Q&A: Floyd Skloot Talks About Imagining the Life of Thomas Hardy

The Phantom of Thomas Hardy is the newest book from Portland-based poet, essayist, and novelist Floyd Skloot.  It is an engrossing, erudite novel set in contemporary England, with the author and his wife Beverly among its cast of characters.  Skloot is a rare writer who seems equally at home with prose and poetry, and he has delivered lapidary new poetry collections every few years, along with award-winning works of fiction and creative nonfiction.

Skloot is probably best known for his memoir In the Shadow of Memory, which won numerous prizes, including a PEN USA Literary Award and an Oregon Book Award in Creative Nonfiction.  Skloot was afflicted by a brain virus in 1988 that seriously affected his ability to function both cognitively and physically, and In the Shadow of Memory is a graceful, harrowing, and witty chronicle of Skloot’s experiences during the long recovery process from the illness.

Having read several of Skloot’s twenty books in the last few years, I have been impressed by how flawlessly he integrates researched material into his fiction and nonfiction.  The Phantom of Thomas Hardy,  published by University of Wisconsin Press, is no exception.  It also demonstrates Skloot’s enviable ability to combine biography and personal narrative — all within the schema of a mystery novel.  Readers will be spurred to seek out more of his books and to pick up Thomas Hardy novels they might previously have missed.   – Christine Sneed

Q: You've called The Phantom of Thomas Hardy a fictional memoir.  What do you mean by this?

A: In the four memoirs I've published, I felt that I had a compact with my reader--I would not make anything up, would present the truth as fully and accurately as I could. There's a passage in The Phantom of Thomas Hardy that pertains to this intention I had in writing my memoirs: "I believed I was on an essential journey of discovery and had to see the fullest truth or else I myself would be transformed into a lie."

But The Phantom of Thomas Hardy was something else entirely, a fictional memoir, where I got to make things up while using the tone, approach, characters and style of memoir. I chose this in large part as a response to Thomas Hardy's cockamamie approach to writing his own, self-ghostwritten biography.

Very late in life he composed an intentionally evasive, highly unreliable autobiography that he instructed his wife to publish under her own name after his death, as though it were an official biography written by her. It was virtually a fictional biography, though offered as fact. My purpose, though, is the same in this fictional memoir as it was in my four memoirs: an essential journey of discovery where I had to see the fullest truth about myself. Only this time I got to make things up. Which, I think, freed the narrative toward deeper understanding.

Q: Some of Phantom is based on a trip you and your wife Beverly took to England in 2012 to visit Hardy's home.  What were the seeds of this novel? Was it the trip itself or did you undertake this journey in order to do research with this book already in mind?

A: Our trip to England in the spring of 2012 wasn't planned to be research at all. We just rented a car and drove through southern England with the idea that we'd include for Beverly visits to some great gardens and areas she'd long wanted to see and also allow me to pay homage to some writers whose work had been significant in my life. I made a grand list of writers, but since we only had about 2 1/2 weeks, we both had to make hard choices about what to include and exclude.

For me, it boiled down to visiting Dylan Thomas' home in Wales and Thomas Hardy's territory in Dorset. I figured it was likely that after such a journey I'd write an essay about it all--and I did do that, publishing "To Land's End and Back" in Boulevard two years later--but I didn't have any idea that a book would emerge as it did.

Q: You mentioned in a recent email exchange that you wrote several drafts of this novel.  I'm curious about how it changed over time.  

A: There were four drafts. I think each one allowed me to go deeper into the character of Thomas Hardy as he appears in the story. And to discover more about how all the "real" characters--such as Floyd, Beverly, my daughter Rebecca, Professor Robert Russell, and of course Thomas Hardy and those people who were part of his life--fit together in the story, and how all the many fictional characters, such as the various local residents of Dorset, fit with the "real" characters and within the narrative and setting.  I came to understand more about the possibilities for resolution within the story as it developed, and about what the stakes were for Floyd in pursuing his mission on Hardy's behalf.

