Post­ed by Nao­mi Firestone-Teeter

Our third install­ment of Words from our Final­ists”…Joseph Ski­bell

Joseph…meet our Read­ers
Readers…meet Joseph

What are some of the most chal­leng­ing things about writ­ing fiction?

What did Hem­ing­way say in his Paris Review inter­view with George Plimp­ton? The hard­est thing about writ­ing is get­ting the words in the right order.” Typ­i­cal Hem­ing­way brevi­ty, but that does seem to cov­er it.

What or who has been your inspi­ra­tion for writ­ing fiction?

Inspi­ra­tion comes from every­where. In the last two weeks, I saw a pro­duc­tion of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child” and I heard the mas­ter gui­tarist Pierre Ben­su­san play. The cre­ative gen­eros­i­ty of both Shep­ard and Ben­su­san remind­ed me of what art can real­ly do when it’s hon­est and it comes from an open and pure heart. I find that very inspir­ing. Being moved by their work makes me want to con­tin­ue work­ing and try­ing to inhab­it that same open and hon­est space.

Who is your intend­ed audience?

Per­haps I should be a lit­tle more ambi­tious, but I try to write for the entire­ty of the lit­er­ate world. And I’m hop­ing that mem­bers of the lit­er­ate world will read my books to mem­bers of the non-lit­er­ate world. I’m some­times sad­dened that adult read­ers, unlike their young adult” coun­ter­parts, seem fair­ly unad­ven­tur­ous, that fic­tion that deals with small, domes­tic issues, prefer­ably in the mode of real­ism, seems so much more pal­pa­ble to these adult read­ers than do dar­ing, ambi­tious ill-behaved” books that take on big­ger issues in a more play­ful, fero­cious or ram­bunc­tious style.

Milan Kun­dera calls these ill-behaved” books the chil­dren of Tris­tram Shandy” as opposed to the well-behaved” books, which he calls chil­dren of Claris­sa.” Rushdie’s Mid­night Chil­dren, Grass’s The Tin Drum,Kundera’s own Book of Laugh­ter and For­get­ting, the nov­els of Beck­ett, Kaf­ka and Bel­low all fall into this cat­e­go­ry of ill-behaved books, as do my A Bless­ing on the Moon and A Cur­able Roman­tic.

Are you work­ing on any­thing new right now?

I have a short list of new projects, but noth­ing that can be spo­ken about yet, real­ly. I think I’ve found the sub­ject for my next nov­el, and I’m excit­ed about that, and it’s going to be very dif­fer­ent from the oth­er three books.

What are you read­ing now?

The nov­el I’m urg­ing onto any­body who will lis­ten is Howard Norman’s What is Left the Daugh­ter. Nor­man is one of our finest nov­el­ists with a sin­gu­lar and idio­syn­crat­ic voice. He’s unpre­ten­tious­ly gift­ed, and this book is one of his best. I’m plan­ning on read­ing it again, actu­al­ly. I don’t quite under­stand how he achieves the effects he achieves. The book is so mov­ing, but it’s hard to say why. His work has that same hon­esty and puri­ty I men­tioned find­ing in the Shepard’s play and in Bensusan’s play­ing. A spir­it of child­like play, I guess, com­bined with a hun­gry intel­li­gence and an art­ful sense of integrity.

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I was in Mr. Bravenec’s sixth grade class at Geo. A. Rush Ele­men­tary School in Lub­bock, Texas, when I read Antho­ny Scaduto’s biog­ra­phy of Bob Dylan. Accord­ing to Scadu­to, Dylan read John Steinbeck’s Can­nery Row as a kid and was so turned on by it that he read all of Steinbeck’s work after that. At the time, I want­ed to grow up to be Bob Dylan, so I thought I should prob­a­bly do every­thing Bob Dylan did as a child in order to real­ize this ambi­tion. I got a copy of Can­nery Row out of the library and I read it, and I was so turned on by it, I read every­thing that Stein­beck had writ­ten, also. By the time I was done, though, I no longer want­ed to be Bob Dylan. I want­ed to be John Steinbeck.

Lat­er, dur­ing his Rolling Thun­der Revue Tour, Dylan vis­it­ed Jack Kerouac’s grave. I read about this in Rolling Stone Mag­a­zine. I’d nev­er heard of Jack Ker­ouac, but I bought a copy of On the Road, and then I read all of Kerouac’s work, which I also found inspiring.

