Salvatore Scibona’s debut novel, "The End", may have taken ten years to complete, but since its release Scibona has received warm praise from various critics including a nomination for the National Book Award, winning the Young Lions Fiction Award from the New York Public Library, and also scooping the Norman Mailer Cape Cod Award for Exceptional Writing.
"The End" is a novel that follows an elderly abortionist, an enigmatic drapery seamstress, a teenage boy and a jeweller deep into the heart of a crime that will twist all of their lives. Scibona talks to More Intelligent Life about the Catholic Church, Sigmund Freud, and why as a fiction writer, he has nothing to say.
"The End" took ten years to write. Did you think it would take that long when you set out to write it?
There are two types of writers: the writer who wants to finish what they are working on, so they can move on to the next project, and the other kind of writer, whose goal is just to work every day, and let the book take whatever time it needs. I think I’m in the latter category. I was too young ten years ago to write the kind of book that I wanted to write.
The narrative in "The End" skips around chronologically. Do you find simple linear narratives boring?
It’s not something I made a preliminary decision about. I had the material that I had, and I tried to make the best house that I could for it. The first chapter and the last chapters were the first things that I wrote; the rest of the first part came relatively late. When I write I don’t stick to any particular time, because I don’t think we live that way.
This book has been hailed by critics as a modernist novel. Does this ring true for you?
I still don’t know what the word modernism means. I’ve never heard a persuasive definition. That said, I think it must be true, in so far as Virginia Woolf is a huge influence, as are Faulkner and Freud. In terms of writing from the unconscious, I’m a firm believer in that. I’ve never known my conscious mind to invent anything. My conscious mind organises things and analyses things, but when I look up from the page and think, where did I make that person or sentence up, it always comes from a part of mind of which I’m not aware.
“The End” pays great attention to Catholic rituals and tradition, such as a scene that features a parade from the Feast of the Assumption. What inspired you to write about these rituals?
I was in the feast of St Agatha in Sicily. It’s the most crazed Christian thing you have ever seen, with 3m people in the streets. The crowds are really tightly packed, and at one point I couldn’t expand my chest. I thought, oh my God this is how people get smothered. This fervent religious procession was such a physical, sensuous experience that I felt held a lot of meaning. I wanted to find out what that meaning was about.
Did you grow close to the characters of this novel, considering the amount of time you spent with them?
Joan Didion, in her essay “On Self Respect”, says that people with self respect are able to love and remain indifferent. I think with the characters in this book that’s what I aspired to do—I want to be very close to my characters, yet I want to maintain my indifference. I don’t want to get so frothy in my emotional attachment to them that I can’t let them do things I disapprove of, or say things that I disapprove of. But I love them, all of them, very deeply, and very personally.
The tone of this novel is quite philosophical. Is philosophy a big influence on your work?
Yes, I have a degree in philosophy. All of the most compelling observations I get from reading philosophy clarify things I thought when I was five years old. Philosophy in a way is not a higher level thought process. One doesn’t need to have an education to understand what philosophy is about. However, you do need to have an education in order to describe philosophical ideas, because they are so abstract. The ultimate observations themselves are often very simple, like that passage in "The End": “She was separated by virtue of being a conscious animal, from the rest of creation.” That’s something I remember thinking about when I was a little boy.
But most of the characters are working-class and illiterate. How do you make that transition whereby the characters have these great philosophical epiphanies all the time?
One of the satisfying things about writing this book is dealing with characters that have little education. To be honest, I haven’t seen many contemporary novels that are about working-class people or illiterate people. Just because people don’t have philosophical and metaphysical educations it doesn’t mean they don’t have philosophical questions. The challenge for me writing this novel was in trying to find a language and point of view that would allow these characters to communicate themselves to the reader, while not at the same time trying to imply that if you walked up to this person on the street that they would speak in these kind of sentences.
How important do you think Freud has been in literature and culture in general?
Freud has come up with some pieces of language that are so hard-wired into our own language now that we wouldn’t be able to have a lot of the discourse that we have today without him, by naming certain parts of the psyche the way he did, he defined what they were. He almost invented them for us. I find his world-view persuasive.
You’re obviously an avid reader. Do you find it distracting trying to read other novels while maintaining your own style?
I read all the time when I’m writing, because if I don’t, I have nothing to say. I read in order to be influenced. I want to be influenced by everything I read and hear. The real problem is not having enough influences; people who are afraid of sounding like Jack Kerouac might take a look at their own bookshelf and see how many good writers there are on that bookshelf.
Have you conveyed the message that you set you to make when you started writing “The End”?
I’m absolutely sure of this: there is no message in this novel. Using a message would be like using the novel to communicate something other than what it is. The novel is about a whole lot of different stuff, but I’m not trying to persuade anyone of anything. I’m trying to make a living thing. I mean you don’t have children in order to convey a message (laughs). That’s the most preposterous thing I’ve ever said!
What’s the next project you are working on?
I’m working on another novel. I’m going to Italy in the summer because the book is coming out in Italian, which I’m very excited about. For the most part, I live in a very small, beautiful beach town, which is deserted six months of the year. I always feel like whenever I leave Massachusetts I’m wasting my time. The work gets done here!
~ JOHN PAUL O'MALLEY
"The End" is out now