How did you get the idea of using Hemingway in your novel? Are you a fan?
I was wrestling with an early draft of the novel, trying to capture the Key West essence and my experience there in a compelling way, when a sort of epiphany surfaced: Although writing “realistic” fiction, I was not prohibited from employing fantastical elements that worked to achieve my goal of bringing my subject to life. Shakespeare and Dickens, to name but two writers, used ghosts and such to good effect. When I conjured up an Ernest Hemingway reincarnate sent from Writers Heaven, everything fell into place. The story became a lot richer and the writing a lot of fun. I’ve long been an admirer of Hemingway’s work (more his short stories and nonfiction than his novels), much of which he wrote in Key West and Havana. I found that I could use a recycled Hemingway—a character who knew Key West and Cuba 75 years earlier—as a foil for and commentator on the current scene, as well as a writing coach for my floundering protagonist author.
Does life in Key West really resemble the life of your protagonist Con?
Oh, yes, as surreal and improbable, only more so. So much crazy stuff happens here that it makes a Hemingway reincarnate seem rather plausible by comparison. Key West has real characters from all over the world, many fleeing less desirable places and obligations—Cuba, the ruins of the Soviet bloc, penal and mental institutions, bad marriages, bad mortgages, whatever. They come here to remake themselves and often get too much sun, recreational chemicals and freedom. Stir in some surly local Conchs and you’ve concocted quite a potent social cocktail.
Many of your characters – Con, Cat, Eva, Aurora, and even Hemingway himself – seem to be trying to find a proper home for themselves. Would you say this is a dominant theme in Key West Story, the search for home?
I would say it’s a dominant theme in all my work and in all literature, from The Odyssey to The Sun Also Rises and beyond: a quest for identity and a place in the world, even if we can’t return to the mythic home of our childhood or our dreams. And because Key West Story is comedy and not tragedy, most all those characters ultimately succeed, by honoring what is best and truest in themselves. Wise counsel that could have come from Hemingway himself.
The many women characters in Key West Story seem atypical and unconventional. How would you describe them?
Strong, resilient, passionate, and determined to achieve their objectives by whatever means. They are courageous enough to take chances and change who they are—which is perhaps the bravest act for us all. But I don’t see them as particularly atypical. For dramatic purposes, they are all at crossroads. I would think that if we saw them five years after the events of Key West Story, they might appear fairly normal and settled into contented, mundane lives.
Why do you take such great care to describe the sea, both its surface and its depths?
The sea and its bounties, secrets and capriciousness define Key West, which, after all, is surrounded by the sea and dependent on it for its livelihood. Its history and its future are wedded to ships, the creatures and marvels of the sea, and the whims and welfare of marine nature. To live in Key West and spend so much time on and in the water as I have, you come to see what a wonder and force it is, how excellent and frightening. The old-fashioned word “sublime” comes to mind to describe it all, from the coral reef to the Gulf Stream to the mangrove isles in the great Gulf flats—awe-inspiring, beautiful, complete, heavenly.
Why did you depict a dark-haired 40-year-old Hemingway in his prime rather than the usual gray-bearded Papa Hemingway?
I sought to capture Hemingway at his best, when he still had fire, ambition and a sense of proportion about himself and his legacy; when he was doing his best work; when he still had his health and all his mental faculties; when his drinking was not interfering with his writing. That’s the sensitive Hemingway I would have liked to have known, before his ego got over-inflated, his talent ebbed, and he grew self-involved and cruel. Further, the Hemingway of Key West Story, fresh from Writers Heaven, has a clear, posthumous perspective, which enables him to see where he went wrong and correct it, comporting himself with more dignity, honesty and heart than the drink-addled sixty-year-old author would have.
What research did you conduct to get the Hemingway character right?
I first read Hemingway when I was a 14-year-old. Since then I’ve read and re-read all his important work, pored over numerous biographies, and studied diligently what he had to say about writing and right living. Also, like Hemingway, I’ve lived my life as novelist, memoirist and journalist—and spent my formative childhood years, as he did, in Illinois, although 50 years later. All of which, I think, deepened my grasp of his struggle, his art and his decline. And, of course, living in Key West and getting to know the town and the sea were pivotal in strengthening my understanding of him. In some ways I think I know him better than he knew himself.
Why do you depict Havana as a drab and dysfunctional place?
Only because it is drab and dysfunctional. When I went there I found a tawdry, dark and impoverished city, with panhandlers, prostitutes and peddlers vying to cajole visitors out of a few euros or dollars to somehow make ends meet—or to buy their way out. Cuban refugees are not crossing the Florida Straits in bathtubs and dubious jerry-rigged boats for the sport of it. They’re fleeing an oppressive totalitarian regime that imprisons critics and creates misery for millions. Life there is grim, mean and, for many, hopeless. Drab.
Can visitors to Key West productively use Key West Story as a guidebook?
Definitely, though it contains no hotel or restaurant recommendations. Think of it as a guide to the hidden human drama and emotional life of the island. Through it a reader can get to know Key West better than by following a guidebook, which necessarily skims the surface. Here you see the heart and soul of Key West. That can enrich the experience of any visitor—past, present, or future.
Spiritual memoirs, interview with author Rick Skwiot
by Jerry Waxler
During the late 60s, when I was almost finished college, I wondered what life was going to be like out in the world. One source of inspiration came from books like Henry Miller’s sexy novels, Sexus, Nexus, and Plexus. Miller fled the United States to live in France, learning how to write and commune with the locals. W. Somerset Maugham wrote about a different type of expatriate adventure in Razor’s Edge, more of a spiritual quest than a drunken carousal. My own search for truth took me to California, which in the days of the hippies did sometimes feel like a foreign country.
