WIPs Conversation: Fred Skolnik on His Work in Progress

Fred Skolnik was born in New York City and has lived in Israel since 1963, working mostly as an editor and translator. He is best known as the editor in chief of the 22-volume second edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, winner of the 2007 Dartmouth Medal and hailed as a landmark achievement by the Library Journal. Other award-winning projects with which he has been associated include The New Encyclopedia of Judaism (co-editor, 2002) and the 3-volume Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust (senior editor, 2001). Now writing full time, he has published dozens of stories, essays and poems in the past few years (in TriQuarterly, Gargoyle, The MacGuffin, Minnetonka Review, Los Angeles Review, Prism Review, Words & Images, Literary House Review, Underground Voices, Third Coast, Polluto, etc.). His novel The Other Shore (Aqueous Books, 2011), set in Israel in the 1980s, is an epic work depicting Israeli society at a critical juncture in its recent history.

Fred, Things Unsaid, your novel-in-progress, is an ambitious undertaking. It’s a literary time travel of sorts, bringing Virgil’s Aeneid into the present period. What was the source of your inspiration?

After I completed my first novel, The Other Shore (Aqueous Books, 2011), I went back to two uncompleted, thematically related earlier novels that I had been working on for years, called Basic Forms and Death, and managed to finish them (both are now making the rounds of publishers, with an excerpt of the former appearing in Sententia 3). I now felt the need to write another, broader novel picking up the same themes again, and as Basic Forms and Death both had a mythological underpinning (Oedipus in the first, though more in the Freudian sense, and Theseus in the second), I felt committed to the form and began looking for an appropriate framework, finding myself drawn to the Aeneid, which gave me everything I needed in the way of a narrative and a structure upon which I could impose my own. I was also aware of course that Joyce had used the Odyssey in much the same way as I thought to use the Aeneid, and therefore my novel also plays itself off against Joyce’s Ulysses occasionally. In fact, Virgil himself used the Odyssey as a model and has a number of parallel sections.

In the selection young A. is taken by the concept of “heroes,” often picturing himself in the future as a great warrior, a military hero like his father. The classical sagas by Homer and Virgil and others were full of such men. In the US the idea of such heroes existed to an extent right after the World Wars but now Americans more commonly find their heroes from figurative battlefields, such as those where football is played, despite forces fighting in Afghanistan for 12 years running. Do you find a different sentiment in your corner of the world, or are war heroes these days found mostly as a construct of children’s fantasies?

For the child, any kind of hero will do, the type he chooses in his fantasies being conditioned by the particular culture. The myth of the hero as such is the great myth of American life, rooted historically in the nature of American society and not very difficult to understand. It is not the intention, however, of Things Unsaid to explore this in the social sense but to take it as a given and a convenient link to the Aeneid, though at the same time, at the psychological level, it is certainly seen to be a moving force in A.’s life while thematically it is linked more to the inner struggle of the character.

The narrative includes a great deal of descriptive repetition, giving the reader an unmistakable understanding of the story’s characters and settings, and their relation to one another. Is that something also found in the Aeneid? While a prose poem, were there aspects of form and style you tried to carry from Virgil’s work over to your own?

Stylistically, no, not from the Aeneid, which is a conventionally written epic, though, as I mentioned, I follow its structure, or rather dissect and reassemble it to achieve the circular and repetitive form of the novel. The true stylistic inspiration is the music of Philip Glass. It was Glass’s music that furnished the key that enabled me to finish Basic Forms, for Glass had created a kind of musical lexicon of rhythms, harmonies, melodic lines and textures from which he drew to create his music, coming back to his own basic forms as though to a home base. I recognized that I had such a lexicon in the symbols, images and motifs already embedded in the novel, representing the centers of feeling from which it had sprung. I therefore began to write associatively or laterally rather than progressively or chronologically and in this way drew directly upon the novel’s emotional core to carry myself along, and in Things Unsaid I use this method again.

The excerpt here features many insightful and beautifully written passages and the storyline builds and is always compelling, making it something to be enjoyed by any reader. However, do you think those most familiar with the original text will take away an even richer experience from their reading?

A reader who is familiar with the Aeneid will recognize the parallels in the “plot” and certainly the modern versions of the mythological characters (Venus and Vulcan as A.’s parents, the Sussmans as Zeus and Hera, Fat Herman as Hermes, etc.). I suppose it will be amusing to spot all this and readers of this kind will see it as clever but not really much more than that. The novel seeks to create its own inner landscape. It explores what is buried in us, how things arrange themselves in consciousness, the lives we do not live, the lives we want to live.

At what stage are you at with regards to completing the novel? Are you adhering to any deadlines, self-imposed or otherwise?

The first half (or “sexiad”) is fairly complete. The second half still needs work. I hope to finish the novel by the end of the year.

Thanks, Fred. Is there anything else you’d like to mention or explain to readers?

No, that’s it


Read Fred’s excerpt, “The Story of A.”, from his novel in progress, Things Unsaid.