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Seven questions with Salvatore Scibona

December 10, 2008 | 12:28 pm

SalvatorescibonaSalvatore Scibona's debut novel "The End," which displays exquisite control and graceful language, was a National Book Award finalist this year in fiction. Scibona, who is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and now is the coordinator at the Fine Arts Center in Provincetown, Mass., spent 10 years working on the novel. He answers seven (and a half) questions for Jacket Copy.

1. Jacket Copy: What was it like going to the National Book Awards?

Salvatore Scibona:
The building was a Greek Revival colossus on Wall Street, with Corinthian pillars surrounding the ballroom. I’m told the ceilings are 70 feet high. You might have thought you were in a temple rather than the former home of a mercantile exchange.  A red carpet in front, and butlers in top hats.  On the way to the bathroom, I passed writers who I recognized from the jackets of books I had read as a teenager when I was avoiding my trigonometry homework. 

Novelists are out of their element in a crowd.  Usually we describe a crowd from inside a closet.  So it was all a sensory overload for me — a kind of surface glamour awesomely out of place with the medium it was celebrating.  A book, especially a novel, is so interior and soaked in private experience.

I think of a writer as a skinny person scraping by on crackers and milk. But everybody was served a loin of beef and red wine by waiters in white jackets and black tie.

They give out the Oscars in a theater, and the National Book Awards in a bank.  Which medium has a better sense of humor?

1.5 JC: Have you been to an event like that before?

Salvatore Scibona: Um, no. As a character in a DeLillo novel says, "I'm a plain girl from a mill town."

2. JC: "The End" is set in an Ohio town from the early 1900s to the 1950s.  What did you do to discover that world -- the plank sidewalks and businesses, the atmosphere of the Assumption Day parade? How much is invention and how much is research?

Salvatore Scibona: Trade secrets!

But okay, here's one thing. The neighborhood in the book is full of Italians.  But there are no Italian immigrant neighborhoods in America anymore, not really. So I went to Italy for a year to see what it was like to be an immigrant there. I'd never lived outside the U.S. before. 

I rented an apartment in Catania, Sicily, where every year a million people live in the streets for three days and drag the supposedly undecayed remains of a 3rd century saint through the boulevards, day and night, in a jeweled sarcophagus while beating themselves with handkerchiefs.  This made an impression.

3. JC: I understand it took you several years to write "The End." What was its germination?

The answer ...  after the jump.


Salvatore Scibona: It took 10 years, yes.  A long time, but not too long, I hope. You learn to write a novel by trying to write a novel and screwing up, which takes time.

At first all I had was a man climbing a flight of stairs.  Then he got to a door, and a woman was standing on the other side.  What was he doing there?  What kind of clothes was she wearing?  What year was this?  Observation breeds questions like that, and the unconscious answers them.

Then I had a setting — Depression-era Cleveland, in a neighborhood based on the neighborhoods where my grandparents had grown up. Most importantly, I had a group of characters who felt to me like real people: a bricklayer, a seamstress, a teenaged boy, a very old and very talented covert abortionist, and a criminal (the man on the stairs) who commits the crime that sets the whole thing spinning.

4. JC: The book didn't feel complicated as I was reading it, but when I had to explain its structure I realized that the interlocking elliptical circles of the plot were actually quite complex. Did you consciously map the structure as you were working on the book? Did it grow organically?

Salvatore Scibona: Well, there’s a bit of a dance between the conscious and unconscious minds, right?  The conscious mind calculates and arranges.  But it can’t make anything, it can only put things together that come to it from the senses and from the unconscious. 

The unconscious, on the other hand, knows much, much more without knowing that it knows.  Ideas seem to grow from it organically, as you say.  It has inherited the collected knowledge of the species.

The conscious mind is a librarian: studious, careful, everything cataloged. She writes down the 50 books she reads in a year and remembers them all pretty well.  But the unconscious mind is a library, with hardly any cataloging system, hundreds of thousands of years worth of books piling up and rotting in the elevators and the stairwells and bathrooms — vastly more books than we’ll ever have time open —   forgotten instincts and myths. 

I tried to let the story and the motivations of the characters grow out of the unconscious, and also — more importantly — out of the unconsciouses of the characters. Then later I tried to exploit all of the conscious mind’s capacity for deliberation and strategy, to organize things in a coherent way.

5. JC: Your character Mrs. Marini maintains a dialogue in her head with her deceased husband. How much does this mirror the work of a novelist?

Salvatore Scibona: A man told me recently that all of the most revealing conversations he's had with his father have taken place since his father died. 

He had read my book and wanted to talk about magical realism, about how it was a mistake to describe as "magical" the scenes in "The End" in which the ghost of Mrs. Marini's husband appears.  To do so gives reality short shrift. As Hamlet says, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

The dead live in our minds and speak to us, as anyone knows who has loved a person who has died.  In Mrs. Marini’s case, the running question is whether the ghost who's speaking to her is really her husband or an impostor, a mental phantom trying to force regrets on her that she probably ought to feel but doesn't. The phantom sometimes ineptly dresses like her husband to antagonize her. 

But then near the end she's visited by a ghost that she thinks is the real thing, which prompts a more  naked reaction.

All of that drama seems to me within the boundaries of an expanded realism.  It's truer to our experience than the so-called realism in which we pretend the dead have been transformed into memories and bank accounts.

6. JC:  The novel contains sections written from the perspective of several different characters. Which were easiest to write? What challenges did you encounter?

Salvatore Scibona: The old lady, Mrs. Marini, was the easiest character to write.  I had a sense of her voice, her impatience, her snobbery; those things were all of a piece very early on. Whenever I needed to write something from her point of view, all I had to do was read a book I knew she would have liked and she'd wake up in my mind. 

The adult male characters were more difficult.  I don't know why.  Maybe I feel their instincts and so understand them less.

Lina, the younger woman, the victim of the crime, frustrated me for years until I realized that she had a sense of privacy and of shame with which she was, sort of, protecting herself. Protecting herself from me and from the reader, and I had to respect that. 

Most of the characters know things in one part of their minds that they really don't know in other parts.  I think that's a universal condition.

Much of the technical challenge of making a character true to life is allowing the character to contain all the contradictions that real people have without allowing the character to blow apart.

7. JC: When you read from the book, what section(s) do you read, and why?

Salvatore Scibona: Oh, I don't know.  It depends.

I try to read something that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And to go slow and enunciate.  But I’m not an actor. Unlike poetry, novels gain very little from a half-hour of reading out loud in an auditorium or bookstore. I hate taking out a part of the thing and trying to make it stand for the whole.  Novels should be read as wholes.

For me, ideally, a novel should be read slowly, in some version of solitude, in a state of willfully suspended disbelief, while alert, with a lot of sympathy to spare, while warm, in a room without too much unnecessary light, while one is 16 years old, lonesome, lovelorn, while there's something else one is supposed to be doing, late at night, hoping a certain person will call; and she doesn't call.

-- Carolyn Kellogg 

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