Photo credit: Beverly Hallberg
His works include Approaching Winter (Louisiana State University Press, 2015), Revertigo: An Off-Kilter Memoir (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life (University of Nebraska Press, 2008), A World of Light (University of Nebraska Press, 2005), In the Shadow of Memory (University of Nebraska Press, 2003), and Cream of Kohlrabi, Short Stories (Tupelo Press, 2011).
With his daughter Rebecca Skloot, he co-edited The Best American Science Writing 2011 (Ecco, 2011).
An Oregonian since 1984, Floyd moved from Portland to rural Amity when he married Beverly Hallberg in 1993. They lived in a cedar yurt in the middle of twenty acres of woods for 13 years before moving back to Portland.
We talked about his most recent book, The Phantom of Thomas Hardy (University of Wisconsin Press, 2016).
EB: How did you first get introduced to—and hooked on–Thomas Hardy?
FS: In 1968-69, as a college senior, I was led to Thomas Hardy’s novels by a teacher named Robert Russell who had become a beloved mentor, even a second father to me. “I have a feeling for Hardy,” he told me as we discussed possible topics for my honors thesis, “and I think you might too.” He was right, and the ways Hardy and Russell and I are tied together across the ensuing 48 years is an essential strand of my novel.
EB: This book started out as a vacation to visit gardens and writers’ homes in England a few years ago. What happened?
FS: Nothing unusual. My wife Beverly and I had included a two-night stay in Dorset as the final stop in our travels, an opportunity for me to pay homage to Hardy and to Russell, who had died at 86 just as we began planning our trip. While in Dorset visiting Hardy’s birthplace, home, grave, and various landmarks, I had no idea that I’d end up writing a book about it. We met no one connected to Hardy, spoke to no one about him. The visit was moving to me, and seemed like a time of closure in my relationships with Hardy and with Russell. Only once, in downtown Dorchester at the start of our Hardy wanderings, did I feel even the slightest sense of the writer’s presence, accompanied by a passing thought that it would have been sweet to somehow be able to call Russell from where I stood at #10 South Street, beside the heavy wooden door of a Barclays Bank that bore a round blue plaque saying “This house is reputed to have been lived in by the MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE in THOMAS HARDY’S story of that name written in 1885.” I felt that Russell would have gotten as big a kick as I did at the thought of an actual building being proclaimed as the home of a fictional character, making it a kind of gateway for our visit. And feeling that way led me to realize that my grief over his death was a big part of this journey. Only later, after we’d gotten home to Portland and I found myself drawn to re-reading various Hardy biographies, did I begin to see that building as a mystical spot linking Hardy’s real and imagined worlds, and to feel it beckoning me.
EB: You mention that Hardy ghostwrote his own biography, published under his wife’s name. Is your fictionalized memoir in a way a response to that?
FS: Yes. Hardy used the memoir form to concoct a self-ghostwritten biography designed to hide many of the deepest truths about himself , to present a dissembled or fictionalized self. In The Phantom of Thomas Hardy I used the memoir form to create a fiction meant to reveal the deepest truths about myself. I believed that, as with the four memoirs I previously published, I was on an essential journey of discovery and had to see and present the fullest truth or else I myself would be transformed into a lie. I didn’t want that to happen. Hardy did.
EB: The uncovering of memory—yours and Hardy’s—raised for me the question of what memories are at all, and the fuzzy border between memoir and biography and fiction. How do you see that literary landscape?
FS: I have always believed that when I wrote memoir, I was making a pact with the reader that said I would not make anything up. Everything in my memoirs would be the fullest truth I was capable of finding. That’s not what’s going on in fiction, even in fiction that presents itself in the form of memoir.
EB: I was struck by the way in which thinking about someone else’s life, makes us think about our own, and how you managed to make your life and Hardy’s illuminate one another. As you combined the two biographies, did you worry that you would trip over one another? Did it take a while to get it just so?
FS: No, I never felt that either Hardy or I would be lost in each other. He was and remains very Other. What did happen, after re-reading the eight Hardy biographies and various studies, some of the novels yet again and many of the poems, and after reading the absurd accounts of Hardy’s presumed secret love life, after going over my travel notes and photos and the materials gathered during our time in Dorset, I found myself feeling as though I understood Hardy more clearly. Understood where he was in terms of love and in terms of his writing about it. Began to see him as a character, as a person rather than as an iconic literary figure or as the clichéd doom-and-gloom-master.
EB: There is quite a bit of research in the book, along with the fiction. What did you learn that you didn’t know before?
