Five questions with: Novelist Salvatore Scibona

Reading: Salvatore Scibona, The Volunteer

Prairie Lights — Monday, March 11 at 7 p.m.

Salvatore Scibona will read from his latest at Prairie Lights on March 11. — Beowulf Sheehan

Salvatore Scibona’s 2008 debut novel, The End, was nominated for the National Book Award, which is one way to measure its success. Another, more personal measure is the way the spirit of that novel has stayed with me since I read it on its release. While I would be hard pressed to describe the details of the plot all these years later, I can still summon up the wonder I felt as I was immersed in Scibona’s beautiful, singular prose. The End has been a touchstone for me of what a writer wholly devoted to language and character can create.

Scibona, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, now has a second novel on the shelves: The Volunteer. I’ll admit to approaching it with some trepidation. I have such abiding love for The End that I feared I would bring unreasonable expectations to the new work.

I needn’t have worried. Scibona remains a master of his craft, due in no small part I suspect, to his patience as a writer. Each of his novels developed over the course of a decade. In a period in which many authors are expected to churn out books much more quickly, Scibona’s commitment to a bespoke aesthetic yields truly exceptional work.

The Volunteer follows its titular character to the war in Vietnam — and then on an idiosyncratic path through his life as his personal history intersects with world events and shadowy happenings.

Scibona, who will be reading from The Volunteer at Prairie Lights on Monday, March 11, answered questions via email.

‘The Volunteer,’ released March 5 from Penguin Press

What was the initial spark for this novel? In the New Yorker interview that accompanies a short story drawn from the novel, you talk about your father being at Khe Sanh during the massive bombardment. Is that the moment that led you into your story or was there another (perhaps several other) points of entry?

People sometimes talk about having an “idea” for a book. I have never had such an experience: a book coming to me before the writing of it. I have scarcely any ideas about a piece of fiction when I’m not actively writing it, only impressions, or, in your excellent word, sparks.

So yes, a couple of sparks. My father was at Khe Sanh during the siege there in the Tet Offensive of 1968. He was convinced he was going to die, but he had no concept of the significance that later historians, and contemporaneous journalists, and even the president himself attached to Khe Sanh in particular at the time. The Marines there were surrounded, outnumbered at least four to one, and yet president Johnson had made his commanders sign public documents promising not to let the base fall. The result was the largest aerial bombardment on a single place in the history of warfare up to that time. The terrain surrounding the base was utterly destroyed. My father was in the middle of it, but did not know anything about this until years later, at home in Cleveland, married with three kids, while he was watching a documentary on TV.

The difference in perspective, between what he saw at the time and what history would claim or show later, struck me as immensely consequential. What don’t we know about our times as we are living them? Perhaps more importantly, what do we know that history will forget or set aside because it doesn’t fit what becomes the historical narrative?

The spark for me came from the disparity in proportion: a seemingly insignificant person in a vast global conflict. For the novel, that person is the source of all significance, and the larger history is only backdrop. This is how we really live, at the center of our own worlds, however history might seem to place us at the periphery.

One more spark: About two years into the project, in a German airport, I witnessed a child who, to the best knowledge of anyone there, had been abandoned in the terminal. He was about five, weeping inconsolably. No one knew what language he was speaking. His plight went through every adult surrounding him, waiting to get on the plane to Riga. I followed an airline employee with him to the edge of the secure zone and watched the doors close behind him and went back to the gate and boarded the plane and never saw him again.

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It was a kind of trauma, just to have seen it. Everyone on the plane was talking about it, no one seemed to know any more than anyone else. I needed to do something with the horror I felt. It stuck with me for years. I decided I needed to work out how he had gotten there, who had left him; and eventually, who had raised the person who had left him, and who had raised that person. Then I moved forward in time to figure out what would become of the boy from the moment I left him there in the airport and onward.

I found myself thinking of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five as I read and I wondered if you think of this book as in conversation, as it were, with other novels with war at their center. Vonnegut probably came to mind because of the bombardment connection and the fact that both you and he are connected to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Still, I wonder if you think of The Volunteer as part of a larger literary conversation.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a tremendous book, as are other war stories, Going After Cacciato, Tree of Smoke, Cold Mountain, The Great Fire, and most important for me, The Iliad, which I read five times in my early 20s and wrote a thesis on in college.

