May 2013

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

features

An Interview with Christopher Castellani

The novelist and critic John Gardner called sentimentality "causeless emotion" -- a definition the poet Mary Ruefle long used to criticize sentimental poetry. Until she wrote in an essay on the topic: "One day I realized causeless emotion is an even better definition of poetry."

It might also be a definition of family -- at least viewed from the outside. For in a family every emotion is amplified, every wrong or happiness reacted to laden with the history of wrongs and happiness past.

The characters in Christopher Castellani's latest novel love this way: relentlessly, imbued with history, and with emotions as big and wrought as the soap operas the son Frankie and mother Maddelena watch together. After reading All This Talk of Love, I wondered whether what I had read was so full of heart it must be sentimentalized, for surely no family could remain so bound by love through all the harms described -- a dead son, the betrayals of heavy secrets, alienation from one another. And yet they loved.

But the book didn't feel false. It felt the opposite, so full of heart it was simply truer than what was usually admitted in print. Aren't we so bound? To call it sentimental was simply to miss the history -- and the poetry.

And the characters come by their history honestly, over years of unfolding from Castellani's mind. All This Talk of Love is the final installment in a saga he began a decade ago. The books all stand alone as novels, but they do connect, from the publication of A Kiss from Maddelena in 2003, which followed the young Maddelena's journey from her Italian village and across the ocean, and then The Saint of Lost Things in 2006, in which Maddelena and her husband Antonio tried to find their way in America.

In All This Talk of Love, Maddelena is an old woman, her children Frankie and Prima now navigating futures and families of their own. Like any time, hers has passed -- and Castellani must say goodbye to lives and loves that he's spent a decade building.

First, a big question, as the title invites it: Why all this talk of love?

The Grasso family does a lot of talking -- about love, about obligations and responsibility, about the old country and the new -- but not much listening. At various points in the novel, each gives his or her own definition of love and how it relates to the soul, the heart and the mind. In some way, love is at the core of every issue and fear and action: the death of Tony, their son and sibling, who dies at fifteen; their anxious over-protection of each other as a result of Tony's death; their longing for or outright rejection of their homeland; their current romantic entanglements; Frankie's passion for literature; Prima's and Maddalena's inability to let go of the young men who first fell for them. I wanted the title to gesture toward all of this, and to be read as simultaneously (or alternately?) cynical and earnest.

When you began A Kiss from Maddalena, did you know you would follow the Grasso family for so long?

My original goal was to cover at least three generations of Maddalena's family in one gigantic tome. I had absurd dreams of being the Italian Marquez, which is why the early drafts are littered with magic and curses and (gasp!) dreams. As I drafted and revised, though, I found I had a stronger interest in old-fashioned realism, in the small but resonant moments in family and romantic relationships, so I cut out all the hocus pocus. More importantly, unlike Jeffrey Eugenides, whose Middlesex did for the Greek-American experience what I wanted to do for the Italian-American experience, I had no talent for the kind of expansive writing that would allow me to tell a multi-generational saga in one volume. I might have stopped with A Kiss from Maddalena  -- which ends with the main character on a boat bound for America -- but I had Gay Talese's article "Where Are the Italian American Novelists?" from The New York Times Book Review taped above my computer, and every time I looked at it, I felt compelled to complete the arc of Maddalena's story.

You've spoken elsewhere about your writing being inspired by your parents, who are Italian immigrants, as the Grassos are. Your mother left her village as a young woman, as Maddalena did. Before these novels, did your parents inspire your work as well?

Point to any good thing I've done in my career(s) and I can tell you how my parents directly inspired it. Like many Italian immigrants who came over immediately after World War II, my mom and dad had very little education, could barely read and write English, and worked impossible hours with their hands to save money for their growing family. My hands are useless for anything but writing (and even that's debatable) because I never had to use them for anything but school. My parents prepared me for this relatively luxurious "life of the mind" I now lead, a kind of life they didn't even realize was an option. I admired their work ethic so much that I never rebelled against it, not even as a teenager; I tried as hard as I could to make good on the faith they had in me and give them a return on their investment of thousands of minimum-wage hours. All that said, I didn't shy away from exploring the tensions and thorniness of family relationships like ours in my novels; I owe it to them to tell the most honest and complex stories I can.