FS: It was less a matter of learning things I hadn’t known before than a matter of coming to a fresher understanding. A matter of emphasis.
EB: I’m curious too about the cover and title, which has an interesting artistic effect giving the impression of fraying edges. How was that chosen?
FS: The photo was taken by Beverly as we walked through the woods leading to Hardy’s birth home, the place where he grew up and where he wrote his first four novels, backed up to the landscape that dominated his imagination for life. So the reader enters the book at ground-zero, where Hardy entered the world. The cover design, including the fraying edges, was done by the marvelous design team at the U. of Wisconsin Press. It absolutely floored me–a perfect presentation, I believe. And, as a reader will discover, in absolute harmony with the plot of the novel.
EB: The title also struck me. Phantom seems like the right choice, as opposed to ghost. It presents a sense of something perhaps not really there as opposed to something haunting you. As a poet, did you spend much time thinking about that or settle right away on The Phantom of Thomas Hardy.
FS:The Phantom of Thomas Hardy was there as the book’s title from the get-go. Was the working title all the way through composition and three rounds of revision. At the suggestion of a reader concerned that people might not know or like Hardy, or might think it a scholarly book, I tried on an alternative title but didn’t feel comfortable with anything other than The Phantom of Thomas Hardy. I think that title refers not only to the presence of Hardy in Floyd’s story–a phantom perhaps of Floyd’s neurologically compromised thought process–but also to the various phantoms connected to Hardy himself. As one of the epigraphs–a quote from a Hardy love poem–says, “That her fond phantom lingers there/Is known only to me.”
EB: You’ve written now twenty books and move among poetry, essays, fiction, and memoir. Do you have a favorite form of expression? How do you decide the right genre for a particular topic? It does it decide for you?
FS: I don’t have a favorite genre to work in. But I think of myself as a poet first–that was how I began as a writer in the mid-1960s, and I feel that my prose work is informed by my poetry in terms of its compression, its language, its use of imagery. Eventually, my work in essays/memoir/fiction came to inform the poetry in terms of its use of scene and narrative, of character.
EB: Thanks for talking with us.
About Ed BattistellaEdwin Battistella’s latest book Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology was released by Oxford University Press in June of 2014.
View all posts by Ed Battistella →
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Floyd Skloot’s most recent books are the poetry collection The Snow’s Music (LSU Press, 2008), the memoir The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and the short story collection Cream of Kohlrabi (Tupelo Press, 2011). His work has won three Pushcart Prizes, a PENUSA Literary Award, two Pacific NW Book Awards, and been reprinted twice each in The Best American Essays, Best American Science Writing, Best Spiritual Writing, and Best Food Writing anthologies. With his daughter Rebecca Skloot, he co-edited The Best American Science Writing 2011.
Late afternoons when the sun slips behind
the hills I like to sit by my window
facing east and watch shadows capture
the river. Cormorants skim the surface
as though preying on the edge of light
and yellow tugboats nudge gravel barges
into the spreading dark. Once I saw a siege
of herons packed onto the trunk of a young
ash tree swirling in current after a storm.
Now a kayak gliding downstream vanishes
as it follows the bank’s curve below me.
In a few months I’ll be sixty-five.
Lately, at this time of day, I’m not
always sure where the borders of sleep
might be. Memory ebbs and floods as I try
not to doze. My infant daughter’s voice
is somewhere within the calls of circling
eagles though she is two thousand miles
away, a grown woman at work on a book
in her own attic aerie. My father smiles
and dives into a pool where he is about
to die, but surfaces in front of me here,
playful as an otter in these waters.
My wife stands near me at her easel
breaking the river into bold vectors
of color. Her sweet alto rises
with the tune flowing into her ears.
As I stare, a shift in wind transforms
the midriver pattern into prairie
grass, into ice losing hold of itself,
then into Hemingway on a paddleboard
waving at me. He wants me to move,
I think, wants to lure me out of the house
and onto the fishing boat he must command,
anchored near the pilings where a dock
used to be. Across the river, at the tip
of Ross Island where cottonwoods are still
holding their leaves, an overturned stump
can only be Gertrude Stein signaling
with a flutter of arms that she expects
to join us. We’ll need to avoid Moses
in his cradle now drifting close to shore
disguised as the bole of a white oak.
The room has grown cold. When my wife lights
the fire behind me, the window fills
with its flickering glow. It’s a kind of smile
that eases me from the chair, and she’s there
with me, both ready for the night to come.
