Distracted at Djerassi

By Thomas Skalak

I find myself distracted. Pulled among many attractions of equal appeal. The serenity of this place in the California hills must be experienced in person to appreciate the severe disconnections from modern life which it produces. The quiet is the first and most distinctive impression upon one’s senses. In combination with the long views of the gold and green hills, distant fog banks, and ocean horizon, the overwhelming quiet takes us back to a more primordial time in human existence. Only occasional tractor noise, carpentry, and jet airplanes passing overhead into or out of San Francisco airport disrupt the quiet. When these three elements are absent, one merges into an environment of birdsong, the creaking of trees, and wind. On a climb up the Hill Trail, a raven banked sharply so close above my head that I could hear powerful sounds of turbulence coming off its tilted wings – to small prey what must sound like danger. Beauty is the second impression. Whether blue skies or grey, day or night, green fields of tall grasses, aisles of old oaks, rolling hills dotted with copses of pine, redwood, and oak, or chaparral ravines, the natural landscape is seductive.

Back to the reality of a Djerassi residency: in the first six days here, I’ve read six books and perused five others. The six are Outdoor Art, by Silvia Langen, depicting remarkable works of outdoor sculpture around the world - rivaled by the Three Hills sculpture made of charred wood by David Nash and situated here outside the Middlebrook Studios; Anne Sexton, a biography of the poet by Diane Wood Middlebrook; In Retrospect: From The Pill to The Pen, by Carl Djerassi, the final autobiography by the founder of the Djerassi ranch and Resident Artists Program, written at age 91; The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nyugen, a thriller about the Vietnam war and a hidden spy in America, winner of multiple fiction awards as a first novel; The Spooky Art, by Norman Mailer, the renowned American novelist offering his lifetime observations on the business, craft, and soul of writing; and Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, by Peter Biskind, covering the transformation of independent film-making and marketing by the writing and directorial vision of Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarentino, and Matt Damon, among others.

In these, surprises and insights abound. Carl Djerassi, for all his wealth, family and friends, scientific success, and later writing and travel period, “coped with an overwhelming sense of loneliness” through his long life. He also wondered if a person could realize a true sense of identity without a “home”, feeling some comfort in his own life as he returned to Vienna for significant portions of his later life. Most significant for my own work on a novel here, Djerassi said “I came to realize (at age 69) that only in fiction – actually in the guise of fiction – can the real truth be told.” I feel a kinship with Carl Djerassi around this sense. Steven Soderbergh, the filmmaker, believes in the power of genre film and writing, saying “Genre films are a great place to hide. The audience is there to take pleasure in the satisfaction that specific genres can provide. Meanwhile, you can indulge in some of your personal preoccupations without it becoming too pretentious or boring.” Tarentino, describing the meeting at which he asserted absolute directorial and artistic control of his first film, said “It all comes down to little moments, and that moment decided my career for all time.” The key to this moment, of course, was that he had written an original script, based on stored-up ideas and emotion, which everyone loved. Mailer, the novelist, offered several observations about writing which I took to heart. He said, “Novels go happiest when you discover something you did not know: a truth that used to elude you.” And, “Integrity in best-sellerdom consists of writing the best book the author is capable of at the time. Readers respond to sincerity.”

In between bouts of reading and hiking, it has been a pleasure for me to learn the ideas of the other resident artists here together - how to make impossible phenomena visible from visual artist Alan Bogana of the “Italian part” of Switzerland; the semi-mystical treatment of geometric planes and bespoke mathematical symbols such as volumized integral signs by turn of the century Ukrainian “Methodologists” from Anya Yermakova, raised in Russia and educated at Oxford and Harvard; the innovations in color, especially the primary color yellow, by the artists of the cinquecento period in Venetian art (e.g. Titian and Tintoretto), who imported the needed raw materials from distant suppliers, from Barbara Berrie, head of scientific research and chemist at the National Gallery of Art in the U.S.; the variety of names for coastal fog in the U.K., such as “the fret”, connoting the worry felt by generations of English and Scottish people for their mariners and fishermen at sea, from Eleanor Holmes, an English M.D. and poet writing as Eliot North; uses of the “internal voice” of fictional characters from Los Angeles writer Judith Dancoff, with whom I’ve also had delightful exchanges on the plots of our respective science-based thrillers; the last common ancestor of all life on earth, during relaxing hikes with bioscientist and visual artist Dave Goodsell of Scripps Institutes in San Diego, who is painting wonderful watercolor images of the earliest molecular origins of life; and provocative scenarios for transcending colonial logic in a futuristic world populated by artificial intelligence-derived alphabets and unexpected electromechanical, digital creatures from Sarah Rosalind Brady, a new media artist of Native American-Irish-Mexican descent working in LA … where else better to seek such transcendence of multiple cultures?