The Beatrice Interview

Anthony Giardina

"Well, you can't write a novel about a guy who won't tell you anything..."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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Anthony Giardina's third novel, Recent History, starts in the early '60s, with a young boy named Luca whose father walks out on his family to pursue a relationship with another man. The questions about sexuality and desire his father's actions raise continue to batter at Luca's consciousness beyond his adolescence; even after several years of marriage, he finds himself wondering if he'll end up doing the same thing his father did. Because Giardina is an Italian-American who grew up in Massachusetts writing about an Italian-American growing up in Massachusetts, he's had to face a certain amount of curiousity about the relationship between author and text. "Critics and readers today seem to have a difficulty with what a novel is, with the whole notion of an imagined story," he muses as he speaks on a portable phone in his backyard, where he can talk without being distracted by the sounds his children make in the house. "There's this asumption that if I'm writing about somebody who grew up in basically the place that I grew up, at about the same time, I must be writing about stuff that happened to me. Philip Roth hasn't really helped much, even though he's tried very hard to show people that he can write about a character named Philip Roth and it's clearly fiction, it's not him." He dismisses any concern about this imagined correlation--"If people want to believe it's autobiographical, they will"--professing more interest in the reaction of gay critics to his novel. Although he was unsure how they'd respond to a straight author writing about a young man questioning his sexual identity and ultimately confirming his heterosexuality, "I've found that right down the line they've been the ones who have been most perceptive about what I was trying to get at here. One reviewer, who I'm positive was straight, complained that this was a novel about the closet, and that Luca should have come out as gay at the end. And I thought, well, that's kind of stupid." In a very real sense, Recent History isn't about the choice Luca makes, but about the pressures (external and internal) he faces in coming to that understanding of himself.

RH: Where did you find the inspiration for Recent History?

AG: I was teaching at the University of Texas at Austin as a guest professor in 1995 and started reading the Texas newspapers, nosing around and wondering what sorts of things Texans were interested in. The Dallas Sunday News had apparently done a series of articles on gay issues, one of which I imagine was about gay parents bringing up children and what the effects of that might be. There was a letter to the editor, which must have followed that article, which I never saw, from a man who said that his father had left him and his mother when he was about twelve years old and went off to live with another man. His mother had said that he couldn't see his father anymore, because "if you see him, you're going to turn out just like him." The letter went on, "That turned out not to be the case, and my father taught me a lot about what it was to be a man."

Those are sort of conventional sentiments, but there was something about the tone of the letter that interested me--something about the way this man was standing up in conservative Dallas, signing his name to this letter and revealing these personal things about himself. I thought there must have been a great subtext to that letter, and I began to wonder about what his adolescence must have been like. When I saw a sentence like, "That turned out not to be the case," I wondered just what went into the development of his sexuality that might not have gone into the development of other boys who didn't have that experience. I was interested in pursuing a reticent voice, with a lot held back, that I detected in that writer's tone. So it wasn't only the subject that interested me, but the way in which somebody might address that subject with a combination of fear and reticence.

RH: From what you've written in the acknowledgments, it seems that Luca's intense interest in film is something that came later, as you were in the process of discovering his character.

AG: I started to think, what would the son and father have done together on the weekends? Going to the movies was something that naturally came to mind, and since my sense of the history of the twentieth century is laced with the films that were playing at every single moment, I immediately zeroed in on the movies they would have gone to see in 1962. That happened to be a year when there were a lot of intense black-and-white movies about men in extreme situations. If you've read the book, you know which ones I picked: The Birdman of Alcatraz, Lonely Are the Brave, Advise and Consent, The Manchurian Candidate all came out within about three or four months. So I explored how a young sensibility trying to figure out the world, and especially trying to figure out men's choices, would have perceived those movies. What was the culture saying? Even as Luca sees his father's choice being rejected by his family, there's something about the culture's view of men, solitary men in extreme situations, that would have given him another take on the situation.

RH: Ultimately it's not about how Luca's sexuality is framed, but about broader issues of masculinity that incorporate issues of ethnicity and class.

