PLAYA resident Paul Skenazy taught Literature and Writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for many years. Several PLAYA residents fondly remember Paul’s lively lectures as he expanded our horizons on that beautiful campus among the redwoods and banana slugs. Over the years he has published essays, stories, and book reviews in a wide range of newspapers and magazines, as well as critical work on James M. Cain and other noir writers. Now Paul’s first novel, Temper, CA, is out from Miami University Press after winning the press’s 2018 Novella Prize. The book is a delight. We know. We picked up the copy he generously donated to the PLAYA library and found it un-put-down-able. In the book’s first pages, Paul inscribed these words: “1.17.19. To PLAYA–I came with a book I’d given up on–almost. I cut that by a third and got this. Thanks for the space, the time, the friends, the renewal, the beauties, and a few local Oregon stories I stole and took back with me to CA + Temper. Paul Skenazy.”
We’re proud to be part of Paul’s story, and we’re thrilled for his success with Temper. Read about him below, and then absorb his post on Brevity’s nonfiction blog. Inspiring!
Paul, what led you to PLAYA?
Envy. I heard about the residency through friends—Sarah Rabkin and Chuck Atkinson—and then drooled over photos my wife, poet Farnaz Fatemi, sent via email while she was in residence. I had been to some other residencies and saw how the time opened me to new thinking and allowed me to work through tough knots in other projects, so I applied.
Did you come to work on a specific project? If so, did you make progress on it?
I’ve been to PLAYA twice (both times as an alternate, by the way, if that gives hope to someone who didn’t immediately get chosen)—once for two weeks and then for a four-week stay. The first time I had a specific project in mind: a noir story I’d been asked to write for an anthology. The writing took off and in three days I had a draft, in a week a better draft. (The piece never got published, but that’s not PLAYA’s fault.) I then turned to some local wandering, returned to a novel manuscript, and spent time working with two other writers on their manuscripts (a wonderful impromptu workshop we created). The local wandering led me to the Paisley cemetery—which, oddly, led me back to PLAYA.
The second, longer stay was more confusing, and more significant. I came with plans to sort through a mass of papers—notes, drafts, and starts to fiction that went nowhere, journals. On the back burner was a novel manuscript that an agent loved, then didn’t; that he told me to remake into something else; that I couldn’t ever remake to his satisfaction; that I took back and made my own but that still hadn’t found a publisher. A friend urged me to give the book one more try. About a week into the residency, I realized the shuffling through old papers was my way to avoid the tough work of facing that book once again. So I went back to the instinct that led me to the Paisley cemetery. I spent some time reading oral histories in the Paisley library and in the PLAYA collection of local history. I tore my book apart. A week later I had a new, 65,000-word manuscript with a new character and some bits of local Paisley legend to spice up my historical material. A month spent cutting that manuscript down to 40,000 words led to Temper, CA, a book that won the Miami University Press Novella Prize for 2018.
How do you think the land and waterscapes at PLAYA affected your work?
I’m not much of a naturalist. That said, place is a touchstone for me. (“The heart’s field” is Eudora Welty’s term). I fell in love with PLAYA before I got out of my car. I loved the land, the sky, the desert air and high grasses. In terms of my novel, I immersed myself in the human landscape and history more than the physical one. But how does one account for the influence of waking up to fog or heat? Of walking the dry earth of a summer lake or seeing white pelicans? Walks up and down hills and mornings sipping coffee on a deck educate the soul and so find their way into one’s words, paint, or music.
Describe a typical day at PLAYA.
My day usually began with a walk up the hill across the road to the picnic table underneath the trees. A few minutes gazing, a photograph to notice that this morning is not yesterday and won’t be tomorrow, then back for a long morning of writing. Afternoons I’d break up time in my cabin with stretching and an hour or two in the lodge—I’d need the spaciousness after the confines of the cabin and I’d hold my online research (and distractions) to handle there. Late afternoon: sometimes a nap, sometimes wine with other participants at the pond dock, sometimes reading on the deck of the cabin, sometimes a drive to the Summer Lake Wildlife Area or to Paisley, sometimes a hike. The communal dinners led to movies or games on two or three nights; most of the time I’d head back to my cabin to read. Nights when I cooked myself were hasty dinners and then reading/more writing. I often had trouble falling asleep—the intensity of immersion in my work seemed to activate the monkey brain the minute I turned off the light.
What were some highlights for you?
My PLAYA residency did several things for me at once. It gave me time and solitude. It offered conversation with artists, musicians, and other writers. My fiction often features art and photography and I learned a lot from the artists I had as neighbors. In my month at PLAYA, everyone but me left after two weeks, replaced by a new group. Each group was amazing, each distinct, each provided very different interactions. And then there was that remarkable, isolated weekend in-between with no one else around when I lost myself in my work, barely lifting my head from the computer to eat or sleep. When else, and where else, do you have the chance to experience this combination of excitements in a month?
Edge effects in ecological science are the “influences of border communities upon each other” (Brittanica.com). PLAYA alumni, friends, guests, and neighbors are invited to submit blog posts that explore the diverse influences experienced here or because of time spent with us—whether the effects are among disciplines, environments, relationships, or communities. Email PLAYA’s Executive Director to join this conversation.