News & Publications
The College Magazine - Summer 2008
Completing The End was a 10-year quest for Salvatore Scibona (SF97),
who drew on his experiences at St. John's for scenes in his novel.
Salvatore Scibona (SF97)
Graywolf Press, 2008
Salvatore Scibona's first novel begins on the Feast of the Assumption, in the fictional Italian enclave of Elephant Park in Cleveland, with Rocco, the baker:
He was five feet one inch tall in street shoes, bearlike in his round and jowly face, hulking in his chest and shoulders, nearly just as stout around the middle, but hollow in the hips, and lacking a proper can to sit on (though he was hardly ever known to sit), and wee at the ankles, and girlish at his tiny feet, a man in the shape of a lightbulb.
Having devoted himself to work, Rocco can't grasp the latest piece of bad news in his sad life. Confused and heartbroken, he finds himself at Niagara Falls, confronting a deceiver in the guise of an ice cream man and learning the ultimate truth about his life.
The novel ends with the memories of Costanza Marini, a widow who runs an illicit but profitable business in her Elephant Park home. Mrs. Marini harbors a fierce but oppressive love for those she cares about, rich memories from her youth and marriage, and persistent demons:
Four years into her widowhood, Satan visited her in her garden. She was on her knees, yanking the quack grass out of the spinach. Iridescent flies dappled the carcass of a bass in the furrow. "Egoist," said the tempter. "Despair!" To despair is a sin. But, true enough, she had no hope. She could not remember having hoped. "Die!& said the Devil.
Rocco, Mrs. Marini, and many other characters, from a menacing jeweler to a restless and intelligent young man named Ciccio, had been living with Scibona for a third of his life as he worked on his novel, The End. The characters and the world he created for them became so real that he was bereft at leaving them behind when he completed the novel, published in May. He came to think of them as individuals with their own will, an understanding that ultimately made it easier for him to write. "In the last few years, I went from thinking of myself as being the characters' parent, to being their peer, to finally being their child," Scibona says. "I respected them as elders."
Throughout the novel, Scibona changes the point-of-view and plays with time, sometimes retreating to the past of one character and at other times abruptly shifting back to another character in the present day, which in the novel is 1953. To write genuine characters and speak genuinely for them means "cultivating a human relationship with someone who's not really there," Scibona explains. Mrs. Marini, for example, can be "severe, judgmental and nasty," Scibona says, but she's also extraordinary, and he grew to love her for her independent spirit and generosity.
A third-generation Italian American, Scibona grew up in the suburbs, but he spent a great deal of time with his grandparents and enjoyed hearing about the old days in their old neighborhoods. Their stories inspired him to create Elephant Park, and he dedicated his novel to them. "I ate up their pasts," Scibona says. "I felt as though the suburb I grew up in was such a culturally vacuous place, and the neighborhoods where they grew up in Cleveland seemed full, vibrant, awake."
After graduating from St. John's, Scibona went to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree. There he learned to develop a writing habit to complement the reading habit he formed at St. John's. "St. John's was the perfect place for me, and I miss it every day. But at the Writers' Workshop I finally made up my mind that—out of all the many options St. John's allowed me to entertain—I wanted to write novels. I didn't want to do anything else with my time, and I had to make all my other work and financial decisions accordingly."
Scibona won a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Italy (where he worked on his Italian and conducted research for his novel); held fellowships at the prestigious artists' colonies at Yaddo and MacDowell; and taught writing at Iowa, Harvard Summer School, and Boston University. He won the Pushcart Prize for his short story "Prairie" in 2000. It was published in The Pushcart Book of Short Stories: The Best Stories from a Quarter-Century of the Pushcart Prize. "The Platform," a short story that later became a chapter in The End, was selected for publication in the Best New American Voices in 2004. Since 2004, he's been the writing coordinator at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass., a part-time job that allows him time to write.
His body of work is relatively small, Scibona says, because for 10 years, he devoted himself to the novel, which began to form in his mind while he was a student at St. John's. The first half-dozen drafts went into the trash, Scibona says, as he struggled to find an authentic voice. "I learned how to write by writing this book," he says. "I wrote longhand, then typed what I had onto a manual typewriter, then marked it up with pencil, and retyped, over and over, trying to get the sentences to sound the way I wanted them. All of the other changes—to plot, to character, to the book's ideas—came out through revision of the sentences."