Q:  Thomas Hardy's domestic life and probable romantic disappointments are pondered here with insight and compassion.  This novel is a rich meditation on love, along with what I consider to be a literary mystery.  What were some of your influences before and while you wrote Phantom?

A: Hardy's work has been part of my life for 48 years, since I began my college honors thesis on his novels in 1968. That, plus reading or rereading eight biographies of Hardy and numerous studies of his life and work and place, were the sort of immersion I needed. I read a few fictional memoirs such as Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes and Paul Theroux's My Other Life, both of which I loved, though what I needed to write was utterly different.

I also read a few novels in which real-life writers are main characters, such as Colm Toibin's The Master (Henry James) or David Lodge's A Man of Parts (H.G. Wells). Reading those and other fascinating novels helped convince me that I didn't want to write a similar sort of biographical novel about Hardy--such an approach simply wasn't for me, though many others have written beautifully in that genre.

Q: I read in one of your published essays that you studied Hardy's work intensively as an undergraduate at Franklin and Marshall College and were familiar with his life and work before you wrote Phantom.  Did you make any new scholarly discoveries about Hardy as you drafted this book?

A: Yes, many. Rereading the eight biographies of Hardy brought into focus many episodes from his life that I'd forgotten, particularly when it came to love in his life other than the relationships with his two wives. I researched much more fully the history of his Max Gate home, the details of his death and its aftermath, and understood more about the choices he made.

Q: A question I suspect you hear fairly often: why have Hardy's novels endured?  And did writing about him in such a personal way change your feelings at all about his body of work? 

A: I think my mentor, Robert Russell, was correct in saying it's Hardy's struggle to speak what he feels and knows in his heart that mesmerizes readers. More so perhaps in his novels and stories than in his poems, though the poetry too has endured and influenced generations of writers. His stories of love's torments feel honest and true to what he feels. And they've thus proven to be excellent sources for film as well. I believe writing The Phantom of Thomas Hardy changed my feelings about Hardy more than about his work--it opened me to greater sympathy for him, got me past the many walls and barriers he put up.
Q: You've written award-winning books in three genres: poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction. Do you prefer one of them more than the others?
A: I don't prefer one genre over another, and am grateful to be able to move among them. But I do believe I'm a poet first--that I began as a writer by writing poetry and that poetry remains at the center of my sense of what writing is, and of where it comes from for me. In writing The Phantom of Thomas Hardy, it was liberating to be able to use the memoir form, in which I felt absolutely committed to fact, and finally be able to make things up since this book is, in fact, fiction.

Q: What are you currently reading and recommending? 

A: As I work on new essays, and sense that a book is beginning to take shape, I find my reading focused a lot on the subject of memory, including group or shared memories and the way various participants in events remember them--or don't. Since a piece I wrote earlier this year concerning my history of concussions, I read not only about the science but also quite a bit about football. Jeanne Marie Laskas' Concussion, the basis for last year's movie starring Will Smith, is superb, as is Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru's League of Denial.

For pleasure right now I'm reading a collection of essays by writers about writers that originally appeared in Vanity Fair. I just finished Pat Conroy's posthumous A Lowcountry Life, Peter Ames Carlin's biography of Paul Simon, and the delightful new book About the House by my dear friend Ron Slate and his daughter, the actress and comedian Jenny Slate.

This interview was edited for publication.

Credit:  Katie Barthelemy

Credit:  Katie Barthelemy

Christine Sneed is the author of the novels Paris, He Said and Little Known Facts, as well as the story collections Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry and The Virginity of Famous Men. Her stories or essays have been included in The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, New Stories from the Midwest, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, New England Review, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and a number of other periodicals. Her books have received the Grace Paley Prize, Ploughshares' Zacharis prize, the Society of Midland Authors Award, and the Chicago Public Library’s 21st Century Award. Her most recent novel, Paris, He Said, was a 2016 Illinois Reads selection. She lives in Evanston, IL and is faculty director for the MFA program at Northwestern University’s graduate program in creative writing.  She is also on the fiction faculty of Regis University's low-residency MFA program.