When in Rome: An Interview with John Domini

by Emanuele Pettener

John Domini’s short stories have been published in leading literary magazines such as Paris Review, Ploughshares, Threepenny Review, and many others. His first novel, 2003’s Talking Heads: 77, was praised by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler as "both cutting-edge innovative and splendidly readable ... a flat-out delight." Over the last half a decade or so, Domini has been working primarily on a sequence of novels set in Naples after the next earthquake; these seem poised to bring him a far wider level of recognition. The first, Earthquake I.D., appeared in 2007 from Red Hen Press; the latest, A Tomb on the Periphery, has just been published by Gival Press. The early endorsements include Jay Parini’s, who says, "This is a delightful crime novel, with a setting to die for, and at the same time a moving story that should interest a wide range of readers.”

Emanuele Pettener: Who has influenced your writing the most?

John Domini: A perfectly natural question—yet next to impossible to answer. I could argue that nobody’s meant more to me than Dante. A dip into the Inferno at age 23 or 24 spat me out, smoking, into my first fully realized fiction. The way he coined a fresh myth for the culture, if not three or four, remains the great challenge for me.

On the other hand, what I write is nothing like 13th-century terza rima. More pertinent might be Donald Barthelme, in all his urbanity and sting. Barthelme became a mentor, even a friend, recommending my work around New York. But he never was much for novels, and I feel at home in longer forms, not just the novel but also the story sequence.

Thus I owe another mighty debt to those who’ve demonstrated the pace and tonal control needed to work at length, as well as how wide the hinges can swing. Tolstoy and Nabokov were the first. More recent inspirations, to name three very different cases: García Márquez, Morrison, Sebald.

And how can this crazy quilt reveal any significant pattern if I leave out people more or less my own age, always a spur to do better? Where would I be without Richards I, II, and III: Price, Powers, and Moody? Superb influences.

Look, every approach to storytelling offers its own exemplar, and creative vitality requires remaining open to those exemplars, no matter how distant from your own work they might seem. I’m not comfortable with any neat cluster of influences. I recall that Hemingway (another influence, sure) expressed his frustration over the issue by saying there were artists in other media, painters and musicians, who’d taught him as much as anyone he’d read. As I write this, I’m listening to Coltrane and Monk.

EP: Why do you write?

JD: To take on this calling, you’re born with a verbal fluency. In your ear, your mind’s ear, the sonic and conceptual interplay of language takes on body and weight, rendering even the least detail—say the scent of madeleines—with a liveliness far beyond the conveyance of meaning. Linked to that, for my sort of writer, is the dramatic imagination, the instinct towards story possibilities. The head is forever running Coming Attractions: snips of situation, conversation, more. These often combine in two or three different ways, suggesting alternative meanings.

Born with such a skill set, and given a decent education in a culture that still esteems literature, if with a wheeze and a cough—anyway, born with such luck, a person becomes a fiction writer. I was at it by age 11. I wrote my first novel (an awful one, certo) during the year my father relocated the family from New York back to Naples, trying to make a go of his business from the Italian end.

That first time, in other words, came out of dislocation. It offered a long view that revealed the world’s diversity, a view in which I could only begin to make a place for myself by inventing a story. Such a startled overview remains with me, another major motivator.

As for lusting after fame, bucks, the best table at Chez Bibliotheque—sure. Naturally. It doesn’t take a Maslow to see that we all seek actualization. The question, however, was about writing: why take on such a vocation, when you want to live as well as you can?

EP: What do you oppose through your writing, if anything?

JD: I intend every sentence as an anti-virus to the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that is the refusal to explore the opportunities. Too much fiction rushes to a small payoff, the cluck of the tongue generated by the average New Yorker story. Too much proves lazy about digging into its complication, getting down to the rich and durable.

My complaint pertains largely to psychological realism, granted. A classic case in point would be any love story that merely asserts the “chemistry” between its boy and girl, or what have you, without determining the molecular compound. Delineating the connection these two share—even the quality of the sex, yes—must be part of an honest day’s work, for their creator. DeLillo for instance, does a scrupulous job with unconsummated love in Mao II. His reclusive author suffers a familiar breakdown: an infatuation with the first woman to take his picture.

