On Listening: Salvatore Scibona Tunes in to Detail
“I think for a writer you don’t see a thing until you use the word for it and the more precise the word you can use the more precisely you see it. On the other hand, the word is an instrument in order to lead you to the thing and you can spin a whole lot of words around yourself for years and years and years, as the jeweler does, until it gets to the point where your primary relationship is with the language and not with the thing.”
If the act of creation is the epitome of elegance, a waltz between the writer’s conscious and unconscious mind, then Salvatore Scibona has performed the dance perfectly. A telephone call to his grandmother on her birthday, a patch of conversation overheard and written down, the view from his writing desk of a clothesline drying laundry — these are this language artist’s broadest strokes, transformed by his conscious mind into crucial, telling details. In “The End,” Scibona’s award-winning first novel, the elaborate weave and turn of story through language whirls the reader through the overlapping lives of five unique characters: an elderly abortionist, an abandoned husband, a teenage boy, an absent mother, a dedicated baker, and a lonely jeweler. In rendering these characters’ lives, Scibona transitions from anecdote to anecdote with implicitly elaborate footwork, the dance of free indirect style, so the gesture comes bearing all the import of direct action, and the absence of events is as telling as their presence.
“The man on the bridge watches her ascending the hill. She is stooped by the weight of an enormous sack on her back, so touchingly like a mule, like an enduring animal that slowly carries on its back a burden as large as itself.
It would be impossibly sweet and satisfying to follow her. The sweetness of saying ‘she’ is the intimation of somebody else, of something else that’s really out there being real, that isn’t an idea or a ghost but a person, definite, completed.
But he’s watching her now. He can’t not. And while he watches her, he is turning her back into an idea, so he must act fast. She has already begun to disappear.” (Pg. 112.)
In “The End,” Scibona challenges his characters’ tangibility. He implicitly asks what it means to be perceived. ‘What are the consequences of community?’ The reader wonders, watching these ordinary, extraordinary lives. Is the reflection in the mirror one of comfort? Or does it manifest deep-seated regrets; repetition, routine, anonymity — by what are these broken? We discover, in “The End,” that tragedy is one disruptive mode.
“How long do you have to live in a place before you notice it? The whole morning was a dream. Around every corner was a view that should have been same old, same old, but today impressed itself on his mind as if for the first time and for all time. As in, Look, there’s a kid licking the streetcar tracks, wearing short pants-only it seemed to Rocco that he’d never seen the tracks or a child in short pants before and he was never going to forget this. As on a day when the ruler dies and everybody, without even trying, holds on to the slightest spec of mental lint from that day for years.” (Pgs. 20 – 21.)
Readers of “The End” will find this story about a community lost to time an opportunity for total reading immersion. By the last line, they will know this place and these people in the way they know their own, and they will find in it the satisfaction of particulars, an antidote to the mysterious void.
— Carlin M. Wragg, Editor
Note: This transcript has been slightly modified to enhance readability.
Salvatore Scibona: [Reads from The End, pages 38 - 40 (Graywolf Press, 2008).]
Carlin M. Wragg: I want to start out by framing our context: where is this happening and what is the occasion of this procession?
SS: It’s in Ohio, in an Italian-immigrant neighborhood called Elephant Park, which is fictional but based on a neighborhood that exists in Cleveland to the present. The occasion is the Feast of the Assumption on August 15, 1953, which is the central day of the novel. It’s probably accurate to call it the central day because things circle around it and come back to it; it isn’t the point to which everything goes merely, it’s a point to which things head, then pass away, then head back again. The Feast of the Assumption is the Catholic holiday in which Catholics celebrate the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven, meaning that she didn’t die exactly, she went directly in bodily form into the sky.
CMW: Why did you want this to be the focal point of the story? Why this occasion? Why this time and day?