A Farmhouse in Las Alpujarras
My wife took photos as I drove narrow
switchback roads up the southern slopes,
trying to ignore the sheer edge as I turned
in and out of blinding sun. On straightaways
we could see whitewashed houses shimmering
in villages scattered down to the valley floor.
The craggy landscape was slashed by gorges,
dotted with olive groves. Lemon, orange,
fig, and almond orchards followed a loose
tracery of pathways winding through scrub.
Clouds snagged on peaks and sagged
onto the ridge where we’d been heading
since noon. Just beyond Lanjarón a sharp
curve seemed to sweep us into the whirling
arms of three windmills on a hill’s crease,
light sparkling off giant blades. Further up,
as an edge of mist began to settle, we passed
the windmills again, this time far enough away
to see them spread across a seam like a dance
ensemble spinning in unison. At Pampaneira
rain engulfed us, then the paved road ended
in a forest trail. A half-mile ahead, the stone
farmhouse we’d rented was hidden from view.
Dream of a Childhood
Childhood then was a raft drifting across
the Pacific. It was sometimes a shiny yellow
Geiger counter and sometimes the polio
vaccine at last, which meant you could swim
again in public pools. Childhood was a fat
stack of green stamp books on a cloverleaf
table in the foyer. It was coonskin caps
on boys from Brooklyn, then the end of Wait
Till Next Year. All you had to do was dream.
Childhood was waking to “Yakety Yak”
on the radio and moving so fast no one
heard it but you. Childhood was don’t turn
on the lights, was tip-toe around the kitchen
so your mother could continue to sleep,
a week’s worth of hard-boiled eggs peeled
and waiting for you in the refrigerator.
Childhood was your mother’s dream of no
mess, no trace, no mornings to endure.
Childhood was grade school beside a Nike
missile base on the bay side of a barrier
island. It was duck and cover drills in home
room. Teachers had ham radios and decals
from all forty-eight states, foreign coins
in a plate on the desk. One called you dream
boat when you gazed out the winter window
and began to doze. Teachers ate lunches
in a secret room stacked with Tupperware
and recalled honeymoons dancing in Cuba.
Brothers drove Tango Red Chryslers
to land’s-end and back, over and over.
You dreamed yours would be Parisian Blue
and go twice as fast as his. Sisters had packs
of Old Gold cigarettes you saw dancing in ads
on television. Friends’ mothers wore frilled
aprons. They carried platters of standing
rib roast, fixed molded domes of lemon Jell-o
mixed with tomato sauce and topped by loops
of mayonnaise. Fathers rose in the dark
and vanished till the dark returned them
ready for sleep, ready for their own dreaming.
In 1988, Floyd Skloot became disabled by viral-born brain damage, impacting the writer’s most basic of daily activities, severe memory impairment such as connecting names to faces, following directions, and physical balance. Essays may take up to two years to fully complete and are done so in pieces or incomplete segments over time. Nonetheless, the completion of a poem, essay, or a piece of fiction leaves Skloot feeling as though he has overcome the offense (brain damage) that he has described as the means to silence his “ability to concentrate and remember, to spell or conceptualize, to express myself, to think.”
Blip: You’ve mentioned when describing access to creativity that the relationship to spontaneity must connect with quiet, slow concentration for you. That, out of functional necessity .… In your writing life: can you tell us in specifics what that means in terms of environment and conditions? For example, what is the best environment for you to write in?
Skloot: I try to shape my working environment so that it has as few potential distractions as possible. No music, for instance. Very little social life or activity outside our home. The phone seldom rings. The room in which I work now is on the 6th floor of a high-rise, with large windows that overlook a river. There’s enough natural light, even on overcast days, so that I don’t turn on any artificial light, keeping the space as mellow as I can. My wife and I live quietly here–she’s usually painting or weaving or working on tapestry or at her computer in the same morning hours when I’m at my writing desk, so there’s seldom distraction within our environment. I’ve turned my desk and computer table so they’re sideways to the windows, lessening the likelihood that movement or action on the river will distract me, though I can turn to gaze at the water if I wish. I try to make it seem like we’re still living in the middle of 20 acres of woods in rural western Oregon, isolated and quiet, as we did for 14 years.
Blip: Do you have a daily writing schedule, and how strict /rigid is this is for you?
Skloot: My best time is in the morning, so that’s when I’m at my desk. I’m there every day, and on good days can work for two or even three hours. I take breaks, for rest and to avoid getting stiff. In the afternoon, if I can, I might do some correspondence or writing-related business, but mostly I read. And I keep notebooks/pens everywhere, so that I can jot down ideas or images or phrases as they occur and before I forget them. So in a real sense I’m always writing, just not in the conventional sense for more than a couple of morning hours.