Now decades later, I want to tell the story of my escape and self-discovery. To help me learn how to do that, I read memoirs. I recently finished an excellent one by Rick Skwiot who in the 80s went to Mexico to find a truer aspect of himself than he was able to find in corporate America. His quest was somewhere between the fast living of Henry Miller and the soul searching of Somerset Maugham, and contained some of the elements of my own travels. It’s too late to interview Maugham, Miller, or the other world travelers who haunted my imagination during my formative years. But Rick Skwiot is alive and willing to talk about the writing of “San Miguel Allende.”. Here is the first of several parts of an interview in which I ask him about writing the memoir.
Jerry Waxler: When did the story of your memoir, “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing” take place?
Rick Skwiot: I first went to San Miguel in 1983. The book spans the next few years, when I was living in San Miguel and returning to St. Louis to do freelance work whenever I needed money–that is, whenever I was flat broke and had no choice. That lasted until 1989 or 1990.
Jerry: Your title is interesting. I’ve rarely seen memoirs with a place name in the title. Why was the place so important that it deserved to be the first part of your title?
Rick: When teaching fiction writing I tell students that setting determines character, and character in turn determines plot. I think the same often applies to memoir, and certainly in this case. The people and culture of San Miguel–both Mexican and gringo–had such a profound collective influence on this period of my life that I perceived the town as the major “character” in my memoir. While on the surface, my story appears to be about my own transformation, the agent of that change was the town and its people.
Jerry: Moving to another country combines the element of escape, that is, getting away from your regular life, with its opposite, that is trying to establish the patterns of a new life. I enjoyed the anxiety and difficulty of your settling into this new place. That theme of being a stranger in a new land is a fundamental aspect of the hero myth, and I recommend your book as an excellent model of that sense of trying to settle in and make sense of a new set of rules. Now that you have written about this experience of going forth into a foreign land and adapting to its rules, would you consider this model as useful for other books you have written or want to write?
Rick: It has been said that there are only two dramatic plots: 1) Someone takes a trip, and 2) A stranger comes to town. Some books, like my memoir, combine these two–as do my two previous novels and the one I’ve just completed. While that writing-workshop adage is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, there’s also some truth in it, if applied loosely. In good books, whether fiction or memoir, we encounter characters who take trips of one sort or another–physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual or whatever–and who arrive as strangers in new worlds. As readers we subconsciously and consciously look for character development, for change, for chaos made into order. In going to a foreign land where different values and modes of living exist, a character is forced to examine most everything about himself or herself, and there are built-in conflicts in culture, language, and more, which make for good drama. All to say, in answer to your questions, yes, this is a useful model, and it makes me feel somewhat embarrassed by how little overall imagination I’ve exhibited in regards to plot.
Jerry: The second part of your memoir’s title, “A Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing,” is equally interesting. What made you believe that aspect of the trip was important enough to put in the title?
Rick: It was always a spiritual search for me–a quest to find my own soul. I was then reading Jung, who devoted his life–on his own behalf and ours–to such a search. That quest was the essence of my Mexican experience. At the time I was compelled to head to Mexico, I had become somewhat dead inside. Intuitively, I sensed that I had become overly cerebral and detached from nature–and as a result detached from my own soul. My rebirth came not by rethinking my ideas, but through reconnection with nature, both the nature out in the world as well my own human animal nature. And my connection came through the senses. Hard for me to put this in a few sentences, as it took me 200 pages to describe it in my memoir. But I believe the path to the soul must often pass through the senses.
Jerry: I have met many aspiring memoir writers who wish they could convey the spirituality of their lives. I think you have done an excellent job doing exactly that. But rather than defining spirituality, you show how it pervaded a number of your experiences, such as love and romance, letting go of rigid structures, folk religion, visiting a holy site, and an extraordinarily poignant, even chilling portrayal of a funeral. Your method of portraying spirituality as a pervasive essence makes an interesting model for how other writers could achieve the same goal. When you wrote your memoir, did you have an idea how you were going to write about spirituality? Or did you let the scenes speak for themselves, allowing spirituality to peek out from the edges?
Rick: I think your last comment comes closest to answering the question, How to convey spirituality in a story? Spirituality has to do with the unknowable mystery of life and, for a writer, thus can only be approached indirectly. As with emotions, you can’t really describe it as you would a physical object, or argue for it, or beg for it, but must use concrete objects, sensory details and action to do so, to represent it metaphorically. We are genetically hard-wired, I believe, to respond emotionally to well-wrought stories–we’ve been telling them for a million years or longer, from tales of the hunt around the campfire to today’s memoir and the story of search for meaning and self-actuation. The tried and true conventions of storytelling–conflict, the hero’s quest, dramatic irony, pointed dialogue, revelation, resolution, etc.–still apply and give us tools to transmit emotion of all sorts, including the spiritual variety. Those who wish to convey the emotion of a spiritual quest would be well served, I think, by studying the dramatic arts, which include fiction-writing techniques. When I write, whether it be memoir or fiction, I work to put the reader in the place of the story, so it becomes the reader’s experience as well, so the reader visits the scene in his or her imagination and feels the emotion. I want the words to disappear, for the reader to get beyond the intellectual surface of the page and into the imaginative world of the story. In the case of this memoir, I did not set out to write about spirituality per se, but to write about a pivotal time in my life where I went through a great transformation, part of which was opening myself up to the non-rational in life. To do that effectively and make people feel it, I had to use all my tricks as a creative writer.
Jerry: How has your sense of your spiritual quest changed and grown over the years?
