection One More Year (Spiegel & Grau); Lucette Lagnado in 2008 for her nonfiction work The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World (Ecco) and Tamar Yellin in 2007 for her novel, The Genizah at the House of Shepher (Toby Press).

The winners, finalists, judges and advisory board members of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature meet biennially at the Sami Rohr Jewish Literary Institute, a forum devoted to the continuity of Jewish literature. The Institute, run under the auspices of the Jewish Book Council, creates an environment in which established and emerging writers can meet and exchange ideas and perspectives. Within a short period of time, the Sami Rohr Jewish Literary Institute has become an important meeting place for the leading lights of the American Jewish literary world.


After spending his early years in post WWII Europe, Sami Rohr moved to Bogota, Colombia, where he was a leading real estate developer for over 30 years. He currently lives in Florida and continues to be very active in various business endeavors internationally. His philanthropic commitment to Jewish education and community-building throughout the world is renowned. This prize is a gift by his family to honor his love of Jewish writing, and to help encourage the continuation of the magnificent legacy of the People of the Book.


The Jewish Book Council is a not-for-profit organization devoted exclusively to the promotion of Jewish-interest literature. Through an ever-growing list of projects and programs, including the National Jewish Book Awards, the Jewish Book NETWORK, and the quarterly publication Jewish Book World, the Jewish Book Council serves as a catalyst for the reading, writing, and publishing of books of Jewish interest.

For more information about The Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, please visit our Awards page.

The Model of a Modern Major Novelist

Friday, May 28, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

For his two minutes (two minutes? read more here…) during the Network conference (200 authors in 3 days! Oh my!), author Joseph Skibell (A Curable Romantic) wowed the audience with a different approach. Taking a cue from Gilbert & Sullivan, Skibell stood up and began to play on his ukulele and sing (warning: formatting is a little off…):

The Model of a Modern Major Novelist by Joseph Skibell
(with apologies to Gilbert & Sullivan)

I am the very model of a modern major novelist,
I’ve gotten great reviews and been on Amazon’s best novel list
The Rosentahl Award from the American Academy
Is but one of the awards with which they’ve thought to flatter me.
I’ve written books in prose both elegant and economical
My characters are well-rounded, my plots a bit fantastical
And though my sales to date have not been astronomical
I’m happy to relate neither are they abominable.

This Jewish mythology with which my work is quite infused
Has captivated readers among the gentiles and the Jews
And if you gave me more than these two minutes of your time to use
I’d describe my novels to you, both the old ones and the new
To demonstrate that I am neither madman, fake, rake, nor loon
If I make extraordinary claims for A Blessing on the Moon
But since upon two minutes you insist, you’ll have to take my word for it
I am the very model of a modern major novelist.

(And now a verse about the new book!)

A Curable Romantic
is historical about an hysterial
Patient of Dr. Freud’s, it’s a book about an era full
Of utopianists and dreamers, and I haven’t even mentioned
Esperanto’s Dr. Zamenhof and half-a-dozen other luftmenshn
There’s a dybbuk and there’s Dreyfus and a dramatic sense of criss
That propels the protagonist Dr. Sammelsohn through a life of stress and strife that
Speaks to a dozen major themes I’d be glad to illustrate
If you’d only given me a little more time to elaborate.

(Still, I’ll try.)

There’s God and man and Israel and love and death and sex galore
The Scientific model in conflict with folk-a-lore
Parts linguistic, scientific, Hasidic, and also Oedipal
Arithmetically add up to a romance unforgettable.
It’s antic, not pedantic. It’s called A Curable Romantic

You can order it online; there’s no reason to get frantic
And to your JCCs I’ll come if you really must insist
That I am the very model of a modern major novelist.

In case you need it, here’s a this little Gilbert & Sullivan refresher to aid with the tune: