Leora Skolkin-Smith was born in Manhattan in 1952 and spent her childhood between New York and Israel, traveling with her family to her mother's birthplace in old Jerusalem. Her first published novel Edges: O Israel, O Palestine was selected by Grace Paley for Glad Day Books and was a 2006 PEN/Faulkner Award Nominee.
Mark Thwaite: Edges: O Israel, O Palestine is a very personal book. History and individual destiny play out, sometimes quite erotically, against a beautifully evoked landscape. What made you want to tell this particular story in the particular way you have told it?
Leora Skolkin-Smith: This is a excellent question because it helps clarify that there was an urgency, indeed a basic “want to tell” about the novel. It’s a mysterious process to me, still, how one’s life and personal conflicts erupt and then flow onto the page, but I think I really write from that eruption. That is, I don’t abstract a theme first, I don’t decide anything political or philosophical or psychological and then fit the story and people of the story into those constructs. It’s all a raw burst through my defenses - material I wish I could avoid or deny.
I think it was Christa Wolf who advised: when you feel yourself tighten and want to resist, that’s the material you should most let free and become your story. My first drafts are all embarrassingly primary process events, usually incoherent, but as deep into myself as I can go, dreams and a search for meaning from chaos, hurt, rage, whatever, all in conflict. But then language is where the novel starts, not theme, not story, not even character. I will, from this place of explosion and exploring, suddenly hear and see words in unexpected and unplanned ways, and I will want to express those compressed images, sounds, sensations, voices through this emerged language. That is, I try to let language itself gather them all up and form them. Not explanation, not anything literally descriptive - language is its own master, creates its own little village of words and situations and people. For example, in Edges, I didn’t know this until I started this primary process that writing words like “lavender” and “dessicated” was so important. They started taking over my sentences. Of course, they were the language of the geography of early Israel but there were also a very personal language about my self. “Lavender,” for example, really meant a sexual feeling inside me, but likewise it aptly described the sunset in Jerusalem. ”Dessicated” really meant how I felt when my mother took over my inner life, but it also described the Jerusalem landscape. So, from language comes a synthesis, a way to express the very personal and internal images that have erupted and a way to express place , themes, characters, and essences of the book.
After I have a few scenes which grow from this earlier process I frantically try to cover up such nakedness by reading everything I can get my hands on about the subject I am writing about. I go to the other extreme and become like an objective journalist. I devoured at least sixteen books on Israeli and Palestinian history, politics, etc. I’m so deeply horrified sometimes at what my unconscious has shown I need to give all that raw stuff a well-built house it so it won’t, by its stormy and tempestuous nature, tear and blow away all the other important elements of narrative, smash out all the windows and doors, so to speak, so that the reader can’t get in.
About destiny, I just don’t think about it. I try to give all my characters, as Grace Paley once said in a story she wrote called A Conversation With My Father, “the open door of destiny”. I try to listen and hear what they have to say about their future.
MT: How much of you and your family is in Edges?
LSS: This is a question I welcome! Edges is not autobiographical. But the characters of the mother and the family in Israel are unabashedly true to my own family over there. They are the only part of the book, except the landscape of course, that is based on real people and things. All of me is in Edges in varying disguises but the actual facts are completely fictional, invented, and imagined.
MT: For a small press book Edges has been highly vaunted. It is a nominee for PEN/Faulkner Award, a Virginia Festival of the Book selection, a Jewish Book Council selection and has been selected for the Annual Conference of the National Women's Studies Association. You must be thrilled with the response to your work. Is it unexpected? Has all this praise helped sales!?