Rick: It never ends. One strives to stay centered, balanced, but without always succeeding. When I get off base I try to return to the things I learned in Mexico: to appreciate small blessings, to acknowledge greater forces, to live inside my body and in the moment. I return to Jung and Zen writings, and to the gods and spirits of my childhood pantheon, which reside in nature, both animate and inanimate. Then comes the rebirth, if one is lucky, when the world again seems new, fecund and inviting.
Turning Journals and Notebooks Into a Memoir
by Jerry Waxler
When Rick Skwiot moved to Mexico in the 1980s, he had two goals. He wanted to find himself spiritually and also find his writing voice. Years later, he wrote about the trip in the memoir “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing.”
In the first part of this interview I asked Rick to help me understand more about the spiritual aspects of his search. Now in this and following parts, I ask about his literary journey. The book explains that he wanted to be a writer. I wanted to learn more about how he fulfilled those dreams by turning his powerful life experience into a book that invites readers to relive it with him.
Jerry Waxler: You mentioned your writing journals quite a bit, since writing was one of the things you did to pass the time. Explain how you used your writing notebooks while you were in Mexico.
Rick Skwiot: My journals were crucial in my development as a writer. Not only did I record events of my life, but I also, as you suggest, wrote fictional scenes there, experimented with writing styles, penned criticism on the books I was reading, recorded my dreams and more. It was a mishmash of fact and fiction that would likely misinform and mislead any reader other than myself. My journals were a cauldron from which a writer emerged, finally. They also taught me the discipline of writing every day and thinking every day, examining my life and the world around me with a sense of writerly investigation. For a writer, most everything is research and potential material, which makes us such charming companions, half vulture, half snake-in-the-grass.
Jerry: As you were attempting to write the memoir, what help were your original contemporaneous notebooks? How did it feel reading that old material?
Rick: A curious thing occurred regarding the notebooks’ content. I had mined the notebooks/journals years earlier when writing my two novels set in Mexico, and had not revisited them in perhaps ten years. But when I did I found that the fictionalized versions of events, from my novels, had come to be my reality, how I remembered things. My contemporaneous reporting of events shocked me at times, for I had not remembered things that way at all. This showed how unreliable memory (and perhaps a memoir) can be, and alerted me to the power and truth of fiction. I was also surprised by how hungry I was back then. I was on a compulsive quest to find myself, and my journal notes underscore how serious and driven I was, how dead set on saving myself. It was somewhat frightening in retrospect, for I saw what peril I was in at the time, and found myself feeling sympathetic and paternalistic toward my former self.
Jerry: How have your habits and strategies with notebooks changed over the years? How do you use them now?
Rick: Nowadays I don’t keep a regular journal and only start doing so when I am beginning to work on a book. Then I use a notebook to sketch out plot, dialogue, scenes, characters, etc. So it is more of a workbook than a journal. Also, I think my life has become much more mundane–which is a mixed blessing–and doesn’t inspire journal entries. Also, I have come to trust my memory, which is a writer’s capital, his material. I know everything that has happened to me is in my mind, in my conscious or unconscious, and that it will surface in some form when I need it. I noted this in particular when writing my childhood memoir, Christmas at Long Lake. When I began writing a scene and put myself in that place emotionally and, through the imagination, physically, I began to see and remember–the sights, smells, words, feelings–from my childhood. It was in some ways a very moving experience, spending time again, in that way, with my late parents, when they were young and vital. Most bittersweet and affecting for me.
Jerry: Many aspiring memoir writers look at their pile of notes, their many memories, and feelings, and are daunted by the prospect of turning them into a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. What was that like for you, as you tried to find a theme or organization or thread of this book?
Rick: That’s always the most agonizing and daunting part of writing a book, organizing and structuring it. What I try to do, and what I advise my writing students to do, is to think in terms of scenes–as in theater, compressed, meaningful action that takes place in real time at one location with a few important characters, and dialogue that drives the narrative forward and reveals character. I will note down what scenes I feel are obligatory, scenes I know I want in the book, somewhere, or that need to be there. Then I start to organize them in some effective way–whether it’s chronologically, thematically, geographically or whatever. I often do use a schematic in doing this–I draw boxes that represent scenes–so I can see what needs to happen first, what relationships and interconnections there are between various incidents and characters, and so I can easily move things around. Once I arrive at a workable ordering of the scenes, I can write them (or often I write the scenes first and worry later about where they go.) The last thing then is to write the summary and transitions, the authorial intrusions, if any, and needed exposition. Of course this is a very messy and recursive process, and difficult and potentially heartbreaking. You can write the whole book and then see that one particular scene is out of place, so you have to tear the book all apart and do another organization and a lot more work. This was even more daunting in the pre-computer days, when each draft meant having to re-type the whole manuscript. But I was happy to do it, as I thought such rigors weeded out the dilettantes and other writers not as insanely committed as I.
Jerry: There was a rhythm to the way the book was set up, with your initial burst of enthusiasm, some rethinking, then a trip back to the states and the start of a second round. I liked the rise and fall and rise again. It felt organic and natural. This is especially important for writers because the middle of a book is supposed to be the hardest, keeping the energy moving during the “long middle.” It’s hard enough to get the overall structure. You have done an excellent job of finding internal structure too. Talk about how you worked through the material looking for the shape.