Still, I didn’t think I could be a nov­el­ist, because — espe­cial­ly after read­ing Stein­beck — I thought a nov­el­ist had to know how to brush out a horse and repair a motor and dis­sect mol­lusks and things like that. But then I read Voltaire’sCan­dide – I was in the sev­enth grade; I remem­ber read­ing it dur­ing my alge­bra class – and I thought to myself: Hey, I could write a book like this. I mean, there are no ani­mals in Can­dide, no one repairs a motor, there’s no sci­ence, there’s bare­ly a landscape.

So, real­ly, I have Bob Dylan to thank for all of this, I guess. Thanks, Bob.

What is the moun­tain­top for you — how do you define success?

It’s easy to get side­tracked by big advances and awards and being on best­seller lists and things like that. Writ­ing can be such a lone­ly pur­suit, and I know so many writ­ers who end up crav­ing those things, just so they know that there’s some­body out there who actu­al­ly cares about what they’re doing. So I try to remem­ber why books were impor­tant to me in the first place.

I think it’s the same with real­ly great writ­ing. When some­one like W.B. Yeats says, Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned,” or Jack­son Browne describes Cul­ver City as a place where the ghost­ly specter of Howard Hughes/​hovers in the smoke of a thou­sand bar­be­ques,” you think to your­self, Man, that’s about as good as it gets.” I mean, these are writ­ers whose use of words and thoughts and obser­va­tions and emo­tions and meter and sound is as aston­ish­ing and as inspir­ing as the phys­i­cal stuff Shaun White can do on a snowboard.You know, when you see some­body like Shaun White do some­thing real­ly amaz­ing on a snow­board, you kind of empathize with him. He sort of stands in for all of human­i­ty. You think, Wow, it’s amaz­ing that he can do that,” but you’re also think­ing, Wow, it’s amaz­ing that a human being can do that.”

And because of writ­ing like this, you actu­al­ly expe­ri­ence some­thing you wouldn’t have been able to expe­ri­ence oth­er­wise, and it’s some­thing you wouldn’t have been able to expe­ri­ence in any oth­er way.

So I guess, for me, that would real­ly be the moun­tain­top, or the pin­na­cle of suc­cess – know­ing that your work is speak­ing to anoth­er per­son in a way that rever­ber­ates with their con­cerns and their lives in a mean­ing­ful way.

How do you write — what is your pri­vate modus operan­di? What tal­is­mans, rit­u­als, props do you use to assist you?

The dis­ci­pline of writ­ing every day is so intense­ly focused that I have next to no mem­o­ry about the process itself, though it seems to involve a Cross pen, an AMPAD legal-size Evi­dence” pad – 100 sheets, Canary yel­low, Wide Ruled, 8½” x 14” with a dou­ble-thick back for extra sup­port (these are hard­er and hard­er to come by these days) – a chair, a desk, and a hot bev­er­age, some­times cof­fee, some­times tea. I try to keep a very low page count every day, so that doing the work always remains enjoyable.

What do you want read­ers to get out of your book?

With A Bless­ing on the Moon, I want­ed to speak to the read­er so deeply that the book enters the reader’s dream-life, and I’ve been told on many occa­sions, by read­ers, that this is how the nov­el works. With The Eng­lish Dis­ease, I sim­ply want­ed to make the read­er laugh.

A Cur­able Roman­tic was a bit dif­fer­ent. WithA Cur­able Roman­tic, my hope was that Dr. Sam­mel­sohn, the novel’s pro­tag­o­nist and nar­ra­tor, would seem like a sweet and endear­ing friend accom­pa­ny­ing the read­er wher­ev­er he or she went for the few weeks it takes to read the book.

At heart, I hope my nov­els work as a kind of cure for that deep lone­li­ness I imag­ine we all feel, the writer’s voice whis­per­ing inti­mate­ly into the reader’s inner ear, speak­ing about the most essen­tial things: love, fam­i­ly, death, hope, desire, dreams.

You can read more about Joseph Ski­bell by vis­it­ing his web­site: http://​www​.joseph​ski​bell​.com/

Orig­i­nal­ly from Lan­cast­er, Penn­syl­va­nia, Nao­mi is the CEO of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil. She grad­u­at­ed from Emory Uni­ver­si­ty with degrees in Eng­lish and Art His­to­ry and, in addi­tion, stud­ied at Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don. Pri­or to her role as exec­u­tive direc­tor, Nao­mi served as the found­ing edi­tor of the JBC web­site and blog and man­ag­ing edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World. In addi­tion, she has over­seen JBC’s dig­i­tal ini­tia­tives, and also devel­oped the JBC’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series and Unpack­ing the Book: Jew­ish Writ­ers in Conversation.