Interview: William Giraldi
William Giraldi has published essays and stories in dozens of magazines and journals, including The Believer, Poets & Writers, and The Southern Review, to name just a few. "Freaky Beasts," his essay on amateur bodybuilders and the hungers that drive them, received a Pushcart Prize and was named one of the Most Notable Essays in Best American Essays 2010. In 2011, his essay "The Physics of Speed" was a finalist for a National Magazine Award. This August, his delightfully audacious debut novel, Busy Monsters, was published by W.W. Norton.
During the Sanibel Island Writers Conference in November, between leading workshops on fiction writing and consulting with aspiring writers on their manuscripts, Giraldi sat down with me at his hotel pool to discuss Busy Monsters and the importance of storytelling.
Christine Morando: You said during your workshop yesterday that you had the story of Busy Monsters in your head for a long time but you were afraid to write it. How did you move past that fear in order eventually to write the novel and get it published?
William Giraldi: I had the language in me for a long time. I didn't have the actual plot or the character, but I had the language in me. It took a long time for me to be able to stop being afraid of the exuberance of that voice. And once the character of Charlie Homar appeared to me and I realized that this was his voice that I had always had in methe voice of this memoirist, this love struck guy, obsessive and weirdonce I discovered Charlie Homar, it's almost like he gave me the license to be free with the language. You can't just spew ecstatic language without any kind of character-driven purpose. That's what I had been lacking all along. When I said I was afraid, I was afraid of putting the language out there without any real character to anchor it, without any strong personality to make that language live. That character had to come to me first.
CM: Once you found the character that brought that ecstatic voice to life, how did the plot then start to take shape?
WG: The plot did not cohere at first. Originally it was just a collection of different adventures, and I didn't know how they were connected. I knew that Charlie went on this adventure down to Virginia to confront Gillian's ex-boyfriend. I knew that I had that, and it was one story, I thought. And then there was a story about a Bigfoot hunting expedition. And I thought maybe I had just one or two, or maybe three stories involving this character, with this language. It wasn't until the third one that I realized they weren't working as stories; they weren't self-sufficient enough. So, I realized that I was really trying to write this novel. The original conception of just a couple of stories or a couple of adventures involving this character, that changed on its own accord because it just didn't work that way. But you know, a novelist doesn't really have much choice in that matter. The material will dictate to you whether it's working or not. How do you decide whether something is a novel or a story? The material decides that for you.
CM: Readers familiar with your personal essays will recognize elements from your life in the novel, most obviously the fact that Charlie is a memoirist, but also smaller details like the particulars of bodybuilding in the encounter with Richie Lombardo. How do you make use of personal experiences in fiction without letting them dictate the story and take over?
WG: Well, you know, Busy Monsters is not very autobiographical at all. People ask me all the time how much of myself is in it, and fiction writers get that question a lot: how much of yourself do you put into your fiction? The answer is always: You put one hundred percent of yourself into the fiction. As far as those very factual elements from my lifeyou mention Richie Lombardo, who is the New Jersey bodybuilder. I had known a lot of New Jersey bodybuilders and some of them are pretty outrageous characters. So that was easy, you know. I had written a personal essay about the amateur bodybuilding world in New Jersey so I knew a lot about that. Busy Monsters is an outrageous story in many ways so it was a natural fit. So, you ask how you take those elements of your life and put them into fiction. That's another example of those episodes making choices for you. In other words, we have no choice but to draw from our lives and augment that with our imaginations. I knew that in constructing this novel and having Charlie go on these adventures that he was going to have to make his way to New Jersey and confront a different kind of monster. But I didn't want to write just another autobiographical debut novel. I wanted to do something that was a little alien, something that involved more imagination than autobiography. I'm publishing this novel when I'm thirty-six and not twenty-six. I sort of got that autobiographical phase out of my system. I don't feel the need to write about myself factually or loyally anymore as I did when I was, say, eighteen. To go back to your original question about fear, I had to get over the fear of not trusting my imagination and give that imagination free vent. That can be a dicey thing for a writer. The classic advice is to write what you know because If I'm not writing what I know, oh, Lord, it's not going to be truthful. People don't trust their imaginations. And I needed to learn to trust mine.
