About 20 years ago, Professor John Skoyles found himself gathering a dossier of crazy letters or outrageous things he’d heard or read.
“I used to pull [the file] out when I had friends over and everyone would start laughing,” he said. “Then one Christmas vacation from Emerson, I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to type some of this up.’”
Two weeks later, he had the beginnings of The Nut File (Quale Press, 2017), a kind of “fiction/nonfiction hybrid” released June 1.
Skoyles, associate chair of the Writing, Literature, and Publishing Department and poetry editor of Ploughshares, is the author of six books of poems (A Little Faith, Permanent Change, Definition of the Soul, The Situation, Inside Job, and Suddenly It’s Evening: Selected Poems); a collection of personal essays (Generous Strangers); a memoir (Secret Frequencies: A New York Education); and an autobiographical novel (A Moveable Famine: A Life in Poetry).
But The Nut File is something else entirely. It blends anecdotes, letters, emails, obituaries, and news items culled from his collection (“In fact, the file is ten times larger than what I published.”) with original short stories.
He includes a scene of Patti Smith at Allen Ginsberg’s deathbed, and anecdotes from the likes Truman Capote, Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), and Vladimir Nabokov, as well as Skoyles’ family, friends, and Skoyles himself.There’s a bit of trivia about ventriloquist Paul Winchell, inventor of the flameless cigarette lighter, batter-heated gloves, and the invisible garter belt, and film voice of Winnie the Pooh’s Tigger. He died within hours of John Fiedler, voice of Pooh’s Piglet.
There are stories about a murder suspect, people eating Chinese food, and JFK.
He’s created a fictional character called “the dean,” – any resemblance to actual deans, living or dead, is purely coincidental — who injects a little (extra) absurdity into the book. (i.e., the dean approves a sabbatical project to summarize the outcome of other sabbaticals.)
Despite the mix of fact and fiction, tragedy and comedy, and lack of plot, the book does have a destination, and it does “get serious at the end.” Skoyles said he achieved this in two ways: careful arranging of material, and recurring statements.
In one personal anecdote, Skoyles recalls a childhood trip to a German restaurant with an aunt. The waiter, very formally, delivers a comically long list of dishes, which he follows with “These are the schnitzels.”
“Throughout the book, when someone does something [questionable], the next line might be, ‘These are the schnitzels,’” Skoyles said.
“It’s a matter of placing them all together so they do form a sort of sense,” he went on. “Even though there is no storyline, there is a kind of narrative arc.”
So how much of Emerson made it into The Nut File? “Not much,” specifically, Skoyles said, though his many years in academia has provided a fair amount of fodder.
“If the faculty were asked to choose between two doors, one that led to Paradise and the other to a lecture on Paradise, most would choose the lecture.”