Rick: I am gratified that the book’s structure “felt organic and natural,” because it was arrived at after a lot of trial and error and anxiety. Yes, I did labor over it, and it changed shape drastically over the ten years of its gestation. At last–and this came after numerous drafts over the years–I settled on starting the book in the middle of things, at the pivotal and dramatic point when I broke my ankle playing basketball on the Mexican team. Then most of what happens in the first half of the book is told in flashback. This gave me the opportunity to order things thematically and control pacing. Part two, my return to Mexico, is told more chronologically. The key for writers is the get the story going right off the bat, to get and hold the reader’s interest and attention. Once you have some conflict or problem on the table that captivates the reader, then you can begin to layer in some of the needed exposition, in a judicious way. This applies to creative nonfiction as well as fiction. It is perhaps the most difficult thing about writing a book, keeping the narrative driving forward.
A Memoirist Talks About the Backstory of His Memoir
by Jerry Waxler
Writing a memoir is a journey. In addition to finding and writing material, we also strive to improve our skills, the same road taken by the authors of all those books that have entertained and informed us since the beginning of our lives. In addition to the lessons they have recorded between the covers of their books, many writers are also happy to teach. In this third part of my interview with Rick Skwiot, novelist, writing teacher, and author of the memoir “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing,” I pry into his insights about writing.
Jerry Waxler: I was intrigued to see you immersed with these characters. You wanted deeply to learn from them about letting go and just living. And yet, you kept diving into your books. It was an interesting character portrayal of yourself, a guy who wanted to find himself in the culture and yet kept finding himself in books. I can relate! How self-conscious were you of this self-portrait? Did you have to work at the self-portrayal, or did this emerge naturally from events.
Rick Skwiot: I don’t think I consciously crafted a self-portrait here. I was just trying to report on this guy who went to Mexico and found himself, and how that came about. For most any memoirist, there are two first-person characters: the author/narrator who is writing it and the historical character who experienced the events in the book’s scenes. The author has some temporal distance from that other first-person character, in my case, the man I was some 25 years ago. I think I was able to write about him with some detachment because he isn’t me, but a character from my past who has no current existence. This was even more apparent to me when I previously wrote my childhood memoir, Christmas at Long Lake, which takes place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1953, when I was six years old. In fact, in early drafts I used third person to describe the six-year-old Rickey, since he seemed another person to me. (My agent and the first few publishers who read the manuscript found this rather off-putting, and I subsequently agreed and changed it to first person.) Anyway, in writing San Miguel de Allende, Mexico I was able to draw from extensive journals I kept in those days, a day-by-day reporting of what I did, what I read, and what I thought. So I was able to recount fairly accurately who I was in those days, and to perceive the significance of events then thanks to the authorial distance of some decades.
Jerry: In your book you show scenes when you are reading great works of literature or working on your own writing. I enjoy this aspect of your book. You let me watch your literary coming of age, during which you drink in the literature that came before you so you can learn how to write your own. Could you say a bit about your choice to put your literary passions into the story of your stay in San Miguel Allende.
Rick: I think you’ve said it pretty well, Jerry. The great literature I was being exposed to then for the first time affected me deeply and altered me–it was an important part of my experience. And these were the giants I was, and am still, measuring myself against as a writer. I know there are all sorts of writers just as there are all sorts of people, but in my heart I never really wanted to be a commercial writer but a writer of literature. This was a great and difficult leap for me, to aspire to do that, as I came from a working-class environment where there were no writers, much less literary artists. Being a creative artist just wasn’t on the radar for me. But as I grew and developed and gained confidence, I kept raising my goals and expectations for myself. As I show in my memoir, at the time I first went to San Miguel de Allende I was still very unsure of myself as a writer and an artist–I had hopes, but that was it. But I also had some great mentors who pointed the way–Chekhov, Simenon, Cather, Hemingway, et al. These were my instructors and role models. They were pivotal in my development and important characters in my life, even though I had never met them. Thus they had to be characters in my book.
Jerry: Fascinating. That explains a lot. Your journey from a working class family to an young man who wanted to be a literary writer is an unspoken subtext to the memoir driving the protagonist. It’s like I am now seeing the backstory that makes the book work even though in the book you don’t show scenes from that childhood. I love it. Many memoir writers struggle with how much backstory to put into their memoir, and now I’m seeing that sometimes it’s okay to let the character’s personality speak for itself.
Rick: Exactly. The reader will get it if it is embedded honestly…I’m now writing a novel in which an angel from Writer’s Heaven, Ernest Hemingway, acts as a mentor to my protagonist, so I’ve been immersed in what the real-life Hemingway had to say about the craft of writing. I think his “Iceberg Theory” from Death in the Afternoon applies here: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.” In San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, there would be no struggle, no story, if our protagonist had come from, say, a family of writers or artists or successful people who paved the way for him–or at least it would have been a different type of struggle. But I knew my working-class backstory (and the role it played in my struggle) and had previously written about it with affection in my childhood memoir Christmas at Long Lake. There you see that while I had no material class advantages to speak of, I was given one great gift, a hard love that granted me emotional security and kept me grounded–which ultimately enabled me to venture out spiritually, intellectually and artistically. As to my Mexican memoir, I sensed rightly, I think, that any extensive digression into my childhood or my frugal family background would interfere with the narrative drive and perhaps come off as self-indulgent.
How does it feel to write a book? Tenacity of a writer.
By Jerry Waxler
Aspiring memoir writers look forward to someday looking back on the publication of a book about that earlier period in their lives. What will that feel like? More importantly, what will it take to get there? In this part of my interview with Rick Skwiot, author of “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing,” I ask both questions.
Jerry Waxler: So now, flash forward to when you were actually writing the book. What did it feel like to go back into those periods? Did you feel nostalgic, or reluctant to remember? What sorts of things did you learn from the writing that you had not noticed the first time?
