Scott, Joanna 1960–
Scott, Joanna 1960–
(Joanna Jeanne Scott)
Born June 22, 1960, in Rochester, NY; daughter of Walter Lee and Yvonne (a psychologist) Scott; married James Longenbach; children: Kathryn, Alice. Education: Trinity College (Hartford, CT), B.A. (with honors), 1983; Brown University, M.A., 1985.
Office—University of Rochester, Department of English, Rochester, NY 14627-0451. E-mail—[email protected]
Elaine Markson Literary Agency, Inc., New York, NY, assistant, 1984-85; Brown University, Providence, RI, adjunct lecturer in creative writing, 1986-87; University of Maryland, College Park, assistant professor of English, 1987-88; University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, instructor, 1987, assistant professor, 1988-92, associate professor, 1992-95, profes- sor of English, 1995-99, Roswell Smith Burrows Professor of English, 1999—. Judge for various literary awards, including PEN-Hemingway Award, Katherine Anne Porter Prize, PEN-Faulkner Award, Drue Heinz Award, Janet Kafka Award, William Peden Prize, and literature fellowships for National Endowment for the Arts. Guest lecturer and reader at various universities, bookstores, libraries, theaters, writers' workshops, and conferences.
William Peden Prize for best fiction, Missouri Review, 1988; Guggenheim fellowship, 1988-89; Lillian Fairchild Award for contribution to the arts, 1990; Richard and Hilda Rosenthal Award, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1991; PEN-Faulkner Award nomination, 1991, for Arrogance; MacArthur fellowship, 1992-97; Aga Khan Award, 1992, and National Magazine Award in fiction, 1993, both from Paris Review, both for "A Borderline Case"; Pushcart Prize, 1993, for "Convicta et Combusta"; Rochester Writer's Award, 1994; named among twenty-five best books of the year, Voice Literary Supplement, Southern Review Short Fiction Prize, and PEN-Faulkner Award nomination, all 1995, all for Various Antidotes; Pulitzer Prize finalist for fiction, 1997, for The Manikin; Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, 1999; Los Angeles Times Book Award finalist, for Tourmaline; Ambassador Book Award for Fiction, English-Speaking Union of the United States, 2006, for Liberation.
Fading, My Parmacheene Belle, Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1987.
The Closest Possible Union, Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1988.
Arrogance, Linden/Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1990.
The Manikin, Holt (New York, NY), 1996.
Make Believe, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2000.
Tourmaline, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2002.
Liberation, Little, Brown (New York, NY), 2005.
Various Antidotes (short stories), Holt (New York, NY), 1994.
Speakeasy (one-act play), produced in Rochester, NY, 1994.
Everybody Loves Somebody: Stories (short stories), Little, Brown (New York, NY), 2006.
Contributor of short stories, essays, and reviews to numerous literary magazines, newspapers, and anthologies.
English professor Joanna Scott is the author of several acclaimed novels and works of short fiction, including The Manikin, a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize, and Tourmaline, winner of the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction. Scott's first work, Fading, My Parmacheene Belle, garnered praise from critics, many of whom lauded the original dialect of Scott's narrator, an unnamed elderly man whose wife of fifty-three years has recently died. Scott's narrator embarks on a journey—accompanied by a fifteen-year-old runaway—to the place where his wife spent her childhood. "The old man's history is tortured and extravagant, and the novel fashions it in an unrelenting prose that is by turns precise and visionary. The world it conjures up is grimy and infected, but the author stops short of impassioned polemic, and focuses on the pathetic and the human," commented reviewer David Profumo in Spectator. Chris Gordon Owen summarized the tale in New Directions for Women, remarking "Youth is seeking a kind of atonement; age is winding back through fifty-three years of marital memories and doubts."
The factors that make Scott's debut novel unique are "its particularity, its emotional intensity and its extraordinary language," found Catherine Petroski in Chicago Tribune Books. Petroski lauded Scott's use of language, arguing that reading Fading, My Parmacheene Belle is "like encountering a new strain of English." Profumo called the novel an "honorable exception" to what he considers the usually unsuccessful metaphoric use of fishing, "combining as it does astute psychology with a vein of dark humour which maintains a constant and intriguing tension." Petroski commented that while some readers "may not survive" the novel's dense language, "those who do will witness a virtuoso performance." Nancy Ramsey, writing in the New York Times Book Review, termed Fading, My Parmacheene Belle, a "moving, wise novel."
