Zale Writer Explores 'The Wild Action of Thought'

October 18, 2002

Heather Heilman

Years ago, at a show in New York of fin-de-siecle Viennese art, Joanna Scott heard people laughing at a self-portrait by Egon Schiele. I carried the sound of that laughter home with me, said Scott, who will be this years Zale Writer-in-Residence.

And I found myself becoming increasingly interested in Schieles willingness to offer himselfboth as an artist and as subject of his own artas an object of derision. That interest was the root of Scotts third novel, Arrogance, which takes Schiele as its subject and is told in the voices of Schiele, his lovers, friends and family, and that of a young girl obsessed with the artist.

While Scott has produced one of the most wide-ranging and disparate collections of fiction in contemporary American fiction, Arrogance might be said to be typical of her work. Shes willing to intimately imagine settings, situations, and characters far beyond anything of which she could have direct knowledge. Besides Schiele, her stories have been narrated by a teenage boy on a 19th-century slave ship, a 2-year old (the ultimate unreliable narrator) and an elderly widower.

As both a writer and a reader, Ive found profound consolation in the expression of imaginative freedom, she said. I like to try to understand what is strange or infinitely mysterious. Her latest novel, Tourmaline, will be released this month and is set on the island of Elba in the 1950s. It returns to some of the themes of ambition and failure explored in Arrogance and some of her other work.

Scott said all her works begin with finding the confidence to assert the existence of an invented world. And from there, from the declaration of once upon a time, my focus is on the constructs we call characters and the wild action of thought, she said. Scott studied writing at Trinity College and Brown University, and teaches at the University of Rochester. She said that the study of writing in an academic setting encourages subtle, open-minded reading.

This is their first important purpose, it seems to me. And from this, powerful writing may follow.

Scott will be on campus from Oct. 14 through Oct. 18. She will read from her work on Oct.15 at 7:30 p.m. in the Rogers Memorial Chapel and will give a talk on Oct. 17 at the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women. Her novels are Fading, My Parmacheene Belle; The Closest Possible Union; Arrogance; The Manikin; Make Believe; and the forthcoming Tourmaline.

She is also the author of a short story collection, Various Antidotes. She has received Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundation fellowships and has been a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

Heather Heilman may be reached at

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