St. John's was an indispensable experience for Scibona, and he creates a similar experience for his character Ciccio in the form of a rigorous Jesuit school for boys. Ciccio endures oral examinations that are very much patterned on orals at St. John's, fielding questions that are "straight out of sophomore year." Scibona includes concepts from Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kierkegaard in Ciccio's dialogues with his teacher, a dying priest. "The book tries to express its ideas as much as possible in action and in things. But the boys' school resembles St. John's because I needed a way to briefly ask certain Johnnie questions in an overt way," Scibona says.
Scibona's girlfriend, Emily Shelton, came up with the title The End. (He had briefly considered somehow using "being-at-work-staying-itself," from Annapolis tutor Joe Sachs's translation of entelecheia, but eventually decided it would be "kind of absurdly and laughably overblown.")
The title he settled on reflects a main premise of his story: that each life is a purpose in itself, each life has an ultimate end. "It's the telos end," he says. "Hopefully, if our lives have meaning, then they're culminating, not just stopping. When we die, it's not like someone just pulled the plug—your end has meaning in the Aristotelian way." For the stonemason, Enzo, his end is a well-deserved rest. For his son, Ciccio, the end is a departure, a "coming into being of the potential."
As he wrote about Ciccio, Scibona remembered his own departure and beginning. "I will never forget the first day I got out of my car and walked up the steps in Santa Fe-I thought, 'now I'm a real person.' That's what St. John's meant to me," he says.
By Rosemary Harty
Studying classic works of the East helped Lisa Levchuck (SFGI05, EC06) finish her first novel
Everything Beautiful in the World
Lisa Levchuk, SFGI05, EC06
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
A novel's journey from inspiration to fruition can find a short cut or meander for years, and in the case of Lisa Levchuk (SFGI05, EC06), the direct path finally was revealed in the Bhagavad-Gita. Freed from focusing on the result, Levchuck was inspired through the Eastern Classics program to complete Everything Beautiful in the World, which will be published this fall by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Fifteen years in the making, Lisa's debut novel began as a short story in her MFA program at the University of Massachusetts. During her thesis defense, she was told that it could be something longer. Degree in hand, Levchuck decided to settle in Massachusetts and by 1993 was teaching English full time. Meanwhile, the short story stubbornly refused to take on the shape of a novel.
Looking for a break from teaching—Levchuck admits to a penchant for accumulating degrees—she decided to apply to the St. John's Graduate Institute. After completing the Liberal Arts program, she was drawn to Eastern Classics. "I'd been working on the book on and off...and I was blocked up with expectations of what would happen if I ever finished," Levchuck remembers. "Reading Krishna's words to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita helped me to understand that anticipating outcomes is really deadly to the creative process," she says. "I wish I could return to that mindset now. It's proven to be quite elusive."
Studying Sanskrit also played a supportive role. "Doing Sanskrit taught me focus," Levchuck recalls. After sitting in the library for hours with her Sanskrit dictionary, writing her own book felt like a pleasant distraction. By the time she left St. John's, Levchuck had the lion's share of her novel completed.
Everything Beautiful in the World is set in New Jersey, where Levchuck grew up in the early 1980s, a time "closer to what I remember [about high school]," she explains. It is the story of 17-year-old Edna dealing simultaneously with a gravely ill mother and with her own relationship with a teacher. According to advance copy from the publisher, Edna figures that "the only good thing about having a mother with cancer is that people are willing to let [her] get away with pretty much anything.... But there's one thing Edna's fairly certain even she can't get away with—her burgeoning romance with Mr. Howland, her fourth period Ceramics teacher."
While broaching a sensitive subject, the book "is more about the relationship between two people who both suffer in the end," Levchuck summarizes. "And it is funny, too," she adds, suggesting that even serious subjects can be examined through the lens of levity. While Levchuck claims that the idea for the story "just came to her," she also acknowledges having been interested for a long time in issues facing adolescent girls.
As the novel took shape, Levchuck shared sections with a few of her creative writing students at the Williston Northampton School, where she has taught for 10 years. "They made really great comments about making it more realistic to high school." In the classroom, she shares both the pleasures and the frustrations of writing. Not infrequently a story resists the telling. "Sometimes, you just can't know at 17 years old [what someone will achieve]...It doesn't mean that someone can't tell the story later," she reasons, keenly aware of her own journey.
Reflecting on her summers in Santa Fe, Levchuck credits the Graduate Institute with not only making her a better teacher, but also changing her approach to pedagogy. "My emphasis as a teacher shifted from talking to listening and responding," she says, admiring the way her St. John's tutors would approach ostensibly familiar texts "always with a sense that each discussion might turn up something new."
By Deborah Spiegelman