In five novels and a collection of short stories, Anthony Giardina has written about the conflicts at the intersection of social class, family, and sexuality. Recent History explores the anxieties of a young man whose parents get divorced when his father announces he’s gay; in White Guys, a horrific murder in Boston forces old friends to consider their assumptions about where they belong in the social hierarchy. His new novel, Norumbega Park, traces the lives of the four members of an Italian-American family in Massachusetts over forty years. Richie, the patriarch, is seized by an urge to purchase a traditional house in the titular town, setting in motion a new life for his family. His son Jack breezes through high school on his charm, then runs into trouble when he moves to New York instead of going to college. Joannie, Jack’s sister, joins a convent, and her mother, Stella, struggles with that choice, as well as with her own encroaching mortality. I spoke with Giardina by e-mail about the work and experience that went into creating the new book.
Your fiction has been credited with “charting the move from the working class to the gilded suburbs.” What draws you to this story?
I was a witness, as a young boy, to my father’s desire to move us up, in our case from a working-class neighborhood to a brand-new neighborhood of houses that men built for themselves—my father and his cronies, Italian-American working-class guys who had made some money. They literally blasted into this hill in Waltham, Massachusetts, this area that had just been woods, and they built these houses that I can see now were just basic split-level structures but that seemed to me kind of magical. It wasn’t just houses these guys were building, it was a whole neighborhood they considered “exclusive.” It made them all act differently. They gave parties for themselves—they dressed up, the women wore gowns. And it was maybe the first complex social observation I was able to make, to watch a group of men and women consciously attempt to reinvent themselves.
Later, of course, I was able to see that this was a huge theme in American fiction, but before I knew it as literature, I had seen it in its raw form, and it left me with a vivid sense that this is how class works in America—that assumption of a new identity based on where you live, and how well you’ve done.
I’ve never wanted to do that for myself. I live in a modest house, and I like to assume a suburban identity where I’m just one of the neighborhood guys.
Reading your book, I was reminded of James Salter’s Light Years. I wondered if that book, or Salter’s work more generally, influenced your writing.
Probably nobody has influenced me more than Salter. Cheever, maybe, and later Richard Yates, but I started reading Salter in college, in 1968. We read A Sport and a Pastime for the sex scenes. It was only later that I began to notice the prose. Light Years captures a way of life in a manner that I admire because it’s actually difficult to find the specific coordinates—when does each scene take place exactly? In the sixties? The seventies? And how rich are these people? Salter’s prose is the literary equivalent of fly fishing—the fly has to land so delicately on the water that the surface is barely disturbed. His style is perfect.
I think I like to meld the delicacy of Salter with a little of the expansiveness, the letting-in-of-the-world of John O’Hara. I remember reading an O’Hara story once where he described a woman as loving to see Herbert Marshall onstage. I went nuts over that detail. Nobody remembers Herbert Marshall, but if you do, that way of showing how a character reacts to the culture she’s living in speaks, as they say, volumes.
Do you tend to read authors who are stylistically similar to your own writing?
Martin Scorsese was once asked to talk about his style, and he said, “What style?” It all becomes very unconscious after a while. I only know that I like to read prose where I have to pay attention to every word, and where sometimes I have to go back to figure out how a particular sentence was constructed. The minute I find myself skimming a paragraph purely for the information contained in it, I know the writer has lost me. When I’m reading my own work, that’s what becomes important—what are the essential words, and how can you get it down to the point where everything you leave on the page is pretty much essential and needing to be paid attention to? Certainly Cheever has been an influence in this regard, whether or not we’re really similar. Though I have to say Bullet Park is the only book of his I consistently reread. And I always go back to Richard Yates’s A Special Providence, a novel he considered a failure.
Lately poetry has become important to me, the way people like Glyn Maxwell and James McMichael construct their sentences, where you have to unbend them a little to find the meaning.
How did you conceive of this novel?
Unlike any other novel I’ve written, I had no idea where these characters were going to go.
It really did begin with a house. I was driving through the center of Acton, Massachusetts, one night, doing the last bit of research for my previous novel, White Guys—I needed to see what kinds of cars people drove in a town like Acton—and I saw this house. It was dusk, and it was near Thanksgiving, and I had this moment, just looking at this house. The image wouldn’t go away, and then, over the next few months, the people in the novel started to appear. All I knew at the beginning were the outlines of who they were. But there’s this interesting thing that happens when you dive in that way. When I was beginning the novel, I read a poem by Michael Ryan about sitting behind a girl in high school and pulling her hair—that kind of jerky high school behavior—and I knew that was Jack. And part of what drew me on was the sheer selfish pleasure of inhabiting a high school boy’s body and sensations.
