Issue 7

An Interview with Christopher Castellani

 · Nonfiction

By John Beauregard

Christopher Castellani is the author of three novels, each published by Algonquin: All This Talk of Love (2013), a New York Times Editor’s Choice and a finalist for the Ferro-Grumley Literary Award; The Saint of Lost Things (2005); and A Kiss From Maddalena (2003), which won the Massachusetts Book Award. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Ploughshares and numerous anthologies, including Mentors, Muses and Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives. His next book, The Art of Perspective, a collection of essays, is forthcoming from Graywolf.

As the former executive director and current artistic director of Grub Street, Christopher has spent the past fourteen years helping to build the Boston-based organization into one of the country’s leading non-profit writing centers. In 2008, he joined the fiction faculty of the M.F.A. Program at Warren Wilson, where he serves on the academic board. He has been on the faculty of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and for two semesters he taught the Advanced Fiction Workshop at Swarthmore College.

The son of Italian immigrants, Castellani grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, earned a B.A. at Swarthmore, an M.A. in English Literature at Tufts (where he is ABD), and an M.F.A. in Fiction at Boston University. He now lives in Boston with his husband, Michael.

Christopher was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in April of 2014, and he is at work researching and writing his fourth novel, Leading Men.

I heard you present, a while back, a working paradigm in which the first draft was a “down” draft—in the sense of just getting all the elements down on the page—the second an “up” draft, as in pick up the pieces, reorganize a bit, and the final a “dental” draft, in which you’d get fine and nitpicky with small, sharp, important details. Do you find this model still informs your writing? 

I borrowed this from—and, I hope, credited—Anne Lamott, who described the process so beautifully in Bird by Bird. I believe in what she calls “shitty first drafts,” those “down” drafts that, to me, are the imagination made visible in all its messiness and randomness. It’s very hard to be true to a down draft, to muck through that mess without cleaning it up as you go along, and I must say that I’ve failed at it with every novel. Usually by page 100 or so, I have to stop and go back, again and again, from the beginning, fixing up, polishing, etc., until I get 100 pages of which I’m relatively proud. The problem is that, often on page 101, I find a new direction or something that disrupts the 100 pages I’ve just polished, and I’m thrown into despair.

Any advice as to how one overcomes this despair? Do you see it as germane to the creative process?

An authentic creative process requires doubt. Doubt forces you to examine different angles of a character or a story, to question the most accessible image or idea. It’s a difficult dance, though, because the same process also requires extreme confidence: the confidence that you’re working on something worth sharing, that you have something to say, something that might resonate with a reader. I think some of the despair writers feel comes from the wild swings between these two poles: just when you’re feeling confident, doubt takes over; just when you’re full of doubt, the perfect line comes to you, but then a moment later you’re doubting the perfection of that line.

How is it that you made the commitment to writing fiction?

I went to graduate school in the mid-90s to study English Literature, but throughout those years I was in a creative writing group that exchanged short stories. By the time I’d finished everything but my dissertation, I was burnt out and felt more fulfilled by writing fiction than by my scholarly pursuits, such as they were. So I decided to take a year “off” to get an M.F.A. and see whether that sense of fulfillment survived the focus a program like that would require. While in the program, it became evident I had little talent for writing stories, but that I was on better footing with the novel form. The novel not only came easier, it felt truer to the goals I had for my fiction; so once the program was over I kept at it, making it a part of my daily life as I waited tables and taught comp. It wasn’t quite an escape from those other jobs; in fact, those jobs were the escape. Writing the novel was a way to go deeper into life, something I not only enjoyed but needed. So I guess you could say I made the commitment to writing fiction by making the commitment to writing fiction.

What is the rest of the story of how your first novel made its way to print? 

The draft I was working on while waiting tables and teaching comp began in Ralph Lombreglia’s novella workshop at BU. When the first fifty pages felt solid, I sent it to the agent of one of my classmates, Michelle Chalfoun, who had already published a wonderful novel and had kindly vouched for me. The agent really liked the manuscript and “took me on,” as they say. About nine months later, I sent her a finished draft of the entire novel, but after reading this, she decided to let me go; the novel wasn’t working as is, she said, and she didn’t have the time or inclination to work with me to fix it. So I sought the help of friends—including Michelle and another wonderful classmate-turned-novelist, Kristin Duisberg—who offered very smart and substantial edits, which I spent about a year folding into a deep revision. Then I swallowed my pride and sent it back to that original agent, who had only a few minor tweaks to suggest before she showed it to editors. About a week later, Antonia Fusco at Algonquin, a terrific editor who’s still a dear friend, took a chance on me and bought what was ultimately A Kiss from Maddalena.

What are the goals you have for your fiction?