CM: That imagination, particularly in regards to the narrative voice, has gotten a lot of attention in reviews of the novel. I wondered how much of that developed through revision. What was the process of revising that voice?
WG: That's a good question because I'm a firm believer that writing is a craft and needs to be worked at and worked at and worked at. I don't subscribe to the Jack Kerouac school of spontaneous poeticsfirst thought, best thought. That's crap. Those sentences took a lot of work because they're so unusual. The syntax is so twisted. The word choice is unorthodox. What took a lot of work was making sure that the voice always matched Charlie's personality. No matter what you're writinga story, a poem, a playthe voice of your character, if it's first person, needs to match the personality or the vision of your character. Otherwise, what's the use? You couldn't write the language of Busy Monsters for a dull, obedient, academic character. You need this outrageous personality in order to give birth to that language. It was an arduous process, the language, but it was also a lot of fun. The language of course is very playful, and the book in many ways is about language, and about American excess and our American love of all things big and grand. Charlie's verbiage is as big and grand and outrageous as the American personality. And so the attention to the word choice, the attention to the syntax, the cadences of his sentencesall of this took work because I had to make sure it matched his vision of the world. And there were a lot of sentences that I struck because they were too outrageous, if you can believe it, and there are some pretty outrageous sentences in the book. I needed to make sure that they always matched what Charlie was feeling, and seeing, and thinking. Otherwise you have color for the sake of color, ostentation for the sake of noise, and that's not going to work.
CM: The characters are all developed through Charlie's eyes, and several of them criticize Charlie for the way they are portrayed when his columns, which we have been reading as the novel, get published. How did those characters, and that filtered representation, develop as you wrote the novel?
WG: The secondary characters were as fun to write as Charlie. These characters are all very Homar-esque characters. They all talk like Charlie, which he gets criticized for. Some of them behave like Charlie, which he gets criticized for as well. Those characters really are the foil for Charlie's, shall we say, more untruthful aspects of his narration. Those characters were necessary to put the plot forward because it's a story about a guy who's seeking counsel. But this really needs to be the purpose of character. Character needs to propel plot, or else what's it for? They have a kind of dual purpose, then. They're pushing the plot forward but they're also revealing a lot of things about Charlie. Morris Hammerstein calls up Charlie after Charlie's visit to his house in Boulder, Colorado and says, "I just read this week's installment and it's all lies! I don't speak this way, and it didn't happen this way!" And Charlie says, "Yes it did! It did happen that way and you do speak that way!" So the book became a comment on our memoir craze and the memoir controversy over the last several years, the truth of non-fiction and all the fabricated memoirs. I wanted to do a send-up of that. I thought that was fun. I wanted to be able to poke fun at the whole controversy, which is really a ridiculous controversy to begin with. There's never been a one-hundred-percent accurate autobiography in history. It's just impossible; the memory doesn't work that way. But of course there's a huge distinction between the natural inaccuracies that arise innocently during the writing of one's life and the deliberate fabrications in order to make yourself look more interesting. Huge difference. And you're never quite sure which one Charlie's doing. And I like that metafictional aspect of the book where the story becomes a comment on storytelling. You're reading a story about a guy writing a story and the characters are commenting on the writing of that story. The thing becomes very postmodern very quickly, and very self-referential. Those characters that you mention, like Groot, and Romp, and Lombardo, they are larger-than life, over the top, deliberate cartoons in a way. Which is not to say that they're not real people, but just that the way Charlie sees them, the way he processes them for his stories, is in a very Homarian way. That's why they're always saying, "I'm not like that." But it brings up the question: Who are we, really? How do we look to other people? Because we never look to other people as we look to ourselves.
CM: The mythology of this novel runs from the classic myths of Homer to the contemporary pop myths of the Bigfoot tapes. How did you balance the ancient and contemporary mythology?