Rick Skwiot: As I mentioned above, in most memoirs there are two first persons, two I’s–I the narrator and I the character at the time of the story. The early Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus wrote that no man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man. My more mature self certainly felt nostalgic, but the strongest feeling was the sensation that I had left behind another unlived life–that there was another man there and then and another river, which he chose not to wade into. It makes one wonder about the roads not taken, a very bittersweet sensation, but also, for a writer, a great springboard for imagination and new stories, new fictional worlds. It makes you realize that the choices we make in life really matter, and that timing is everything. Luck matters too.
Jerry: Tell me about your persistence, your pressure, your long goals, and so on of taking so many years to turn the story into a publishable one that actually reached me. What sustains you through this long, tenacious, ambition to find readers?
Rick: What keeps me going is a brand of insanity. Certainly writing is an obsession with me, for I can’t stop, and a vice, for it gives me such pleasure. One has to be compelled to do this, for the work is daunting and endless and the rewards–by most standards–meager. I tell writing students and beginning writers, “If you don’t have to do this, if you can do something else, if you are not driven my some inner force that defies logic, then don’t waste your time. You’ll only make yourself and those around you miserable.” But for me it is a calling, like the priesthood, perhaps, though not with a vow of poverty but actual poverty. However, all those caveats are swept aside for me when the work goes well, when you have the joy of creation and feeling of being visited by the muses, and you find the best parts of yourself somehow, which end up on a printed page. At times, when I am questioning myself and having second thoughts about the whole enterprise and I go back and re-read my earlier published work, I am awestruck, wondering how I did it, where it came from, feeling as though it was not me that pulled it off but that I was just a mere vessel into which Calliope, say, poured some libation which I then spilled out on the page. Then I see I have taken the right road.
A novelist comes alive in a memoir, or is it the other way around?
by Jerry Waxler
Rick Skwiot, author of “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing,” also wrote several fiction books, making him a good resource to help me understand the relationship between these two apparently very different narrative forms. In the first parts of this interview I asked him about; his spiritual quest, turning notebooks into a memoir, and more about his life as a writer. In this fifth part of our interview, I ask him about fiction, fact, and finding an end.
Jerry Waxler: You have written several fiction books. Which did you learn first, memoir writing or fiction writing? Have themes from your journey to Mexico infused your other writing? If so, how?
Rick Skwiot: Learning how to write fiction came first with me, long before I ever thought of writing a memoir, though “learning” it is a never-ending journey, perhaps like “learning” philosophy or learning wholeness. However, like fiction writing, memoir writing is creative writing, and all the tools and approaches that I learned as a novelist I applied to my two memoirs: how to organize my material for dramatic effect, develop interesting characters, modulate and pace the story, construct emotion-laden scenes, build taut and tense dialogue, keep the narration driving forward, etc.
Fiction writing also helped sharpen my imaginative powers, which certainly come in handy when writing a memoir. For example, in my childhood memoir I wrote a scene in which I imagined my widowed grandmother’s secret lover (whom I learned about 50 years after the fact) meandering North St. Louis streets after being chased from her flat prior to our Christmas morning arrival. Appropriate turf for a memoir, I think, the memoirist’s thoughts, feelings, and imagination.
As to themes from my Mexico journeys infusing my other writing, yes, they do, for they have become part of me. They show up quite plainly in my two early Mexican novels, particularly in Sleeping With Pancho Villa, though in an indirect and subtle way, I hope. The playwright Arthur Miller once said that all drama attempts to answer the question, “How does a man make for himself a home?” That can be said of novels and memoirs as well. I think the spiritual quest is central to that search for home. All men and women have something of Odysseus in them, and lives that parallel the Odyssey—we are all trying to find ourselves and our place in the world, to vanquish monsters and false suitors and navigate threatening seas to return home.
Jerry: How did writing a memoir help your fiction?
Rick: Writing a memoir helps put the author in touch with his or her deepest feelings. It is both, from time to time, a melancholy and an uplifting process. But digging into oneself and one’s past in an honest way helps a writer recognize what’s important—what resonates with you, what moves you, what frightens you. Those things are probably what should drive one’s fiction writing as well. Overall it helps you see yourself better and more honestly, which will make you stronger as a fiction writer and as a human being.
Jerry: How much help did you receive from other writers, say in critique groups. Did other writers help you gain perspective and create a clean, straightforward portrayal of your journey?
Rick: I got some valuable feedback on early drafts from writers and intelligent readers alike. Actually, the concept of starting the book at the time I broke my ankle came from a reader who is not a professional writer but a yoga instructor in Mexico. When he made the suggestion, it was like a curtain going up and I saw the rightness of it. (I’ve learned to trust my heart on fielding criticism, rejecting suggestions that don’t really resonate with me, and embracing those that feel like revelation or, conversely, sting.) Most writers benefit from good critiques, and it is very difficult to operate without them. However, it is not always easy to find. Fortunately I do have some friends who are novelists, and we read each other’s works-in-progress.
Jerry: What are you working on next?
Rick: I have just finished a “final” draft of a novel, Key West Story, in which a down-and-out writer in Key West, suffering from writer’s block, penury, and self-doubt, is visited by an angel—a young Ernest Hemingway reincarnate—sent down to get this worthy yet misguided soul back on track as a man and a writer. Together they set off to Cuba in Hemingway’s fishing boat, to attempt to smuggle out a Cuban Navy salvage diver, a Santeria priestess and maps to sunken Spanish galleons. Although it has certain autobiographical elements, probably best written as fiction, not a memoir.