Was that inspiration always something you welcomed, or did you ever try to fight against it? In the book, Frankie, the living son in the family, is intimately involved with his mother -- he speaks to her by phone every night, and they watch a soap opera together -- yet also seems to try to stay on the family's periphery, living at a distance and engaging in power struggles with Prima, the daughter, in his mind.

Like Frankie, I had to define myself as a person and establish my own career and marriage before I could fully understand and accept my role in my family. Before any of that happened, I was deeply afraid of becoming a stereotypical mammoni, one of those Italian sons who lives at home his entire life, never marries, and is left completely adrift when his parents pass away. That's why, as difficult as it was to live apart from our parents after college -- something we never imagined we'd have the strength to do -- Frankie and I both moved to Boston to attend graduate school. As Frankie says, if he'd stayed, "he'd have gladly leapt into [his parents'] mouths... and they'd have swallowed him whole." In Boston, Frankie is at a safe distance, but that doesn't mean he doesn't want to remain as close to his parents, especially his mother, as he possibly can. And yes, though you didn't ask, I'm not ashamed to admit that I do talk to my mother every single night on the phone. In fact, I can't imagine why I wouldn't want to talk to her every night.

You recently participated in one of my favorite literature-themed series on the web, Largehearted Boy's Book Notes, in which authors make playlists for their books. But you included a song you find "so awful and annoying" that, you said, you can't even finish it! So a playlist would subject the reader to that same annoyance. To me that choice recalls how little the book papers over the amount of disagreement in a family, the way even the pleasurable can contain the seed of an irritant. And Prima, certainly, seems irritated often. Do you find yourself going toward irritants?

Well, without irritants, you have no tension or conflict; and without conflict, there's no story. In fact, one of my first college fiction instructors, Jonathan Franzen, used to tell us, over and over, that no story can succeed without "conflict and desire." It's another way of phrasing the familiar adage that every character in a novel has to want something, and want it desperately. So, for every character, Prima especially, I continually asked myself, "where's his or her conflict? Where's the desire?" I tried to make my answers as complicated as possible while staying within the sphere of family. And because I wanted the structure of this novel to be a matrix of family tensions -- a brother-sister story, a brother-brother story, a mother-son story, a mother-daughter story, a father-son story, a father-daughter story -- once I came to understand something new about one of those relationships, I had to relearn and re-explore the others through that lens. And I was always looking for trouble, which is something I always tell my own students to do; if you're not looking to make trouble for characters, especially the ones you love, then you might as well not bother writing. (By the way, it's no surprise to me that so many writers are hypochondriacs; we're always scanning our characters for symptoms and imagining their worst-case scenarios...)

Well, you succeeded in placing them in trouble! Struggle is fundamental to the book -- between the family members and within each person. They hurt each other, they disappoint each other, they disappoint themselves. The book has a lot of grief to it, and sometimes brutal, honest parsing. But somehow it also feels profoundly optimistic to me, profoundly heartening -- I devoured it in two nights and mourned when it was over, as I hated to leave its world. How conscious were you of that balance?

Oh, I'm so glad you had that reaction. I was very much writing to my fears, wrestling with more difficult material than in my previous work, but at the same time I didn't want to write a bleak book, one that didn't see love as a salve. So I was very conscious of balancing dark and light, pathos with humor, and seeing both sides of every story. For example, many readers have written to me to tell me that they appreciated and responded very positively to my depiction of dementia in Alzheimer's Disease, which is, for lack of a better word, more optimistic than most depictions. In no way did I want to suggest that there's anything good about this devastating illness, but I also didn't want to participate in the pornography of misery that often accompanies the disease. Any of us who've gone through tragedies like that understand that there are mercies hidden in the most unlikely situations.

About those passages -- I found them to be some of the most powerful in the book. You render Maddelena's slow slippage into dementia from her perspective, allowing sentences, time, and memories to run together. That's not a perspective I've encountered often in literature. We talk so little about dementia in this society, certainly not an amount proportionate to its prevalence and the grief and challenges it brings families -- and rarely from the perspective of the person suffering it. How did you prepare to write these sections?

These were certainly the most difficult passages to write, both because they demanded my sharpest craft tools and because they were the most emotionally wrenching. I had to distance myself as much as possible from the character because she was becoming increasingly distanced from herself, and because the absolute last thing I wanted was for those passages to become sentimental or melodramatic or self-indulgent. It was a very difficult line to toe, and without question I spent the most time in revision on those passages. I don't think there's a single syllable of those sections that didn't get revised multiple times.

