The publication of Amnesia Nights in the UK is a first for Quinton Skinner, the critically-acclaimed author of three novels and non-fiction books on fatherhood and rock ‘n’ roll. A former critic and magazine editor, he has written for publications including Minneapolis Star Tribune, Huffington Post, Variety, Glamour and Literary Hub. He lives in Minneapolis, USA.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born and grew up in a working-class area of Columbus, a university city and the capital of Ohio in the U.S.
What sorts of books were in your family home?
There were quite a few. I remember The Ascent of Man, based on the BBC Series of the same name, because it captured my imagination conceptually. My father had a lovely bound series of all the Sherlock Holmes stories. I was preoccupied with an astronomy book in the home and spent a good deal of time as well with the encyclopedia and the world atlas. I also read mountains of age-appropriate stuff from the library down the street. I was the child always with his head down in some kind of printed matter.
Who were early formative influences as a writer?
Virginia Woolf for her vivid interiority. Saul Bellow for compassion and ambition. Denis Johnson for the dark alleys and the byways. Martin Amis for materialism and humor. Of course the first was Dr. Seuss, who obsessed me with his knack for the sideways hidden dimensions both in language and the visual world, a sense of the uncanny that I recognized as familiar to me, and essential to the way I saw (and heard, and spoke) things. There was also a series of crime-solving books revolving around a character called Encyclopedia Brown, which may not be read anymore but which were essential crime procedurals for the under-10 set.
Do you write every day, and do you write many drafts?
I don’t write every day, but I try to write nearly every day when I’m active on a project (there are always fallow periods in between). I used to work on multiple printed drafts, but I’ve since followed the technology and mainly nibble away at a digital copy of the master draft. Though typically it will go through less than half a dozen iterations.
Has your work as a journalist helped (or hindered) your fiction writing?
I’ve made a living writing in one form or another for nearly all of my adult life, so it all feeds the same dynamic of learning, synthesizing, producing, making sense, and making things up. It’s all storytelling, and I suppose in a sense my fiction is a form of reporting of particular worlds that have set up shop in my consciousness and demand some form of realization.
Books that changed your life?
The most recent was Jerusalem by Alan Moore – a massive, percolating thing weaving storytelling and metaphysics in a way that resonates so deeply with me that it has altered my viewpoint on important things. Dubliners by James Joyce demonstrated that a lot of storytelling happens in the white spaces on the page. Native Son by Richard Wright brought Dostoevsky’s sensibilities into the core of America’s deepest fissures. Mr. D’s Notes From Underground showed the way to an uncompromising antihero both ridiculous and powerful. The oeuvre of Grant Morrison has also been hugely influential, not in my storytelling in particular but in a literally magical realistic way of thinking and being.
Your views on book publishing?
It doesn’t matter what I say, because the industry will have probably changed by the time this goes online! Now that I’m older and far less attached to notions of fame and fortune, I see book publishing for what it really is: a community, or a tribe, of people (readers, publishers, sellers) who are united by a deep and abiding passion and belief in language and stories. It doesn’t need to be anything more than that, because that’s very much indeed.
How important were, and are, editors? Have you had much encouragement from your editor(s)?
I’ve worked with editors at book companies who were very important and encouraging (and not only because they arranged for me to receive checks to deposit into dusty bank accounts). Mark Tavani at Random House championed my work and helped propel me along for a while. Overall, though, I tend to be very self-contained as a writer and don’t seek out a lot of input unless one is publishing my book – in which case I’m all ears.
Which is more important, style or voice?
Beats me! For a long time I chased a semi-ornate, musical kind of style. My sentences were often too long, in other words. They often still are today, but now I beat them back like vines crawling up the side of a house. You have to try to figure out what’s the tone that best works with what you’re trying to get across. Then prepare to get it wrong. The project I’m currently working on is a conditional refutation of voice – I’m going for all turbocharged story. We’ll see if it works. Next time I might go back to those long sentences and see if I can get anyone’s attention that way again.
Your views on the explosion of creative writing courses?
I’ve never taken a creative writing class. I was an English major, which seemed sensible to me because I felt that I should probably familiarize myself with literary traditions and because I didn’t think I particularly had much to say at the time. I’ve taught creative writing classes, and feel they probably did more good than harm! I guess I feel the same way as your typical author of my age: you learn craft by studying craft, and you learn about stories by living in the world and keeping your gaze focused outward. But I like this line of work because there are absolutely no ground rules, and people should pursue whatever seems right to them in terms of learning and growing. Just don’t spend unrealistic amounts of money on it or go too far into debt.
What are your favorite literary journals?
I enjoy the energy of the online venues such as Literary Hub and Catapult, because I think the personal nonfiction essay is an important form in which some very lively minds are engaged in the process of trying to make sense of things.
How well are your books received in America . . . and in Europe?
I’ve gotten good reviews in the U.S., which I carry around like a hobo polishing a trophy while roasting his dinner over an open fire by a railroad track. One of my books was translated into German, which resulted in an incredibly long, earnest, and wildly intelligent review – I had a friend translate it for me, and thought the writer perhaps should have tackled something weightier, but I accepted the praise. I’m very happy to finally be released in the UK, and hope to find some acceptance there!
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) changed your writing life? What about social media?
Technology has changed the way I think, flooding me with images, ideas, stories, and emotional stimulus constantly – so that’s certainly changed the way I write. But things change. I’ve learned not to become too attached to a particular way of creating (or being) because that attachment strips away immediacy. As for social media, I tend to withhold any big-picture opinions because it’s a beast so formidable and far-reaching that it doesn’t care what I think. It’s affecting our politics for the worse, though, and it’s drawing people into limbic feedback cycles that are fraying at empathy, connection, and coherence. Please follow me on Twitter.
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
To the campfire on the savanna when the hunters came home and told the first story.
Your favourite prose authors?
Jorge Luis Borges, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip K. Dick, Stephen King, Virginia Woolf (again), Philip Roth, Neal Stephenson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Zadie Smith, Raymond Chandler, to name a few and in no particular order.
Your favourite Noir series?
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories, because they opened my eyes to the possibility of approaching genre fiction with a particular literary sensibility. And Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley books, which are delightfully cruel and amoral and crafty.
Favourite feature films?
2001: A Space Odyssey, The Big Sleep, Children of Men, Secrets & Lies, Shutter Island, The Matrix, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Dog Day Afternoon, Dr. Strange, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Apocalypto, The Shining. (Yes, there are two Kubrick flicks in there and Eyes Wide Shut just about made the cut. Memento was also a big influence on Amnesia Nights).
Five favourite bands?
Pink Floyd. The Velvet Underground. Cluster. Radiohead (I listened to Amnesiac exclusively while writing Amnesia Nights). For something more recent: Poliça, they’re from the Twin Cities and everyone should be listening to them right now.
Your chief characteristic?
More than one person has described me as “amiable.” All right, only two people have, but I like to think that’s a good thing to be.
Your bedside reading?
I’m on book three of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy by Liu Cixin. Up next is The Overstory by Richard Powers.
Stay hydrated and don’t lose perspective.
Amnesia Nights by Quinton Skinner | Fentum Press | PB 304pp July 2018 | ISBN: 9781909572089
“Moving between past and present, Amnesia Nights is a clever, skilfully plotted, sophisticated psychological thriller about money and class, love and fear, which will keep you hooked until the very last page,” The BookBlast Diary, July 2018. Buy from Waterstones
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