Leora Skolkin-Smith: On a new book

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Leora SkolkinWhen do you decide that your intimate relationship with your new book has reached the stage of transition in public-ness? The hope that this next book will be better, coupled with the despair that it possibly won’t be and will possibly instead lead to heartbreak, doesn’t seem to dampen the passion one has for creating a new life on the page. It brings to mind, Sartre’s old question: ”Why write?” In his essay, Sartre proposed that reading was really a relationship one struck with a “reader.” He wrote: “The writer needs the reader to bring the work to fruition: To make it come into view a concrete act called reading is necessary, and it lasts only as long as this act can last. Beyond that, there are only black marks on paper.

For Sartre, literary work exists only through the collaboration of writer and reader:

Creation can find its fulfillment only in reading, since the artist must entrust to another the job of carrying out what he has begun… what the writer requires of the reader is not the application of an abstract freedom but the gift of his whole person, with his passions, his prepossessions, his sympathies, his sexual temperament, and his scale of values… To write is thus both to disclose the world and to offer it as a task to the generosity of the reader… There is no question of merely re-presenting the world as it really is. In short, the world is my task, that is, the essential and freely accepted function of my freedom.”

Then that to me seems the task, but it is harder to get to in these times. For my despair often comes from the belief that readers don’t want to deal with darker looks into human nature, as I write often about depression and alienation. But when I go out for dinner with friends, we don’t skate around the meanings life begs for: separation, divorce, loss of a loved one…

My new novel, STEALING FAITH, is about a woman who writes in order to survive emotionally, and experiences life as a rather overwhelming experience, so much so that she doesn’t so much see writing as reflecting life, but as writing being, as Harold Bloom once says: “Literature for me is not merely the best part of life: it is itself the form of life, which has no other form…the structure of literary influence is labyrinthine, not linear, an endless labyrinth of linkages that makes up the stuff of art…”

Soon, I intend readers to engage in this new work, with no belief other than that the relationship between writer and reader is sacrosanct somewhere, a relationship many don’t write about. A trust. An urgency. A gift.

I’m hoping the finish the book this January. Here’s a small serving, with the intent to invite readers into the new creation. It is the story of how a young person was embraced and mentored by a famous writer, and how she is yearning to understand what exactly that relationship was all about, and will it stick after the death of her protective guardian?

“Is Faith there?” Allegra called into the phone. Her Manhattan apartment smelled like old bed sheets. She wondered if Faith’s sickroom in Vermont was as mercilessly damp and hot. It was an August morning in 2007. The humidity in the air was enough to extinguish someone, she thought.

“Who is this?”

Allegra had never been asked that when she called Faith’s house. She clasped her elbow, balancing the phone receiver under her neck, on her shoulder. “Allegra,” she said. “It’s Allegra Gordon.”

“Hi, Allegra.” Allegra recognized the voice of Faith’s graduate student, Laura. Faith’s “personal assistant” was what Laura called herself, Allegra remembered. They had met briefly a few weeks ago at Faith’s apartment in New York the afternoon Time magazine did an interview with Faith. It was just after Faith won some huge literary prize, but Allegra couldn’t remember which one.                                                                                                  “Faith can’t come to the phone right now,” Laura said, “I don’t think Faith will be able to come to the phone tonight either.” Laura’s voice was hesitating now, as if she didn’t quite remember who Allegra was, or if she did, she didn’t want to.

“You see…I’ve just about finished packing,“ Allegra said. “I guess Faith may not have mentioned to you that we talked a few days ago. I’m taking the Peter Pan bus up to her later this afternoon. I should be by there late tonight. Would Faith like me to bring her something from the city? Could you ask her please?”

“Oh, no, no. You can’t come up.”

“I promised Faith I would be visiting her.”

“Yeah, well a lot of people did and I’m sorry, but it’s just close friends and family now. Faith’s too sick. Okay, I need to get back to her.” Abruptly, Laura hung up.

I’m friends and I’m family, Allegra thought, as the assistant’s echo seemed to hang in the air like a warden’s key locking up her prisoner for the night. Something else, too, was weaving through the air, like a warning, or a whisper of approaching flames. A foreboding. Allegra felt bankrupt. She sat down on the couch to stop the dizzying emptiness, the blow…what to call it?

Last night, Allegra had dreamt she was back in Faith’s apartment on West 10th Street. Allegra was young again in the dream, only 19. She was giving Faith her first novel, and her pages were a confession of something, a weight of burden. “You can’t die, Faith,“ Allegra said in the dream, standing by Faith’s bed. The door to Faith’s bedroom was open. Light flooded in from the corridor. “I haven’t figured out yet what happened between me and Judith Song.”

 Leora Skolkin-Smith is the author of Edges and Hystera. You can learn more about her and her books at our website.

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