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"I live in a small round house in the middle of 20 acres of forest on a hillside in remote western Oregon. My wife, Beverly, built the place before we were together. The silence, the isolation, the beauty all around me, the lack of edges to the space we live in, and the intimacy with which we live are all powerfully inspiring for my work."
"I'm a lifelong baseball fan, having grown up in Brooklyn when the Dodgers were still there, having played through my freshman year in college, having dreamed of covering center field for the Dodgers."
"I delight in reading baseball books and studying stats. I have a growing collection of old-time baseball caps and usually wear one when I write."
"My daughter, Rebecca Skloot, is also a writer. She's published her science writing widely, has been an editor and teacher, and is currently working on a nonfiction book under contract with Crown Books."
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In the summer of 2003, Floyd Skloot took some time out to answer some of our questions about his favorite books, authors and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
To Catch an Angel, by Robert Russell (1962; currently out of print). This is the memoir of a man blinded by an accident at the age of five who goes on to become a collegiate wrestler at Yale, a scholar of literature at Oxford University, and professor of English at Franklin & Marshall College, and was the first book I read that was written by someone I knew. Russell was my professor at college and, eventually my adviser, employer, mentor, and friend. It had never occurred to me that a book could be written by someone I actually knew, a real person in my life. His triumphant story inspired me, and so did the fact that he, the actual man I would walk across campus with, had written it. It led me to consider that I, too, could write. After I became disabled by a virus that targeted my brain in 1988 and recovered enough to read again, To Catch an Angel was one of the first books I turned to.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks -- This account of patients afflicted by various forms of neurological damage moved me deeply as I struggled to cope with my own viral-induced brain damage. It also taught me a great deal about brain damage and suggested a way of writing about my own experience that might help me clarify what had happened to me.
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions by John Donne -- This memoir was written in 1623, when Donne contracted a relapsing fever and believed himself to be dying from the illness. It is vivid and immediate while also exploring the spiritual and emotional aspects of being suddenly, grievously sick. Donne's famous "no man is an island" passage occurs near the end of this book and reveals the depths of his humanity even as he is isolated and alone in his illness.
Robert Frost: Complete Poems, Prose & Plays -- Frost is my favorite poet, the one whose combination of formal mastery, diction, music, and depth of vision serves as both inspiration and touchstone in my reading and my writing.
Anne Sexton: A Biography by Diane Wood Middlebrook -- This is not only an excellent example of the art of literary biography, it is a moving study of the life of a terribly sick poet who nevertheless managed to write some brilliant work. I found it stirring and challenging: If Sexton could manage to produce her poems despite her illness, then perhaps I could write despite mine.
The Power & the Glory by Graham Greene -- Greene is my favorite novelist, and this is my favorite of his novels. It shows his tight, economical storytelling, his gift for creating characters caught at the edge of desperation and in situations rich with spiritual implication. He is one of the very few writers I reread with pleasure.
Patrimony by Philip Roth -- I love many of Roth's novels, including Portnoy's Complaint, which came out just when I needed a book like that, and his recent trilogy of novels about America in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1990s. But this rigorous, touching memoir of Roth's father reads with an unusual tenderness and shows a side of the author seldom seen anywhere else.
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. As with Graham Greene, I could have listed any of a half dozen of Cather's novels. But this one, taut and compassionate, is the most emotionally satisfying for me in its presentation of dedication and passion for humanity.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. This was the first book that made me laugh out loud in public. I remember reading it in a doctor's office in 1963 as I waited to have a cast removed from my left arm, and laughing so hard that tears covered my cheeks. The nurse, misunderstanding my tears, assured me it wouldn't hurt to have a cast removed.
Lolita, Pnin and Speak,Memory by Vladimir Nabokov -- These novels and autobiography show Nabokov's attention to language at its best because it doesn't interfere with the stories he's telling or with the ideas he's developing. These are the books where Nabokov's language seems meant to communicate rather than to intimidate, where the language brings poetry together with prose in the most meaningful way.
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy -- I first read it in 1969 and have read it again twice. This was the first novel I flat-out loved. It touched me emotionally in its dealings with love, it provoked me intellectually with its exploration of the personal search for meaning, it made me care deeply about the characters, and it made me laugh. I wanted to be able to do that as a writer myself.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I'm an unsubtle, visceral moviegoer. A real lowbrow. Because the medium is so immediate, I'm a sucker for the emotionally direct, the intimate, the unvarnished, and I tend not to appreciate the fancywork of great cinematic auteurs. Several years ago, when asked to participate in a program at the Northwest Film Studies Center in which some 20 writers were asked to discuss their single favorite film, I spoke about The Buddy Holly Story. That ought to tell you all you need to know about my list of most unforgettable films:
The Buddy Holly Story -- I grew up in the '50s, listening to early rock 'n' roll, and have never tired of that music. Holly was a favorite. But beyond that, I love this movie for the way it portrays how, with great luck and hard work, sometimes everything comes together for an artist. When Buddy and the group sing their great songs at New York's Apollo Theater and win over a hostile crowd, I get goose bumps no matter how many times I've seen the film.
