Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for William Giraldi

A 1/2 Dozen for
debut novelist
(and essayist, critic, editor at AGNI)
author of the brand new novel
(I'm reading it now and you should be too. He's wild-brilliant, obsessively-brained, a dazzling word-freak extraordinaire.)

Here goes:

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

Jack White has been my uncomfortable obsession since 2005, the year I began Busy Monsters, actually. This fascination with the White Stripes clobbered me without notice. I'll write a book about it one day, but for now I remain as befuddled by it as I was when it rushed upon me six years ago. My only guess at an explanation is that I was about to turn thirty and needed a rock-n-roll obsession, as if to prolong my youth. Make no mistake: "obsession" is putting it lightly. I dream about him. My wedding was a black-red-and-white themed affair. My wife and I followed the White Stripes across Canada for our honeymoon. When Jack disbanded the White Stripes this year, I wept. I literally curled into a corner and wept. He's a genius, a guitar god with a perfect face. So? And? And I can't explain it. I don't even like thinking about it.

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

A singular moment, yes: I was in a poisonous relationship with a woman who had two children -- a "rebound" relationship, I believe, is what pop parlance has dubbed it -- and I was simply delusional, trying to find ways to make this union work despite knowing that it was doomed, that she and I didn't share the same atoms. The father of her two children was a menace, a rapscallion, the tattooed type, and he caused these poor kids great grief. In planning our future, I would literally lose sleep every night pondering the ways in which I could erase this fellow from the picture. I felt like Macbeth! Simply crazed. Contemplating the perfect crime. Murder! Me! Can you imagine? The sight of even the most benign violence gives me the shakes. But that was the beginning of Busy Monsters: my hero, Charlie Homar, decides to rub out his fiance's ex-boyfriend, a Virginia state trooper full of garden variety evil, a very bad man who won't leave them in peace. Of course this "moment," this inspiration for Busy, was influenced too by Don Quixote and The Odyssey, both of which I was rereading at the time. I know what you mean about "inspiration": it sounds so Oprah. I prefer "influence," and its attendant anxiety, with thanks to Harold Bloom.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

My relationship with the page: Well, I don't like it very much, I have to admit. It's very hard, and very lonesome, and the gratification is delayed, unlike for, say, a musician on stage. Some writers really need to call themselves writers in order to feel validated on the earth, in order to feel purpose. But I find that being a writer is a terrific nuisance, and I'd much rather read or loaf about. If I had chosen my parents more carefully I would have been a musician or race car driver. Look: I didn't choose writing. It chose me when I was child, when I wasn't looking. I identify as a father and husband and reader and teacher before I identify as a writer. I don't even like to speak about writing. Let's stop.

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?

Go fall in love with someone else. A zoo keeper or balloonist.

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

My Writing Tip #1 would be this: stop writing for a while and go read some more. Start with Homer and the Greek tragedians, then on to Virgil and Catullus, maybe Ovid too, Dante for sure, and then skip ahead to Marlowe and Montaigne -- leave Shakespeare alone for now, trust me; you'll have time enough to be daunted by him -- and then try to write again. Write for a while. Then stop. Then go on to the Romantic poets, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats and Shelley too, Byron if you have time. Then on to Goethe. Spend a month on him, no less, more if you can. Write some more. Stop. On to the Russians: I'd start with Pushkin since Russian lit begins with him, but you might have time only for the top two, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, although you'd be committing crimes against yourself if you failed to find Chekhov. Turgenev too, in my opinion, though he isn't as essential as the others. Next up: the great 19th century English novelists: Eliot and Dickens especially. Then on to Hardy (his novels AND his poems, don't forget). Stop. Write some more. Write a while longer. Then: welcome home, come to America: Melville, Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman, Poe, (not Thoreau), James, Twain, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Flannery O'Connor, and Raymond Carver. Congrats: you're a writer now. (Although, really, if I were you I'd choose a less wobbly profession.)