Did you find yourself falling into some family members' perspectives more easily than others?

Each character had his or her challenges. Not surprisingly, I took most easily to Frankie's and Maddalena's voices -- Frankie's because it's closest to my own, and Maddalena's because she'd been a character in my two previous novels. But I also tried very hard not to coast on my perceived understanding of them as characters; every time it got "too easy" to write one of their scenes, I forced myself to slow down, pull back, and make sure I was examining them as closely as I could.

Each character was quite distinct, so I had no trouble distinguishing them in my head. I did run into trouble, though, when I learned something new about a particular dynamic -- for example, Prima's reckless teenage behavior after Tony's death -- and had to reassess how that might have affected her relationship with her parents. In other words, each time I understood a new facet of a character's personality, that didn't just change that character's arc, it changed the arc of everyone else in the family. Such is the danger of writing a book about a tightly woven family with intersecting storylines.

I've known you primarily as the artistic director of the creative writing center Grub Street (where I sometimes teach), and for me the way the book gave each character's voice room on the page recalled the same sensibility that Grub Street has. It's a place very much devoted to helping each person find his or her voice. And how do you balance supporting others' voices with making sure you also get your writing done and support your own?

I've said many times that my work with Grub Street has been less of a distraction than an inspiration, connecting with me with an incredible community of talented writers and devoted readers. The two types of work feed each other. Every time I meet a new instructor, or go to a student reading, or design a new program, I'm reminded of how powerful the act of writing is when it's done well, and how profoundly it transforms lives. We strive for artistic excellence for all of Grub Street's programs, and I strive alongside hoping my work lives up to what we preach.

Grub Street is my second family, and that's exactly how its founder, Eve Bridburg, and I have developed it, consciously or not. And just like in a regular family, everyone does have a voice; the difference at Grub is that we do try to listen closely to each other and help each other along as best we can.

Back to the Grasso family. How much did you know about what would befall the family when you began this book, given how long you've spent with them?

I deliberately knew very little. For most of the book, I had no clue whether the family trip to Italy would ever happen. I didn't know about Prima's relationship with Dante, or whether Frankie would end up with Kelly Anne or Birch, or what would happen to the Al Di La restaurant if Antonio passed away. Every time I knew too much, or planned too definitively, the characters would do something to thwart my intentions (which was a very Grasso thing to do). Many alternate realities for the Grassos still exist in drafts, including a storyline in which Tony survived his adolescence. However, what was published as All This Talk of Love remains the narrative of record.

Has your relationship to them changed over the years -- particularly to Maddalena?

Well, I've grown very close to them all, and because I spent over twelve years with them, I've come to imagine almost everything about them. I've glimpsed their inner lives, and their roads not taken, and what's not in the books belongs exclusively to me, so I feel quite rich in my friendships with them. We're our own little very exclusive club. And certainly Maddalena is the character I know and love best, mainly because she is at the center of all three novels. Strangely, though, I feel as if she surprised me the least; I knew her from the moment I started writing her, and I didn't have to push her too hard to reveal her secrets. This might have something to do with all those nightly phone calls to my mother.

You've written elsewhere that in this last book you tried to follow Dorothy Allison's advice and "write toward your fears." The epigraph of the book seems connected to this, a quote from a Marie Howe poem about her brother's death: "One day it happens: what you have feared all your life, / the unendurably specific, the exact thing." Could you say more about how you wrote toward fear in this book?

All I can say on this without getting too self-indulgent or maudlin is that, as the youngest child of older parents, I spent my entire life from childhood on anxious about their health and wracked with worry about whether they'd be around long enough to see me grow up. Even now, every day, I live with that constant fear and anxiety because, as Prima says in the book, you're never too old to be an orphan.

Was it any more difficult to finish this book than the others, knowing you'd be saying goodbye to this family?

Subconsciously, I'm sure it was more difficult because I knew I was saying goodbye. At the same time, I was eager to see what happened to them, wrap up their storylines, and then start something new. Like most goodbyes, it was bittersweet. I miss wrestling with them, and talking to them, and I will always wonder what else might have happened to them, what secrets they didn't tell me. And yet not having them around anymore gives me the freedom to explore new territories and meet some new friends.