Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Leora Skolkin-Smith talks about madness, Grace Paley, resisting writing about what you need to write about, and Hystera

 I first met Leora Skolkin-Smith through Readerville, an online literary community and we quickly became friends. We talk about writing all the time and I've been thrilled to see how Leora's first novel Edges is now edging its way into becoming a feature film from Triboro Pictures. Her new novel, Hystera, about madness, youth and NYC in the 1970s, is from the Fiction Studio Imprint, one of the more exciting new publishing venues around. I'm honored to have Leora come on and talk about her book--which debuts November 15th!  And don't forget to listen to Leora on Reading With Robin, this Saturday, 92WHjj, 7 to 8 AM.

 What sparked the idea for the novel? Where did it come from?

 I once heard the  German writer Christa Wolf  speak on a panel, long ago, when her "The Quest for Christa T." first came out in East Germany. This book was banned immediately and as she wrote it, she had no belief it would find print. She said something even more interesting--she said, first she had been working on another book she knew would sell and be read, but this one, Christa T. kept looming up and haunting her instead. She had such a resistance to writing anything like it, to the unconscious, disturbing material inherent in it and she could feel that resistance so strongly, like a brick lodged inside her gut. Her resistance was overwhelming and so she had to try to understand it., or she would never be able to write the "sellable" one. She asked herself: What was it she was so scared of writing? What would she expose if she wrote? What material didn't want to surface from deep inside her? Was that too frightening? Too raw? Too passionate? All of these things could make a writer terribly uncomfortable and cause such a resistance. The only way she could concentrate again was to write out what she was so afraid of. Express what about Christa T. made her fight so hard against  knowing her character and her character's situation. And she wrote the book against all better judgement. And it was the best work she ever had done. Drive and force and passion to tell it broke through the resistance in the end. And that is the energy one needs to really write a meaningful book.

So now, she explained, when she asks herself, what should I write? The answer is: write the story you are most resisting, that is the one you truly must tell.

For me that was HYSTERA. And for all the same reasons Christa Wolf resisted telling the story of Christa T.

What kind of a writer are you? Do you map things out or do they come organically?
I'm a big messy spiller of paints. I love images, I have images come to me way before story. Images and fragmented senses. Sometimes just smells. I work from impressionism purely. I wish I could be someone who plans and structures with plot, but...that just never happens for me. Plot is the very last thing that happens.

You have a feature film coming out for your last book Edges. Has being involved int he film process changed the way you look at writing novels?

I love working on the feature film. It stretched all the boundaries, I learned so much about how a screenwriter must visualize and communicate the same feelings  embedded in words alone inside a novel and I think that helped my work as a novelist. Plus, it's all so exciting. I felt an affirmation I hadn't felt in the literary community, a welcome mat.

What's obsessing you now?

I'm trying write about a relationship I had with Grace Paley.  Since I was very close to her, I was witness to a whole lot of circumstances and saw up close what happens to celebrities and beloved writers who are fundamentally literary, but used, exploited by others and the media to create them as icons, in false pictures.  It's a challenge because I could get in a  whole lot of trouble doing it. Most of the characters are well-known. It's a roman a clef. Very hard but fun in that revengeful way one can't ordinarily express, having to be a "lady" or a "nice person".

What question didn't I ask that I should have? 

Can't imagine! These were great!

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