LSS: I was thrilled and absolutely shocked. I never expected any of the attention at all. And I was actually a bit depressed before publication because I was participating in an on-line community of writers who, everyday, came on and talked about their “publicity agents”, their “prominent shelf space in all the major chain bookstores” and their “major newspaper reviews”. Grace and I really had very little resources. Barnes and Noble, for example, claimed the first month the book came out that it wasn’t even in print! Because of its very short print run, no-one really felt like giving it much time. But maybe what kept us hoping and working was: Grace and I had worked so faithfully on this and so intimately we really cared about the themes, there IS a horrible war over there in Jerusalem and we felt that, and that a literary work took these risks but why not try anyway?. So we started to send it to certain selected key people who we thought wouldn’t dismiss it. I had Grace Paley’s magical name behind me. That opened important doors, if not bookstore and media doors.
I am very sad to say that, in America, this kind of book, without sell-in visibility, and national coverage, didn’t do great in sales despite everything. Every time a literary year comes up it’s as if the media says they’re only ten real writers in America when the figures show that every week or so 500 books try to get noticed, recognized, just reviewed! For a small press, or any writer, facing these odds has become almost untenable. I am not at alone in these feelings, I know. And having a community of writers around has been very important for my sanity and self-worth. I would like to say, since I have been so graciously given the opportunity and I make these statements as a writer, not as a businesswoman or critical thinker...
I think US publishing is suffering from something I term an inability to “separate State and Art”. That is, the same way religion needs to be separated from the state, so, too, does art. America now quite arrogantly feels it’s “spreading democracy” in places and to cultures they really don’t understand or appreciate the differences in. Similarly the US does the same thing to its thinkers and artists. Majority rule, what the majority votes on, because the MAJORITY says this book is great, etc etc wins, dominates. Well, literature and democracy aren’t the same thing. Great art comes from the cracks and margins in society, “majority rule” creates this dominating force , dictates to people who might be very easily convinced (because after all literature is difficult, I barely understand classical music so how can I expect the average person to understand Proust?). Also, if a culture is hostile to intellectualism in general, labeling it “elitist” and unwanted and a bunch of snobs I believe the picture gets even worse. If commerce, state, and art are all mixed in together like this, it’s going to take a lot of untying of those knots for the writer, any serious artist to survive. But I do want to say that the entire blog explosion is fantastically hopeful and has leveled the playing field. And the emergence of amazing new independent presses gives me real reasons to be optimistic that a resistance to all this healthfully underway. I want to support literary blog life as much as I can. It’s lively and fearless in its non-conformity, albeit outspoken, and suddenly invisible, serious writers are given a whole new forum.
MT: Edges explores themes of identity and belonging. As we've already touched upon, these issues are personally very redolent to you, and you obviously see them as being of fundamental importance. Are these already always political categories for you?
LSS: Identity and belonging are themes that play a huge role in all my fiction. A lot of this comes from the fact that I was brought up between two worlds: America and Israel. My aunts and uncles and even my mother were all educated in England (Palestine was a British colony at that time, they were in fact British subjects). I consistently find myself on the outside. Whether this is just neurotic or a question of never having had a solid national identity (Jewish Palestinians had to become Israelis and part of the 1948 Israel regardless of prior national identity) is really a deep one. But these are never political categories for me. I have recently embraced the work of Aharon Appelfeld , I think he believes that all writers create their own country, their own rivers, and forests. I feel very close to his work because I, too, came from an upper middle class background that wasn’t at all religious, but rather intellectual. My father was an attorney but he was a mentor to me about literature, teaching Proust to me at the ripe old age of eleven. I lost my father to a tragedy early in life which also puts me “outside” and leaves me with a feeling of never quite belonging--but the kind of Jewish man he was felt very different to me. Actually, he was an atheist! His celestial paradise was reading history and literature and he helped many amazing and quite famous artists and writers in his law practice. So, I was always surrounded by this special sensibility. And since my mother was this weird blending of history and place and also was not religious it is hard for me to feel a sense of belonging in America. Somehow these feelings change profoundly for me when I go to Europe. I don’t know why. But I don’t feel the same outside-ness. My husband and I travel to France now every few months, and I just love the south of France and feel right at home. So go figure. I mean, what does make anyone feel like they belong to a country? An ethnic group? It’s all very mysterious to me.