Jerry: One last thing. I am very sensitive to downbeat endings. For one thing, my experience with the existential and nihilistic literature popular in the sixties depressed me profoundly. Once I overcame that depression, I have tended towards literature that lifts. From that point of view, your book challenged me. I found the pervasive death and poverty depressing. And yet, in the end, I felt uplifted, not by what you found in Mexico but what you found inside yourself. This theme of a young person trying to find himself is one of my favorite themes. But you had to finesse your personal rewards within the gritty reality around you. I can see a dynamic tension between these two opposing forces, your insistence to grow and the severe limitations that poverty placed on the people around you. How did you feel about portraying this tension?
Rick: I have spent my life trying to balance those opposing forces, the yin and yang, my melancholy and my exuberance—product, perhaps, of a mercurial Slavic soul. The world has always been a difficult and dismal place for our species, with threats and evil lurking, but also an enveloping home with great beauty and riches. Life is struggle, for everyone, and those who have the inner resources and high spirits to fight on in the face of great adversity are those we most admire. Like you, I want to hear their stories, not the stories of quitters, pessimists and whiners. The protagonists don’t have to succeed in reaching their goals, but they have to strive with great heart. When we read these stories, we see it is the struggle that ennobles us and the thing that matters most.
By Rose Postma
Today University of Missouri–St. Louis alumnus Rick Skwiot is an award-winning author of several books, but in 1965 he was just a freshman beginning his education at UMSL. His unversity experience challenged and changed him.
“Many students were first generation university students like me – ethnic, eager to break from working class backgrounds,” he said. ”It was intellectually and socially stimulating. It made me think about living large, having a life of the mind.”
And live large he has. After earning a BA in sociology in 1970 from UMSL, Skwiot spent a large part of the 1980s in San Miguel De Allende, Mexico, trying to understand the culture and find himself.
Those years in Mexico provide much of the basis for his new memoir, “San Miguel De Allende, Mexico: A Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing.” His sojourn was filled with struggle, drama, seemingly supernatural occurrences, beautiful settings, humor and even a little sex and violence – the perfect subject for a memoir.
“In writing a memoir you get to use all your skills as a novelist and fiction writer, but you don’t have to spend all that time making it up and agonizing over plot, characters and causality,” he said. “Also, nonfiction has a certain credibility and accessibility for many readers who may not always buy into fiction. It’s simply another way at getting at the truth.”
Skwiot’s native St. Louis makes several appearances in the book as he periodically returned to Missouri in order to work to finance additional time in San Miguel De Allende. And even though he currently lives in Florida, he still makes it back to St. Louis several times a year.
“No living relatives left here,” he said, “but many friends and memories – of all sorts.”
Antaeus Books, which recently published “San Miguel De Allende, Mexico,” is a new publishing house founded in 2010 and is also reissuing Skwiot’s earlier published works in new editions.
“It seems committed to doing first-rate production of good literature,” said Skwiot.
Rick Skwiot has come a long way since those days as a freshman at UMSL and said a thousand things have shaped him, including his love of life and literature.
“Even as a child, I was interested in dramatic stories and books and hypersensitive – all helpful characteristics of a writer,” he said. “I’ve also learned self discipline and self reliance. Nothing good is ever accomplished without hard work and dedication, and no one else can do it for you.
Frequent SLM contributor Rick Skwiot writes both fiction and nonfiction; what he’s after is truth. In his new memoir— San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing—it takes experience, memory, and imagination (not to mention women and tequila) to dissolve his North American angst. “Instead of cluttering their psyches with the debris of envy, hypocrisy, or regret,” he writes, the people of Mexico “exposed their sins and shortcomings, often with humor and a lack of self-consciousness or contrition that astounded me.”
You stayed in San Miguel de Allende 25 years ago. What surprised you, when you started remembering and writing about it?
How susceptible I was then, how much it all affected me. Living back here for so many years, I had redeveloped a gringo veneer. The other thing that was surprising to me was the schism between my memory and the journal I kept then, which was more on-the-spot reporting. I had remembered things differently than I had written about them. It made me start thinking about not only my own mind but how memory fluctuates and expands and moves about.
Which reality do you prefer—the one your imagination has elaborated, or the purer documentation?
The former. I’m very intuitive, very emotional. So the hard facts of things are not as important as the way they affect me. In my personal life, too, I want to get at what the truth is, whatever takes me there.
So what took you to a little town in Mexico called San Miguel de Allende?
I was going down a road in life I didn’t like very much. I had married in college. That didn’t work out. And I had spent three aberrant years in the corporate world, doing PR for AT&T of all people.
Yeah, truly. I wasn’t being myself. That’s what made me so vulnerable. I had this compulsion: I had to do something to change myself.
It’s interesting: You felt so driven to take action, yet the solution turned out to be passive, even indolent.
Yeah. There’s this Mexican philosophy where you just let things happen to you and take advantage of the moment and drop what you are doing if a friend comes by. There’s much more spontaneity.
Mexicans say, “Gringos do not live in their bodies.”
Yeah, and I think that’s become exacerbated now, because we have so much passive visual stuff we’re always focused on, and our work has gotten a lot more physically passive, and we’ve gotten more estranged from nature. Plus we’ve got this whole history of Puritanism and the Protestant Reformation and everything that drove the beginnings of the United States. A denial of physical pleasures runs very deep in this country.
Your book makes it pretty clear that sex, and the sensuousness that surrounded it, helped transform you. How?
The way we are abstracted and living in our minds a lot, sex is one thing that takes us back to what we are all about. Primal urges and feelings, love and affection and family and procreation, all these instincts are blended. It’s our chance to be animals again. It’s the most affecting thing we do to get back in touch with nature. It does get us out of living in our minds. Not only is it transformative, but it’s transcendent. We move out of daily routines and everything else when we are in someone else’s arms.
