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A Blessing on the Moon–one of Algonquin’s most beloved books–received unanimous nationwide acclaim when it was published in 1997. The Washington Post called it “Startingly original”; the New Yorker called it “As magical as it is macabre”; the Boston Globe called it “Brilliant . . . Astonishing”; and the Denver Post called it “As mesmerizing as a folk tale, as rich as gold itself.” Joseph Skibell’s debut novel is now available in a beautiful paperback edition, publishing to coincide with the release of his new novel, A Curable Romantic. We recently interviewed Skibell about his debut masterpiece.
It’s been about thirteen years since A Blessing on the Moon came out—so, what has gone on with the book during all these years, and also with you?
Joseph Skibell: Oh. Well, the book came out, and it made a little noise. Nobody seemed indifferent to it, that’s for sure. People either loved it or hated it. A small minority hated it, but reviewers almost unanimously loved it. There was that one fellow in the Jewish Forward who seemed to concede that the book was an enjoyable work, but that it somehow violated some unspoken taboo about creating fiction out of the Holocaust. That was really the only bad review. So I guess I had my fifteen minutes of near-fame, and although the book was very special to me, and although I actually did worry about writing another novel as good, or as important, or as meaningful, I’ve since written a play and two novels—the newest one, A Curable Romantic, is being published in tandem with this new paperback edition of A Blessing on the Moon—and I’m currently working on two nonfiction projects as well. So, for better or worse, A Blessing on the Moon no longer seems quite so totemic to me as it once did. Now it seems like a very good foundation for what I hope will be a long and varied and continually interesting literary career.
Over the years, there have been some attempts to adapt the novel, yes?
Well, yes, although that’s something I’ve resisted, for the most part. I received many letters when the book first came out from interviews with people who wanted to turn it into a play or into an animated film, but somehow—I don’t know—I just felt very protective of the book and also of its characters. These were my relatives, after all! And I was a bit wary, I suppose, of the sense of theatrical artificiality that I assumed would come from a dramatic adaptation. Also, the writers who tried to adapt it didn’t seem able to approximate the book’s tone.
But now it’s being turned into an opera, and you’re doing the libretto. Isn’t that right?
Well, it’s a long story, but yes, it’s true, I am.
And so what changed your mind?
Well, opera always seemed to me to be a medium predicated on artifice, and so the sense of tone didn’t seem to be a problem. Also the composer, Andy Teirstein, and I really got along. I loved his work and I trusted his instincts. He tried to work with a few collaborators, but it became apparent that the tone of the book was too elusive. I realized—and I think Andy realized, or he maybe knew it all along—that it wouldn’t happen unless I did the libretto. However, I was knee deep in A Curable Romantic, and I had no interest in either leaving off from that book or in revisiting A Blessing on the Moon. There seemed to be no joy in mechanically adapting a book that had been a passionate writing experience for me. And so I told Andy that, although I was willing to work on the libretto, the idea of sitting alone in a room, and taking apart this fragile, beautiful, and meaningful little book and then putting it back together again, was abhorrent to me. So instead, I spent two weeks at Andy’s summer place, and we wrote the libretto together. He’s still composing the music.
And what was it like, reading the novel after all this time?
Well, I hadn’t looked at it in many years, and I have to say—and I don’t mean for this to sound immodest—but I was a little in awe of the audacity of the young writer I encountered there. That guy was fearless, more fearless, I thought, than certainly I could ever be now. And he really seemed to know how to put a novel together. He left a lot there for Andy and me to work with, that’s for sure. But I also saw the flaws.
Let’s speak of the issue of the Holocaust and fiction. When A Blessing on the Moon first came out, the issue seemed more controversial than it does today. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. The question has always seemed a little odd to me, especially in relationship to A Blessing on the Moon, since, with the exception of about three paragraphs—the opening and, a little later, the exposition about the murder of the little boy nicknamed Pillow—I don’t believe there’s any depiction of any actual events from the war. Except for those three or so paragraphs, the entirety of the book takes place in the corridor between this world and the next. I don’t mean to make light of it, and I hope I don’t seem disingenuous, but those three paragraphs are a description of a massacre, and I don’t believe that anyone who advocates against creating fictions based on the events of the Holocaust has ever suggested that it’s taboo to describe a massacre. Elie Wiesel, of course, remains the strongest and loudest voice advocating this position, as far as I know, and I believe that even he maintains that it’s only the experience of the concentration camps that cannot or should not be represented in fiction. It’s a huge subject, and a terribly complex one. I mean, a friend of mine did his dissertation in Yiddish literature on the difference between an earlier Yiddish version of Wiesel’s Night and the French version, the one that we all know, and according to him, the two versions are fundamentally different. Now if one writer, writing two versions of the same historical event, can produce two radically different books, it’s hard to know why nonfiction reportage can lay greater claims to objectivity and historicity. On the other hand, one hesitates to demonstrate the fictionalization of Wiesel’s memoir when there are Holocaust-deniers out there, prowling around, claiming that it’s all a fiction. I see what you mean about the complexity. But the real issue—and I don’t mean to go on pontificating about this—but the issue at the heart of the matter really is, I think, that fiction, along with almost everything else in Western culture, with the exception perhaps of money, has been completely trivialized. We don’t have to ask ourselves if a specific novel trivializes an historical event; we need only know that novels themselves are trivial. Literature is something we make our children read in school, but we all believe secretly that books are boring, ponderous things, and given the choice between reading Dante and watching American Idol, we’re going to be watching American Idol. But—let me say it loudly—novels and stories are not trivial. On the contrary, profound stories are a means of orienting ourselves within the cosmos. Literature is a compass that points to humankind’s true north. Everyone who has ever been profoundly moved by a novel knows this, and yet, we lie to ourselves and say it’s not so.