Scott's second novel, The Closest Possible Union, is the story of fourteen-year-old Tom, a young man apprenticed to the captain of his father's slave ship. Cyn- thia Johnson Whealler noted in Library Journal that the voyage becomes both a "geographic and spiritual" journey to Africa and back, resembling the structure of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. A Kirkus Reviews contributor offered a similar view, commenting that The Closest Possible Union is one of the "eeriest and most romantic stories about coming of age in moral darkness since the 19th century." Whealler called the novel "beautifully written, but complex and disturbing."
Scott's next novel, Arrogance, garnered her a nomination for the prestigious PEN-Faulkner Award. The novel is a fictionalized account of the life of Egon Schiele, a controversial Austrian expressionist painter. In the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Hunter Drohojowska summarized: "[This] is an impressionistic and fictional sketch of Schiele's life, a selection of vignettes woven together with turn-of-the-century ambience." The narrative of Arrogance is not strictly chronological, but rather intersperses events from different time periods in "a collage whereby one gleans the sense of Schiele's grim life," noted Drohojowska. "Much of the novel turns on Schiele's imprisonment and trial, and Scott powerfully evokes the artist's prison cell, a metaphor for both society and his genius," commented J.D. McClatchy in the Washington Post Book World.
Despite finding that in some ways "the reader doesn't have a sense of the innocence or malevolence" of Schiele's painting of adolescent models, Drohojowska nevertheless concluded that with Arrogance, Scott "emerges as a writer who should not be ignored." McClatchy argued that, unlike some contemporary writers, Scott "undertake[s] narrative challenges of a high order." The critic concluded: "Scott's flair for poetic detail, her ability to render extreme psychological states, her sensitivity to the making of art and the unmaking of the artist—all of this helps make Arrogance a compelling tale."
In 1994 Scott published a collection of short fiction titled Various Antidotes, for which she received a second PEN-Faulkner Award nomination. As Stephen Stark explained in the Washington Post Book World, the stories in Various Antidotes are compiled "chronologically from the 18th century through contemporary times … [and] feature historical and quasi-historical figures from the annals of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction." Among the stories in the collection is "Chloroform Jags," concerning a nineteenth-century midwife who claims a newborn baby as her own, which Stark deemed the "most fully realized" story in the collection. Though Stark thought the short story form allowed Scott only "enough room to explore her subjects in a cursory manner," Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Liza Pennywitt Taylor found the entire collection "absorbing and entertaining." The collection's "grim super-realism may reflect Scott's absorption with the pathos and solitude of an exploring mind, and can serve to ask the question of how possible it is to exist as a thinking human in anything except a solitary state," commented Taylor.
Scott's 1996 novel The Manikin is the story of life on the estate of the late Henry Craxton, who earned his fortune as a taxidermist, at one time supplying museums the world over. His mansion, referred to as "The Manikin," is now inhabited by his widow Mary, Boggio—the master taxidermist—and an assortment of other characters, including a small staff who maintain what is left of the Craxton collection. As Anna Mundow explained in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "Now only flea-bitten members of the collection and of the Craxton family remain, preserved by a staff that is reduced in every sense of the word." Various major events change the lives of the inhabitants of the estate, including the sexual awakening of Peg, the housekeeper's daughter, and the death of Mary, who has recently written her son completely out of her will. "All of these events," commented Louise Titchener in the Washington Post Book World, "like stones tossed into a quiet pool, send out ripples that affect everything and everyone surrounding them." New York Times Book Review contributor Peter Prescott described The Manikin as "a full-bore, old-fashioned Gothic romance, a foreboding melodrama that pulses with greed, meanspiritedness and illicit sex (decorously wrought) … preparing the stage for the catastrophes to come."
The Manikin is "a rich, Dickensian novel," enthused Maureen Howard in the Nation, praising "the wit, the magical prose and the daring devices of Scott's writing." Titchener called Scott's prose "sensitive and beautifully crafted," concluding that "no reader who finished reading The Manikin will regret the experience." Concerning various potentially over-melodramatic elements of the Gothic romance, Prescott wrote: "[How], without camping it up, can Ms. Scott make such a romance acceptable to discriminating readers? Make no mistake: she does." Mundow argued that both "character and plot in The Manikin risk being similarly crushed by the weight of the author's ideas. It is difficult to make human specimens engaging or to maintain a story's urgency when the actors are diminished by their creator's quirky objectivity." Prescott, however, argued that the novel works because of this objectivity. The critic admired Scott's "intensely vivid prose," and ultimately compared the narrative voice of the novel to that of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Howard offered another comparison: "Readers of The Manikin will remember Scott's novel as a landscape of time, and will remember that the sounding the depth of our natures is as accurate and revealing as Thoreau's measurements of Walden Pond."