A woman you knew in Mexico said, “Ay, Rick. You try to speak our language and live like us. But you will never be a true mejicano if you can’t make love with people watching.” Can you now?
What did you leave behind, when you retreated from gringo culture?
A lot of guilt. A lot of self-criticism. I learned to forgive myself, and to forgive other people.
So what did you jettison first?
Being self-assured and closed down socially. A lot of prejudgment. We’re descended culturally from the Brits, and we have this thing where we judge people by the way they look or speak or smell even. That you had to get rid of pretty quickly. Mexico is a different land, and there’s not that much focus on style as there is on substance.
What was it like when you came back to your “cold, gray, cerebral existence” up north?
Why did you come back?
A lot of it is just being ambitious as a writer, and trying to feed myself. I don’t have a trust fund.
You write about finding a neighbor’s dead body, and how she haunted you, ashen-faced, for the next three nights. What do you make of that, 25 years later?
[He sighs.] I don’t know. I go back and look at that section every time I reread the manuscript, and I still don’t know what to make of it. I don’t discount any possibilities. I guess the Mexicans taught me that.
In Mexico, death is not only ever-present, but it’s treated lightly. How did living there change the way you thought about death?
Ultimately, I stopped fearing it. And I think part of that was simply because I’d started living.
Romanian-born novelist Gabriela Popa (author of Kafka’s House) recently interviewed Rick about his new memoir and his work. Following are excerpts from that interview.
GABRIELA POPA: What can you tell us about San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing.
RICK SKWIOT: It’s been described—aptly, I think—as “sexy, surreal and darkly comic.” In it I paint an intimate portrait of Mexico and Mexicans, a people who stole my heart over my years living among them. It’s also a story about how, with their help, I changed who I was—evolved from a man I had come not to like very much to someone with a healthy serving of Mexicano self-love. The book can be enjoyed by anyone planning on visiting Mexico, to help them better experience the nuances of the culture. Conversely, for those put off by swine flu epidemics, dysentery and narcotraficantes, it’s a good way to travel south of the border without leaving home.
GP: What is your journey as a writer?
RS: My journey as a writer is long and circuitous, all uphill, with numerous cul-de-sacs—but also with some spectacular scenery and stirring adventure along the way. The journey for a writer, or for any artist, is very different than that of, say, a scientist, lawyer or carpenter. For a writer, the best training, mentoring, and educational credentials guarantee you nothing. You have to be lucky as well as good—it’s that competitive and difficult. Like a lot of writers, I started out as a newspaper reporter, which helped me build discipline and practice concise writing. I still work as a freelance journalist. But my Mexican days were pivotal in my development as a writer. My sojourns there gave me some great material, which I’ve now mined in two novels and this memoir. But that experience also helped expand in me my human sympathy. All literature, I think, works to expand the bounds of human sympathy, by exposing us to the lives of others. A writer needs to find that sympathy within himself in order to ably convey it.
GP: How did you arrive at writing a book about spirituality?
RS: This book is as much about sensuality as spirituality—and how one can find spiritual deliverance through the senses…Like a lot of gringos traveling south, I went to Mexico in part for the sensuality. But the Mexicans won’t let you let alone with your rigid Anglo-Saxon verities. They infect you with their ample humanity, religiosity and spirituality. Virtually all Mexicans I met, from all classes and backgrounds, assumed spiritual existence, the presence of God or some greater force in our daily lives, as a given. How could they not, what with all the supporting evidence all around them—all the miracles, supernatural occurrences, and grace that seem to seep from the haunting land there?
GP: I enjoyed very much Sleeping with Pancho Villa, one of your novels situated in Mexico. What drew you to that country and its culture?
RS: When I first visited there I felt as if I was time-traveling. The simple lives that people lived in Mexico reminded me of my frugal childhood, which I wrote about in Christmas at Long Lake. The people reminded me of my parents, first- and second-generation Americans who still carried with them European folkways, which you’ve written about so effectively in Kafka’s House. The Mexican people were dignified, warm, whimsical, and soft-spoken—and, then, yet to be massified. It was like a homecoming for me. I kept going back until I found myself there.
GP: It is not easy to introduce any public (American or otherwise) to foreign cultures, such as the Mexican one. How does one go about doing it successfully?
RS: By telling stories that place the reader inside the culture. By layering in the sensory details and dialogue in scenes that work to transfer the emotion inherent in the lives of your characters—in both fiction and nonfiction, such as in a memoir. The trade secrets that the creative writer employs work to bring those people to life, so the reader gains an intimate acquaintance, so the reader can see them and their surroundings in his or her imagination. Fortunately, I kept an extensive journal when I lived in Mexico, which helped me immensely when, at a distance of some years, I sought to recreate that culture in words. In those volumes I had recorded incidents, dialogue and images from Mexico, which stimulated memories and my imagination.
GP: What do you think are the recurring themes in your work?
RS: I think that perhaps someone other than myself—someone with a little distance and perspective—might be better qualified to answer that. I have been told that loss and redemption seem to figure importantly. I like very much the idea of redemption or metamorphosis—perhaps influenced by my own life story as well as by the writings of Carl Jung and by great literature, such as Homer’s Odyssey, that recounts the hero’s quest. As readers, we are terribly moved by the story of anyone who struggles against great odds, against monsters and tyrants, and ultimately succeeds in some way, finding a boon or an answer that somehow brings order to chaos…Also, like most literature, my books, both fiction and nonfiction, involve a search for home—either in the larger world or within oneself.
