LYNN NEARY, Host:
When a first-time novelist hears his work compared to Saul Bellow, Virginia Wolfe, William Faulkner, even James Joyce, it must be both gratifying and daunting. Such is the case with Salvatore Scibona, whose novel, "The End," is a finalist for the National Book Award to be given out next week. Starting at an Italian street festival in 1953, Scibona follows his characters - a baker, a seamstress, a jeweler, and an abortionist among them - back and forth through the first half of the 20th century, a period that encompasses wars, the Depression, and the immigration experience. Salvatore Scibona joins us now from Eastham, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. Hi, Salvatore. Good to have you with us.
SALVATORE SCIBONA: Hi. Good morning, Lynn.
NEARY: Well, I just have to start by asking you what it is like for you to be mentioned in the same breath as literary giants like Joyce and Faulkner?
SCIBONA: Well, it's a little silly, isn't it?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SCIBONA: I mean, those are some of the people that I love, but I certainly wasn't setting out to write anything that was comparable to what they're doing. I'm just trying to write - I was just trying to write my book, you know. But I think that you are what you eat as a writer, so it's pretty sweet, yeah.
NEARY: It's pretty sweet. Well, the book begins and then ultimately returns to one day, August 15th, 1953, at an Italian street festival in a city in Ohio. And I wanted you to read a description of that event that begins, "It was a neighborhood."
(SOUNDBITE OF NOVEL "THE END")
SCIBONA: (Reading) It was a neighborhood outside of which outsiders stayed, except for once a year, on the 15th of August, when they descended in their tens of thousands. And there were the carney(ph) games where you paid a nickel to throw a softball at a pyramid of soup cans in the hope of winning a salami sandwich. In the central event, the Virgin was paraded out of the church and through the streets by men in white robes accompanied by torchbearers who until recently had covered their heads with pointed white hoods. However, the police - careful to prevent miscommunications and slanders - forbade them to wear the hoods anymore.
NEARY: Tell me about that neighborhood and why you chose it and this festival as a kind of focal point for your book.
SCIBONA: At first I was just writing about people. I didn't put them in any particular time or place. And then slowly they sort of acquired a setting. And then over time, it turned into a neighborhood very much like the neighborhood that my grandparents would've grown up in in Cleveland during the Depression. But in my research, I discovered one particular parish in Cleveland in which during a street carnival, a group of African-Americans who had recently moved into the neighborhood joined in a religious procession thinking that it was a party and started to dance behind the band. And the priest and the parishioners involved in the procession immediately shut the whole thing down because they thought that it was this sort of aggressive piece of blasphemy. But I think that they were kind of complicit in that misunderstanding, and I wanted to explore that from a street level.
NEARY: It's interesting because you said when you first started writing, the characters weren't of a specific place necessarily. And yet in the end, these characters seem so grounded in this culture of Italian Americans in the Middle West at that time.
SCIBONA: I think of them as people first, and their Italianness is really - to me is a very incidental part of who they are, although almost all the characters are immigrants from Italy. I was just describing what was in my imagination in a sort of a slow methodical way and allowing my unconscious to fill things in. And as it turned out, I think - in retrospect I think I set it in the place and time that I set it in because I admired my grandparents so much and I had a very close relationship with all four or them. They were all alive when I started writing the book.
NEARY: Do you think, too, as a writer, that if you do ground your characters in a world that you'd understand just by virtue of having experienced it on some level yourself, does that give you a kind of freedom then to...
SCIBONA: Yeah, exactly. I understood it secondhand. It's not a place that I know myself from my own experience because of the time difference. But I think that's exactly right, that in some way the idea was to get close enough to the thing that I didn't have to be making a whole lot of invented conscious decisions, and I could allow certain details to just sort of, you know, just come up at the moment that the story requires them.
NEARY: Now, one of your characters is an abortionist. This is at a time when abortion is illegal. What did you want to explore through that character? Why did you choose to write about that?
SCIBONA: I think that's a great interesting example of the kind of thing I was talking about because this is a woman who is relatively well-off and she had a personality, she had a soul, to my mind. And then events started circulating around the need for an abortionist in the book. And suddenly I had the answer to where her income came from. So the idea, the issue of abortion and the conflict and the moral ambiguity of abortion, kind of arose spontaneously out of the soil of the book.
NEARY: Now to go back to what I was saying at the beginning about comparisons to Joyce, Faulkner, Wolfe, those kinds of writers, I think those are being made because this novel doesn't follow a completely linear kind of structure. And I read that music influenced the structure, and I wanted to ask you about that.
SCIBONA: Yeah. You know, I had a little bit of education in music while I was in college. And you often see in a Bach partita, for example, a short theme introduced in a very simple way at the beginning.
(SOUNDBITE OF PARTITA)
SCIBONA: And then the thing becomes more and more and more complicated. But you still have the sort of center theme that keeps getting repeated and repeated until you finally come back to an unambiguous repetition of the melody. And I think, in some ways, that's sort of the structure of "The End," that you see this event, the August 15th, 1953, from one person's point of view. And then the thing goes backward and picks up six or seven other characters from the early parts of the book and brings them back toward this melody, to this day. And it becomes more symphonic as opposed to just melodic by the end.
NEARY: And one other thing. I understand that you were taught by Marilynne Robinson, the writer Marilynne Robinson.
SCIBONA: I was. I was.
NEARY: And she is also up for a National Book Award for her novel "Home."
SCIBONA: She is.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
NEARY: You're surprised to find yourself in that position?
SCIBONA: I'm flabbergasted. I mean, as a teacher and as a - especially as a writer, she's just been an enormous inspiration. So I pale to think what I'll have to say to her when I have to see her next week.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
NEARY: Well, good luck with the National Book Award.
SCIBONA: Well, thank you so much, Lynn.
NEARY: Salvatore Scibona is the author of "The End" and a finalist for the National Book Award.
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