SS: I think there are writers who write from their macro vision down to particulars, then there are writers who do it the other way around; I do it the other way around. I had no intention of writing about the festival, I was really just describing a man walking up a flight of stairs, and details accrue which carry with them a whole lot of identifying characteristics. “The whole novel really worked that way; it grew out of it. I think it’s not the only way to write a novel but I think it is a way of assuring that the work that the writer’s doing is coming from his or her unconscious. I really believe in that. I think that the conscious mind, at best, rearranges the furniture, but it can’t make anything.”So the man’s walking a flight of stairs, well what clothes is he wearing? The clothes speak to the time. Then, what’s he doing on the stairs? That goes to his motivation. The whole novel really worked that way; it grew out of it. I think it’s not the only way to write a novel but I think it is a way of assuring that the work that the writer’s doing is coming from his or her unconscious. I really believe in that. I think that the conscious mind, at best, rearranges the furniture, but it can’t make anything. The unconscious creates things. So the date in question was just an outgrowth of everything that had accumulated in the novel up to that point. It was really a physical detail, followed by character and motivation.
For whatever reason, I was drawn to that period, mostly because I was close to my grandparents as a little boy. All four of them were alive when I started writing the book and they had all died by the time it was done. They all grew up in these mono-ethnic neighborhoods in Cleveland which, at the time, was much more like Queens I guess is now. I grew up in the suburbs. I did a whole lot of listening to them as a child and it really seemed to me that they’d lost something important when they moved to the suburbs. They wanted to own their own houses and they wanted to be safe and clean and so on, but they missed those places; those places had history to them that the suburbs had none of, at all — that’s an obvious point, a lot of people feel that way — so I was attracted to that time, I think, for that reason.
CMW: Were your grandparents great storytellers?
SS: They were gossipers. I think my grandparents were — for my purposes they had just wonderful locutions that for some reason, even as a young boy, I remember finding kind of magical. Just very, very, very small things — I use a lot of broken syntax in the book and that’s because I… there’s a line in the novel, Mao II, when the main character is dying on the ship and as he’s dying these tiny little fragments of things his parents said to him as a boy come back to him; he refers to them as “the unforgettable poetry beneath the pain of what people say.” So, for example — I probably shouldn’t give an example because it will seem deflating — but I love how in Cleveland people say “irregardless” rather than “regardless.” My grandmother, my mother’s mother, would always say, as an exclamation, she would say, “Eee God.” I was really fascinated — you know the Robert Frost saying: “A word is a fossil poem?” You can trace a lot of those things back to somewhere and I think what she was saying was a Nineteenth Century thing: “Ye Gods,” which people used to say, “Ye Gods,” but she would have — I mean, she had a very modest education so she would have only heard it orally. She grew up speaking Polish in Cleveland so she only would have gotten those things later on. You know, just tiny little inflections like that. When she walked into a house she would say, “How do?” Like that. You might not know what that meant unless you had “How do you do?” somewhere in the history of your language. So the word comes bearing its history with it — a phrase, a piece of syntax comes bearing history with it and I think that somehow gives a charge to language, when you’re able to use it in that way.
CMW: The question I’d like to ask you next is about a technique I saw you using. In your descriptive passages you often insert some dialog. It’s overheard dialog, snatches of conversation, a variety of voices; is what we were just talking about related to that as a choice?
SS: Absolutely. I guess there are a lot of reasons for that. One of them is that the narrator speaks proper English, more or less. The book is in what’s called “free indirect style” so that the narrator can swoop down into the mouth of the character and appropriate the voice of the character when the narrator wants to. Then at other times, in that passage that I just read, he’s further up, more authorial. I didn’t want to leave anything on the table.
A big challenge that I had in writing this book was that I was writing from the point-of-view of people who had almost no formal education. I wanted to bring everything that I could to the novel so I had to find a voice that could address somewhat sophisticated things even when the characters themselves would not have had quite that sophisticated language. I think it’s a big mistake that happens, especially in contemporary novels, I think, when people either make a simple person sound like a simpleton, as though people without educations — without college educations — don’t have metaphysical thought, which is silly to assume that they don’t. Anyway, in those sections that you’re referring to there are sentences throughout that came from my notebook that were, to a large extent, things that I actually overheard people say. This guy in a bus station said — I can’t believe I overheard this, it wasn’t even in my notebook, it was a scrap of paper that I had written something down on and put it in a book and then I found it a couple of years later — this is the only thing I heard him say: “No, just a friend from Oskaloosa reformatory. I tried to give him courage but they wouldn’t let me.” In fact, I was in Rome for a year doing research on the novel and I was talking to my grandmother on the phone, she was describing her eightieth birthday party and she said something in the middle of the conversation that I thought was so good I almost immediately decided that that was going to be the last line of the novel. I had no idea what else was going to happen, I mean I was hundreds of pages out and I thought, “Well that’s where I’m going, to that piece of speech, at that point.”