The Commitments -- I love it for many of the same reasons I love The Buddy Holly Story; plus it's funny, original, and, finally, very touching.
Judgment at Nuremburg -- A brave, heartbreaking movie. When Montgomery Clift falls apart under withering cross -examination, I find myself moved to the core. It's filmmaking and acting at its strongest, for me.
The Pawnbroker -- Breathtaking writing, acting, and simplicity of presentation. I found this movie broke down all my resistance.
Awakenings -- This movie of medical miracles and medical limitations struck me as an honest, provocative consideration of medical research that took both the physician and the patient seriously.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I don't listen to music when writing because I find it too distracting. My musical tastes range widely and can be pretty embarrassing to talk about. For example, I love Broadway musicals from the 1940s and 1950s; I'm quite capable of sitting alone and crying as I listen to Rodgers & Hammerstein. I love the old crooners, and wish I could sing like them, even for a day, and I love 1950s and early 1960s rock 'n' roll -- this is the music I grew up with. In the last 15 years, I've developed an appreciation for classical music that I never had when younger -- Bach, Mozart, Schumann, Brahms, Chopin, Vaughan Williams. I like traditional Celtic fiddle music.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
Father Melancholy's Daughter and then Evensong, by Gail Godwin. I finally got around to reading these novels this year and found them compelling in ways I seldom feel compelled by much contemporary literature. The narratives sustain interest, though they're relatively slow, while allowing us to be immersed in the world of believable characters struggling with important matters: love between fathers and daughters, love between spouses, friendships across gender lines, faith, community, the way we learn to accept one another. If a book club exists to get people talking about vital issues triggered by reading together, then Godwin's interrelated novels strike me as ideal choices.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I tend to give novels as gifts, most often books that entertain. I'm more likely to lend a classic novel or serious work of nonfiction, or recommend that someone buy it for him- or herself, to indicate that I'd enjoy talking about the book later. A gift, I think, should be free of any hint of obligation beyond sheer pleasure.
I love to get books as gifts -- more than anything else. But because I read so widely, I most appreciate a gift certificate so I can pick things out for myself.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I don't have any special writing rituals, though I prefer to work early in the day, when I'm at my freshest. And I need my space to be as uncluttered as possible, so my writing area is always the sort of neat that makes people's eyes roll when they see it.
What are you working on now?
A new memoir, Fragmentary Blue, which is now half finished. It carries the story of In the Shadow of Memory further, dealing with living a life rendered fragmentary by brain damage. It counterpoints my own experience with my 92-year-old mother's as she descends further into the abyss of dementia. The book moves toward an embracing of the shreds and scraps that linger in the brain-damaged mind, exploring both the past and present to see how the fragments of self and experience cohere.
Many writers in the Discover program are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I've been writing and publishing for 33 years now. In the Shadow of Memory is my eighth book. So this is less a matter of "overnight success" than of steady work, a wonderful publisher, and great luck.
I think there's one story that combines both rejection-slip horror and inspirational anecdote. It concerns a poem of mine, "My Daughter Considers Her Body," which I wrote in 1976. The poem was rejected by 19 editors over the course of three years until it was published in Southern Poetry Review. It then won several prizes and has appeared in over a half dozen national and international anthologies, from The Penguin Book of the Sonnet to a high school textbook in Norway. There is, this story suggests, no accounting for the vagaries of editorial taste. I knew this was a good poem, and I kept on sending it out. First no one wanted to publish it, now it's a poem that editors ask for permission to reprint.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
Among poets: Robert Gibb, whose fourth collection, The Origins of Evening, won the 1997 National Poetry Series, judged by Eavan Boland, and was published by Norton. Gibbs's gorgeous, deeply felt poems combine elegance of language and form with accessibility and grit and honesty. His fifth collection, The Burning World, will appear from the University of Arkansas Press later this year and deserves wide readership.
Among prose writers: Richard Burgin, whose short stories have won more Pushcart Prizes than any other writer's except Joyce Carol Oates's, and whose novel (Ghost Quartet) was a brilliant investigation of artistic compromise.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Keep writing, keep having faith in your work, understand the marketplace, recognize that university presses and smaller, independent publishers can often do a better job with your work than the large commercial houses, and get lucky.
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