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

Nervous, anxiety-ridden sometimes, being raised by a nervous grandmother who always believed that John's apocalypse was only a day away. I went to Catholic school. I studied the gospels in a Greek I didn't understand, and then in a Latin I understood even less. But I remember the sounds of it. The poetics of the mystery. Mass every Sunday with a giant, looming, crucified Christ behind the altar -- he must have been 12 feet tall -- and I knew from an early age that I wanted to be like him. I mean make an impact, show the world my blood, stir up a little worship. Christ was, is, just so darn popular. Look: I had a happy childhood, don't let me fool you. My mother walked out on our family when my siblings and I were just kids, but so what, my dad and his family gave us a great life. (Shrinks have insisted I have female issues because my mother rejected me. That's not true, no matter how many times a month my wife shouts, "I'm not your mother!") Flannery O'Connor insisted that any writer who has lived through her childhood has enough material to last a lifetime. It's my strict policy never to disagree with Ms. O'Connor. So every day of my boyhood made me into the scribe I am now. How could it not? The great Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld insists on the same: "Childhood," he has said, "gives us the first."

What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

Complicated because I rarely read strictly for pleasure anymore. A critic reads mostly the books he's reviewing, or books related to the ones he's reviewing. For example, I spent three months reading all of Harold Bloom -- all 30 books -- in order to write an appreciation for Harper's magazine, and then they ended up killing the piece when my editor there was let go, but it wasn't a wasted three months at all. To read all of Harold Bloom front to back was a stunning education. But I have a new deadline every month or so, and I'm always reading in relation to my reviewing. An example: I wrote a piece for the Barnes and Noble Review on a new novel about a brother and sister, and the book made me yearn for George Eliot's masterpiece The Mill on the Floss, also about a brother and sister, and so I went back to reread it, which was a joy for me. There's no one like Eliot. I'm currently reading a newish study of Homer called The Rape of Troy that's been on my nightstand for the last year because I've just now come into a free week when I don't have to read a book related to my job as a critic. It feels grand, to be reading for pleasure and not for work, although of course all reading is pleasurable for me.

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

Lord, striking the balance, it's impossible, I haven't learned it, I think. I teach 100 new students every year at BU, plus have my duties as an editor at AGNI, plus my fiction and critical work, plus my husband and father work: it's daunting, exhausting. But maybe the trick is doing nothing else. I mean, I don't have any hobbies or sports, don't donate my time to the homeless, don't really leave the house unless I have to, have only a few friends, all of my family are in New Jersey. I spend 6 hours a day here in my home library, reading and writing, though mostly reading because writing is so onerous for me. The rest of the time is for my wife and son and then my students and AGNI.

What’s your take on touring?

Hate it. Takes me away from my treasured Bs: my baby, my bride, my bed, my books, my bathroom, my Boston. Touring is for musicians, but writers seem to think it makes them a pretty big deal if they go on "tour" too. I know a writer in Boston who, after her novel came out on an independent press, sent herself all over the place doing readings at bookstores. I hadn't seen her in a while, and then I did, and I said, "How have you been?" and she said, "I just got back from a tour," and I said, "You joined the Rolling Stones?!! Awesome! Good luck with that."

Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process?

I used to say that literature is my religion, Homer and Milton my gods, and I still mostly believe that. The thing is, I was raised Roman Catholic and that exerts the gravity of a collapsed star: you never escape it. Homer and Milton, for all their secular worth, are essentially religious poets, and I had to ask myself -- vociferous atheist that I was in my twenties -- why I kept turning to poetry of the sublime: Whitman, Shelley, Wordsworth, Hopkins. They saved me from having to go to Mass every Sunday, from having to believe in a literal god. The truth is, I might have been just another unknown self-destruction if it hadn’t been for Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” and Wordsworth’s Prelude. They taught me that agony is endurable, that living is beauty. Wordsworth is a much more religious thinker than scholars usually give him credit for. That Snowdon scene in Book 12 of The Prelude is the grandest moment of humanism in all of English literature, but for all its humanism, it's an undeniably religious moment too. So, faith? Well, I have faith in the poets. They inform my work because they inform my life.

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

My narrator in Busy Monsters, the memoirist Charles Homar, claims to be a writer of place, yes. He claims to write about that shady continent called "My Heart."

What's your worst writerly habit?


This is a vast question. Interpret it at will. What’s the future of publishing?

What's the future of the bicycle?

William Giraldi teaches at Boston University and is a senior editor for the journal AGNI. A regular contributor to The New York Times Book Review, he was a finalist for a 2011 National Magazine Award in the category of Essays and Criticism. Busy Monsters is his first book.

To find William on Facebook, click HERE

Follow William on Twitter: @busy_monsters