I’d say the primary goal I have for my fiction is to write complex characters who ring true to readers. Like most fiction writers, my main interest is in the many ways people love and hurt each other, especially in families and romantic relationships. Thousands of years of stories have yet to exhaust this topic, so why not continue to explore it?

What felt ill-fitting about the short story form, given your goals?

My style and thematic concerns don’t seem well-suited to the short story, which, in most cases, focus on a single incident in a character’s life, usually a transformative moment or revelation. I’m a huge fan of short stories as a reader, but every time I’ve tried to write one in earnest, I can’t focus. My maximalist tendencies come out, and I want to give the reader too much information about the history of the setting, about the main characters’ extended family, about what happened twenty years before and twenty years after the main action. I’m exaggerating only slightly here. Of course many short story writers begin like this and spend lots of time shaping and pruning and re-focusing the sprawling first drafts until they settle on the heart of the tale they want to tell, but I’ve never had the patience for that or the necessary restraint.

Other writers have said this, but I’ve always thought that short stories have more in common with poems than they do with novels. They share a unity of impression, and often a single lasting image and an emotional precision; also, the ending of a story or poem seems to be so much more important to its success than it is to a novel. Furthermore, novels can contain multitudes and can be messier and take less risky chances. As a result, I feel more free when I’m writing a novel than when I’m writing a story, and that freedom, I hope, fuels my imagination and deepens my insight. Let me clear, though; I’m not saying that a novelist doesn’t have to worry over the sound and shape of every sentence; ultimately, just as in a short story or poem, every word of a novel is, as Francine Prose put it, “on trial for its life.”

Your work moves through the perspectives of a large number of characters with remarkable fluidity. Is this an organic form for you? Did you have a model for this mode of storytelling?

I am obsessed with point of view. In fact, the next book I have under contract is actually a series of essays on the use of perspective in fiction. One of the (many) reasons All This Talk of Love took so long to write is that I couldn’t come up with a sound narrative strategy for it. I knew who would be in it, and I knew what I wanted to happen to those people, but I didn’t know how best to “deliver” the characters and plot. I flirted with every possible option for a while: first person, multiple first person, traditional omniscient, omniscient from the perspective of the deceased first-born son; etc. None of them worked, mostly because they didn’t give the story what the best narrative strategies offer: maximum flexibility and maximum tension. Also, because I wanted this to be an ensemble novel, I knew I needed the four main players to tell their sides of the “main story” (the trip to Italy) and their sides of their own stories, and have all of those intertwine. It was important to me that each voice be distinct in third person, that if a reader opened the book at random and stuck his finger on a sentence, he would know instantly to which character that sentence belonged. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t put the character’s name at the start of each section—if the writer is doing his job, the reader should know right away with whom he is aligned.

I think that the narrative strategy for a novel should relate in some important way to its main theme. But of course you don’t even know what the main theme is until you finish the book, and, even then, “theme” is a squishy term that’s more appropriate for a high school book report than a discussion of craft. All that aside, what I ultimately decided for All This Talk of Love was that, even though each character had his or her own discrete sections in which the reader had access only to their thoughts, there was one character—the mother, Maddalena—who could “break in” to any scene at any time. The reader would then have access to Maddalena’s thoughts even though the section technically “belonged” to her husband or one of her kids. Once I decided on this strategy, possibilities opened up for the novel in ways they hadn’t before—especially in terms of the ending and the decline of Maddalena’s cognitive abilities—which is another sign that you’ve hit on the right strategy.

Setting is also rich and varied, historically as well as geographically. Did your family travel to Italy when you were younger? How important is travel experience in your evocation of setting?

Unlike the Grasso family in All This Talk of Love, the Castellanis went back to Italy, and to our ancestral village of Sant’Elpidio, every few years. We’d go either in August (when the entire country is on vacation) or over Christmas (when the entire country celebrates one feast day after another, essentially giving them another vacation). I don’t think this travel was essential to my ability to describe or evoke Santa Cecilia, the village I invented for the trilogy, but it certainly gave me more of an emotional investment in the place, and that investment probably helped me identify with the characters who’d grown up there and had to leave it at a young age. However, I made the conscious decision not to try and reproduce my parents’ village exactly how it was or how I remembered it to be; I created a village of my own so that I wouldn’t be bound by the restrictions of the real place.  The challenge here was not just to imagine the village, but to describe it differently in all three books. In A Kiss from Maddalena, my primary goal was to transport the reader to a far-off time and place, and so the mood and sensory elements and authenticity of the historical details were of utmost importance; in The Saint of Lost Things, my primary goal was for the village to function as a kind of “present absence” for the immigrants struggling to make their way in the U.S., which meant I had to give its descriptions a kind of nostalgic color, to describe the village the way a lover would describe someone he’d lost; in All This Talk of Love, I had to imagine how the village might have changed in fifty years, just the way I’d imagine how a character would change, and I wanted that change to have a thematic resonance.

