We are thrilled to announce that Salvatore Scibona, an MCC Artist Fellow in Fiction/Creative Nonfiction in 2006 and author of the novel The End (just out in paperback), has received a prestigious Whiting Writers Award. The awards – $50,000 each – are given annually to ten emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and plays, based on accomplishment and promise.
In winning, Salvatore joins a list of past awardees that includes Denis Johnson, Alice McDermott, Michael Cunningham, and Colson Whitehead. Along with Salvatore, this year’s winners are Jericho Brown, Jay Hopler, Adam Johnson, Rajiv Joseph, Joan Kane, Michael Meyer, Nami Mun, Hugh Raffles, and Vu Tran.
Salvatore will read tomorrow (Tuesday, Nov. 3) at Suffolk University in Boston, as part of the Graywolf Press 35th Anniversary Reading. In the meantime, we caught up with Salvatore to ask about the award (and other writerly stuff).
ArtSake: I remember speaking to you after you received an MCC Artist Fellowship in 2006. You said you’d danced in the street when you heard the news! A similar response to the Whiting? A bigger, more elaborate dance?
Salvatore: I hope I was speaking figuratively. I only dance in the stereotypical white-man way: standing in a crowd, shifting from one foot to the other, looking plaintively at the bar.
After the foundation called last month, I did not dance, no. I sat on the couch and looked at the floor. Then I went to my see my friend, the brilliant writer Heidi Jon Schmidt – author of the story collection Darling? and the forthcoming novel The House on Oyster Creek, which is set in the Wellfleet oyster flats. I was only supposed to tell my agent, my editor, and my family, but Heidi and her husband and daughter count as family. If I hadn’t told her, my head would have popped off. So, no dancing. But a very cold martini followed by delirious laughter.
ArtSake: In an interview on ArtSake just after The End was published, we talked about how the novel took ten years to write. Given that, what do the honors it’s led to – including being named a National Book Award finalist and winning the NY Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, and now the Whiting Writers Award – mean to you?
Salvatore: They’re fun, and they do function as a floor for self-doubt. So that when I get really down on myself I think, But look at this, are you maybe not totally up your tree? But for the most part they confuse me. I wonder which book the judges could have read.
I am a short person. I like living in two little rooms, with a little desk downstairs to write on, and then the little garden out back. And I have a huge family back home in Ohio, the kind of environment where no one’s individual work is supposed to get any different recognition than anybody else’s. And of course every writer harbors the same egomaniacal convictions as the infant that believes it rules the world (when I was seven, I wanted to own the Cleveland Browns). So these things may delight the ego. But I don’t want to write from the ego. The part of me that writes wants to get so small that no one will notice him. People who wish to be big are wishing to be joyous; people who wish to be small are wishing to be free.
ArtSake: You’ve got a unique perspective as someone who has worked in literature both as an administrator (Salvatore administers the writing fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown) and, now, as an acclaimed writer. Is there something Salvatore of now wishes he could say to the Salvatore of just-starting-out? Or to any writer at the beginning of those proverbial “ten years?”
Salvatore: That the feelings of mad admiration and mad hatred of your work are the same things, equally bogus. You may want to write something good, but that ambition comes from the internal judge, which derives most likely from the desire of the child to please its parents. The judge is useful, trainable, and unreliable. The real work seems to come from a part of the unconscious that’s incapable of judgment. It can only look at your work and say either, “Yes, that’s what I meant,” or “No, I didn’t mean that.” And all your fancypants education can do is articulate what the unconscious provides. The conscious mind only arranges furniture. It can’t make anything.
I think younger writers can learn a stupendous lot from other people about how to arrange the furniture. But only the unconscious can make the furniture. And you can only access that part of the unconscious in private. I had the bewildering luck last week at a benefit gala to have dinner next to Joan Didion. Someone on stage said something convoluted about creating the mental space that generates creative literary work. And Didion put down her fork, tapped her very small finger on my shoulder, and said, “It’s called being alone.”
ArtSake: What are you writing now?
Salvatore: A novel.
Salvatore reads on Tuesday, November 3, 7 PM, as part of the Graywolf Press 35th Anniversary Reading on the Suffolk University campus in Boston. He has upcoming readings at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute (Nov. 4, 6 PM) and at the International Center (Nov. 5, 7 PM), both in New York City, then at the RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, NH on Friday, November 6, 7 PM.
Salvatore Scibona’s first book, The End, was a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Whiting Writers’ Award, the Young Lions Fiction Award from the New York Public Library, and the Norman Mailer Cape Cod Award for Exceptional Writing. Riverhead published a paperback edition of The End in Fall 2009, and it will be published in German and French in 2010. His work has appeared in the Pushcart Prize anthology, Best New American Voices, and the New York Times. He administers the writing fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts.