Jessica Gross | Longreads | April 2015 | 18 minutes (4,597 words)
Lizzie Skurnick is a voracious writer, critic and, now, head of a young adult publishing imprint. She began her career as a poet, then wrote young adult novels, a longstanding litblog called “The Old Hag,” and a Jezebel column about YA books that became the memoir Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading. Lizzie Skurnick Books, an imprint of Ig Publishing that launched in 2013, republishes those very books: YA classics from the 1930s through the ‘80s, by writers including Sydney Taylor (my own childhood beacon), Norma Klein, and Lois Duncan.
I met Skurnick at her apartment in Jersey City, where she served me tea and sat across from me in an armchair. The occasion for our conversation was the publication of her new book, That Should Be a Word, a compendium of imaginative neologisms—like “smearch: Google someone in hopes of finding bad news”—drawn from her New York Times Magazine column of the same name. (Disclaimer: the column was published on the Times’ now-defunct “One-Page Magazine,” for which I also wrote.) We spoke for several hours, during which Skurnick jumped up repeatedly to show me family photographs or books she’d written or reprinted (or, at one point, to grab a water bottle that approximated the size of her son, Javier, when he was born). Our conversation ranged from how she goes about creating such inventive new words to what the current backlash against YA literature is all about.
How did your New York Times Magazine column come about?
It was actually a very happy circumstance and coincidence. They asked Maud Newton, who I’ve known since 2003, from our blogging days, “Would you like to do a column on word play?” She said no, but Lizzie Skurnick can do it! [Laughs] It was good, I could really do them—I think because I’m a rhyming poet and I’m always doing loser puns. They came very naturally. It’s not like I was sitting there and being like, “How do I write these words?”
What do you mean, they came naturally? Like a new word will pop into your head as you’re walking down the street?
Yes, I do what my mother always calls “submit the query,” which means I submit the query to my brain. And then in the meantime, it’s like warm-up stuff. I’ll look at rhymes for the word. I’ll look at related words and I’ll go through the thesaurus and I’ll do those rhyming things online. But that’s never the word. It’s never usually even related to the word, but it gets my brain juiced up. And then I take a walk and it usually comes on the walk or in the shower.
I remember when the first word, “smearch,” came to me. And it was in the shower after I’d been grumping around on words that didn’t work. Because there is always the obvious word. And then there’s always the Urban Dictionary word, like “hangry.” They must be the harmonics of our language; they’re the words that everybody comes up with, but in a good way—some natural pairing that we all can find. My words never intersected with Urban Dictionary’s.
I can see that your words and Urban Dictionary’s are different, but I can’t put my finger on exactly how.
Well, my words are not standard portmanteau. And they work visually far more than they work when you hear them. People sometimes like the ones that you hear better. I remember a lot of my friends liked “dramaneering,” because you hear drama and domineering at the same time and you know what it is. In terms of what the column is for—finding a word for a particular thing—it’s a very good word. But less so in terms of being word play, in terms of having seven words in it that all relate to it, like shades of the different words.
Can you pick a word like that and explain it to me?
“Brattle” is my favorite one of those. It means to talk too much about your children. Because it’s rattle and it’s battle, which parents do, and it’s brat and prattle. And rat, if you feel like…
If you’re in a really bad mood.
I did always call my son, when he came out—when babies come out they are like slimy rats. When you give birth you generally remember that moment. And they’re not big, they are only about this size [brandishes medium-sized water bottle]. They’re tiny. And they’re incredibly compressed, and they’re incredibly slimy. And you love them. But when they come out they really are this sponge thing, and they stay like that for a long time. The baby does its origami fold for a very long time.
Let’s see, how long is your baby origami? It’s a few months.
How did I not know this?
Can I do the position? What’s the position they’re in? [Folds self into a ball] Their legs are like this and their hands are origami somehow and their head is like that. That’s why you swaddle them at first. Javi didn’t like this, he didn’t need to be swaddled, but a lot of babies, when you take them out, they’re like, “Aaaah! I’m used to being swaddled!” Javi was like, “Enough, I don’t need to be swaddled, thanks very much.”
“Gestation was plenty.”
Exactly. But they have all sorts of weird, truly—he used to want to nurse, we would be sleeping and he would be in the bed, and all of a sudden I would hear “hehhhhhh hehhhhh,” like that guy on The Simpsons, Mr. Burns, and he would be edging himself over. He would crab himself over across the bed, like this. [Demonstrates]
It was annoying, because I would be sleeping and I’d be like, “Ugh, is he crabbing over? He’s crabbing over.” But he was looking for the boob. So probably, when I wrote “brattle,” I was thinking “rat” a little bit. They’re cute as rats.
When you say that you “submit the query,” by the query, you mean the definition of the word?
Do you always come up with that first?
Sort of. I’ll give you a good example. I’m starting to write the word column again, now for Dame Magazine, but it’s going to be more like what’s happening this week. And I want to write a word for this kind of public gaffe where you just say something racist and awful in a totally inappropriate setting, like Patricia Arquette or Lemony Snicket or Giuliani or Sean Penn or Guliana Rancic. There’s been this grouping of them. So I want to think of a word for when you say something totally bad and you didn’t mean it to come out that way. But then sometimes the word that comes out is in the neighborhood of the specific definition I’m looking for.
Do you still write poetry?
No. Someone once told me, “I think you’ve done it to leave it behind.” And it was totally true. All through my childhood, all through college—and I went to grad school for poetry—I was always writing poetry, I wrote it all the time. I wrote it in the car. I was a good poet, I won fancy fellowships, I went to Yaddo—it’s not like I was some bunk poet. But it just went away. I mean, maybe I just wrote it out. But I think the words are the poems I’m writing now.
Poems also sort of come automatically. They’re bolts from your subconscious. And that’s also the conceit of formal poetry. I went to Hopkins because it was a place for formal poetry and one of my teachers there, John Irwin, a wonderful poet, said the point of the poetical form is that concentrating on the form frees up your subconscious, that’s what it’s for. Which is the smartest thing ever. It gets you out of the way a hundred percent. A lot of people try to do formal poetry consciously and it’s forced and it’s awful. You have to trust that your brain will find the rhymes. So the words come much more like that. But poetry is a part of my life that’s gone. I don’t know why. Maybe it will return at some point, but I don’t think so.
Does anything not work like that? I feel like with most creative pursuits it’s only when you stop consciously trying to force it that it works.
Oh, yeah, with anything creative, you’ve got to get that conscious mind out of the way, it’s a disaster. And I think that’s why novels are a huge problem, because it’s so long to get your conscious mind out of the way. You have to do it for years and sink into it every day. For the words, it takes me two hours, or sometimes two minutes. But the funny thing about doing things subconsciously is that sometimes your subconscious is so creative and smart, and sometimes it just produces the most boring shit imaginable. There were a few words that I dumped for the book, like “flipocrite.” What does that even mean? That’s not an interesting word.
What does it mean?
It was supposed to mean someone who goes back and forth on an issue.
But that’s just a hypocrite.
I know! I know. People would come up to me about the column and be like, “Well, we can see the weeks where you’re struggling.” And I’m like, “Okay, you try to write a word a week!” And it’s actually not one word, it’s four words, because for the Times column, they each had the little sub-words, too. You had the main word and then those odd drill-downs in different directions—even more recondite things. So the book itself does that now. You have the main word, and then it branches out into related words.
You said “brattle” was your favorite word-play word. But do you have words that are just really close to your heart?
I do, I have a few. “Smearch” is close to my heart. My favorites are not always aligned with everyone else’s. Like “fidgital“—the world was obsessed with fidgital. I didn’t give a shit about that at all. I was sort of like, what? Or “povertunity.” Everyone was like, “That’s so clever!” I was like, “Yeah, kinda…” I’m surprised other people didn’t come up with that one, frankly. But sometimes the things I think are most clever are not other people’s favorites just because they’re not so into that it has seven words. I also love “skinjecture,” where you’re trying to see if someone has had plastic surgery or not. I love it because it has skin, inject, conjecture, sure…
Do you ever use these words in conversation?
No, never. I think I do variation in pitch more. Or I have a cockney that I speak in with one of my friends where—let’s say we’re saying, “That’s beyond.” That will become, “That’s Beyoncé,” which will become, “That is the leading solo artist of the year.” Or I call Javi, my son, “coffee and cream” because he’s always coughing, and that becomes “Mr. Coughie,” to “coffee and cream.” And, oh, in college—and I think this is a ridiculous talent, so I’m not saying this in a self-aggrandizing way—I would say something and people would be like, “That’s such an awesome metaphor, I’m writing it down.” In Javi’s music class, for a while he would do this thing where he would stand up and then just crash upon the floor with his hands because he thought it was fun, and I just said once, “He’s like a whale sounding.” His teacher is like, “I’ve never forgotten that thing you said, it was so accurate.” So in terms of how I talk, I’m much more likely to do something image-related.
Do you remember a really good metaphor from college that people liked?
I just remember this really pretentious girl was once like, “I love that, I’m writing it down.” And I was sort of like, “Well, I don’t want it absorbed into that pretention.”
“You don’t deserve this metaphor.” Well, when I was in college, people would compliment the salads that I made in the dining hall.
I think making salads is really hard. You know who has the best salads? Frankie’s, a restaurant in Brooklyn. I love that place. If I ever get married, I’ll get married there. But it’s very unlikely that I’m going to get married.