I love those books as literature rather than as war stories, and in fact The Volunteer is directly concerned with war for only about a fifth of its length. I don’t pick up a novel or stay with it because of its subject matter, and don’t feel all that influenced in my own work directly by the subjects of other works of fiction. The influence, the inspiring push I get from other novels is from language. The sense and sensibility of the writer at work on her instrument. The art of the telling — any book I write will be in conversation with the best experiences I’ve had reading fiction — The Iliad, yes, but mostly books about other things: Middlemarch, Independent People, The Brothers Karamazov, The Waves, Light Years, Song of Solomon, Desperate Characters — the last of which is about a woman in Brooklyn who gets bitten on the hand by a cat, but I feel its influence in anything I write, even when it’s set in a war zone.

Some earlier readers have noted that The Volunteer shares thematic elements with your exquisite 2008 debut novel, The End. Do you agree? Are there specific themes you are beginning to see (or have always seen) as central to your work?

A roundabout way of answering this: I always feel that when a writer really knows a character, he knows, as it were, what the character sees when she looks down at herself and sees her hands, her feet, all that’s before her, and also what’s written on a kind of sign that hangs around neck and lies on her back where she can’t see it. This sign is visible to anyone behind her as long as she lives. People read it, and walk around to the front of her and tell her what it says, obvious truths about her spirit and habits, but no matter how many times she is told, the knowledge does not penetrate. These are things about us that are true, obvious to others, invisible and incomprehensible to ourselves.

The writer has to know what the character knows about herself, and what the character does not know about herself; and yet at the same time he has to hold on to the character’s innocence of these parts of her own makeup.

All of which is to say that like anyone’s mind, mine must be full of Gobi deserts where the unconscious self roams and reports to me nothing of its adventures, even when it shows the results of those travels to other people or when it comes out on the page in a strange ink others can see but I can’t. If I knew what those results were, they would not be unconscious.

But I do get little indications, that is, of my unconscious preoccupations. And here’s one of them that may straddle both my books.

The desire to disappear. I am not talking about death. I am not talking about nihilism. I am talking about a couple of transfixing experiences I have had mostly as a teenager or a boy, and that I hope I am not alone in having had — of feeling so soaked into my surroundings, the people and the natural world, that my self seemed to float away. The philosopher David Hume and Zen Buddhism both speak to this in some way.

What if the self is not a noun but a verb? What if a large part of the suffering we experience comes from the false construction of a self that can be set aside in favor of simply living? What would it be like to live that way, with no I? The desire to do this seems to drive much of what I write about.

Tell me about your time in the Workshop. How did it shape your writing — assuming it did — and what stands out to you when you look back at your time in Iowa City?

When I got there I had never taken a college-level writing class. Certainly not creative writing. I had no reliable writing habits. At the first meeting of our class, in the parlor of the newly renovated Dey House, into which the faculty and staff were just that month moving, we sat on the floor and Frank Conroy, legendary scourge and spirit, a great influence on me forever though I doubt he ever learned my name, told us, “You’ll organize your time the way you want, but if I were you, I’d write in the same place, at the same time, three hours a day, six days a week.”

So I did that. Later on, I trained myself to switch to seven days a week and to keep writing for five or six or seven hours when life allowed. His guidance has governed my daily life for 22 years.

In what ways was writing The Volunteer similar to writing The End? Were there any significant changes to your overall approach?

I was adamant to keep it physical, “no ideas but in things” as the Williams poem says. And also to take maximum advantage of the free-fall velocity of consecutive action. But even so, I wrote two books and each of them took ten years. And for both of them, I really didn’t know what was happening next until I had the right word for it. I would adjust Williams’s line to add “… and no things but in words.” In that regard the method hasn’t changed. It’s only once the language is there that I begin to organize the novel.

The elemental joy to me comes not just in the language but in the words themselves. The pleasure of the sound of the word, the shape of the letters, the history of usage. Yesterday at the New York Public Library, I was having lunch with a few of the Fellows in the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, where I direct the program. We realized none of us knew the derivation of “English.” We know it comes from the “Angles,” but where did they get their name?

I had heard a probably apocryphal story about an early pope exclaiming that the blond people who had been brought before him from the islands of far northwestern Europe looked like angels. The dictionary did not confirm this. It suggested something more direct, that the name went back to the verb we still use for fishing, that Angles were so called for being anglers — fishermen — and “angle” came from the German “ango,” Latin “uncus,” Greek, “ankos” — all of which mean a hook. How fucking great is that?