An unburied dream

Celebrated emeritus faculty member Paul Skenazy pens prize-winning fiction debut

Last month, Paul Skenazy, a UC Santa Cruz emeritus professor of literature, drew a capacity crowd to Bookshop Santa Cruz for his reading from Temper CA, followed with a Q & A with bestselling author and fellow Santa Cruzan Jonathan Franzen. (photo by Shelby Graham)

Paul Skenazy’s fiction-writing dream began in his youth, but he buried it. “It took me years to say, ‘I want to be a fiction writer, that is what I am going to do,’”  said Skenazy, a UC Santa Cruz emeritus professor of literature.

Fifteen years ago, Skenazy retired from UC Santa Cruz and unearthed that old dream. Now, that decision is starting to pay off in ways that Skenazy can only describe as “shocking.”  Last year, Skenazy’s debut novella, Temper CA, beat out 200 other contenders to win the prestigious Miami University Press Novella Prize.

This honor puts Skenazy in rarified company; previous honorees include Garth Greenwell, a celebrated fiction writer and literary critic whose debut book, What Belongs to You, was hailed as the “first great novel of 2016” by Publishers Weekly.

The blessings kept coming. Miami University Press, which only releases two books a year, published Temper CA in the winter of 2018. The book tells the story of a woman who returns to her hometown in California’s Gold Country to attend her grandfather’s funeral. During this visit, she has a reckoning with her childhood myths and California’s violent past.

Last month, Skenazy drew a capacity crowd to Bookshop Santa Cruz for his reading from Temper CA, followed with a Q & A with bestselling author and fellow Santa Cruzan Jonathan Franzen, who praised Skenazy for “the gift of creating characters who are sympathetic not in spite of their prickliness but because of it, and of depicting human bonds that are all the tenser for being so strong.”

That reading felt like “a coming out party,” Skenazy said. “It was amazing. It was really one of the great nights of my life. I just felt like I had gotten a bunch of gifts from the heavens.”

Many former students  were out in the crowd, including the fiction writer, essayist, and playwright Kathy Chetkovich (Porter ‘80, literature), who is grateful for his years of mentorship at UC Santa Cruz.  

“One thing I loved about Paul’s literature classes was the way we were encouraged to do the kind of close reading that doesn’t reduce a book by explaining it but instead enlarges it by opening it up, asking it questions, releasing its power,” said Chetkovich. ‘“He showed us how something exciting could happen between book and reader. Now it’s forty years later, and he’s turned that same enlivening instinct and love for story, character, and voice to a novel of his own.”

The long and twisty road to publication

In his jacket blurb for Temper CA, Jonathan Franzen noted that Skenazy’s fiction “misbehaves. It swerves, it revisits ground and digs deeper, it confounds expectations.” The same words could be used to describe Skenazy’s long, swerving, confounding, and sometimes tortuous journey toward publication.

For many years, Skenazy did not have the time to focus on his fiction writing ambitions. After attending the University of Chicago and Stanford, he taught contemporary U.S. fiction to UC Santa Cruz students for 30 years.

He led a rich, full life, with three children, a successful marriage, and a job he loved. He wrote several published books, including Conversations With Maxine Hong Kingston and scholarly works about James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett. But his schedule and his side interests, including a mystery novel-reviewing gig for the Washington Post, crowded out his writing life. The most he could do was craft humorous poems and stories for friends.

His time and mental space opened up at last when he retired from UC Santa Cruz in 2005. But the writing life was never easy, even when he had time to spare. Sharing an early draft with other writers was painful for him. For a while, it shattered his confidence. “I was devastated that good writers didn’t think much of it,” he said. “I mean, they thought it needed work.”

His next 13 years were full of drafts and revisions. This included “a frustrating year trying to please an agent with a very different vision of what the novel should be,” Skenazy recalled.

‘Suddenly, you’re there’

Here is the point in the story where most writers would just give up and scrap the project. But Skenazy could not stop.

“People talk to me about my perseverance,’’ he said. “I think of myself as a dabbler. I play some ukulele. I do some art. I was interested in photography for a while, and moved on to having a dog.”

And yet, he now sees that perseverance is also a part of his personality.

“I dig in,’’ he said. “One thing I talked about, constantly, as a teacher, was ‘chewing on the bone.’ You’ve got to keep chewing to get to the marrow.’’ This applied to the students’ creative work as well as their close reading skills. “Slow down, look at the paragraph,’’ he said. “It is going to matter. You are going to find more in it than you think, and once you do, everything will open up. That is what happened to me. I was willing to listen to people near me, who said, ‘You can do more.’ Then you get lucky.”

The Santa Cruz-based author Thad Nodine, (Ph.D. ‘90, literature), a friend of Skenazy’s, remembers him as an “honest, kind, insightful, and incredibly well-read” thesis advisor at UC Santa Cruz. These days, Nodine is relishing his mentor’s publishing success.

Skenazy’s experience in getting Temper CA published should bring hope to all writers, Nodine said. It just goes to show that writers who are serious about publication must rewrite stories, re-imagine characters, and streamline plots, Nodine said. “But in the meantime, keep submitting your work again and again. It’s been an inspiration to watch Paul meddle with his characters and their lives in Temper CA. He pushed some into the background and brought others forward as he found new storylines. But through it all he found his own way to the book he wanted to write.”

Once the swirl about Temper CA subsides, Skenazy hopes to return to other fiction projects. Meanwhile, he’s savoring the moment.

“You work on something that is pretty abstract for a long time,’’ he said. “Then suddenly, those years turn into something. It is this affirmation that you’re alive, that it’s worth taking time on something that takes forever, that never seems to bear fruit, and seems to be part of some silly dream you’ve always had. And, suddenly, you’re there.”

Catamaran Literary Reader will host a lit chat with Paul Skenazy on Friday, February 1, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Catamaran’s office at 1050 River Street, Studio 118, in Santa Cruz. Skenazy will also take part in an author chat with Elizabeth McKenzie (The Portable Veblen) at Wellstone Center in the Redwoods in Soquel on Saturday, March 23, at 2 p.m.