Joseph Ski­bell, 2011 Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award recip­i­ent and author of A Cur­able Roman­tic, shares his remarks from the 2011 Sami Rohr Priza Gala.

A month or so ago, when my wife Bar­bara and I came to New York for the inter­view that deter­mines the prize win­ners, we had din­ner the night before with a group of cousins and my broth­er and my broth­er-in-law, and my Uncle Richard treat­ed for the meal, which was very sweet, and after­wards, every­body said, you know, If you win, the next meal will be on you.” Most of them are here tonight, and I just want to say … THIS is that meal.


So, any­way, years ago, when I was in col­lege, I had break­fast one morn­ing with a friend of mine named Jack. Jack was in a bit of a state. His girl­friend had left him, or he had left his girl­friend. I can’t real­ly remem­ber who had left whom, but Jack was with­out a girl­friend, and he’d been up all night in the library work­ing on a paper. His sub­ject was Native Amer­i­can imagery in the paint­ings of Jack­son Pollack.

Now, around 4 a.m. or so, he told me, he’s thumb­ing through a book by D.H. Lawrence, and he stum­bles upon an essay enti­tled Lone­li­ness and the Nov­el.” The top­ic has noth­ing to do with his research, of course, but every­thing to do with his cur­rent state of mind, and so Jack aban­dons his own work, and he sits down in the stacks to read this essay, sens­ing, as one can only sense at four in the morn­ing after a long night of research­ing shaman­ism and Carl Jung and syn­chronic­i­ty – and also, I sup­pose, look­ing for Native Amer­i­can imagery in the paint­ings of Jack­son Pol­lack – that per­haps this essay con­tains a mes­sage meant specif­i­cal­ly for him.

Lawrence, how­ev­er, takes ages get­ting to the top­ic. He rat­tles on and on about ten­der­ness and beau­ty and frailty, dis­cussing all these things in rela­tion­ship to nov­el writ­ing, but he nev­er seems to arrive at the sub­ject of lone­li­ness. So final­ly, con­fused, Jack flips back to the title page of the essay, and he sees that he’s mis­read the title. The essay is called Love­li­ness and the Nov­el,” not Lone­li­ness and the Novel.”

Well, we had a good laugh over that, Jack and I, he rue­ful­ly, and I sym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly, but the truth is Lone­li­ness and the Nov­el” sound­ed right to me. It did then, and it does now, because lone­li­ness seems to me to be a real part of what the nov­el is all about.

Most of us begin read­ing seri­ous­ly in our ear­ly ado­les­cents. I spent my child­hood on the high plains of West Texas in a lit­tle city called Lub­bock dur­ing the 1970s. This was most­ly – not entire­ly – but most­ly post-Bea­t­les, but also pre-Rea­gan, so I was lucky enough to be edu­cat­ed by peo­ple who did not yet think of edu­ca­tion as a nec­es­sary evil. Still, between the born-again Chris­t­ian cow­boy cul­ture and the grey humor­less world inhab­it­ed by most of the adults I knew, it could get a lit­tle lonely.

Books, how­ev­er, nov­els espe­cial­ly – those 9 inch by 6 inch oblong uni­vers­es con­struct­ed (then) out of paper, board and glue – offered a way out of that ter­ri­ble lone­li­ness. Land­locked in Lub­bock, lying on my par­ents’ sofa in our liv­ing room, I could be any­where in the world: on the road with Jack Ker­ouac, in some strange math­e­mat­i­cal counter-uni­verse with Ita­lo Calvi­no, or in Vladimir Nabokov’s class­room at Cornell.

As we all know, a good writer is a good com­pan­ion. At least in their books, I mean. It’s not actu­al­ly true in real life. But in their books, writ­ers are open, gen­er­ous, fun­ny, patient, socia­ble, and dra­mat­ic people.

And that’s where those of us who go on to become writ­ers make a ter­ri­ble mis­take, I think. A ter­ri­ble, a fatal mis­take. We assume that because read­ing books made our lives less lone­ly, than — kal v’khomer – writ­ing books will make them even more less lone­ly, and noth­ing, of course, could be fur­ther from the truth.

I spent five years in a room writ­ing A Cur­able Roman­tic, and one year in a room – the same room – edit­ing it.

L to R: Josh Lam­bert, Joseph Ski­bell, Austin Ratner

Now, don’t get me wrong. I enjoy the com­pa­ny of my char­ac­ters. And Bar­bara and I and my pro­tag­o­nist Dr. Sam­mel­sohn trav­eled all over the world togeth­er, doing research in Gene­va, in Paris, in Vien­na and in War­saw. I cor­re­spond­ed in Esperan­to with Esper­an­tists tra la tuta mon­do for this book,and I spent many long hours dis­cussing its themes of per­son­al and polit­i­cal exile, and the sci­en­tif­ic dis­en­chant­ment of moder­ni­ty and the God-sized hunger for mean­ing in a world deaf to the cries of the soul with many friends and colleagues.

And yet, it’s only now, upon being wel­comed into the Sami Rohr fam­i­ly, and being includ­ed in such a stel­lar group of writ­ers as AustinAlli­sonJulie and Nadia, and being sur­round­ed by so many remark­able peo­ple in the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, around the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, on the pan­el of judges, in the Sami Rohr Insti­tute, that I real­ize that, yes, my friend Jack got it wrong, but I got it wrong, too. Only D.H. Lawrence got it right.

It’s not lone­li­ness and the Nov­el, but rather love­li­ness and the Novel.

And so, I thank you all tonight for mak­ing my life as a writer less lone­ly and more lovely.

Thank you.

Joseph Ski­bell is the author of A Cur­able Roman­ticA Bless­ing on the Moon, and The Eng­lish Dis­ease.

Joseph Ski­bell is the crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed author of A Bless­ing on the Moon and A Cur­able Roman­tic, choice award of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture. As direc­tor of the Ell­mann Lec­tures at Emory Uni­ver­si­ty, he played gui­tar and sang onstage with Mar­garet Atwood and Paul Simon. A pro­fes­sor at Emory, he is a Senior Fel­low at the Fox Cen­ter for Human­is­tic Inquiry.