As for the others, Stella, the mother, was the big surprise. Obviously, my characters’ sex lives are a huge determinant for me. Once I know who they are sexually, there’s a line for me to follow, and the line always has to be a little bit surprising. Where is sex going to take these people?
The book contains a major section about life in a convent, and your acknowledgments page anonymously thanks those who helped you understand the lives of nuns. Was this a world you had any experience with before writing the book?
In my forties, I became interested in Catholicism. I started attending mass, but after a while, that wasn’t quite enough, and a friend brought me to a monastery. It was just an hour or so from my house, but I felt I was stepping into another world—protected, secluded, deeply strange, fascinating. There were monks and nuns living there, and I stayed in the guest house. I would go there for a few days once a year for five or six years in a row. I’d been commissioned to write a play about the Catholic Church, and that was part of my early interest in the place, but after a while I became interested in it just for itself, and for what happened to me while I was there.
There really is—at least I believe there is—a depth to the air of a place where there is an atmosphere of prayer. I found myself able to sit in a chair in my room and do nothing—absolutely nothing—for long periods and remain perfectly at peace. Pascal’s dictum began to make sense to me—“Our inability to sit alone in a room is the cause of all human misery.” But there were people at this monastery who were willing to talk to me, and I came to see that alongside this atmosphere of perfect peace was a religious society with a lot of conflict and difficulty, and sometimes even crazy behavior. It’s a perfectly closed society.
New York City in the novel, presented through the restless life of Jack, is a particularly evocative, though very dark and temptation-filled place. What is your own experience of New York?
I went to Fordham and after I graduated I lived in New York for ten years. I was not so drawn to the power structure, to figuring out how things worked in publishing or in the theater—I started out as an actor—but, oddly, to the powerlessness I kept noticing, what Jack calls “the human blocks of concrete against which genius flared.” I found myself hanging out a lot in coffee shops down in the twenties, with all the working guys, trying to figure out how they fit in.
I worked at the sort of place where Jack works—the marketing research firm. It seemed to me even then a potentially tragic place. All these young actors and actresses, most of whom were never going to make it, becoming sucked up into the underpaid work force. I knew I would transcend that, just as Jack knows he’ll transcend it, but there’s this strange romance in the city, of allowing yourself to become a part of certain worlds that are never going to claim you. That goes for the gay world, too, which Jack has an encounter with. I couldn’t leave that out—it was an unavoidable part of my world as an actor, and later as a playwright. When AIDS hit, that was a defining moment in the theater, and in New York as a whole. The great thing about Jack is that he’s never willing to shuck his gay experience off, to call it “experiment.” It was an experience he treasures and wants to keep, in part because it brought him close to death, but also, because that’s who he is—someone who’s unafraid of being undefined.
To what extent is your work autobiographical, if at all?
Jack is who I wish I was. At this point in my writing life, autobiography is no longer a compulsion. You use things in your life because they’re useful, that’s all. It’s more like acting, in a way—the way actors, playing characters who are not themselves, use sense memories from their own lives to give them a feeling of authenticity within the performance.
You’ve written a number of plays, in addition to fiction, in your career. How do you approach the two different mediums?
They’re so separate. There’s almost no place where the two impulses—to write a play and to write fiction—meet. When I begin writing a play, I think a lot more about structure and plot beforehand. My last three plays have been about academia, the Catholic Church, and Washington politics, and each of them has been highly structured and carefully plotted and—I guess I have to admit this—not terribly deep. Depth, that scratching after something elusive, arising out of character, seems to me now more suited to the novel. I’ve come to the place where I’d rather entertain a live audience with something smart and hopefully funny, and save my humorless groping after some kind of truth for a form where people can take their time, can put a book down and pick it up and get annoyed and get transported in beautiful privacy.
Norumbega Park is your fifth novel. What have you learned about the process of writing a novel over the course of your career?
There was a point, after my first two novels, where I just didn’t think I knew how to do it. Sometimes I tell my students, “The time when you know you’re doing really good work is when you hear a voice in your head saying, Stop now before you destroy your career. Put this down right away.” I still think that that voice is the one that accompanies risk, and that doubt is really your friend when you’re writing a novel. The only way writing novels has become “easier” for me is that I’m now pretty comfortable with the struggle that goes on in my head.