Because you’re not sure if you want to?
I don’t know, no. The form has not presented itself, so I don’t know whether I would want to get married. Who knew we were going to have this big philosophical conversation about the form? I don’t know what my subconscious would say if the form presented itself at all. But I do know that people asked me to marry them and I felt like, oh my God, I could not even fake it to the altar. I wouldn’t be able to fake it to even telling people. I wouldn’t be able to fake it through the invitations.
I am as in denial as anybody else about various things, but I don’t have denial about that thing. And it’s always interesting to me the people that do. You know, the people who get married and then get divorced immediately after? Or the people who leave right before the wedding? I’m always like, “How did you hold it together so long before that?”
I feel like some people, more than others, are really committed to their persona.
Totally. I mean, Jackie O—slightly different thing, but Jackie O was very upset when she realized twenty years later how upset she had been by the cheating and how bad a situation she had been put in with both of those men. But it wasn’t until she was with Maurice Tempelsman, who was her nice beau at the end, it wasn’t until then that she started doing her own thing. I mean, she was concerned with marrying the right person and being the First Lady and doing a good job at that. And she did, I think she took that job very responsibly and then it was later that she realized, those guys were not nice to me. And apparently the fact that she had not noticed that earlier was very upsetting to her.
Jane Fonda had a really similar path—I was just listening to an interview with her the other day.
You know, I was once in the elevator with Ted Turner [Fonda’s ex-husband] when I was working at the Time Warner Building for Book of the Month Club, which now doesn’t exist. I was always late, always terribly late. And I’m running in. And no one is late there. By 9 the lobby is empty. And so I think at 9:15 I am running in and there is an open elevator and I don’t look, the doors are closing and I just jump in there. I didn’t even hold open the doors, I just jumped. And then all of a sudden I looked to my left and my right and there are these big tall burly men, and they’re slightly laughing. And then the hair on the back of my neck prickled and I turned around there was Ted Turner. And he was just dying laughing. And he was two feet tall. He looked like he’d been left in the oven too long. Just brown, just like a little apple core.
Wow, that’s the best mental image I’ve had in a while.
See? I’m good at this. I don’t know why. Thank God they pay me for this.
So, to go back to your book: Do you think that English is worse at creating these kinds of words organically than German or Yiddish?
Well, German functions differently from Yiddish in that way. With German, they just pile on five other words. They just add to the cattle car. And Yiddish—I speak a little Yiddish, and the words aren’t onomatopoeia, but the sounds convey an opinion of what the word is about. There is no way a putz is good, there’s no way a schmuck is good, there’s no way a shiksa is good. In German they don’t do word play, they do true portmanteau. They just continue adding the modifier to the word. They’re a very literal people. I want to say something nice about Germans but I’m not going to. But Yiddish is a more playful language.
I was looking back at pictures of myself when I was 12, when I was very, very thin. And I remember my grandma at that time saying very approvingly—and my grandmother hated fat people—”Oh, zaftig.” And I said, “zaftig means fat!” She goes, “It doesn’t mean fat, it means strong.” And very angrily at me. By which I think she meant I was strong now. I was talking about it with my family recently and my dad said that when we say zaftig here we use it as a metaphor for fat. That’s all we do. It just means a chubby girl. It means someone who should lose forty pounds. And my father was like, no, no, no. That’s not zaftig. It means a big woman with a big chest and a great ass. It’s like Queen Latifah when she’s thin but more Amazonian. Or if Michelle Obama had a big rack and even had more musculature. It’s a big, attractive, well-molded lady. But it has a very sexual connotation, my dad said. It’s something men would say. And everybody, my Jewish cousins, all the women were disagreeing. They’re saying it means pillowy, soft. So then eventually we figure out that zaftig means juicy. That’s really what it means. It’s not about fat or thin. It’s about, do you want to grab this person’s ass? There is a magisterial presence that a zaftig person—that’s how you have to say it, zaftig, like it’s powerful. Finally, I realized that my grandma was saying that I was becoming a woman. That’s what she meant. And I was so glad to finally fucking figure that out. So Yiddish is like this in that it has very specific meanings.
So your dad is Jewish, and your mom is black, right?
Yeah, my mom is black and Catholic, although lapsed. Here, I’ll show you a picture of my family. This is when we were younger. And here is one of me with Javi, my mom, my brother and his wife, my dad, and my aunts and nephews.
Aw, Javi is so cute. He’s one?
He’s fifteen months. He is a cute child. And he is from donor sperm. His donor dad, his sperm dad, is Mexican and Colombian and Italian.
Did you want to have a mixed race child?
No. This is what was so strange. I was very, very worried. I was kind of like, I can’t pick black, I can’t pick white, I can’t choose.
