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 watch—but 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 cooking—her spaghetti Bolognese and lasagna with béchamel sauce—and 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.
PETER SELGIN is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, Life Goes to the Movies, a novel, two books on the craft of fiction, and two children’s books. His memoir in essays, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man: An Artist’s Memoir, was short-listed for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. His novel, The Water Master, won the Pirate’s Alley William Faulkner Society Prize.
Selgin has been a winner and a three-time finalist at the Eugene O’Neill National Playwright’s Conference. His drama, A God in the House, based on Dr. Jack Kevorkian and his suicide machine, was staged at the Conference in 1991 and optioned for off-Broadway. The play was also winner of the Mill Mountain New Plays Competition (1990). A revised version of A God in the House won the 2007 Stage 3 Theater Festival of New Plays. Another full-length drama, Night Blooming Serious, won the Charlotte Repertory New Play Festival Competition (1993).
Selgin’s illustrations and paintings have been featured in The New Yorker, Gourmet, Outside, San Francisco, Forbes, U.S. Art, Time-Out New York, the Chicago Tribune, and The Wall Street Journal, as well as NPR’s Weekend Edition, Fox’s Good Day NY, and CNBC’s Great Stuff. His paintings have been exhibited in galleries throughout the United States.
Selgin is prose editor of the journal Alimentum: The Literature of Food, and nonfiction editor of the national review Arts & Letters sponsored by Georgia College & State University’s MFA Creative Writing Program.
He has taught at the Gotham Writers Workshop, Western Connecticut State University, Yeshiva University, Manhattanville College, Saint Lawrence University, Rollins College, Georgia College and State University, New York University, and The Mercantile Library Center for Fiction. Currently he is an Assistant Professor at Georgia College & State University. He lives on Lake Sinclair in Milledgeville, Georgia.