Biography of Works
Peter Selgin is the author of two books of fiction, including his first book of short stories, Drowning Lessons, which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Fiction and published by the University of Georgia Press in 2008. His autobiographical novel, Life Goes to the Movies, was twice a finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, and second place winner for the AWP Award for the Novel, before being published in May of 2009 by Dzanc Books. His first memoir in essays, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man,, was published in 2011 by the University of Iowa Press. That same year his novel, The Water Master, won the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society Prize for Best Novel, chosen among 300 entries by Random House Senior Editor Will Murphy.
I was born in Bethesda, Maryland, of Italian immigrants, one of a pair of twins my mother hadn't expected. The birth notices read, "Selgin Boy A" and "Selgin Boy B." I was Boy B. Six months later my father, who worked for what was then the Washington Bureau of Standards, quit his job to become a full-time inventor.
We moved to Bethel, Connecticut, a former hat factory town an hour's drive north of New York City. There, in a musty laboratory converted from a black market farm, my father, who invented the first machine for changing dollar bills to coins, designed and built instruments that did everything from telling whether apples were rotten without breaking their skin, to measuring the thickness of shoe soles, to matching the colors of false and real teeth.
Among my father's inventions is the name Selgin, a reshuffling of his original surname, "Senegaglia"one no one could pronounce, let alone spell. Not long ago I heard from one of his former wives that he'd been very proud of the name, of being able to say to people, "Like Elgin, the watchbut with an 'S.'"
Our house was set in a hill with its back to the woods. As a boy my favorite thing to do was climb up to the top of the hill, where you could see the whole town, including four abandoned hat factories. I'd take a deep breath and then, as fast as I could, run down the hill, leaping over fallen trees and rocks, amazed that I could do this thing so close to flying.
Since he learned English as a boy in London, my father spoke with a semi-British accent that I've inherited. He had an IQ in the 150's (which I did not inherit), and joined a club for geniuses called Mensa. At one of their picnics, my brother and I watched two geniuses argue over whether a can of baked beans placed unopened on the barbeque grill would explode. The argument ended when the can exploded, sending scalding beans flying into spectator's eyes, clothing and hair. "Idiots," said my father.
I'd give my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Decker, drawings of the Empire State Building and the Queen Mary inspired by trips to New York with my father. With its lights burning the Empire State Building looked like a Christmas tree, and the ocean liners, with their cherry funnels and vanilla superstructures, were like giant banana splits in their berths. Mrs. Decker thanked me with kisses on the cheek and I became an artist.
One day my father was soldering a circuit, having a hard time getting the solder to stick, the fumes from his soldering gun rising like a cobra under the influence of a snake charmer. His thunderous expletives shook all the screw drawers in his laboratory. I waited for the storm to subside before stepping closer. As I did Papa said, "Peter, my boy, it's a good thing you want to be an artist. With people you can hope to have some influence on their emotions. With machines you kick and swear but nothing happens."
My mother is a cross between Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani, with piercingly pale Gypsy eyes. My schoolboy friends were drawn by her good looks and highly caloric cookingher spaghetti Bolognese and lasagna with béchamel sauceand by that thick accent as pungent as a Genoa salami. She says "air" instead of "hair" (and vice-versa) and "I no give a goop" when she means, "I don't give a damn." You try correcting her; I've given up.
As children George and I harmonized, literally, singing Beatle's songs in the back of the school bus. As time went on harmony collapsed into rivalry, and we were famed for our Spartacus-like brawls. Now we are best friends. Everything I know I learned from George, my twin, who is as artistically inclined as I (why he became an economist no one really knows). George lives with his scruffy little dog in his carefully cluttered Victorian house, where, on the kitchen table, he assembles bicycles worth millions of dollars for himself alone.
Like my father I too am an inventor, though I invent completely impractical things out of words and paint, and that only work on paper.
My studio in Spuyten Duyvil.
copyright © 2006 by Peter Selgin. All rights reserved.