Blip: Anything about routine, how routine can help you to write if it does…?
Skloot: I know that each writer is different with regard to what works, or to what best suits their ways of writing. I’m a person very much drawn to routine, to structure. Always have been, even before I got sick in 1988, but even moreso in the aftermath of my illness and in light of the neurological damage that affects all parts of my life. I need routine and structure even more now. It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that my work gravitates toward formal structure. So much of my experience is fragmented and elusive, incoherent.
Blip: Regarding memory and poetry: when working with memory, which I realize for you is a different process and a sometimes impossible one… when including details of times past in poems particularly, how important is the actual or accurate?
Skloot: When writing my memoirs or essays, accuracy of detail is essential. The compact I make with the reader–that if it’s nonfiction, it’s true to the fullest extent I can make it, nothing made up, nothing fudged–feels sacred to me. Poetry is another matter. As is fiction. Which is one reason why I work in the different genres, and believe fully in the distinction between creative nonfiction and fiction or poetry when it comes to fact. That said, much of the remembered detail in my poetry is actual/accurate/true, because it seems that this material is already better than I could make it by lying.
Blip: Please talk about the use of memory and symbolism in your work.
Skloot: The memory of emotional experience is deeply important. I don’t worry too much about symbol, trusting to the material to carry its various kinds of weight. Some events resonate on all levels, of course. When your mother locks you inside your wooden toychest, that is a true event that also has enormous emotional power in memory and also obvious symbolic meaning.
Blip: In your writing, if you are seeking to represent something from your past, do you reach for accuracy?
Skloot: Yes, as noted above. And I spend enormous amounts of time and energy researching, verifying, deepening. There’s an essay called “The Voice of the Past” in my most recent memoir, The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life, which deals with the way–without even seeking it–the past keeps reaching out to offer its own verifications. And a recent essay, “The Famous Recipe,” deals with what happened when I set out to fact-check the memory that my mother never ever cooked.
Blip: I find myself remembering childhood moments with inherent distortion of events which were traumatic or became sad, later… As everything we describe as writers involves subjectivity, how important to you as an artist is the “real”?
Skloot: It’s essential, particularly as I’ve said in my creative nonfiction work–memoir, essay, science writing. And as someone who, because of neurological damage, deals with fragmentation and incoherence, I feel even more committed to getting at “the real.”
Blip: Do you use dream material in writing poetry?
Skloot: Very, very rarely. There’s a poem of mine called “Soft Flame” which is about a dream, and scattered throughout my work in both poetry and prose there might be a few images or scenes from dreams–in which case, they’re almost always identified as such.
Blip: You told me in one of our earlier notes hat you and your wife take long walks together in the day. How does walking, exercising, moving effect your cognitive/mental productivity? On days when you are not as active, do you feel a difference in clarity?
Skloot: Walking does affect the overall feeling of well-being, of course, which is essential to anyone’s work I think. But I’ve had to learn how to do my writing through periods, sometimes quite extended, when exercise was impossible. The natural setting in which we walk–the woods around our house for so many years until we moved to our present location, now by the river–is always evocative and the source of much of my work.
Blip: What are you working on now? What are your near term goals with your writing?
Skloot: My next book will be a collection of poems, Close Reading, to be published in 2013 by Tupelo Press. It was accepted two years ago, so by the time it appears it will have waited three years. Meanwhile, I’m nearing the conclusion of a new book of poems, Lost in the Memory Palace. Most of its poems have come steadily over the last ten or twelve months, a more sustained run than I’ve had in decades. Now that I’m about to turn 65, I hope to find a way for this new book to see publication more quickly. I’m also six years and 2/3 of the way through a new memoir built from interconnected essays. It’s called Revertigo: An Off-Kilter Memoir and I hope to finish in the next year or two.
Blip: Who have you read lately that you would like to introduce people to? Which writers deserve attention that you may like to bring attention to?
Skloot: Top of the list is my daughter Rebecca Skloot and her prize-winning book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which has been on the NY Times nonfiction bestseller list FORTWOYEARS now. It’s a brilliant, important, and fascinating book.
For the last two years, I was a judge for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes in fiction and first fiction, so my reading was skewed toward more contemporary fiction than I would normally have read. Among the excellent first fiction I feel most strongly about: The House of Tomorrow (Peter Bognanni), Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry (Christine Sneed), and Leaving the Atocha Station (Ben Lerner).