Monday, February 18, 2013

Christopher Castellani talks about All This Talk of Love, the past's hold on the present, why he's the annoying guy in your favorite cafe, and so much more

I carried All This Talk of Love by Christopher Castellani around with me everywhere I went. Half the time, while I was reading, I brooded about why I couldn't write something this rich, this moving, this wonderful, but the other half of the time, I was just ridiculously grateful that he had done it.  Funny, warm, and infinitely talented, Christopher is the son of Italian immigrants and the artistic director of the very famous Grub Street creative writing center. He's the author of A Kiss From Maddalena, which won the Massachusetts Book Award in 2004, and The Saint of Lost Things, an IndiBound Notable Book that was long-listed for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2006. He's also on the faculty of the Warren Wilson MFA program and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. I'm so thrilled to have him here--and my thanks are huge.

Why do you think the past has such a hold on the present--in fact, it's prologue for everything we do. Do you think we can ever escape our pasts? (And would we want to?)

Well, the older we get, the more of our pasts we have to contend with, right? Our futures are continually shrinking, our possibilities dwindling by the minute, and all the while our pasts get weightier and more vast. The cliché metaphor of aging is of going over a hill and falling fast into oblivion, but for me the more accurate image is that giant boulder chasing Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Seems like the harder we try to escape what we’ve done or chosen and make it out of the cave intact, the more likely we are to stick to the same patterns. In other words, the boulder always runs us down. Believe it or not, I find this strangely comforting. 

So much of your novel is also about myth. Can you talk a bit about that?

By myth I think you mean the myths our families create for ourselves. So much of family interaction is like acting in an elaborate play; it’s drama, to be sure. We each fall into our respective roles – the caretaker, the fuck-up, the martyr, the prodigal, etc. – and while these roles certainly shift and evolve, they’re often very different from who we are and how we present in the real world. The script we follow in our families is one we’ve all written together and tacitly approved, even though we know it doesn’t account for half of “what’s really going on” or “what really happened,” all of which is unknowable anyway. 

This is certainly true of the Grasso family in All This Talk of Love, especially around the death of the youngest son, Tony.  His death gave each member of the family a certain role to play, and because he will never come back to life to alter those roles, they will likely stick to them unless more is learned about how/why he died…

Old age figures prominently in the novel, but in a way that's so nuanced and moving, that the whole subject feels brand new. Please talk a bit about that, too.

Given how much is written about older characters, especially these days, that’s a big compliment. Thank you. Because I wanted this novel to be about the tensions between immigrants and their first-generation children, I needed the parents (Maddalena and Antonio) and their adult children (Prima and Frankie) to be point of view characters. The two “sides” had to carry relatively equal weight so that we could see the issues from multiple angles. 

That said, I thought I knew what the older generation’s “issues” would be: they wanted to keep the traditions they came with, they were nostalgic, they were anxious about their children’s futures. But the more I got to know them, the more complex they became. Focusing solely on those standard “immigrant issues” flattened them. Their inner lives were rich in ways I never imagined, which of course made writing them an exciting challenge. 

Tell me about your writing life. You're the artistic director of Grub Street, plus you also teach--how do you manage to do it all? 

I’ve said this in interviews before, but it bears repeating: my work with Grub Street and the teaching I’ve done at Warren Wilson and Swarthmore and elsewhere have been less of a distraction than an inspiration. No, I can’t go to residencies very often, and I have to fight to protect the little writing time I have each week, BUT being involved with these great organizations has compelled me to hold myself to a higher standard. Also,I’m constantly surrounded by writers who work hard every day on their books; how could I show my face if I were doing any different? 

Logistically, it works like this: I protect my mornings and my Saturdays and most Sundays for writing. I find that if I begin my weekdays and weekends having written a minimum number of pages, I’m ready for pretty much anything. 

Do you have rituals? 

I’m that annoying guy who takes up space in your favorite café for hours at a time drinking the same cup of coffee and mumbling to himself. The noisier the place, the better I can shut out the din and focus on the imaginary world at play on my laptop. The only noises I can’t shut out are crying children and people talking on cell phones. There’s something about both, especially the one-way conversations, that completely disrupts my concentration and fills me with inordinate rage. This is why my favorite cafes are those overpriced hipster joints where they frown upon children and publicly shame you for talking on your Blackberry. 

What part of the writing life sometimes makes you think maybe you should have gone to dental school?

Pretty much everything except that incredible high I get when I finish something I think (for the moment, at least) is good. It could be an image, a sentence, a story or an entire novel; whatever it is, that feeling of having come up with it, and sensing its “rightness,” can not be beat. It’s a high like nothing else. As Anne Lamott says, though, you “pay through the nose” for that high. You pay with the endless anxiety about your talent/relative worth as a human being and the favors you have to ask of your friends and the financial hardship and the runaway insecurity that borders on paranoia and the icky self-promotion and the impatience and the messiness and the disappointments. And I’m happy to pay, because that high really is worth it, and because I’d be a TERRIBLE dentist. 

What's obsessing you now and why?

To be perfectly candid, right now, the week that All This Talk of Love has come out, I’m pretty self-obsessed. What will I read at the next event? What will I wear? Have any more reviews come out? Am I disappointing people? What will my family/former teachers/fellow writers/students/friends think of the book? It’s embarrassing, and I really hope it passes soon because it’s completely unproductive, and I’m only truly happy when I’m working on something in earnest. 

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

You didn’t ask me what my next book is about, and for that (as well as for inviting me on your blog in the first place) I thank you. 

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