chris

The Rumpus Interview with Chris Castellani

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I’ve known Chris for fifteen years. We were two of the first teachers at Grub Street, a Boston-based writing center that Chris (as executive and now artistic director) has helped build into one of the nation’s best.

I was deeply impressed when I read his first novel, A Kiss from Maddalena, which managed to capture the rhythms of village life in World War II era Italy. His follow-up, The Saint of Lost Things, tracked his heroine Maddalena Grasso as she sought to make a life in America with husband Antonio. It was an intimate and wrenching examination of the immigrant experience. His new book, All This Talk of Love, finds the now-sprawling Grasso clan in millennial American, where Maddalena and Antonio are left to grapple with their ambivalent legacies: a pack of fractious offspring, the cruelties of fate, and a haunted past with which they must finally reckon.

It is, in my view, an American masterpiece, a tenderly ruthless examination of the bonds of family, the ways in which love perseveres in the midst of insoluble grief and complex regrets. I read the book in a kind of frenzy, feeling all the while that exquisite stab of envy that overtakes us when we feel our own talents eclipsed, and our hearts enlarged. How had my friend managed to cut so deeply into the hearts of his people?

The Rumpus sat down with Chris to find out.

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Rumpus: You’ve spent more than a decade tracking the Grasso family across 60 years. Did you know what you were getting into when you started A Kiss from Maddalena or did it just evolve?

Chris Castellani: 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 e 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 PhD 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 Synechdocal Approach, I called it, if only so I could finally use a term I’d learned in grad school.

Rumpus: One of the major achievements of your trilogy is to strip away the sentimentality that’s grown up around the “immigrant experience.” You manage to convey the abiding sense of dislocation and despair that lives beneath the aspirational blather. Is this something you did consciously, or is it just the story as you know it?

Castellani: It was definitely a conscious goal in each of my books to avoid sentimentality at all costs while remaining true to the emotional lives of the characters, who are each, in their own way, passionate melodramatic Italians. This was a hard line to toe because the stories I wanted to tell all focused on family and romantic love, and it’s hard to avoid at least appearing sentimental when you are in that “domestic” sphere. I’d become frustrated with the many one-dimensional depictions of Italians in the media (including books), and I wanted my books to feature complex and challenging characters with deep inner lives and struggles.

I understand the need for, and even the enjoyment of, books designed primarily to celebrate or prettify or wax nostalgic about the so-called immigrant experience, but I don’t find those books nourishing. They don’t give me what I ask from literature, which is, as you recently put it, to “bring us deep enough into the minds and hearts and souls of others to make us feel less alone with ourselves.”

Italians in particular are seen as either benign and child-like (the sweet old nonna with her meatballs), menacing mobsters, or hyper-sexualized housewives and gigolos; the kind of nourishment I’m looking for doesn’t lie in any of these stereotypes.

Around this time, someone usually asks me about The Sopranos. That debate’s now quite dated, but I’ll just say that, on balance, I was a big fan of the show and greatly admired its explorations of the characters’ inner lives. The mob stuff always struck me as little more than a vehicle for those explorations. I still think of the heartbreaking loneliness on the face of Carmela Soprano during that lingering shot on her slumped over with her bags outside Meadow’s dorm room; that sort of moment is what I tried to capture and contextualize in my books.

Rumpus: As you know, I’m a big fan of your first two novels. But I was blown away by how much deeper this final installment cuts. The psychological and emotional depth is astonishing. Did it feel different to write from the others?

Castellani: First of all, thank you. That’s the highest compliment I could receive, especially coming from you. All This Talk of Love did indeed feel different to write. First off, the subject matter (the death of a child, the sorrows of aging and disease) was much more difficult and emotionally wrenching than what I dealt with in my first two novels. This, too, was a conscious decision, in that I really tried to “write to my fears,” as Dorothy Allison advises writers to do. I had to step away from the book for weeks at a time because the subject matter was just too close, or too “possible.”

Rumpus: I know I shouldn’t do this, but as a friend and admirer of yours, I kept wondering how much of the plot comes from family history. Can you talk a little about this? The pluses and perils, I guess I mean.

Castellani: It’s a fair question. Anyone who knows me or my family will see aspects of us reflected in each of the novels. And there are, of course, some literal similarities: my parents did grow up in a small Italian village and emigrate to Wilmington, DE after World War II; my immediate family does include two brothers and a sister of roughly the same ages as the characters in All This Talk of Love; like Frankie, I attended graduate school in English Literature at a Boston-area university. In addition, I’ve liberally borrowed themes that have echoed through our family for generations, as well as the cadence of my parents’ broken English in Maddalena’s and Antonio’s dialogue.