CMW: What’s the line?
SS: The line is… Well, I should tell you what my grandmother was saying. She went to a birthday party. It was a really fancy restaurant where her nieces and nephews had taken her, out for her eightieth birthday, and they had a band, and for her this was — God, to have dinner with music; it was like the old days. At the end of the story she said, “And we stayed till eleven and listened to the lads play.” There were so many L’s in it. There was so much comfort in it, somehow. I just love it. I love it.
CMW: I want to ask you about your narrator because I think he — and I’m glad you said “he” because I thought it was a “he” — is really interesting to me as a character. I know the story is about a number of different characters but I felt this was another one. I wanted to see if you had an idea of who this narrator was to you as you were writing, or after you finished.
SS: I can’t say that I’ve never thought of that exactly. I suppose the narrator represents a version of being a human being that I admire and that a lot of the characters aspire to in some way. Specifically, the narrator can absorb himself completely in the physical world, dispassionately, and the narrator can watch, the narrator can observe, the narrator can analyze, and the narrator can feel quite a lot of compassion, I think, while remaining cold. There’s a line from a Joan Didion essay; she says: “To have self-respect is potentially to have everything, and included among the ‘everything’ is to love, and to remain indifferent.” To love and to remain indifferent — I think the narrator can do that, I want to be able to do that. Principally, the narrator does not have to be an “I.” All the characters, at some point or another, would really like to give that up which, I suppose, is not a Western goal, but it’s a goal that I have; to recede, to evanesce. For me, that’s one of the things The End represents, that all of these people have a goal in mind and, for the most part, those goals circle around the hope to disappear.
CMW: One of the things that’s really interesting about a conversation between a reader and a book is the experience of the reader that is affected by the language that they’re moving through. As you’re describing the ambition for how the narrator creates the story I’m remembering that I felt, in reading, that I was disappearing into these characters. I found that really interesting because I find that happens less and less frequently. I wondered if it had something to do with the third person, or if it had something to do with the narrator’s deep sense of observation? You’re the writer so there’s a relationship between you and the narrator which you’ve created and so I’m asking you: What were you thinking about in terms of detail? Do you have a philosophy about the kind of detail that you want to include, or wanted to include, in this narrator’s voice?
SS: Can I ask you, when you say “the reader disappearing into the character” — is that what you said? Or into the story… The opposite of that would be?
CMW: Having an awareness that I am a reader reading a book, and this is the book, and this is the story I’m reading. I think what I found myself feeling as I was reading was that I lost an awareness of time and place, that I had moved into the place that I was experiencing through the book. I was trying to think of the mechanics of that.
SS: I had a conversation with someone a couple of years ago and we realized after a little bit of time that we had ingested the Postmodern notion that there’s something fishy about absorption in a narrative, that that’s something that we should be skeptical of because you can be manipulated by it. Then the conversation went on for a while and one of us said, “Wait a minute. What was so problematic about absorption, really? What was it, really?” And I had to say that, “If I could look at my moments of most intense experience reading a novel, almost all of them involved absorption….What I go to a novel for is that, at this point, it’s one of the only places left in experience where I can have absorption.”to be honest, that was exactly what I read for. If I could look at my moments of most intense experience reading a novel, almost all of them involved absorption. I know that’s not necessarily “hep” [laughter] but I don’t care because I feel like that was a very useful thing that we learned, whatever it was, thirty or forty years ago when people were breaking the narratives up and saying, “Look: it’s a story. Don’t forget that it’s a story. Don’t forget that it’s a construction.” Enough already. I know that. My entire life, everything about my life and all our lives, the fragmentary nature of so much of our culture and our art reinforces that all the time.
I feel so much of contemporary life abstracts us from our surroundings. Whereas there might have been a legitimate need a while ago to let people know these absorbing experiences were constructions — fine; I don’t need to learn that again. I’m never going to forget it. I’m constantly being reminded of it. What I go to a novel for is that, at this point, it’s one of the only places left in experience where I can have absorption.