GP: Can you share with us your next project?
RS: I have been at work preparing manuscripts for the re-issue of my previously published works, Sleeping with Pancho Villa, Death in Mexico (formerly titled Flesh) and Christmas at Long Lake. They are being re-released this fall 2010 by Antaeus Books in both trade paperback and e-book versions…I’m also putting finishing touches on a new novel, Key West Story, set here in the Conch Republic and in Cuba. It tells the story of a down-and-out writer/gigolo—though not autobiographical in the least!
While writing Christmas at Long Lake I re-read José Ortega Y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses, which helped me clarify what I was about in my memoir: depicting the last vestige of a folk culture as mass culture attained supremacy.
In my edition (University of Notre Dame Press, 1985, with foreword by Saul Bellow, of all people), the translator, Anthony Kerrigan, writes in the introduction:
“Though the “folk” tend to be sound, the “masses” do not. These two distinct words evoke a robust distinction…Ortega wrote essays probing the ‘aristocratic’ nature (in the sense of preservation mostly) of the folk and their lore…How often in democracies has not the sound instinct of the folk proven more viable than the elitist machinations of the politicians?”
In Christmas at Long Lake I write of an American family but one still very much European, a first-and-second generation American family yet ruled by folk traditions and values, with old world dignity and self-sufficiency, a benevolent monarchy unto itself.
But looming over it is the neurotic mass culture—in the first TV I see as a boy at a neighbor’s home, in the lurking migration of my father from manual work to paperwork and of my family from bucolic and esthetically rich rural America to denatured and sterile suburbia. I view Christmas at Long Lake as a microcosm of the final days of folk culture in America, documenting the death rattle of family life, independence, and freedom.
* * *
Along with that, I think I was influenced intellectually by my sociological reading, particularly C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite (1956 or thereabouts, I think).
In it he posits that a fundamental power shift had occurred or was occurring in America, from power being vested locally in the family, the church, the community, and the school, shifting to large institutions: the government, the economy, the mass media, the corp-orations, etc.
I think that one thing that makes Christmas at Long Lake poignant for many readers is that it dramatizes that loss of power for one family, it being uprooted and twisted because of these larger institutions, particularly the post-war economy, and losing its own dominion. I think readers understand that loss of power, because it has happened to most fami-lies at one time or another, in one generation or another, the forced moved from self-sufficiency and control over the ruling aspects of their lives to powerlessness and dependency on larger institutions.
But intellectual considerations aside, what drove me to write this book was a visceral feeling of that loss for my family.
From a Sauce Magazine email interview.
Q. What sparked your desire to write this memoir? Was it something you’d been contemplating for quite a while?
A. I think one of the first short stories I ever tried to write, years ago, attempted to capture the ongoing sense of loss I feel for that place and time. The beauty and mystery of my early childhood still haunts me and guides me. And I think my mother’s death prompted me to write this, too, for while she was still alive that history was still alive…My parents, like many, lived largely anonymous lives and left little mark in the larger world—except perhaps on me. I wanted to write this book not only to honor them for what they gave me, but also so I could travel back to that time and place, and to be with them again as they once were.
Q. I think of you primarily as a fiction writer … how was writing a memoir like this different than writing a novel. In what ways was it more challenging?
A. First, writing a memoir is like writing fiction in that you want to structure a narrative around scenes and to write or recreate dialog that shows character and to layer in the sensory detail that will bring the reader into that time and place and the world of your book. (I’m sounding like a writing instructor here.) It is more challenging in that, in a memoir, you are limited to what you are given. You can’t concoct new characters or events to make it work better. So you have to dig deeper to mine better whatever riches you have.
Q. What research did you do for the book?
A. The greatest research I did was to dig down into myself, to go into my memory and commit it to paper. It was at the same time a gratifying and a wrenching task, for the whole book is about loss—loss of a way of life, of innocence, of family, or the irretrievable past. Often, as I sat at my desk writing the manuscript, I would be overcome with it, with the loss and the beauty of it, the warmth and goodness and solidity, and literally tears would be coursing down my face as I relived the sweetness of my early days. The only other research I did was for broader historical and municipal background.
Q. The beautifully described setting of this book was one of the most impressive parts, for me. How difficult was it for you to put the pictures in your mind of your childhood home into words?
A. The whole book was a labor of love, for the place and time as well as for the people. It was a pleasure to try and craft the sensory depiction of the physical world there, to recreate it so the reader can see it and smell it and taste it and hear it and feel it. That, for me, is the pleasurable part of writing. The structuring and architecture and such are agony, trying to figure out what your work ought to be. But the wordsmithing and layering in the sensory stuff and making it come alive—that’s great fun. I would put myself back there, for example, on the frozen lake with my father, and I could bring it all back: the smell of burning leaves, the sting of the cold air, the feel of the ice on the soles of my shoes. Then it’s just a matter of selecting the right details that make it vivid for you—they’ll make it vivid for the reader as well.
Q. Did the final book end up as you expected, or (as often happens in fiction) did the “story” change and evolve from your original conception?
A. It evolved a lot, mostly in terms of structure. I wanted to write a book that captured the place and the time but also wanted a compressed narrative that would keep readers with me. As it developed, my challenge was to compress the memories of four seasons over six years into a narrative that spans only 36 hours. To do that I used a variety of rhetorical devices, such as flashbacks, and “essays,” such as the chapter on my first grade experience, or the chapter on the rustic nature of the house itself, as interludes within the narrative. That was the most demanding aspect of writing it, that structuring, to keep it moving while still getting in everything I wanted to say about the place, to paint the picture while still telling a story.