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Novel explores why awful things happen in a mostly good world

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — We will soon mark the 15th anniversary of 9/11, a harsh reminder that none of us is insulated by borders or distance.

It is something Phyllis Skoy, who did volunteer work with the Red Cross in New York City after 9/11, knows well.

“Here in Placitas, New Mexico, it seems like we are untouched, but we are not,” she said. “Anything can happen anywhere.”

That is perhaps why Skoy – who grew up in Massachusetts, lived and worked in Manhattan and now resides in Placitas – set “What Survives,” her first novel, in modern-day Turkey, a country she has visited twice for a total of two months.

Author Phyllis Skoy

Author Phyllis Skoy

Her need to know how other people feel and think gave Skoy, an American of Russian-Jewish heritage, the motivation to make three major characters Turkish women of different ages and points of view. Fatma is old Turkey, a woman deeply attached to her country. Adalet is a university graduate, a woman whose life is turned inside out by an earthquake and who has one foot in the world of her parents and one in the modern world. Meryem, the teenage daughter of a Muslim mother and a Christian father, is drawn to the West.

“Oddly enough, it is not a book about Turkey, but it is a redemption story that takes place in Turkey and follows on an actual cataclysmic event – an earthquake in 1999,” said Skoy, 67, who maintains a small practice in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. “Human relationship is my major interest. The book is about the struggles of women – not just in Turkey but everywhere. It is about the relationship between women. The three women in the book are at different stages in their lives, come from different backgrounds and want different things in their life, but they are still able to love each other and share the deepest aspects of their lives with each other.”

a01_jd_30aug_upfront2Turkey is as vivid as any character in the novel. Skoy traveled around the country for a month in 1998 and spent a month in Istanbul in 2014. She is smitten by the place.

“Turkey is dramatic,” she said. “It is colorful. It is vibrant. I got very hooked on the country, the people, the culture, the cuisine. I know writers are supposed to write about what they know. But I have always been interested in our differences. I always want to learn about what I don’t know.”

Friends in Turkey, especially a woman named Aysegul Hurdur, helped her understand things about the culture, the food, the language and the Turkish people.

“I had to have someone Turkish as a consultant, because there were little things that would worry me about characters,” she said. “I wanted the characters to be true.”

Turkey is also a politically volatile country. Just last month, there was a failed attempt to overthrow the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Politics and tensions between the East and the West play out in Skoy’s novel as her characters, who include Mark Aronson, a Jewish-American art history professor teaching in Istanbul, are drawn toward the tragedy of 9/11 and its aftermath. That part of the novel actually surprised the author.

“This started as a short story, and there was no 9/11 in it,” she said.

Real life took a hand in that plot element. Skoy and her husband moved from Manhattan to Placitas in 2000. But she felt strange being in New Mexico when New Yorkers were dealing with the devastation at the World Trade Center.

“New Yorkers really know how to pull together in a crisis,” she said. “I went back and did volunteer work (in mental health care) for the Red Cross for two weeks. I experienced going to ground zero in such a profound way. I knew I wanted Adalet to go to New York. I thought, what if she went after 9/11? What would that be like for her as a foreigner?”

“What Survives” turns out to be an attempt to understand why such awful things happen in a world made up mostly of decent, loving people.

“It is always curious to me why people have to do these things to each other when the people are like Adalet, Fatma, Mark and you and I,” Skoy said.

She is working on another novel featuring some of the characters in “What Survives.” She is making it a prequel rather than a sequel because she’s not sure what’s next for Turkey.

“I don’t think anybody really knows what is going on there,” she said. “But I have great respect for the Turkish people, so I think things will come out OK.”

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Ollie at 823-3916 or oreed@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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