So you asked, technically speaking, how that happens. There’s one straight-up boring technical way and that’s by writing with sensuous detail. If you describe what a thing looks like and sounds like and smells like and tastes like and feels like. It’s the age-old method but the effect is, first of all, to make things seem real — verisimilitude — but it also wakes the reader and the writer up. That’s what I want. I want to wake up. I don’t want to be asleep anymore. To the extent that detail has gotten a bad rap I think that sometimes it’s because a lot of detail is retrograde. Rather, not retrograde; it’s detail that’s not telling. A teacher of mine called it “abject naturalism,” describing something because it could be there. Let’s say we were having this conversation and I described the yellow walls. Well if there’s no good reason for the reader to know about the yellow walls that’s abject, right? But the telling detail — Flannery O’Connor talks about the “loaded detail” — that’s a piece of physical description that’s purely physical. It’s totally responsible to the senses and it has resonance to a deeper or more global meaning within the narrative.
CMW: I wanted to ask about your choice to have an abortionist as a figure in the book.
SS: I had many, many drafts of the book in different forms — that came about when the book had a very different shape. At first the dramatization of the assault and the decision of Enzo and Lena to keep the child, all of that… Lots of the gaps in the novel are —they’re there on purpose but it doesn’t mean that I didn’t write what was in there. I took it out and let what was outside speak for itself. So, in that particular case, I had his woman for a really, really long time who was taking over the story more and more and more, Mrs. Marini, and one of the niggling problems that I had was that I wanted her to be haughty and have a bit of financial security but I didn’t know where her money came from. So that was a car headed one way on the highway. Then these people suddenly had a need. I mean, frankly, I didn’t want abortion to be involved at all but someone that I gave the novel to said, “I just don’t understand why these people couldn’t find someone to do this.” It was a reasonable question. I remember where I was; I was in Rome at my typewriter looking out the window — it sounds more romantic than it was — at my clothesline. It was probably the moment in the novel when I most realized, that I had this spooky notion that, it was almost like this thing had happened and I had discovered it because so many things made sense if that was how she made her money. So, again, I did not have a previous notion. I think that’s what we mean when we talk about a story growing organically. You have an experience of effect following cause. In a novel that’s inorganic, at least in the way that it gets written, the writer’s very conscious of an effect and wanting all the causes to lead to that place. So you say, “I’m going to write a novel in which this, this, and this happens,” before you start writing the novel. I’m sure it works for some people, it’s just not the way that I think.
CMW: So your process, not to belabor process, sounds like a series of discoveries.
SS: Yes, that’s right. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.
CMW: Was there a time before you were working on The End when you had a different expectation of the craft of writing, or yourself as a writer? Have you always thought of it as a series of discoveries, the writing process?
SS: I think I always thought of it as a series of discoveries. I started writing a novel in the fifth grade so I had, more or less, a chain of unfinished novels from the fifth grade onward until I started this book ten years ago, or at this point, twelve years ago, and I never had any experience of having a vision that I was going to try to lay out on the page. I just couldn’t do that. I wished I could. So I guess the answer’s no. That’s one of the few things that hasn’t changed.
CMW: Do you want to read from another passage?
CMW: This is a character whose name we don’t know, which is actually a feature of the passage that you’re going to read — the naming of things. This is a jeweler.
SS: The jeweler is the criminal who commits the crime that sets the whole novel spinning. Fifteen or sixteen years after he commits the crime the novel has proceeded back to August 15, 1953, when the jeweler has himself come to this carnival where everybody else in the novel is in some way represented. One of the things that the novel has at this point kept under wraps is why he wasn’t found. I think the answer to that is because Lena’s so ashamed she would never rat him out; it would require disclosing all of the family secrets. But the jeweler really wants to be found. He’s a criminal who wants to be accused. I think that’s because he’s on the other side of the disappearance. He feels as though he disappeared a long time ago and would really like to appear among people but nobody knows his name. All he wants is to be held to account.
CMW: There’s a way in which in this passage I felt — I’m not sure if this is a leap so I’m just going to stumble through — I almost feel like he has the problem of the writer to find the right word for the right thing.
CMW: He is not named, yet the precision of his observations seems to reflect the challenge the writer has. It was interesting to me when I was reading it to find that the criminal had the writer’s problem. Was that something you were thinking about as you were writing?