Realism, however, isn’t the only mode of fiction that can suffer shallowness. Just now I got in a dig at the New Yorker, but after all, Don Barthelme built his reputation in that magazine. Barthelme kept things skeletal, no question—but he laid out revealing bones. I mean that his best follows through assiduously, if swiftly, on the implications of its setup. Calvino would be another example. In a single page, he takes us to core paradox.

Fiction (and a lot of poetry too) lives in its combinations, what Lawrence called its “subtle interrelationships.” I chafe against any work in this form that fails to exercise this natural strength.

EP: How does writing spring and develop, for you?

JD: When I think about story sources, I come back to the source of my first (bad as that book was). I mean the dislocation at the heart of the impulse. A product of suburban America, I found myself in downtown Naples, exposed to a mash-up of backgrounds, mores, weltschmerz—a German word seems fitting, no? Babel of this kind seems a defining element of our moment, doesn’t it?

Myself, each narrative is a balancing act on shifting cultural tectonics. I’m always fretting over the function of this word or the rightness of that motivation, given the pervading jetlag and mixed signals. When I pull off a story (or a linked sequence of stories, like Highway Trade), it’s as if I’ve founded a new city of meaning, a crossroads and a reference point.

EP: What should a teacher of creative writing teach to their students as a primary rule?

JD: Primary rule? Surely there’s no such thing. Art is always a case of “whatever works,” and few arts offer fiction’s sweeping assortment of what’s worked in the past. For every Pride and Prejudice, efficiently tied off, there’s something like The Trial, riddled with echoing holes.

That said, the Creative Writing curricula nowadays is an arm of the humanities, and any writer who picks up an educator’s paycheck should try to take pleasure in the reengagement with basic principles. Every semester seems to begin, for instance, with a fundamental misunderstanding about plot. Students need a definition, combined with examination of common types, turned inside-out if necessary. Likewise they should get to know characters flat and round (the terminology is Forster’s, but the idea goes back to Aristotle), and tinker with different syntactical styles. Then there’s point of view, a bucket of worms.

More generally, the early efforts of a young talent will have the intermittent effectiveness that John Barth (another mentor and influence) describes as “inchoate authenticity of eye and voice.” The conscientious teacher tries to nurture that authenticity, to move it from inchoate to knowing. The bulk of the learning, over time, is in how to discard, select, anticipate, organize.

Besides that, even the wildest experimentalist in class will be working in some way with the passions. Even a gifted student will struggle to separate their own feelings from those of the characters, or of the “implied author.” So there’s another aspect of learning a teacher can’t ignore: psychology. It’s always personal.

EP: Give us some names of authors that young writers need to read if they want to learn how to write.

JD: Again, I’m leery of getting prescriptive. Apprentices in the craft needn’t work with my list. Dante may leave them cold, while Tolkien, one of several who leave me stone cold, may fire them up. The authors they need to read are the ones who set them twitching with the need to write. The particular forms the storytelling impulse embraces, as the generations wobble on, need to vary and transmogrify.

EP: Your stories have been published by some of the most important American magazines. Can you describe your path toward publication? And what should new authors do to see their writings published?

JD: Well, those same important magazines have turned me down, plenty of times. Serious authors hear few words more often than “no,” and the encouraging rejections can be as baffling as the form letters. Richard Ford writes movingly about the “fervent, dodgy chaos” he perceived in his responses, during the years when no one would publish a word he wrote.

Thus while I have a publishing history, in outline it isn’t particularly interesting. A lot of editors sent the stuff back and a few kept it: basta così. In one or two happy cases I had a contact on the magazine masthead, but in other cases an inside connection actually prevented me from getting a fair reading. In one instance an agent helped a bit. As for my upcoming Italian publication, with Tullio Pironti, I worked that out myself, over lunch in Piazza Dante.