The obvious plus here is that I’ve had the context and the relatively solid ground on which to build these novels. When I struggled for a plot point or a character trait, I turned first to someone I knew, considered what she or he might have felt or done, and that consideration gave me a form of access. But, in every single case – and this I want to make very clear – I changed something fundamental to the character or to the story as a way of distinguishing it from its referent. I did this not only out of discretion and artistic integrity and in deference to the imagination, but, selfishly, to keep myself from getting bored. I had no interest in retelling a tale that had already been lived, either by myself or any member of my family. This is hard for people to believe, especially when, for example, they read a description of Maddalena and it sounds exactly like my mother; she may by the source of inspiration, but she is not Maddalena. The same with every other character in the book, including that pretentious Mamma’s boy grad student who reminds some people of the author…

Rumpus: Maybe what I’m trying to ask is how tough was it to write this installment, which takes the Grasso family into the present.

Castellani: Well, the first two books were historical (1940s Italy in Maddalena, 1950s U.S. in The Saint of Lost Things), so the jump to 1999 was very jarring. I missed the objectivity that time and distance brought me. I realized that you have to deal with a lot of baggage when you write about your own era, that it’s harder to separate what is actually compelling from what is interesting simply because it mattered to you at the time. Also, the details you have to work with seem thin and ephemeral and lackluster compared to the cool and surprising and rich details you can uncover while researching another era.

But what made it especially tough was that, because this was the last time I would write about this family, I was very conscious that I was saying goodbye to them. I think that’s why one of the major themes that emerged was letting go of the people you love. Every character deals with this issue: Prima needs to let her sons grow up; Maddalena has to face people she shut out long ago; Antonio has to let go of the guilt he’s always carried for the death of his youngest son; and Frankie has to find a way to grow up without his parents.

Without question, that’s why this book took almost twice as long to write as The Saint of Lost Things. I didn’t want to say goodbye, and yet I knew I had to. And I wanted to give them a proper send-off. I was also conscious that there might be readers out there who’d read the first two books, already knew Maddalena and Antonio, and didn’t need me to re-introduce them. It was helpful, actually, that they were now in their seventies and eighties; I was excited to find out how and if they’d changed since 1953, and I was excited to explore how each of their children might understand them differently.

I think that’s actually what draws me to family stories: the various roles we each play with each member of our families, and how different they can be from who we are with our friends and partners and lovers. I’m endlessly fascinated by how we navigate these family dynamics; they are the dramas each of us live out day after day, often in ways we don’t even realize.

Rumpus: How has your family reacted to the various books, this one in particular?

Castellani: I don’t come from a family of readers – in fact, my parents are unable to read the books in English, and they have not yet been translated into Italian – but everyone seems to understand the commitment and concentration it takes to produce novels. They’ve been incredibly supportive from the beginning, even as reviewers and friends have insisted on identifying them as the characters in the books, and even as those characters haven’t come off in the most positive light.

We are a fevered and often fractious bunch – constantly arguing over issues big and small, in each other’s business at all times, wildly emotional, and passionately devoted to each other. We are fiercely loyal to each other, practice radical acceptance and inclusion, but that doesn’t mean we don’t make each other suffer or feel guilty or that we don’t drive each other completely crazy. That is very much true of the Grassos.

This won’t ruin the ending of All This Talk of Love for anyone who hasn’t read it, but I want to say that, in the original ending, the Grasso family falls apart completely and scatters. Again, I was writing to my fears as well as taking inspiration from the dissolution of the Buendia family in One Hundred Years of Solitude. My agent at the time, Mary Evans, balked. “This is a family that stays together,” she said. And she was right. The same, I think, I hope, can be said of the Castellanis.

Rumpus: Is it true that you, like Frankie Grasso, talk to your parents every night?

Castellani: Yes. Just like my father did. In fact, I’ve never gone more than two days without speaking with them, even while on trips around the world. And this was before cell phones! (Note: I don’t imply this is a healthy way to live. But my relationship with my parents is among the greatest gifts of my life.)

Rumpus: Can you talk a little about how in God’s name you wrote these books while also running Grub Street?

Castellani: I wrote in the mornings, often in cafes, on the way to the office. I gave myself a daily word minimum, usually 750. I tried to save revision for the weekends, when I had more consecutive hours to string together. Pages accumulated this way, miraculously. And, in many cases because of Grub Street, I could call on wonderful readers who’d offer feedback and help.

In the meantime, Grub Street grew into one of the leading literary arts centers in the country, with over 600 programs each year. My work with the organization has been less of a distraction than an inspiration, connecting me with an incredible community of talented writers and devoted readers. The two types of work feed each other. I haven’t hit the bestseller list, but I consider myself one of the luckiest writers in the world, and this is mainly because of Grub Street.

Rumpus: What’s next?

Castellani: All I can say is that I’m working on another historical novel that takes place both in Italy and the U.S., but has nothing to do with the Grasso family. I’ve done most of the necessary research, and once the book tour for All This Talk of Love is finished, I’ll be back at those daily word minimums hoping for another miracle.

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Author photo by wowe.


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