Salvatore Scibona is a visiting Assistant Professor in the English department and the author of the National Book Award finalist “The End,” published in 2009. He was named as one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40: Fiction Writers to Watch” in 2010 and is currently at work on a second novel. Before coming to Wesleyan, he was an administrator at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass. On Sept. 24, he held a reading with visiting professor Tonya Foster at Russell House, where he shared an excerpt of a short story inspired by the writing of Halldór Laxness and his own love of Laxness’ home country, Iceland.
The Argus: So, Professor Scibona, what’s currently on your bookshelf?
Salvatore Scibona: A lot of things. A book of poems, by Rebecca Gayle Howell, called “Render: A New Book of Poems.” Absolutely wonderful book. She’s from Kentucky, and in some ways the book is a meditation on the agricultural life that her grandparents and great-grandparents would have been living, but it’s also sort of mixed with really intense spiritual meditation. I think part of what makes the poems work is that they’re very simple barnyard conceits—like, “How to Kill a Hen,” “How to Kill a Rooster,” “How to Slaughter a Hog”—but they’re infused with this crazy, spiritual-crisis energy. They’re really wonderful.
Also on my shelf, the new novel by Norman Rush. Norman Rush is one of my favorite living writers. He won the National Book Award for a novel he published [in 1991], and it’s called “Mating.” It’s set in Botswana during the eighties, and it’s one of the most fully-formed, satisfying romantic relationships you will ever encounter in literature, anywhere. Just two people who fall totally in love with each other in an erotic way, in a carnal way, and their minds do the same thing.
This new novel [by Rush], which I bought at the bookstore but haven’t started yet, is called “Subtle Bodies.” It’s the first book of his not set in Africa. I mean, the guy’s, like, eighty, and this is his fourth book. He goes slow. He goes very slow.
What else? I should have brought my reading notebook for the stuff that I read over the summer.
A: Do you keep track of all the books you read?
SS: Yeah. I have a little notebook that I flip upside down; on the one side is books that people mentioned to me that I should get, and on the other side is author’s name, title, and the date that I finished it. So it’s like a little reward; once I finish the book, it means I get to write the title down. And if I read it again, I get to write the title down again.
A: Are you reading any books that stem from your Icelandic obsession?
SS: Yeah. I just read a book that no one here will ever have read, but that I totally really loved, called “Wasteland with Words,” which is a sociological history of Iceland; I read that over the summer. I am about to reread [Halldór Laxness’] “Independent People,” happily. I’m also in the middle right now of Laxness’ novel “World Light,” which I started about three or four years ago, and put down—I was in France—because I knew that it was wonderful, absolutely wonderful, and I was just in sort of a cranky mood, and there are only so many Laxness novels translated into English, and I have only one or two left, and I don’t want to squander them with “bad mind.” I also recently read a book of his called “The Great Weaver from Kashmir,” which is so-so, not up to “Independent People” standards. And the students in one of my classes are going to read another really great novel of his called “Paradise Reclaimed.”
A: Do you have a short list of favorite living authors?
SS: I feel like my first literary influence—my first experience, really, of reading literature—was reading Annie Dillard in high school, who was teaching [at Wesleyan] at the time. Her book, “An American Childhood”—I just remember walking home from school reading that book, and stopping after the first paragraph and reading it about six or seven times. I stopped in the street and just read it again and again and again. It was the closest to a “road to Damascus” moment that I’ve ever had. I stopped in the road and couldn’t do anything else; I was totally transfixed. Over the next couple of years I read most everything she’d written.
Her last book, which she claims is going to be the last book she ever publishes, is “The Bay Trees,” which is a novel that is set in Provincetown, [Mass.], where I’ve been living, coincidentally. And it is absolutely tremendous. It is totally awesome. A heartbreaking novel. [Dillard] says it’s about a story that she heard about a couple in Jordan. The man left one wife to marry another wife, and then later on the man and his second wife became ill, and the only person to nurse them in their last days was the first wife. So that’s part of the conceit of this novel.