Which isn’t to say I haven’t achieved a bit of insight into the process. I’ve learned it helps to stay alert to new developments. Catching wind of some startup press or magazine has resulted in some important publications. The most significant case for me would be Red Hen Press. First called to my attention by the often-brilliant author Stephen Dixon, the Red Hen people have proven literary angels. They’ve done a lot of good for other authors, growing more each year, but when I look over their Domini shelf, it makes me think of what Black Sparrow meant to Bukowski and Fante. A young writer, perhaps with Ask the Dust in his drawer, shouldn’t turn up his nose at some inconspicuous house, not if they’re showing real warmth.

The opposite also applies, for the under-published. I mean they shouldn’t ignore the industry. Shouldn’t give up on the New Yorker, or the New Yorkers. Nothing will come of nothing—that’s Lear, a great writing mentor.

EP: What do you like and dislike about the American world of publishing?

JD: The question seems to concern American commercial publishing. If so, I must emphasize that over the past couple of decades such publishing has become, more than ever, an arm of the manufacturing industry. In the 1980’s Reagan removed certain tax protections for publishers’ backlists, and so left those houses slaves to the bottom line. Editors lost much of their motivation to fight for literary quality. They couldn’t take time for work that would require decades to start turning a steady profit—never mind that, once such books found their audience, they in fact proved commercial successes.

That’s the tragedy of contemporary U.S. publishing. A yardstick for “the mainstream” that was once at least reasonably reliable has become an empty signifier. A reader who picked up Augie March in 1953 could be assured that its New York imprint indicated some degree of worth, but 50 years later no book on Viking can be counted on to have an intrinsic advantage over one on SMU Press.

Recently a writer asked if the Naples trilogy I’ve now got underway (Earthquake I.D. was the first book, A Tomb on the Periphery the second) were intended as a new version of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandra Quartet. Nodding, I pointed out: “these days, Durrell would be on a small press.”

Now, I don’t deny that the guys at Knopf and Scribner turn up some terrific stuff. Earlier I mentioned Richards Price, Powers, and Moody, and they’ve all produced superb novels with the mainstream houses. But their backlist, too, is vulnerable. Their books may wind up on Dalkey Archive.

Still, this much is merely the news. Anyone can see what’s happened. Thus the truly confounding aspect of American publishing now is how few of our critics have noticed! Nearly every issue of the New York Times Book Review (a place I’ve written for, and admired) carries some sneering comment about small presses and authors who don’t make the bestseller list. Recently Mario Puzo was dismissed as “a journeyman author” until he brought out The Godfather. Excuse me? Puzo’s best books by far were the two that preceded the Mafia blockbuster, in particular The Fortunate Traveler. Too many American reviewers, however, lack any criteria for distinguishing worth outside of sales. They’re blind men feeling some lovely Siamese, or even a potent unicorn, and saying: “It’s not an elephant.”

Small wonder that the memoir, a limited form and therefore easy to assess, has gotten so much critical attention. Small wonder that Janet Maslin has such an impact, as a reviewer who specializes in mysteries and thrillers. She at least knows the standards for her subject matter.

EP: How do your Italian roots affect your writing?

JD: As I look over my answers, they seem suffused by Italianità. I’m not just talking about Dante, Fante, and the occasional Italian word. I’m talking about the qualities I celebrate, the ambition and richness I expect of winning work, alive with interrelationships and fine language. The old expression “Oriental complexity,” suggestive of the Moorish maze that is downtown Naples, might help communicate what I value in literature. At least, it’s a substantial part of what I value.

Gilbert Sorrentino, in one of his sharpest essays, argues that Italian art is defined by “the brilliance of formal invention,” itself rooted in a distrust of any authority, any Establishment version of reality. Again, that’s not the whole story. Da Vinci and Buonarotti, for all their formal exactitude, were nothing if not alive to human suffering. Still, Sorrentino’s correct. Myself, every time I start to mouth some assertion that rings of the “too true,” the Authorized, etc., this author’s eyes glaze over.

Literary stature can’t be prescribed ... But, listen to that. It’s turned me into a curly haired ad for brio, for che sarà, sarà, the most vicious sort of Italian cliché. The most tarnished piece among the tin-plated offerings tacked to the reliquary wall. The only remedy is to scrape off the tarnish and boil it down into ink. I needed to refill my printer cartridge anyway.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009