AG: There's something he's being shown by the Italian men of his family and his neighborhood about what being a man is, as they build houses and move their families up a class, which is opposed to what his father's saying, which is that a man makes choices, even if they go against the societal norm, and lives with his choices and tries to make the most of them.

RH: The story is upfront, even if Luca as a narrator isn't necessarily upfront, about the continuum of sexuality. About the fact that people do have experiences and make choices, but don't necessarily end up one way or the other based on a single incident.

AG: I don't know that that's such a radical idea so much anymore, but I suppose in some ways it still is. I was interested in exploring, as I said, the way that we tend to tell our sexual histories as that man did in his letter to the editor--in brief, in shorthand. "I'm straight, I'm gay," whatever it comes down to. But on the road to whatever we become, whatever we decide to become or settle for becoming, there's so many interesting turns. I think a lot of people have those experiences and then move past them, saying "That was that, now I'm doing this," but for Luca, everything that happens to him is important. He doesn't have the capacity a lot of people have to say, "Well, that was just fill-in-the-blank." He's marked by everything, and that's partly the historian in him, wanting to look at every event and study it for a sense of the meaning of his whole life.

In writing the novel, I had a sense of what needed to happen, but when you get to writing the scene, what needs to happen gets thrown out the window, and you find yourself with a character who's doing things, exploring things, making you wonder what's really going on here. I experienced that throughout the writing of this novel.

RH: There's a lot of ambiguity in his brushes with homosexual attraction, because he simply doesn't know whether he really has homosexual desires or is just stuck on the subject because of his father.

AG: When he's a boy, he invites Andrew into his life ostensibly because he thinks, "If my father sees me with this obviously gay kid, he'll freak out and come back." But then there's that part of him that's drawn to the marginal that Andrew represents, and when Andrew kisses him, he realizes that it wasn't so bad, that it's nothing to be terrified of. So what, he now wonders, does that say about him?

The thing with Andrew and the thing with his college roommate were very curious to me. I had to write those scenes over and over again to find the nuances of how much Luca was initiating or actively participating in those acts and how much he's just allowing something to happen to him. And it was never completely clear to me, even as the writer, what the absolute truth of those scenes were. They were really...I don't want to say difficult, but they required me to come at them again and again with an extraordinary attention of the nuances of how sex happens between two people.

RH: Were there any other major surprises for you over the course of the novel?

AG: It's hard to pinpoint those moments. Because of the type of narrator Luca is, it was hard for me to get a handle on his tone. Luca never really took off as a character; I pretty much had to drag him kicking and screaming into existence. I knew he was never going to be a voluble guy, he'd never reveal a lot about himself. He'd simultaneously try to reveal and hide everything about himself, and I'd never tried to write a character like that before.

Well, you can't write a novel about a guy who won't tell you anything; you have to come up with some moments that readers can wrap themselves around and say, "OK, this is what's going on now." But even when I knew those moments had to be there, I had to keep his reticence in mind. So that was the biggest surprise to me--that Luca was so resistant to revealing what he was feeling at any given moment. I found myself rewriting scenes more than I had done for anything previous to this, in order to get right the balance between what happens and what Luca tells us happens.

RH: You've written plays and short stories as well as novels. Did you know that this was a novel from the start, or did you think about doing it in another genre?

AG: After I read that letter to the editor, my agent called me and said, "Look, Doubleday (that's where my editor was originally) wants to do a book of your short stories, but they need to know what novel you're working on." Well, I wasn't working on a novel, but I looked at that letter and figured, yeah, that could be something, so I wrote it up as a two-page proposal for a novel, since that's what it needed to be.

But it never seemed to me like it would be a short story or a play. It always seemed that the range of what I had to cover to tell this story was longer than a short story, and because I was so concerned about his voice, I knew it wouldn't be a play, because that's not what I tend to think about when I'm writing a play.

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BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Allan Gurganus | Complete Interview Index | Dan Barden

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