James Salter just published a novel called “All There Is.” He is one of the great masters of American fiction of any time. He’s absolutely tremendous. He had not published a novel in I think more than 25 years… So this novel came out over the summer and I read it within in a week, in bottomless ecstasy. He published in 1975 a novel called “Light Years.” Almost all the fiction writers that I know know that book. The prose is really baroque; it has the most extraordinary surface polish and surface pleasure of anything you could imagine, by which I mean the physical details in themselves, the things that he surrounds the people with, are so captivating… And then there’s a lot of sex and thinking.
[Salter] said in interviews that part of the writer’s job is to create a feeling of envy in the reader for the lives of the people that he’s writing about. And to some degree, you do feel that way about the characters in “Light Years.” In other respects, of course, you probably despise them, but they’re living in a kind of elegance that is totally absorbing. Not just physical comfort, money; more like a kind of presence with the physical world… There’s a sense of deep pleasure in the physical world that he’s always after in some way.
Anyways, “All That Is” is phenomenal. “Light Years” is also phenomenal. But if people are interested in his work, they might start with a collection of short stories called “Dusk,” or they might start with a single short story that was published in The New Yorker a couple of years ago, and that you can listen to for free on the iTunes store to I think Thomas McGuane reading out loud.
A: What are the New Yorker Fiction podcasts?
SS: [They’re] very cool. I did it one time. They get someone who’s recently published fiction in The New Yorker to read something from the back issues, and they do it once a month, and they have a conversation with the Fiction Editor for The New Yorker. Anyways, the [Salter] story is called “Last Night,” and it’s just a killer. I read it with my Special Topics [ENGL317] students several weeks ago.
A: Any other authors on your short list?
SS: I read all of Toni Morrison when I was about nineteen or twenty. She’s from the town next to the town I’m from in Ohio, and she was a big influence on me.
Saul Bellow I started reading about ten years ago, and we’re going to read his book “Seize the Day” in one of my other classes. I haven’t reread it in a long time; I’m looking forward to it. But his book “Humboldt’s Gift” is really phenomenal, and his book “Herzog”—do you know the conceit of Herzog? It’s an absolutely terrific book. A guy’s wife betrays him and he goes into a kind of mania that inspires him to start writing letters to everyone under the sun, including his relatives who are no longer alive, famous dead philosophers, Spinoza, President Eisenhower… The whole book is this inspired piece of madness. Terrific. But [Bellow] is not alive anymore.
A: Who were your major literary influences during your college years?
SS: Plato. Plato as a literary writer is absolutely wonderful. Homer. I wrote my senior paper in college about Homer. “The Iliad” especially. Pascal. All these people have only one name! William Faulkner.
The biggest influence for me in college was Virginia Woolf. I was really glad I got to her when I did… My mind had gotten into better shape for reading by the time I got to her, so I was more patient with the shape of narrative that she was asking you to assimilate. I mean, it’s so not straightforward, and yet if you’re open to it… The book of hers that’s meant the most to me—probably the book that’s meant most to me in my life—is “The Waves.” I just memorized whole pages of that book, could not stop. I would read one chapter and stop, [then] read it again before I would move on to the next chapter because I wanted to go slower.
A: Since you recently did a reading with Tonya Foster, can you think of any free-verse poets whom you admire?
SS: Well, I don’t think you would immediately go to [these people] when you think of free verse, but [of the] living poets, I think two that I really admire a lot are Mark Strand and Maurice Manning. They’re totally different writers, but they’re both exquisite. Strand is probably eighty by now. His poem, “Keeping Things Whole,” I used to recite to myself alone in the dark, over and over again, in grad school. And Maurice Manning is another Appalachian writer, like Rebecca Howell.
A: Anything else you’d like to add?
SS: I didn’t mention Don DeLillo this whole time, who is totally, like, the great towering genius. He and James Salter and Norman Rush… Also Joy Williams, I didn’t mention. I’m sorry, I’m bringing up too many writers!
I feel like every writer that’s really, really meant a lot to me, I reacted against the first time I read them. Maybe because they were strange or something. I had no way in, and once I did get in, it opened up.