Because that would be choosing a parent’s side?
Yes, and also choosing a racial side for myself. And then here was a donor I liked for totally different reasons—and then when I looked down, I thought, “Oh, I never even thought of this, another mixed race person like me.” I was always thinking I would have to choose.
You’ve said that you were drawn to both Jewish-themed and black-themed YA books as a kid, but the books that you’re republishing through Lizzie Skurnick Books seem to be more often Jewish than black in theme. Is that true?
There are more Jewish books because there were more Jewish YA writers than black writers at that time who were published. We’ve published a few, but there’s not a ton of black YA from that time. If there were more, I would publish more.
Based on what I’ve read, it seems that you are really peeved when people say that you’re republishing these books from your childhood as a nostalgic thing.
Why would that be so bad?
Because to only want things out of nostalgia implies that the thing is important because of a time in your life, not because of the thing itself, which is why you might be nostalgic for pop rocks as a 42-year-old. Nostalgia is really about me. But bringing something back, reissuing, is really about the work and the canon. I’m not nostalgic about these books at all. And none of the readers really are, either. I don’t like the nostalgia title because it automatically assumes you wouldn’t have liked it for any other reason.
It seems like it hasn’t been all that challenging to get writers to agree to your reprinting their books.
Oh, it’s never challenging to get a writer to publish something that they wrote that is out of print. If you call up the most famous writer in the world, which many of my writers are, and you say, “I’d like to reprint this book,” they say, “Great, send me the check.” But if you call up an heir, it’s more difficult—they’re like, “Oh, the memory of my parents, we don’t know what choice, we want it to be respectful of their memory.”
Can you talk about the design of these books? They’re beautiful.
In an interview on LSB’s website, Eric described how the covers are meant to evoke old library books, with the colored spine and the LSB seal and the type, which could kind of fit into any decade.
The covers are meant to appeal to nostalgia. You look at them and you know what period the books are from but you also know that they are a reprint, and that they’re being treated seriously. You know a lot of things about this series just from looking at the cover. It’s amazing that he was able to do that.
Can you talk a bit about when YA, as a genre, came into being?
You could put it at Little Women. Obviously you have the Nancy Drews, and then you have these books like Sounder—classic adventure stories. Then you have things like The Bell Jar or I Never Promised You A Rose Garden. All these precursors to YA are written with an adult consciousness. Even though they’re from the point of view of a teen, the plots are complex, and they take teenagerhood with as complex a mental state as Alice Munro does. I very rarely see that in YA today, which is unfortunate. That’s why I’ve tried to bring back that period of YA, which I love. But I am actually not super familiar with the YA today. It has its own gestalt and its own value and complexity. Anyway, back then, these books were considered YA, but there was no YA juggernaut. There was no sense of teens as this major purchaser of really anything, to say nothing of books in particular. And I do think the internet has influenced that.
There is a line of thought that YA, as a genre, lacks complexity, that the characters are simple and the books solely plot-driven, which makes me bristle.
It seems that you get this kind of thing with all genres, and YA is the current focus. It used to be, “Are mysteries literature? Is a thriller literature? Is sci-fi really a book?” And it’s basically just insecurity. There was an episode of Top Chef where one chef tasted McDonald’s and said, “This has great umami, I really respect how they got this flavor out of that.” And I thought, you know, the same goes for writing. Writing is writing and art is art and you want to read it all. It doesn’t mean that you don’t draw distinctions between authors and their artistry, but I think art has much more to do with: Did the writer accomplish what they were intending to, and does this work evoke a feeling and do its job? If you don’t respect how you just cannot fucking put down a Stephen King novel, then you’re a lunatic. That’s a skill; that’s part of storytelling.
Here’s the thing: I certainly think it’s all art and anyone who doesn’t want to know how different kinds of art work is not a true chef. That doesn’t make any sense to me. It means you’re not actually interested in books. Certainly, some artists are greater artists. No one is denying that. But you’re just stupid if you don’t want to assess the points of value in every field and how well an author has distinguished themselves in his or her field or even what the hell they’re doing, how they function.
I love that McDonald’s umami analogy. That’s perfect.
See? I’m good at this. And then you have the people who are like, “I would never eat McDonald’s.” And it’s like, well, you’re not really interested in food then, because most of the world eats McDonald’s and there is a reason for that. There’s a reason.
I would be ashamed to write a piece in which I admitted I hadn’t read something. As a book critic, you’re knocking over your own bucket of milk, you know? I would be ashamed or I would stop calling myself a critic. You’re not a critic if you don’t fucking read the stuff, if you don’t know anything about it. Our entire conversation has been about acclimating oneself to the form, and I think maybe that’s the question: why don’t you want to acclimate yourself to YA? You’ve never even read it.
* * *
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.