A Conversation with MU Press Novella Prize Winner Paul Skenazy

To promote his novella “Temper CA,” published Jan. 2019 by Miami University Press, author Paul Skenazy sat down with Sam Keeling, a Creative Writing and Media & Culture major and Editorial Intern for the Press. Their discussion covered everything from Skenazy’s writing rituals (or lack thereof) to the nature of truth and memory. For more on the novella, read this article from The Miami Student

Keeling: Let’s start generally with your writing process.

Skenazy: The best way to start about my writing process is that it’s fumbling. I start generally with images, or character, or a voice. And I try to figure out what that’s about, or who that is. In [the case of “Temper CA”], I had heard a story of a girl who was able to hold scorpions in her hands without getting stung. It just seemed a wonderful image. I had a second image of a woman, and I kind of stuck them together.

But [my process] is really exploratory. I went back a couple days ago and realized I’d done about 11 different drafts in the last four years of this book. When I say “fumbling,” I mean stumbling, falling over myself.

I pretend I’m gonna get up every morning and get to my desk, and I don’t. I have a dog. There’s laundry, dishes. There’s my wife, my kids to talk to. But I try. So, three or four days a week, I try to sit down for an hour or two. Usually, I’m best when I have a project.

One of the things that any good writer should tell you is that it’s best when you can get a writing residence somewhere. They’re taking care of the outside world while you write. The last version of this book was written in Oregon, at a place called Playa, where I actually did get up every morning and make coffee and sit, and sit, and sit. Then go out and take a walk, and come back and sit. There’s nothing quite like putting your butt in the chair, you know?

The other thing is to keep rereading [your drafts] and follow up on the instincts that seem weird. For example, there’s a moment here about discovering a skull in the mine. It took me a few years to realize that, oh, this connects with the cemetery, the graveyard, it connects with 19th-century history. [The ideas] are first unconscious, then conscious. Throw out ideas until something clicks, then figure out why it clicks.

K: Going back to the details about the scorpion. The book’s original title was Scorpion Queen, which then became Temper. It’s the character’s name, but it’s also the name of the town itself. In its own way, the town is a character in the book. Can you compare and contrast creating a place and creating a character?

S: The character of Temper was always there. I tried to find a name that would Anglo-Saxon so that we could go back to the 1848 Gold Rush period. It was also a little weird because a lot of the towns from the Gold Rush era have weird names.

But really, the image was of this girl. The first lines that I wrote years ago were “I wonder what my mother was like when she was in love.” It was very much from the girl’s point of view. In some ways, I was trying to tell the story of the adults through the child, because I know her parents’ world better than hers. It’s the period when I became more conscious, and politics made sense to me for the first time.

Then, she just kept growing. I realized that she had her own story, and her parents wound up with very different stories. The more I saw her, the more I realized I wasn’t just telling her story. I was telling the story of the town.

And then the problem came in: how do you put history and politics and still keep generating the story, pushing it forward? That really was a buzz. To the extent I’ve done it successfully, you tell me. It really was that effort to see, is there a way to connect her story with the Chinese American experience? The experience of the Anglos taking over from the Mexicans and Chileans? While not bringing those in with a heavy hand, like, “Oh, see what we’ve done!”

This is the consequence. We have a personal history and we have a public history. It became Temper CA when the two meshed. It wasn’t “Temper” until the two could join. And then her name made sense.

K: It’s not just a story about Joy’s childhood. It’s about her looking back on her childhood, which brings its own lens. What’s the difference in writing a flashback scene and writing a scene about memory?

S: From the very beginning, she and her father were photographers. Photographs are at the heart of this book.

And photographs are a certain kind of memory. But they’re frozen. They pretend that they show you a landscape, but really, they close off a landscape. They frame a landscape. There are a zillion things going on outside of [the frame].

For me, part of the philosophical issue was, how do you have this vision – which is like a photograph of a moment in time – yet at the same time, you know your memory is skewed? How do you penetrate the scene of the photograph itself and realize that everything I believed about that is kind of wrong? That I’ve been hiding a lot of it from myself?

The issue of trying to recreate these moments was to create them as [Joy] thought she knew them, and then gradually have her have to give up those assumptions. In the first part of the book, I had to give over to her romanticism. And then kind of let it break apart.

K: David Lynch once said something along the lines that he hates camcorders because he prefers to remember things his way. Not how they happened. I think that happens in this.

S: Right, yeah.

K: I think that it does shine a harsh light on the truth of her history. At the same time, she does kind of think of it fondly, even at the end.

S: But, she’s ready to accuse her parents of a little bit more. She’s ready to recognize that she had so little control as a child, and so that’s baffling.

And, of course, her memory is no worse than the national memory. One of the nice things about California is that it has this massive mythology all around the Gold Rush. There’s other mythologies – there’s Hollywood and so on – but the California mythology begins there, with the Gold mountains.

K: I noticed that there are scenes of intimacy and violence that push the story forward, and are emotional highlights. Did you have to worry about keeping those from becoming gratuitous?

