Interview of Jack Loscutoff
This month I introduce Jack Loscutoff who refers to himself as “sage in bloom, author and poet.” Born in San Francisco of what he refers to as humble Russian peasant stock, Jack alludes to his Grandparents immigration as a factor by geography and politics that affects his view of life.
Jack’s pursuit of education moved him by increments from San Francisco to our beloved Nebraska. He earned a PhD focusing on English and American Literature. Jack worked as an instructor, critic, and at 58 realized his love of words could become a new kind of career. Jack started writing.
Jack’s multi-faceted character enchanted me. I leave it to Jack to charm you.
Q. Jack, when I read your biography, on your web site, one thing that struck me immediately was that your Russian heritage does affect your unique writing style.
Would you give us some insight into that influence?
A. Any Russian influence on my writing came from having read the works of a few of the great Russian writers. Since I don't read the language and have relied on translations, what I've gotten is what any reader and writer, with or without a Russian ancestry, could. Here is some of it.
Checkhov said something like this about short story writing. "If at the beginning there is a rifle hanging over the fireplace, it must be fired before the story ends." He meant that there must be no unnecessary information in a short story. Everything must contribute to its point.
Dostoyevsky wrote a novel, The Brothers Karamasov, in which Jesus returns to earth. Most people do not recognize him. The "authorities" regard him, at best as a nuisance, at worst as a criminal. I guess the lesson there is don't try to write about Jesus.
Tolstoy wrote, at over a thousand pages, War and Peace. Many critics believe it is the greatest lo-o-ong novel ever written in any language. What I've learned from reading it is to keep mine as short as possible.
End of lecture.
Q. I’ve read some of your poetry and prose. To me you have a unique style. Case in point is your short story No Cross for Jesus. Some may say its science fiction, or some could say it’s philosophical. I see both. Your novel THE CLOUD OF DOOM is listed as science fiction, but you told me it crosses other genres. It is hard to decide a single genre to list a book. What would sell your book and stories to philosophers, adventurers, or any interest?
A. The last time I was at Barnes and Noble (and I hope they're still there), they had a section of books labeled "Fantasy/Science Fiction." Those books could also be called "speculative fiction." One reason why "speculative" can be applied to sci-fi is that most SF writers "speculate" about the future. Because no one has experienced the future and thus cannot know it, we can only speculate, or imagine, what it might be like. When I wrote my book I wanted the emphasis to be heavy on the "science" and light on the "fiction". In it you won't find dragons, eight-legged humanoids or a setting two thousand years in the future. My novel is set in 2035. Every animal, plant or machine in it exists in the present or is accepted as a possibility among the scientific community of today.
Even though the plot is rational, there is plenty of adventure. Among others, a trip to the planet Jupiter's moon Europa. There, in an ocean under the ice, my characters encounter strange animals and barely escape with their lives.
Philosophy? The reason the scientists go to Europa is the hope of finding a way of increasing Earth's food production. In 2035 more and more people on our planet are malnourished and starving because of food shortages brought on by over-population and global warming. I believe the dangers of those two trends are things some of us are waking up to, but too late to prevent their catastrophic results.
Q. What authors influence you most?
A. That's a tough one. It's really a question for a critic. As I suspect it is with most writers, I lack the objectivity to answer it. But here are a few possibilities.
Some critic has said that in order to be considered a top poet you must be skilled at writing about death. I have done that. "Alas and Alack," below, is on that subject. Here are some others who may have influenced me in that regard.
Emily Dickinson. "Because I could not stop for Death,/ He kindly stopped for me."
Shakespeare. "This (old age and the impending death of the speaker) thou perceiv'est that makes thy love more strong/ To love that well which thou must leave ere long."
W. B. Yeats. "An aged man is but a paltry thing,/ A tattered coat upon a stick/ Unless soul clap its hands and sing/ and louder sing/ For every tatter in its mortal dress." (again, old age as a prelude to death.)
Note that both Dickinson's poem and mine choose to laugh at death rather than cry.
Among novelists, I would choose Vladimir Nabokov as one who taught me a lot about the uses of "point of view." POV for writers does not mean "opinion." It means who is telling the story and how he or she is telling it. In Nabokov's novel Lolita, the narrator, a character in the book, speaks in the first person ("I" rather than "he" or "she".) That choice by the novelist means that a reader must take the word of Humbert Humbert, the child molester, that his victim, the teenager Lolita, is a willing participant in her own abuse. Although that idea sounds absurd when put the way I just have, it works in Nabokov's novel. The reason it works is that for three fourths of the book, the POV is Humbert's. As a result the reader begins to see and think about the abuse as Humbert does, that it is one big, delightful sexual adventure, especially if the reader is a man. This technique is called "unreliable narrator." Many others besides Nabokov have used it. I often employ it for ironic or humorous effect in my poetry.
