An Incurable Talent

SmSkibellJoseph Skibell, a native of the Texas Panhandle, was an accomplished playwright and screenwriter living in Los Angeles when he joined the first-admitted class of UT’s Michener Center for Writers in 1993.  Switching his emphasis to fiction after a year in the program, he graduated in 1996 with a novella submitted as his thesis, which grew into his debut novel, “A Blessing on the Moon,” published by Algonquin in 1997.  Skibell joined the English Department/Creative Writing faculty at Emory University in 1999, where he now serves as the director of the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature.

We spoke with him about his third novel, A Curable Romantic,” out from Algonquin this fall. O Magazine calls the book “An irresistible romp about a lovelorn 19th century doctor who falls in with Sigmund Freud—and some dangerously attractive women.”   Skibell will read from the book and sign copies on 7 p.m., Thursday, November 4, at BookPeople, located at the corner of West 6th Street and North Lamar.

How does a Texan, exiled to Atlanta, end up immersing himself in turn of the 20th century Vienna, Freud, and Esperanto?

ThumbCurableWell, I grew up in Lubbock, and as the great wealth and diversity of creative people from Lubbock will attest, a 360-degree horizon seems to be good for the imagination.  I guess I was interested in how different the turn of the last century was from the turn of our century.  In the wake of the 1900 World’s Fair, people really seemed to believe that humanity was on the lip of perfecting itself. The great advances in science, underscored by enlightenment philosophy, coupled with the internationalization of railroad systems and Braille and the codes of weights and measurements, really made people think that war and national hatred was a thing of the past. No one would ever have had similar thoughts in the year 2000. So I was interested in the difference between their naivety and our cynicism. And, of course, the terrible answer to their naivety was the carnage of World War I, which may have something to do with our cynicism.

What interests or obsessions or curiosities fueled such a research-intensive novel? The bibliography, available on your website, is enormous. Did you actually learn Esperanto?

Yeah, I tell people it was a bit like taking a bar bet. You know, write a book that includes Sigmund Freud, Dr. Zamenhof and Esperanto—oh, and the Warsaw Ghetto.  It did require a lot of research, much of it in Esperanto, which I did learn. It’s a beautiful and easy-to-learn language. There’s an extensive literature in Esperanto, including some really marvelous stuff.  There’s an Esperantan poet of astounding genius named Kalman Kalocsay.  In answer to someone who charged that Esperanto couldn’t possibly be a real language because it didn’t contain any dirty words, Kalocsy wrote 50 highly erotic—actually, very smutty—sonnets called La Sekretaj Sonetoj (The Secret Sonnets).

Did you worry about “getting it right” as far as period details?  After all, Freud is a nearly mythical personage to turn into a character, and his life and times are so fully documented.

I felt it was only fair to the reader for me to try to get it right. I remember meeting a playwright once who had written a play about Stephen Foster stealing all his tunes from an unknown black composer. I asked him if this was historically accurate and he said, “Well, no, but white artists have always plundered black culture.” I didn’t want to invent anything in “A Curable Romantic” that skewed the historical truth, and fortunately, the truthful things I wanted to write about—like Dr. Zamenhof’s belief that a universal language would create a universal brotherhood, or Dr. Freud’s good friend Dr. Fliess’ belief that the nose is the center of the human soul and that by operating on it, he could cure neurosis, etc., etc.—were in themselves dramatic enough that they didn’t need tweaking.

As for Freud, I was happy to be dealing with only about a year of his life, even less, really.  There’s so much known about him. Between his letters, the autobiographical sections of “Interpretation of Dreams” and his other work, and what other people have written about him, you could probably draft a day-by-day calendar of sixty years of his life. The hard thing was trying to fit as many little gems I learned about him into the novel without retarding the narrative flow.

Was there any snippet of serendipity that may have either led you to this story or altered your writing of it in some profound way?

There was nothing but little moments of serendipity throughout the writing of this book. For instance, Freud had this “bromantic” crush on Wilhelm Fliess, a total crank who believed all sorts of weird things. He believed that by removing the left middle turbinate bone of the nose, he could cure Emma Eckstein’s hysteria. She was Freud’s first analytic patient, and she’s a major character in the novel. Well, Freud hands her over to Fliess, and Fliess nearly kills her. He left a meter of surgical gauze inside her nasal cavity.  Dybbuks also play a large role in the book and, at one point, the protagonist Dr. Sammelsohn and Dr. Freud believe that Fräulein Eckstein’s hysteria might actually be a dybbuk possession. When I started researching the history of dybbuk possession and exorcism, I discovered an account of a dybbuk being exorcized through the victim’s nose. So in the novel, this forms a credible counter-story to the historical account of how Emma Eckstein’s nose came to be destroyed.

Your publisher has brought out a new paperback edition of your first novel “A Blessing on the Moon,” which you began as an MFA candidate at the Michener Center. How do you feel about that book now, 14 years later?

It feels good to have it back in print. I read it not too long ago, because the composer Andy Teirstein and I were adapting it into the libretto for the opera he’s writing based on it.  I hope this doesn’t sound immodest, but I was impressed by how fearless I was as a young novelist.  I don’t think I’d have the courage to write that book now.