S: At one point, I had an agent who said he loved the book and sent it to a publisher who didn’t want it. He literally wanted me to rewrite it as a thriller in which Joy kills her grandfather and blames her father.

I actually tried to do that for a year. Everything was gratuitous [laughs].

K: Even though this final version is not a “thriller,” it does have a lot of forward motion. It unveils itself like a mystery. Was it your intention to have this be a sort of mystery in reverse?

S: No, actually. But I needed more motivation for Joy to go to Temper, and to keep the energy going.

It actually was the one contribution these months of trying to write a thriller did for me. I wanted an internal thriller, a psychological thriller of her discovery. I realized that I could do that with the mystery form.

I’d been a mystery book reviewer for many years. I did a column for The Washington Post and so on. I was inside the form a lot. It wasn’t automatic, but it was pretty familiar to me.

And again, it’s almost like a matter of chemistry: how do you balance the clues you give and the clues you don’t? Is it too much to say, “oh, there’s a duffel bag. There’s a mystery. There’s a ghost!” How much of that do you want to give away?

I didn’t want big shows, big revelations. I wanted the book to be inching and inching and inching. I didn’t want these great, “now I know everything” kind of moments. That’s the balance I was trying to get.

K: I also think about the dialogue in the book, which plays into the mystery. It’s often as much about what isn’t being said as what is between the characters. It does a great job of revealing the relationships between the characters, and how much they want to reveal to each other, especially between Joy and her father.

S: I think learned a lot about dialogue from writing this book. I don’t think I could’ve done it five years ago, when I started writing it. I mean, I wrote a lot – a lot – of dialogue. I just kept carving away at it.

A very good friend of mine who is one of my best readers is someone who writes for theater. The whole idea is that a dialogue has to clip. There’s a kind of split from one person to the second as if there’s a third person the middle. Most readers can make that connection because of movies and TV. We can skimp on a lot of things. And the dialogue has to keep bouncing, moving us forward at a good clip, or else it’s stagnant, and we’re stuck in the same space.

Probably, Hemingway taught me a lot about dialogue. He’s really good at it. I don’t like a lot of other things about him, but boy, those short stories where he has relationship with men and women. So much is unspoken, and implied, and dangerous. It just threads through. Each of us has a slightly different version of what it means, but it’s all there.

K: I always feel that dialogue between two characters, they would never say what’s mutually known between them. But if the reader doesn’t know it, it creates a challenge.

S: I will say that I’m still trying to figure out dialogue between 3 or 4 people. I don’t know how to do that and keep the energy going forward.

K: Was “Temper” originally a longer work?

S: Yes. A shorter work, then a longer work, then a longer work, then a shorter work…

K: Did shortening it teach you about what was important to the story?

S: [In newspaper writing,] you only have 500 words, or 300, or 700 if you’re lucky. So you’ve got to get it down. You have to be lean. The question was, what mattered?

Some things are no longer in the book. The ending is different. The inner chapters are different. There are things I added that I missed. But everything has to stop. Again, how much does a scene matter? If it didn’t matter much, get rid of it.

I probably miss some of it. There’s a little explanation in the longer version. I could go into longer descriptions. There’s more detail about the grandfather and his past; it’s probably a little more forgiving of him.

But this is a better book, honestly. A couple of friends have said, “Can I read the other one?” And I said, “No. It’s over. This is what I wanted to say.” Because I had to cut it down and cut it down, I got to it in a way that I think I don’t think I could have at 60,000 words.

K: We’ve chatted about him a little bit, but I feel like the grandfather is an interesting character because he’s introduced to us dead.

S: [Laughs] I hadn’t thought about it that way, but yeah!

K: So all the work you do is done knowing that he’s not alive, only in memory. Did you approach him differently knowing that you could never see him in the present to explain himself?

S: That’s so interesting. No, I don’t think so.

Once I began to conceive of this version of the book, I knew that he was the excuse to get Joy to Temper.

But yes, it restricts him. So you have to have reflections.

If there’s one character that I’m unfair to, or less fair to, it’s Isaac, except in the historical sense, when I try to bring out some of the reasons why he felt he needed to defend himself and be the kind of person he was. What his version of honor meant in some deep way.

Part of it was to make sure there was enough of a sense of Joy’s pleasure spending time with him early on. You had to recognize, “No, this is not a horrible human being.” He might be jealous, he might be silly, he might be self-serving. But there are things about him.

K: I don’t know if it’s necessarily you being unfair to him. It’s interesting because, it’s always another character’s perception of him. The reader has to come up with their own unbiased version while using the testimony of other characters.

S: Right. It’s the “Rashomon” kind of moment, where you have all the characters looking at something. Or it’s that moment in “Moby Dick,” where they stare, and “I see, you see, he sees.”

But you don’t know what’s there. It’s just perceptions.  

Sam Keeling is a senior studying Creative Writing and Media & Culture. He is an Editorial Intern at Miami University Press, Editor-in-Chief of Happy Captive Magazine, and Entertainment Editor at The Miami Student.