In Make Believe, Scott examines a custody battle between two sets of grandparents over a four-year-old boy, Bo, whose parents have both died—his father shot by a robber, his mother claimed by a car accident in which the boy was injured. His paternal grandparents, who have doted on him, are black, while the maternal grandparents, who have refused to see him since his birth, are white; the latter have suddenly become interested in Bo because they plan to file a malpractice suit over the treatment he received after the accident. Scott uses all her characters, including Bo, as narrators, and she also flashes back to his parents' lives and other points in the past. The early portions of the story, told from Bo's point of view, "are as powerful as anything the gifted Ms. Scott has written," asserted Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times Book Review. "They possess the unsettling intensity of Benjy's interior monologue in Faulkner's Sound and the Fury, immersing the reader in the slip-sliding world of a child's imagination a world at once egocentric and rudderless, a world of bright, shimmering sensations and fragmentary knowledge." But later, Kakutani wrote, the book "lapses into stark made-for-TV melodrama" in its depiction of the tug-of-war between the grandparents. New York Times Book Review contributor Nick Hornby, however, thought this "slightly lumpy, movie-of-the-week story line … only prevents Make Believe from being perfect—it doesn't prevent it from being wonderful." Scott's "ingenuity and command of her craft" make the book wonderful, Hornby contended, relating that the author's "narrative tricks and judgments," "flights of morbid fancy," and ability to provide convincing voices for her characters "take the breath away." A Publishers Weekly reviewer enthused over Make Believe as well, describing it as "compelling" and Scott as "unafraid to take risks … a resourceful writer who explores new territory each time she writes fiction"; the reviewer concluded that the book "will leave readers haunted by Scott's powerful moral vision."
An American family searches for riches on the remote island of Elba in Tourmaline, Scott's sixth novel. In 1956, the chronically unemployed Murray Murdoch brings his wife, Claire, and their four young sons to Elba, convinced they will make their fortune harvesting the island's deposit of mineral riches, including rare semiprecious tourmaline. Though he has no success locating the gems, Murray uses borrowed money to rent a villa for an extended stay, during which he befriends Francis Cape, a British author who has spent years penning a history of Napoleon's exile on the island, and a local girl named Adriana. When the girl goes missing, however, the locals immediately turn their attentions to Murray. "The novel is essentially an inquiry into this disappearance and the suspicions and consequences that follow from it," observed Jeffrey Eugenides in the New York Times Book Review.
Tourmaline is narrated primarily by the Murdoch's youngest son, Ollie, who is now fifty years old, and whose "memories are shaded by both a child's imagination and an adult's nostalgia, which allows Scott to explore some of the less straightforward aspects of the story," noted a critic in Publishers Weekly. "What's particularly lovely is the way Scott explores Oliver's memory," remarked Salon.com contributor Suzy Hanson. "The novel begins with a bunch of scattered paragraphs, separate memories that eventually turn into a story. It's wonderfully, hypnotically effective, as if Oliver's recollection slowly comes into focus, becoming stronger with each page." "Murray and his sons digging for minerals, Francis Cape searching for facts about Napoleon, Oliver, years later, seeking the truth about his father and Claire racking her memory—these are the desperate energies Scott sets loose here, energies at once creative and suspect, fruitful by means of their elemental fraudulence," Eugenides wrote. "Which is, after all, a good description not only of the writing process but of the main ingredients of this story—gossip, marital distrust, village superstition, persuasion and pipe dreams."
Elba is also the setting for Liberation, "an affecting, unsentimental portrait of a survivor taking stock of her life and loves," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer. After seventy-year-old New Jersey matron Adriana Rundel collapses on a commuter train, her mind rushes back six decades to her childhood on Elba and the liberation of the island by Allied forces in 1944. During the combat, Adriana gave shelter to Amdu Diop, a Sengalese soldier who witnessed the rape of an Italian girl and fled his unit to avoid retribution. "From the start, it is clear that Scott intends the word ‘liberation’ to be fraught with irony," remarked New York TimesBook Review contributor Lynn Freed. "The rape by the Moroccans, who are also Allied soldiers, provides a focus for this theme, its horrible details accumulating throughout the book." Liberation "veers challengingly from strict chronological narration to poetic yet precise prose to sensitive psychological insights," noted Starr E. Smith in Library Journal.