With All This Talk of Love, you’ve concluded your deep, generation-spanning work with the Grasso family. Have your goals changed substantially as you transition to writing new characters? Has it been hard to let go of the Grassos?

Now that I’ve finished the “Grasso trilogy,” I do think my goals have shifted slightly in that I’m less interested in family than I am in romantic relationships, particularly gay relationships. It’s funny—when readers pick up All This Talk of Love, most assume from the title that it’s about romantic relationships, but really it’s about family love in all its thorniness. The characters in the novel I’m currently working on—an alt-historical novel set in Italy in the 1950s and 1960s—seem to have escaped their families—or think they have escaped them—and it’s refreshing to get to know characters who are (re)inventing themselves in this way.

As for whether it’s been hard to let go of the Grassos… I have to say not really. All This Talk of Love, which took seven years to write, was itself a long goodbye, and that book went through many significant changes along the way (mostly as a result of that doubt we’ve already discussed). So I feel that I’ve done all I can with those characters, and I’m excited to meet new people. It’s less of a break-up than the end of a happy relationship that simply ran its course. We parted amicably and are still on good terms.

Did you have any idea, while you were writing A Kiss from Maddalena, that you would end up following many of those characters through three novels? 

When I started what became A Kiss from Maddalena in 1999, my goal was to cover at least three generations of the Piccinelli-Grasso clan in one fat novel, taking a character loosely based on my mother from her birthplace in an Italian village in the early 1930s through World War II, an arranged marriage, her journey across the Atlantic, immigrant life in the U.S., her relationships with her children and grandchildren, a return to Italy, and whatever her life would look like beyond the millennium. I’d just come from an English Literature Ph.D. program, where I’d fallen in love with thick 19th Century tomes with multiple storylines that told the entire history of a city, a region, and/or a way of life; I wanted to do for the Lazio/Abruzzo region of Italy—where my parents were born—what Hardy did for his fictional Wessex. Oh, and I’d also read A Hundred Years of Solitude a few too many times and thought such a masterpiece was a reasonable model for a twenty-something who’d never written a novel or even finished a successful short story.

What happened instead: I got to page 400, and I’d covered only two years of Maddalena’s life. She’d just made it onto the boat. Turns out I had zero talent for the kind of expansive writing that my plan required—the sort that Jeff Eugenides pulled off so beautifully in Middlesex, which was published around the same time and remains the book I wish I’d been able to write.

So I decided to play to my supposed strengths and divide the saga into three representative parts, each of which would cover a shorter but more intense period of time in Maddalena’s and other characters’ lives. The Synecdochal Approach, I called it, if only so I could finally use a term I’d learned in grad school. (Ed. note: Chris answered this question previously for Steve Almond in an interview with The Rumpus, which you can read here.)

How have you found working in an alt-historical setting so far? Do you find the world-creating liberating or delimiting?

I think it may very well be my favorite medium. I love doing the historical research, which gives me the grounding I need to create a credible setting and cast of characters and texture. Once I feel sufficiently grounded, I can then play quite a bit, filling in the cracks between what we “know” (a word that will always be in quotes) and what we don’t about a time period, an incident, a famous person. The “alt” of the process is liberating, while the “historical” part is limiting, and I love dancing on that hyphen.

What do you enjoy reading? 

Though my taste in fiction is all over the place, the novels and stories in which I fall passionately in love usually have one element in common: a strong attention to language, which often means a strong voice. I have happily read long novels in which “nothing happens,” carried along by a narrator or set of characters who fascinate me simply by what they say and how they’re saying it; in other words, I tend not to read for plot, and I’m not often seduced by the high-concept hook. It follows, then, that I’m also a big reader of poetry, both classic and contemporary. When I pick up a book, I hope to be awed by what the writer can do with language, and to learn from the possibilities that s/he has opened up.

Any advice you wish you could have imparted to your younger self, some 15 years ago?

Fifteen years ago, I was a student in the M.F.A. program at Boston University, suffering mightily under the pressure to produce a new story every two weeks for workshops. I was suffering not only because I had trouble coming up with stories, but because every single one of these stories were unredeemable failures in the eyes of my professors and classmates, and because I was closeted and debilitatingly anxious and convinced that my lifelong of dream of being a “real writer” would never come true.  I left most of those workshops in tears. I wish I could embrace that young man right now, tell him not to be so hard on himself, to trust his gut, to learn from the thoughtful criticism and disregard the rest; I wish I could convince him everything would be OK, that he’d still be loved whether or not he was a real writer or a “real man,” that the best was yet to come. I imagine/hope I’d want to give my current self some of this same advice fifteen years from now…

Read Chapter One from Christopher Castellani’s novel, All This Talk of Love.

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