Q. Jack, I know you have a funny bone, or at least like to tickle our funny bones. I said before you are a multi-faceted author.
Humor is essential in writing. However, it is not easy to achieve. How would you advise me, for example, to develop humor in a piece? Are there particular authors or publications you would recommend? If you don’t mind, I will include an example of one of your humorous poems.
Alas and Alack!
You are old, Father Jack,
and under sneak attack
by a junta of contagious diseases.
So you give folks your back,
hunch and hiss like a cat
whenever somebody sneezes.
You should not do that.
You should keep it flat
till you die or till hell over-freezes.
Though to you it makes sense,
may, perchance, take offense
at your shunning their germ-laden breezes.
So your choice is a cinch:
be a snarling old grinch
or the cool, smiling corpse
whom your loverly last widow greevez.
*"Annie's Mail Box" is a social advice column in an Omaha newspaper.
A. I guess the main requirement for "develop(ing) humor in a piece" is for the potential for humor to be already present. To make that happen is quite complex. It begins with the question of audience. Who are you writing for? Children will not laugh at adult humor, and vice-versa. Some of us old geezers may still laugh at jokes about women drivers, but most women, no matter their age, wouldn't. I could go on and on, but we don't have the space.
Q. You’ve written plays that have been performed in Nebraska. My Heart’s in the Highlands is a one-act play that won honorable mention in Writer’s Digest. That is quite an accomplishment. For myself, and I’m sure the Nebraska Writer’s Guild, I’m interested in letting the rest of the world know about Nebraska’s fine arts culture. Theater is one of those areas, like film often unheralded for our state.
Do you have an opinion as to how we in Nebraska can bring more attention to the literary accomplishments of our authors and thespians?
A. I'm sorry. I don't.
Q. I’m going to make one final pull to find “Who is Jack?” You said in your biography that it was at age 58 you realized you should be writing instead of teaching others how to write and working as a literary critic. In one of our email exchanges, you mentioned there were other times when your interest in writing accelerated.
What do you attribute your love of literature and writing?
A. I have always been fascinated by language. Before I started kindergarten, I would spread the Sunday comics page on the floor and puzzle out the words. In the second grade, I memorized "The Ride of Paul Revere." My high school English teacher told me I was the only student of hers who understood Shakespeare. As a teenager I read all of Joseph Conrad's sea-going short stories.
I've heard that to be a poet, you must be in love with words. That is certainly true of me. Most of my growth as a playwright, writer and poet was gradual. However, there were a couple of periods in my life when it accelerated.
The three years when I earned a Master of Arts degree in English and American literature was the first period. The main set of skills I acquired in that time were those of a critic. I read the works of most of the great, as well as a few of the not-so-great writers in the English language from the beginnings of our tongue up to about the middle of the twentieth century. In addition to earning the degree, I emerged from my studies at San Francisco State College with a new set of skills. I could compare writers working in a particular genre and rate them against each other. That was a way of predicting whose works would continue to be printed and read and whose would not. In general, I could not only tell you which work was better and which was worse but also why.
The second period of acceleration was more drawn out. It has covered the last twenty-three years of my life. On my fifty-eighth birthday I complained to my daughter that I was tired of "being a bridesmaid and never a bride." That is, tired of reading the works of the great playwrights, writers and poets and wishing I could do the same. She loaned me a book entitled "Writing the Natural Way." It was a beginning writing course between two covers, a "how to" package that got me started learning the skills of a playwright, writer and poet. Over the years since then, I've continued to develop those skills.
I'm still no Shakespeare, Nabokov or Yeats. However, my cluttered writing office is my "Holy of holies." On one of the walls is a list of "the immortals," my heros and heroines, the great playwrights, writers and poets. Above their names are the words "In the company of the immortals." I no longer feel in impossible competition with them. Instead, they are my encouraging friends and mentors.
Jack invited us, figuratively, into his office and what develops from his mind within his ‘holy of holies’. Do I know Jack, no not really, but I know more about Jack. Like any author he has his own reasons for writing, personal to him. They are reflected by most of the rest of us. As authors we do love words and how they compliment each other. However, as unique as Jack’s reasons and process is to him, so are the reasons for writing personal for all writers.
Jack’s charm eminates from his unique lust for life, learning and legitimate search for meaning in what he does. www.jackloscutoff.com