Spotlight on Phyllis M Skoy
We’re pleased to introduce you to Phyllis Skoy, whose sincere interest in other people led her to a successful career as a psychoanalyst and now drives her writing. While she has loved writing since childhood, it is only in recent years that she has been able to devote so much time to it—and her effort is paying off hugely. With a number of awards and accolades commending her short stories, memoir, and first two novels, she is now about to write a third novel, completing a truly fascinating historical trilogy.
Did your career as a psychoanalyst bring you to writing? Or was your career choice another manifestation of the same urge that inspires writing?
I would say that the same forces that drive one to discover oneself through a life in psychoanalysis are quite similar to the forces that drive one to write. In elementary school, I tried to create plays based on my fascination with the writings of Eugene O’Neill. When I uncovered them years later, I was astonishing at how sparse and dark they were for a ten- or eleven-year-old. I barely knew Sigmund Freud in those years, but my writings were motivated by a naïve insight that led to a somewhat faulty comparison of my family life to A Long Day’s Journey into Night. Let me assure you that any resemblance to O’Neill’s characters is subtle to stretching a point, but my sense of loneliness was palpable. Creating my own characters was a way to combat my isolation. My writing in those days, however, was truly terrible.
How did you come to study sign language, and how does that knowledge work its way into your writing skill set?
I fell into the study of American Sign Language (ASL) in the ’80s while running a Research and Development Project for The Graduate Center in New York City at LaGuardia Community College. There were several projects housed on the same floor and one of them was Programs for Deaf Adults. I was fascinated watching this beautiful means of communication. At the time, I was studying to become a black belt in karate and the idea came to me that Deaf people would excel in karate, as their powers of observation and physicality were in many cases superior to hearing folks. So I began to take the ASL classes offered there. My karate grandmaster, Kaicho Nakamura, creator of Seido Karate, supported my efforts to create a Deaf Karate Program. I spent two summers at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, to become fluent. The whole process was a great deal of fun for me. The language skills I acquired also allowed me to practice psychotherapy with the Deaf. I would say that I gained two other important skills from this work, patience and the ability to sit with silence.
Your novel What Survives is the first of three in a series that takes place in Turkey. Tell us about the plot.
What Survives is about a young and rather naïve Turkish woman, Adalet, who comes from a simple background and a small village (Duzçe). Pretty, sensitive, and inexperienced, she goes to study in Istanbul. At the university, she meets a worldly young man from a wealthy family. Her life appears almost idyllic until it is turned upside down by the events of the Duzçe earthquake in 1999. Adalet is thrust into circumstances that force her to take stock of who she is as a Turkish woman. She is fostered through this process of growth by two unlikely allies, an older blind woman and her rebellious granddaughter. It is a story of redemption and the unique power women possess to support and elevate one another. Adalet matures against the backdrop of a maturing modern Turkey.
Please describe the direction the next two books in the series will take.
As They Are is the prequel to What Survives. The character of Fatma, the older blind woman who comes to Adalet’s aid in What Survives, became the source of much speculation by my readers. Everyone wanted to know more about her. And so did I. The more I thought about Fatma, the more curious I became. After I did a bit of research and discovered the period of history Fatma would have lived through, I became determined to create her story, her life. As a psychoanalyst, it was challenging to begin with the finished character and then to create how she got to be who she was.
Book III does not yet have a title. It will take place mostly in Istanbul and New York in and around the disruption of events leading to the attempted coup in Turkey. Although Adalet appears in this story, the protagonist is a friend of Adalet’s, a journalist who is swept up by the dangerous times and autocratic policies of Erdoğan’s increasingly draconian government. When I first visited Turkey in 1998, the hope of democracy was felt everywhere. As I sadly watched these hopes fading during my stay in 2014, it felt important to me to say something about the everyday people who have been so drastically affected by these dreadful events. And now, in 2020, actually since 2016, these affairs have felt very close to home. We’ve now had a taste of what it might mean to lose our own democracy.
How did you decide to set your stories in Turkey?
The first question people always ask me is Why Turkey? You aren’t Turkish. Why don’t you write about what you know? When I traveled to Turkey in 1998, I became enamored of the people and the culture. I was taken with the strong personalities of the women I met, and of course, I wanted to know their stories. The more I read about Turkey, the more curious I became. I guess, like Lawrence of Arabia, I have had a love affair with Turkey. And I do enjoy research. Writing is a way for me to continue learning about things I would never know. I only use a fraction of the research I do. For What Survives, I spent hours watching videos of potters making ceramics in various villages in Turkey. The Internet is a wonderful source for putting oneself in place when travel is not an option. Of course, I did travel to Avanos and see the pottery being made, but that was some time before I knew I would write this novel.
What Survives takes place in modern Turkey, but As They Are does not. The story begins during the Great War and traverses the life of Fatma in a Turkey separated from the Ottoman Empire and struggling to become modern. When I calculated Fatma’s age and discovered that she would have been born in the time of Ataturk, I thought the time period would be a perfect setting for a novel. I did actually meet someone in Turkey who grew up in the caves in Goreme, and this inspired me to place Fatma’s birth and childhood there.
Book III is a work in progress with serious challenges ahead. I had hoped to live in Turkey for six months to a year after retirement in order to accomplish this project. However, the political situation has not allowed me to do that safely. And talking to people who are in fear for their lives and the lives of their families is not easy. COVID-19 has further complicated my plans to travel there again. I did study Turkish for a couple of years, but Turkish is an extremely difficult language. Without daily usage, I found it impossible. Speaking to people in their own language is always preferable, but unfortunately, I am unable to do so. I never know when I begin a project exactly where it will take me, and so Book III is still somewhat of a mystery to me. But since my fiction is character driven, research and imagination can provide a great deal.
Please tell us about your memoir, Myopia, and the challenges you undertook to write it.
Myopia: A Memoir took me thirty years to complete. I never seriously thought it would ever be published, and so I had simply written a series of vignettes around my father’s childhood and mine just to get them down on paper. When I joined a local writing critique group, I was working on a novel about a young man who comes to understand himself through a mental breakdown he has during his martial arts training. When I got stuck and had nothing to bring to a session, I pulled out one of the stories from the “memoir” collection and took it to the group. They loved it and encouraged me to continue. I find memoir writing much harder than fiction. My fictional characters can do almost anything I wish them to do, and they can grow and change and become whoever I want them to be. Memoir writing holds one to a specific truth, even though it is one’s own truth and not necessarily the same truth as the other characters in a story. Being fair to them requires time and distance while being able to delve into them as deeply as possible. I would not want to do it again.
Phyllis M Skoy is a retired psychoanalyst who started publishing her writing with the short story “Life Before.” “Life Before” appeared in Bosque (2013), and Ms. Skoy became the magazine’s “Discovery of the Year.” In 2016, her first novel, What Survives, was published by IP Books (New York). What Survives was short listed for the Santa Fe Writers Project, a finalist in the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards, and First Runner Up in the Eric Hoffer Grand Prize Short List. In Myopia: A Memoir—published in 2017, also by IP Books—Ms. Skoy describes what it was like to grow up with a refugee father still unknowingly consumed with the fears and struggles of his past. She has published short stories and nonfiction pieces and has just completed the prequel to What Survives: As They Are. She is currently working on the third book in this series. Ms. Skoy lives in Placitas, New Mexico.
Photo credit Arthur R. Skoy.