In her second collection of short fiction, Everybody Loves Somebody: Stories, Scott offers ten tales "that stalk across the 20th century to document love and its consequences," a reviewer in Publishers Weekly noted. In "Heaven and Hell," set in 1919, the bumbling father of the bride locks himself in the bathroom and misses his daughter's wedding to a blind World War I veteran, and "The Queen of Sheeba Is Afraid of Snow" concerns a Harlem mother who abandons her daughter. According to a Kirkus Reviews critic, Scott's "abilities to concoct arresting premises instill a quirky sense of menace and enrich her narratives with metaphoric and allegorical implication that keeps the reader riveted to the page."
"Writing fiction is like arranging furniture in a dark room," Scott related in an interview on the Powell's Books Web site. "I can't see what I'm doing. I grope for the right words, I bump against the wrong words and stumble and stub my toe and curse and keep trying to guess what belongs in the space. When I've decided I've done the best I can do, I stand back and wait for a reader to come in and turn the light on."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Belles Lettres, September-October, 1987, review of Fading, My Parmacheene Belle, pp. 9, 15.
Booklist, August 1, 2002, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Tourmaline, p. 1924; October 1, 2005, Jennifer Baker, review of Liberation, p. 36; October 15, 2006, Elizabeth Dickie, review of Everybody Loves Somebody: Stories, p. 29.
Entertainment Weekly, December 8, 2006, Jennifer Reese, review of Everybody Loves Somebody, p. 101.
Harper's, June, 1999, review of Arrogance, p. 76.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1988, review of The Closest Possible Union, p. 400; July 15, 2002, review of Tourmaline, p. 990; August 15, 2005, review of Liberation, p. 879; September 15, 2006, review of Everybody Loves Somebody p. 927.
Library Journal, April 1, 1988, Cynthia Johnson Whealler, review of The Closest Possible Union, p. 99; August, 2002, Jo Manning, review of Tourmaline, p. 146; July 1, 2005, Starr E. Smith, review of Liberation, p. 70; October 1, 2006, Donna Bettencourt, review of Everybody Loves Somebody, p. 64.
Los Angeles Times, December 3, 2006, Susan Salter Reynolds, "Joanna Scott's Everybody Loves Somebody."
Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 12, 1990, Hunter Drohojowska, review of Arrogance, pp. 1, 9; April 24, 1994, Liza Pennywitt Taylor, review of Various Antidotes, pp. 3, 11; March 10, 1996, Anna Mundow, review of The Manikin, p. 4.
Nation, March 4, 1996, Maureen Howard, review of The Manikin, p. 35.
New Directions for Women, September-October, 1987, Chris Gordon Owen, review of Fading, My Parmacheene Belle, p. 17.
New Statesman, July 5, 1991, Geoff Dyer, review of Arrogance, p. 35.
New York Times, March 26, 1987, review of Fading, My Parmacheene Belle, p. 21.
New York Times Book Review, March 22, 1987, Nancy Ramsey, review of Fading, My Parmacheene Belle, p. 28; April 14, 1996, Peter Prescott, "Bleak House," p. 28; February 20, 2000, Nick Hornby, "The In-Laws"; March 7, 2000, Michiko Kakutani, "In the Fanciful Head of a Small Boy in Big Trouble"; October 27, 2002, Jeffrey Eugenides, "The Philosopher's Stone," review of Tourmaline, p. 10; December 4, 2005, Lynn Freed, "The War on Elba," review of Liberation, p. 38.
People, December 18, 2006, Joanna Powell, review of Everybody Loves Somebody, p. 51.
Publishers Weekly, January 30, 1987, review of Fading, My Parmacheene Belle, p. 369; November 15, 1999, review of Make Believe, p. 54; July 22, 2002, review of Tourmaline, p. 156; August 1, 2005, review of Liberation, p. 39; September 11, 2006, review of Everybody Loves Somebody, p. 34.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, summer, 2003, Trey Strecker, review of Tourmaline, p. 131.
Spectator, April 9, 1988, David Profumo, review of Fading, My Parmacheene Belle, p. 34.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), March 8, 1987, Catherine Petroski, review of Fading, My Parmacheene Belle, pp. 6-7.
Washington Post Book World, July 22, 1990, J.D. McClatchy, review of Arrogance, p. 9; February 6, 1994, Stephen Stark, review of Various Antidotes, p. 4; March 24, 1996, Louise Titchener, review of The Manikin, p. 4.
Powell's Books Web site,http://www.powells.com/ink/ (March 10, 2007), "Ink Q&A: Joanna Scott."
Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (September 5, 2002), Suzy Hanson, review of Tourmaline.