WG: Well, they're the same thing. Ancient and contemporary myths have the same source, and that source is human imagination and our need to understand, our need to tell stories. So when I say that I wrote a story about storytelling, I'm really speaking about that mythology. The UFO phenomenon, the Bigfoot phenomenon, the Loch Ness Monster phenomenonthere's nothing new about these at all. These are variants of other kinds of mythologies and legends. And so, the importance of myth isand this is what Joseph Campbell stressed again and again in his careermyths are the truest things about us. Joseph Campbell would get so upset when people would say that a myth is something that's not true. He insisted on just the opposite: A myth is a story that is absolutely true. And so, how did I bridge the gap or make the leap from the uses of ancient mythology to the uses of contemporary mythology?
CM: Or even find a way to bring those various mythologies together?
WG: For me they were already together. The UFO cult today, the abduction cult, is a religion. These people look to the sky for UFOs the way that our ancestors and millions of people today still look to the sky for angels and gods. This quest for Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster is a religious quest. These people have a religious yearning for the sublime, an obsessive hankering after the sublime. I don't see any difference in someone hunting Bigfoot every weekend and someone sitting in church every Sunday. They're both praying, they're just praying to different gods. They're both searching for answers and searching for meaning, but through different avenues. That's something that's always interested me as an early reader of Homer. I became fascinated by Greek myths pretty early on, and I became, as most boys do, really intrigued by monsters when I was a kidBigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, UFOs, vampires as well, God help meand why? These myths represent our emotional truths. Why are vampires so popular right now? Why are zombies so popular? What's this resurgence of interest in the supernatural, ghosts and all this? They speak to the darkest corners of our souls, to the ghastliest nooks of our psyches. And they're very real, vampires, ghosts, werewolves, zombies. They're very real indeed. They were birthed by our imagination and they are as real as Jesus, and Mohammed, and Buddha. That real. And that necessary.
CM: Moving from the book to writing more generally, in recent interviews you've talked about how fatherhood has changed the practical aspects of writing for youhow much time you have to be a writer, the fact that you have these other roles that necessarily come before that. But I wondered if being a father has changed the way you tell stories or the way you think about storytelling at all.
WG: Being a father, especially for the first time, changes the way you do everything. My primary job as a writer, as a storyteller, has been affected by Ethan in profound ways, and not just the practical ways that you speak of, but in emotional ways. Writing is a labor of love. As Harold Bloom has said, and as Lionel Trilling has said, literature affects us most deeply because they are documents of love. One's position as a father is one of love, as well. Ethan has enhanced my capacity to love, and that can't help but affect your work. If your work as a writer is not only a labor of love but is your exploration of love, your testament of love, then the capacity that your child has given you to love more, to love stronger, is going to find its way into the work. I'm trying to think of an analogy but I'm bad at analogies. I think about it a lot, though, and it's funny because I haven't really written about him. I wrote one essay about him called "Semi-Free Associations Inspired by Sleeplessness" and this was about his early days, of course. So I've written about him only one time. But I was finishing Busy Monsters and revising it all throughout his birth and his early days. I like to think that Busy Monsters is a successful love story, and that it's successful because of Ethan's being in the world. To write with your heart full of love is a tremendous gift. So anything that enlarges your capacity to feelany person, any thing, any event that swells your heart and allows you to love moreis going to make you a better writer. Writers who traffic in bitterness and regret and grievance and malicethey don't go very far. Those are all necessary aspects of the human condition s and I understand that those are necessary aspects of literature, as well, but it's really love that allows literature to make its tremendous impact on you.
CM: In 2009, Julianna Baggott said that you were "the best contemporary writer who does not yet have a book." Have you taken notice of any up-and-comers who are still in the process of publishing in journals and putting their names out there who you would like to pass the torch along to, now that you do have a book?
WG: A former student of mine in Boston named John Stazinski is a wonderful short story writer and essayist. He's somebody that I knew right from the start was going to be an important writer, just a beautiful storyteller. There's a writer named Jon Methven with a debut novel coming out called This is Your Captain Speaking. It's a comic novel, exuberant and original, and when it comes out this year it's really going to blow people away. They are a pair of real American originals who you're going to see will make a deep impact. They have that necessary element of memorable, truthful sentences. Because it has to start with language. What makes a writer special? What makes a writer powerful? The only things at his disposal: Words. Sentences. Those are two guys who have got good sentences.