MT: Do you see yourself as a feminist writer?
LSS: No, I really don’t. I just see myself as a woman and when I explore all that raw stuff inside, it comes out female. I can’t politicize this. So, no, I’m not a feminist writer. But I certainly am delighted to find writing by women and about women and to be there for it, and shout loudly about its importance to the world.
MT: Your book is set when the state of Israel was still young. Those were hardly conflict-free times, but the Arab-Israeli conflict seems to keep getting worse. Do you see any possible resolution? Can art play any part?
LSS: I don’t know if it’s wishful thinking, but I do see that Art and (literature) can play a role. But not if the art is just polemical or “politically” correct. That all is hurting the issues terribly, I think. Idealization, for example, borne from political correctness really is quite insulting to the very minority group one feels they are helping. It depersonalizes and dehumanizes and patronizes. I think artists and writers should go to Israel and Palestine and really feel and see these places. Experience them truthfully. I really bristle at the amount of assumptions made by writers who have spent no more than a few months in the actual country. The horrible war is so deep and rooted under layers and layers of history, one can hardly find its central bulb, its spring. I’m sorry to say that I don’t see peace there in my lifetime. But I’m middle-aged so that’s not saying anything too serious.
MT: Your book was published by Grace Paley's Glad Day Books. Tell us about your friendship with Grace? How is she!?
LSS: Oh, Grace is the dearest treasure I have in my literary jewelbox. For that reason, anything I will say about her will sound gushy and hopelessly sentimental. I’ve known her since I was a young student of 19, with a whole lot of torment and self-doubt to work through up, until I grew up to be writer of 54. To say she has been the only soft ground I’ve known between a rock and hard place might sum it up!
She has been a mother, a giver of love in every direction but she has also been the only writer who stood by me, who taught me how to stand myself, who has made my work grow from those raw awful drafts into novels. As for her own work--I happen to think she’s one of the world’s most brilliant and important writers. Her generosity to all young writers is enormous. If you ask any random young writer if they ever had contact with Grace Paley, they will immediately squeal: “Grace??? She saved my life! She made me feel I could write!!! She taught me how there is no such thing as the approximate word. She taught me that my voice, my personal minor voice could tell a story. And...also she told me to eat more vegetables, I look too pale and to forgot that boyfriend who broke my heart.…”
Sorry to report that her health is fragile, but she’s lively and active and writing beautiful poems, one recently published in The New Yorker.
MT: How do you write? Longhand? Straight on to a computer? Any tips for the would-be writer?
LSS: Well, I write in all those ways. I only really get to the computer when I feel the work is pretty evolved. Otherwise, it’s longhand on subways, walks, during household chores on what feels like zillions of little scrap papers. The problem is finding all the scraps! Tips for the would-be writer...that’s hard without sounding pompous. I guess: just don’t be afraid. Don’t let the business intimidate you , separate your sense of worth and the worth of your work from it. Don’t be scared if your material is frightening.
MT: What are you currently working on?
LSS: I’m actually just finishing a novel called: Hystera. It’s set in a mental hospital, in the 1970’s, during the Patty Heart trial. You know, I always seem to go for those disturbing and impossible themes!
MT: What philosophers/writers/critics writing now do you rate most highly?
LSS: I’m sad to say that the philosophers I most respect aren’t living. I don’t feel qualified to judge literary critics because of my own personal need to divorce myself from a more formal approach in order to write with freedom. But of the writers I admire today, many are critics. I will count Christa Wolf, Elfriede Jelinek, Marguerite Duras, Doris Lessing, Philip Roth, Aharon Appelfeld, among my most cherished.
MT: What is the best thing you have read recently?
LSS: Hands down: Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher.
MT: Anything else you'd like to say?
LSS: Yes, thank you so much, Mark. This was such a gift. And I think ReadySteadyBook is an important, absolutely crucial example of what can created with energy and courage as answer to these urgent problems in our literary world.