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English patience


Joseph Skibell made a breakthrough with his first novel, A Blessing on the Moon, which received glowing reviews from The New York Times and Publishers Weekly and a glut of press over the young author.

But that Blessing, published in 1997, turned out to be something of a curse for Skibell, who found himself left with a cantankerous case of writer's block.

"When you work on your first book, you're happy in your own little world," says Skibell, who lives in Atlanta and teaches creative writing at Emory University. "Then suddenly it comes out and what was once this private little idiosyncratic process of going into a room and putting words on paper becomes kind of a sales career. It takes a while to re-orient back into how to write a book."

The author says he spent two years basically banging his head into a wall while working on The English Disease, published in June by Algonquin. But when his intuitive voices finally came alive again, he knew they were right.

The new book contrasts with A Blessing on the Moon as sharply as night and day. The fantastical first novel followed the ghostly journey of a Holocaust victim and unfolded in soft-focus fairy-tale language. The English Disease rests on more realistic ground as it reveals the inner-turmoil of a misanthropic Gustav Mahler expert. Charles Belski fears he's contributed to the downfall of Judaism by marrying a non-Jew, and his Woody Allen-esque neuroses makes for a hilariously conflicted commentary on modern life.

Skibell admits he sees strains of his protagonist's innate pessimism in himself, but says this book is his farewell to a character type that keeps popping up in his work.

"I'd been dealing with Charles for some time, this neurotic, alienated, cynical character. He lives in fragments in my plays and short stories, so I thought I'd give him his own book and say goodbye to him. 'Here's your book, thanks, I don't have to deal with you anymore.'"

Joseph Skibell reads and signs The English Disease June 1 at 2 p.m. at Tall Tales Books, 2105 LaVista Road. 404-636-2498.

Shelf Space is a weekly column on books and Atlanta's literary scene.

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