5 On: Leora Skolkin-Smith

Note from Jane: Today, I’m pleased to announce the series 5 On by author Kristen Tsetsi. 5 On asks established, traditionally published authors and experienced self-published authors five questions about writing and five questions about their experiences with the publishing industry. The series is designed to educate and encourage newer writers looking for guidance and, frankly, hope. For some, it may also provide a much-needed reality check.

About Kristen Tsetsi (@ktsetsi): She recently independently published the novel The Year of Dan Palace (Nov. 22, under the name Chris Jane) and is a former adjunct English professor. She is also the author of the novel Pretty Much True, which has been featured on NPR and NBC. She recently left her full time feature-writing job at the Journal Inquirer (in Connecticut) to be a full-time novelist.

In this installment of 5 On, author Leora Skolkin-Smith discusses the pain (and hidden value) of rejection, the time she simply could not agree with her editor, her strong feelings about traditional publishers, and more.

 photo LeoraSkolkin-Smithjpg.pngLeora Skolkin-Smith was born in Manhattan in 1952 and spent her childhood between Pound Ridge, NY, and Israel, traveling with her family to her mother’s birthplace in Jerusalem every three years. She earned her BA and MFA and was awarded a teaching fellowship for graduate work, all at Sarah Lawrence College. Her novels, Hystera, Edges, and The Fragile Mistress, were selected by Princeton University for their series The Fertile Crescent Moon: women writers writing about their past in the Middle East. Hystera was the winner of the 2012 USA Book Award and the 2012 Global E-books Award. Hystera was also a finalist in The International Book Awards and a finalist in the National Indie Excellence Awards. She is currently a contributing editor at readysteadybook.com, and her critical essays have been published in The Washington Post, The National Book Critic’s Circle’s Critical Mass, and other places.

5 Questions on Writing

 photo EDGES.jpgKRISTEN TSETSI: Grace Paley (1922-2007), one of your instructors at Sarah Lawrence College and also Vermont’s Poet Laureate for four years, published your first novel, Edges, under her own imprint. She also nominated you for a PEN/Faulkner Award and PEN/Earnest Hemingway Award. How critical to your decision to make a serious life of writing was that kind of support and encouragement?

LEORA SKOLKIN-SMITH: Oh, it was essential. I do not believe I would have ever taken myself seriously without her first taking me seriously. That she received my manuscript in her third stage of cancer and went down to the printer to publish it herself…well, I’d better take it seriously!

Which author’s writing taught you the most about how you wanted to write? Was there a particular novel or book?

Yes, three authors come to mind. Of course Grace Paley, but also Elfrieda Jelinek and Violette LeDuc. I was also influenced by Clarice Lispector. We are flooded with novels that represent the external motions of people, but it’s the interior life I wish to represent, and to write from a personal center that is authentic. Jelinek received the Nobel Prize, but it’s still hard to find her work in a bookstore! That borders on being tragic for me. Jelinek, LeDuc, and Lispector were brave pioneers. If I taught at college I would have a course on their work alone. It’s a goldmine that those in publishing, and even many published writers, step on and overlook. Memoir is not the same as translating your subjective experience into searing poetry and prose.

You write in a recent blog post at the website of your publisher, The Story Plant, that your upcoming novel, Stealing Faith, “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?” What inspired this story?

Definitely my relationship with Grace Paley. I also studied with Susan Sontag, another voice rarely heard today. Grace gave me everything, no two ways about it. We spoke on the phone three times a week. She was all for the “truth.” And that tricky word and meant a lot.

You write in the same post, “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…” What would have to happen for a book to lead to heartbreak? (If this means the book would be rejected by publishers: How can you, or any writer, tell the difference between “good, but publishers have their own reasons for not taking it on,” and “publishers aren’t taking this because it simply isn’t good enough, and I know it isn’t good enough”?)

To tell you the truth, for the very simple reason that traditional publishers make me want to jump out a window, I meant really what my own estimation of the work would be. I can’t provide publishers with a bestseller; I know I’m a different kind of writer, one who doesn’t necessarily appreciate their “A-list.” But I’m severely critical of my own work. It has to stand up to the sometimes unbearable standards I place on it.

How does a failed work, whatever the reason for the failure, affect your approach to the next project?

I love Faulkner’s phrase. When he wrote The Sound and the Fury, he said it was a “magnificent failure.” What is failure? That it sells only a few copies and doesn’t get review coverage? For me, it’s my job to decide what fails and what doesn’t, not some self-appointed outsider’s. Was it “true” and authentic? Those are my standards. I have a rebellious spirit, and I can’t stand what publishing has become, for the most part. My questions about worth will always be internal, within myself. That’s Grace Paley training!

Your plan was to complete Stealing Faith in January. Are you on schedule, and how do you respond creatively to deadlines? Do they inspire or stifle your writing?

Deadlines definitely stifle my work. But they help me set limits on how astray I can get and keep me from rambling on into eternity.

5 Questions on Publishing

How much promotional work are you solely responsible for?

Not much. I hired a publicist and my wonderful publisher does so much.

What has been most successful for you when it comes to getting attention for your books?

Actually, readers are the most helpful. Facebook has helped, but getting it into the hands of real readers is the magic that pushes the sale.

If you passionately disagreed with an editor’s suggested changes to your novel, but the novel’s publication was contingent upon those changes being made, how would you handle the situation?

I did handle it years ago. At 25, I was optioned by Karen Braziller at Persea Books. Straight out of grad school. She wanted the standard story, needing it to be entertaining, of course, of mental illness. I gave her my mess. We parted despite a contract because I wouldn’t submit to her editorial advice. Again, Grace Paley training!

What is your most painful rejection story, and what did it teach you?

I really admired Elisabeth Sifton, a distinguished editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. She always commented on my work, and she almost took my first book but criticized it for not having enough of a narrative drive. Since I respected her so much, her rejection was very, very painful, but it helped me to focus on creating a narrative not just for that novel, but for all others. That is, I went back to brass tacks and tried to learn what narrative drive was. I discovered that was my weak point. She also always responded warmly to my work, which kept my confidence up for years.

 photo hystera-1.jpgHave you ever experienced challenges as a female publishing novels about things like war (Edges) and mental issues (Hystera)?

Oh, absolutely, yes, yes. The inner life of a female is treated as a virus. A lot of that is the oversimplification current women’s prose offers, and people grow used to that and don’t ask for a deeper look. But I think, as always and historically, the female psyche is frightening for those not willing to take that voyage with you. But yes, yes. Men can write deeply sexual books, but when a woman does the same, it doesn’t feel to me she is given that respect. We are scary.

Thank you, Leora.

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