SS: I think that’s true. I think it’s not necessary to the story, which is important to me. You could read that as a Po-Mo element of the novel and I suppose it is, in a critical way, but the novel doesn’t need all of that ideology for the jeweler to be himself. I do think part of the jeweler’s problem is he’s a reader and his connection with real people is always mitigated through language, as it is for all of us, but in his case it’s such a cage. I think that’s just one version of the cage a lot of us feel, the cage that separates us from direct experience of the material world. For some people alcohol does that. “I think for a writer you don’t see a thing until you use the word for it and the more precise the word you can use the more precisely you see it.”For some people drugs do it. For some people a lack of imagination does it, or indifference, or suffering, or cowardice; all manner of things that make meditation difficult for a lot of people. In the jeweler’s case, it’s words. I think he, by thinking very hard, he’ll look around in a certain place, he has this habit from childhood of looking around the room and saying, “Now what’s the name for that thing over there? What is that called?” That can work in one of two ways, to get to your issue about the writer. I think for a writer you don’t see a thing until you use the word for it and the more precise the word you can use the more precisely you see it. On the other hand, the word is an instrument in order to lead you to the thing and you can spin a whole lot of words around yourself for years and years and years, as the jeweler does, until it gets to the point where your primary relationship is with the language and not with the thing. As a parenthetical, that’s my issue with a lot of the more dramatically self-conscious contemporary writing, that it forgets that the point of the word was to describe the thing. It doesn’t forget it; it holds up that the word is more important than the thing, and that’s what the jeweler ends up concluding. Because he’s failed, he gives up. His original notion in the crime was that he could break through, with this assault, all of his rules and all of his language by actually forcing himself into the world of other people. When he fails, he falls back on the writer’s hope, or the writer’s method of just taking comfort in being able to call a thing what it is. Which is a huge comfort, I think, but it’s not enough.
CMW: I found him to be a sympathetic character.
S: You did? Wonderful.
CMW: Yes, and that was interesting to me because I was thinking this was someone you’re not supposed to sympathize with; this is the criminal, this is the assaulter, and yet I was able to see his humanity. I was curious about how you wanted the reader — if you had any desire for the reader to perceive him either in that way or a different way.
SS: I think it’s entirely outside my bailiwick. I’m not the narrator, for one thing. The narrator treats them sometimes… Well, I suppose the narrator treats everyone with compassion but that compassion, I was telling you before, is the compassion of indifference which, I think, allows a character as much rope to sin with as he wants and as little as he wants. The writer’s job, I think, at least for me, the writer’s job is not to make judgements, the reader’s job is to make judgements. When the writer makes judgments the reader’s moral faculties lay down and they don’t get emotionally absorbed, they don’t want things for the character. In some way I think one of the goals of a novel is, one of the things I most want out of a novel, is a vicarious experience of the character’s freedom. I remember as a teenager reading novels and hoping desperately that the character would do one thing rather than another thing. That’s what I mean by a vicarious experience of their freedom. When the writer intercedes with moral judgement it hamstrings the character’s freedom and I don’t have that vicarious experience anymore because at that point I’m having an experience with the writer’s contraption.
It was very important to me to allow the characters to make actual choices. There are many, many places where a character hits a dilemma and I didn’t know what to do; I had no plan — my plan was to reach the dilemma but I, it’s probably one of the reasons it took so long, but I spent a lot of time just waiting for the character to decide. I feel like I’ve read novels where I can smell that, and if I don’t smell it, I don’t care.
CMW: What novels? Do any examples come to mind?
SS: Mating, by Norman Rush, which I think is absolutely a beautiful novel. It’s a romance, in some sense, in Africa — a hugely satisfying novel. The characters are both constantly coming up against dilemmas that are genuinely excruciating. Anna Karenina is chockablock with that, right? You really want to know: What is Levin going to do? What is he going to do? He really might not propose to Kitty the second time. He might not. What does he do? —If the novel is too contrived it just doesn’t work.
CMW: It sounds like the ambition is to reflect the reality of life, in that you don’t know what the other is going to do.
SS: The ambition is to amplify the reality of life; life, even more so. In regular life we experience exactly what you’re saying but we shrink from it most of the time. I think most of us probably want to have a little less freedom than we have because choice is so excruciating and we have to live with the consequences of it.
