Talk of the Town - A Novel Lesson February 23 2005

To Joseph Skibell, there is a story in every object

Close your eyes and imagine two colors: ocean blue and bubble gum pink. To some it may seem like a 1950s nightmare, but to Joseph Skibell and his imaginative family, it's the perfect blend. When just 7 years old, his daughter Ariana described it best when she exclaimed, "Daddy, it looks like we live in a circus!"

A creative writing professor at Emory University, Skibell is the author of the critically praised novels A Blessing on the Moon and The English Disease. Similar to the improbable pastel interplay on the walls of his home, Skibell is able to mix acrid humor into the dire situations his characters are facing without putting off readers.

Skibell did not always want to be a writer. In the first grade, he believed his future calling was in stand-up comedy. At 12, he switched mediums to storytelling, concocting imaginative narratives with his friend. The two would then recite the tales to captivated recess audiences.

After wetting his feet as a playwright in college, Skibell briefly flirted with screenwriting in Hollywood. He settled into his métier 10 years ago as a novelist and found that his childhood interest in humor wasn't too far off the mark. Among other merits, both Skibell's novels have been noted for a wealth of wit.

Creative Loafing: What did you do in Hollywood?

Skibell: I worked for a producer who had his own script. I was hired to make it work, which it never did.

What was the script about?

It was a college caper comedy about two guys who invent a fake person to get into a casino. They witness a mafia murder and then have to resurrect the imaginary person in order to avoid being killed and to foil the bad guys.

Sounds ...

Yeah, it was full of holes. All of the clichés about Hollywood are true. You had to figure out how to placate these people. It wasn't for me. I didn't have the personality for it.

Was the transition from playwriting to writing novels difficult?

It took awhile before I could do it.

What changed?

When my daughter was 3, she'd always want a new story. After we had exhausted all the fairy tales, I started making up stories. I'd pick an object and tell a story around it.

How long could you go on about one thing?

I remember one lasted for a three-hour car ride. The story was about a guy who wanted a fez but didn't think he was worthy of wearing it. In the end, when he finally got to put on the fez, I was almost in tears.

And that was helpful?

It made me realize I could write a novel by following the images honestly without knowing in advance too much about where I was going. It was quite liberating.

Have you had the chance to meet any of your favorite authors?

I have. It's usually disappointing - writers aren't very social people. I had an excruciating breakfast once with D.M. Thomas.

What is it like to eat breakfast with you?

It depends on who you talk to.


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