Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Adam Gallari’s We Are Never as Beautiful as We Are Now (Ampersand Books) is a debut collection of young-men-questing stories that examines recurring themes of loss, pride, and what it means to be a man. He’ll be reading for us at Cousins on April 18th. He took some time out of his busy academic schedule to submit to a Q&A:

Baseball figures prominently in the lives of your characters. What is your relationship to the game? And, can you do a quick compare and contrast: baseball and writing?

Until very recently, baseball had always been very central to my life. I played through college and spent a season in Germany playing what you might term “semi-pro” baseball. I have a love/hate relationship with the game now. I almost feel like it was a bad marriage at times. I’m happy it’s over. I have nothing left to give it. But I definitely miss it, because it’s impossible to not remember the good times, too.

I think that baseball and writing are very similar pursuits. I think my background as an athlete has helped me very much in regards to my writing because I approach the two the same way. There’s a saying I heard once, I think it’s a Russian proverb that goes “When you’re not training, someone else is. And when they meet you, they will beat you.” I think that you can substitute writing for training and it’s pretty much the same. It’s a competition. If two manuscripts come across an agent or publishers desk odds are only one of them is going to win.

But I think that the greatest analogy between baseball and writing, or even life for that matter, is that the game is designed for its players to fail. Hall of Famers fail more often than they succeeded, and the average player even more so. It’s the only game that celebrates not necessarily the victory but the resilience it takes to come back day after day and know that you could go 4- 4 at the plate, but make the error that costs your team the game. What you did well is forgotten. The error remains. Just take Bill Buckner. One error erased an entire career and is ostensibly keeping him out of the Hall of Fame. This is coming from a Mets fan, too.

In "Chasing Adonis" you use the second person point of view to present a young man obsessed with achieving and maintaining physical perfection through a controlled diet and extreme exercise regime. The POV seemed to help objectify the character, but at the same time you managed to drain the vanity from his pursuit by showing his loss as an athlete. How did you manage to make me care about this guy who dressed as a sexy Jesus Christ on Halloween?

I tried to make him human. If I just gave you the bullet points for that story I don’t think the “You” is necessarily someone a reader would tend to empathize with. I’d wanted to write “Chasing Adonis” for a while, but it kept failing because a third-person was too distant, and the first person “I” didn’t allow for any remove. It just made the narrator an unbearable narcissist.

Ironically, I was watching a cooking show one day, and listening to the host list off the instructions “You do X,” “You do Y,” and it clicked. The listing of ingredients was no different than the listing of a workout regime. Plus the “You” trapped the reader in the experience, and I think that was imperative. With the “You” there is much less ground for moral judgment of a character. I started writing it like that, and it all just seemed to work.

So, by the time a reader gets to “On Halloween you dress up as Jesus…” they, hopefully, see how far the character as fallen both mentally and emotionally.

The story entitled "Go Piss on Jane" carries a number of autobiographical details. What prompted you to write that story?

I’m going to paraphrase Martin Amis here and say that as a young writer, all you really have to go on is autobiography, and I feel that in many regards that is true. The trick is being able to bastardize your own experiences enough to make them interesting to people that don’t know you and who have biographies of their own. For “Go Piss on Jane” all of the pieces for a good story were already in place from certain instances of my own life, I just needed to find a way to express them in a way that would be more a story and not the therapy writing that should be kept in a journal.

Honestly, it’s difficult for me to discuss “Go Piss on Jane” because it was probably the hardest story for me to write, not because it had so many autobiographical references, which it does, but because it could have so closely erred on the side of melodrama or sentiment. I didn’t know how far to push certain aspects of it, and I didn’t want to feel as though I was using the suffering of others for my own personal gain. I know that as writers we do that all the time, but there are certain areas that I think should be left to those who can actually articulate them best. I felt I was treading very closely to that line. And what I find interesting is that there are so many varied readings of it. Some people have thought it laudatory; others a strong anti-war piece. I never intended it to be a statement piece. I don’t believe writing to make a statement. I believe in writing to question and examine. To probe. I guess I just wanted to examine what I thought was a flaw in my own character—a cowardice perhaps—and the vehicle and characters of “Go Piss on Jane” allowed me to hopefully make an individual feeling accessible to those outside of myself.

After completing your MFA at University of California Riverside, you are now pursuing your PhD at University of Exeter. Can you tell us about your studies and how your research informs your fiction writing?

I’ve always been an avid reader, especially when I am working, and I’ve always been surprised by people who say they cannot read while they are doing their own work. I find that I need that mental break, and that if I’m struggling with a scene or a moment I can return to writers better than myself and attempt to examine how they managed.

My dissertation, at present, is still developing, but the goal is to examine the writings of Per Petterson in the context of his images and presentations of “the masculine.” I was immediately struck when I came upon Petterson because, I feel at least, there are very few writers like him working in America today—writers who are concerned with mature notions of masculinity, who aren’t afraid to leave their comic books behind or who aren’t simply getting by using hyper-realities with hyper-violent, almost caricature images. Petterson isn’t afraid of subtlety, and I think that there’s been a movement away from subtlety in most American literature presently. I’m not arguing that we return to the bare-bones minimalism of Carver, but that writers shouldn’t be afraid of making a reader work a bit, of displaying people in moments of duress that can be as simple as opening a jar of jam if handled correctly. And that male writers shouldn’t be afraid of being vulnerable in their work. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that writers like Cheever and Yates are suddenly experiencing a re-birth in America. I think the current curiosity with Petterson feeds into that. But what I found most interesting when discussing him with people in the UK was that he hasn’t had nearly the same impact on the literary landscape here. That cultural difference, of why a writer can resonate with one group, nationality, however you want to term it, really intrigues me, and that is something I hope to explore more fully.

Can you name a few of your literary cousins?

I’m indebted to a lot of writers, most of them dead, who, each time I read them, make me wonder why I’m even doing this because I feel there’s no way I can approach their level of skill and insight as craftsman and just as catalogers of humanity. Graham Greene for one. Ernest Hemingway and the bits of Henry James I’ve managed to get through. I’m not sure I’m smart enough for Henry James at this stage in my life. W.G. Sebald, Bolano. The prose and poetry of both Czeslaw Milosz, Adam Zagajewski. Milan Kundera, whose best work I think is his writing on writing. There’s a weight to these writers, people tasked with not only keeping alive the identity of a people through their literature but also, because of the events of the 20th Century, inventing the idea of what it meant to be Polish or Czech and keeping that relevant for a generation that came of age under the Soviets or in the wake of other totalitarian regimes like Hilter or Pinochet. It’s something that writers here in America, thankfully, never had to address, but it shows in our work—especially in the work of writers of my generation, millennials or whatever we are called— which often seems puerile and trivial when stacked against the Europeans for whom writing, quite literally, meant life and death.