Joseph Skibell, award winning novelist and director of the prestigious Richard Ellman Lectures in Modern Literature at Emory University in Atlanta, will speak at the University of West Florida on November 15. Currently Associate Professor of Creative Writing and English at Emory, Skibell will read and discuss his latest work, A Curable Romantic. The reading will be followed by a book signing. The author also has a surprise performance in store for all those who attend. IN had a chance to ask him a few questions about his books, his career and his visit to the area.
IN: Your first book, A Blessing on the Moon, started your career with considerable acclaim—the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Turner Prize for First Fiction, a Book of the Month Club selection, and many others. Quite a heady start for a young novelist. How did you handle that early recognition?
JS: It was a pretty cool thing. When you are invited to the American Academy of Arts and Letters dinner you are filing the seats of those that have come before you, and you are with a group of about two hundred and fifty people who are the best in your field in the country. Cool to be invited to the club. When you walk in, people are talking about your book, they have read about it or heard about it. Then author Joyce Carol Oates walked up to me and said. “I won your award, too,” then preceded to introduce me to anyone I wanted. We had a group photo taken; it captured a great moment in my newly formed career. A sweet, sweet day.
IN: Did it make reception of your later books easier or more difficult?
JS: Well, first you say to yourself, can you write a novel? You don’t know; it is terrifying and it is fun. I had done plays and screenplays. If it is terrible—I never made claims I could write. The second book was worse; it was then a question of, can I? Was the first book a fluke? Can I be as good? When you win prizes and awards, it hobbles you, intimidates you. It can also be liberating. By the third book, it was such a large project, it was looser, it became just about the storytelling. I could say, OK, now I am a novelist. Heroic battle to complete, so many pages.
IN: Your presentation at UWF will be a reading and a launch for your third book, A Curable Romantic, with elements of history, Jewish mysticism, Sigmund Freud, and the afterlife. Tell us what we can expect. Where else has the book signing taken you so far?
JS: I will do a reading from A Curable Romantic, and a book signing. My first book, A Blessing On The Moon, has recently been released in paperback, so I will probably read some of that as well. I am also doing a performance piece that I created to use when I presented to the Jewish Book Counsel. So far, the book tour has taken me to: Seattle, Portland, Milwaukee, Rochester, Philadelphia, Austin, Lubbock, Dallas, D.C., then south Florida. I am happy to be back at UWF, everyone was so sweet and wonderful before. It is a great area. Not everywhere does the dean come out to meet you, along with the chair of the English department. There was such a good showing. Jonathan Fink is doing such a great job bringing these authors to the area.
IN: Grants are resources as well as recognitions. What did grants like the National Endowment for the Arts allow you to accomplish?
JS: I was able to take a year off from teaching. It allowed me to complete A Curable Romantic. I had a semester coming to me as well, so I had three off in a row.
IN: Being director of Ellmann Lectures has put you in touch with some of the world’s greatest writers: Salman Rushie, Umberto Eco, Mario Vargas Llosa, and recently, Margaret Atwood. Describe the Ellmann Lectures at Emory.
JS: Richard Ellmann was the first Robert W. Woodruff Professor at Emory. He was the biographer of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. The Emory endowment wanted to continue the lectures he gave and raise the level of the university’s program. Every other year, they are delightful affairs with readings, interactive lectures, lunches and chamber music. People come from all over the world to attend the event. This past week was Margaret Atwood, “In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination.” Many attendees, and quite an honor.
IN: Describe the development of characters and storylines over your three books.
JS: A Blessing On The Moon was a dark subject. The English Disease is a contemporary book, it is lighter and episodic. Then A Curable Romantic is a bigger canvas, three parts: Freudian, Esperanto movement, and, finally, the Warsaw Ghetto. It spans 60 years, with a big cast of characters. My goal? Books powered by storytelling.
Jonathan Fink, Assistant Professor and Director of Creative Writing at UWF, had this to say about the author: “Joseph was an excellent speaker/reader in the Writers in the Gallery Series last spring. His work is rich and dynamic in its aesthetics, structure, scope and humor. We were thrilled to invite him back this fall and sponsor a reading for him on his book tour for A Curable Romantic.
WHEN: 4 p.m. Monday, November 15.
WHERE: Library/Conference room in building 50, Room 221 on the UWF Campus.
COST: Free and open to the public.