CMW: I wanted to get back, just quickly, to the idea of the characters making their own choices. As you were creating your characters you must have had to do something, three-dimensional studies, to make them so fully-formed as to be able to make choices themselves. I’m wondering about how their contradictions came to you. You know, this way in which Mrs. Marini, to go back to her, is very haughty and she’s very confident, and she’s also very generous and she has this perplexing love for a single person outside herself. I’m curious about what some of your favorite contradictions in your characters are.
SS: I really like that Rocco is so severe and abstemious, but when the rubber hits the road he wants something: he wants candy, [laughter] he wants ice cream. Or that Ciccio, for all of his more or less explicit philosophical questioning, thinks of himself as kind of a boob. He doesn’t really know that what he’s doing is high-end philosophy, he’s just going to Catholic school. At one point he says he was just eating the oats they were feeding him and that if he had gotten into the union like “At one point Mrs. Marini looks at Lena and says, ‘The girl’s face was open, charming, perfect, utterly stupid, and loving.’ It’s just like food — the sharp contrasts wake you up, they’re exciting to the mouth.”his father had wanted him to he would have lost his thoughts and be laying brick instead. I think there are a lot of those things at the line level that I like. At one point Mrs. Marini looks at Lena and says, “The girl’s face was open, charming, perfect, utterly stupid, and loving.” It’s just like food — the sharp contrasts wake you up, they’re exciting to the mouth. Descriptors that don’t go together do the same thing. I feel the same way about the characters. So it’s not exactly a contrivance, but I think it’s true that reactions create equal and opposite reactions. A character who is especially punctilious, I think, is liable to be prone to huge lapses in their moral fiber, right? A character who is especially abstemious is liable to be prone to lush eating every once in a while. I think that’s true, and I think it also expands our concept of the person.
CMW: One of my last questions, or the last question is: Did you have any relationship with baking before you wrote the novel? I ask because your descriptions of Rocco’s process and his real attention to — there’s one moment that I just love where he’s really just ripping on the kind of bread that he sees somebody else eating. I just think that’s a wonderful use of detail.
SS: He calls it “soap foam.” [Laughter]
CMW: Yes! And I was made aware of his perspective on his craft by that critique. I was curious to know whether you focused on learning how to make bread.
SS: I did. The first Rocco chapter, which is the first chapter of the book, I wrote after having written the whole novel, then there were more revisions after that, but it was almost the last chapter that I composed from scratch. I wanted to have a foyer for the book. I wanted something that would open it up in the right way and give the reader a sense of the dimensions of what they were in for. I moved into a new apartment, it was around August or September, I spent a lot of time — I got a studio — painting the “I just — I would go down there and I just could not get anything done. I was just waiting. I knew [Rocco] was a baker and I make bread but I wasn’t very serious about it, then I just lost my mind in bread-making. I would get really frustrated in the middle of the morning and take out my frustration on dough. At one point I was making a loaf of bread every day, at each point trying to refine something. It’s profoundly satisfying.”studio, and then everything ground to a halt for about a year and maybe nine or ten months. I just — I would go down there and I just could not get anything done. I was just waiting. I knew he was a baker and I make bread but I wasn’t very serious about it, then I just lost my mind in bread-making. I would get really frustrated in the middle of the morning and take out my frustration on dough. At one point I was making a loaf of bread every day, at each point trying to refine something. It’s profoundly satisfying. It’s so simple: it’s just flour and water and salt and you feed it these little animals that eat it. It’s so simple but there are so many variables in the atmosphere and the amount of water and the gluten content of flour — it’s the kind of very simple obsession that can get very complicated if you let it. I guess I spent a year living his life a little bit, and in retrospect I don’t mind that it took that long. I felt I had some sense of his pride. He’s proud. He lives in his work. It’s not simple. It’s not this working class fantasy, or the fantasy of the working class of the simple tradesman who knows his work and that’s it. It’s more than that. His physical involvement with his work is almost his only consolation. He keeps his streak going for ten thousand, six hundred eighty-five days. He loves it. He needs it.
CMW: This is his going to work in the morning, his opening the shop — this is his streak.
SS: For him that’s what life is and… I was about to say I admire that but that’s not exactly right; I covet it. I covet it a lot. That kind of absorption in work. It’s not devotion. Devotion implies morality, in some way. It’s just feeling as though your work is who you are. Any of us who have the opportunity to do work that way are lucky.