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In our interview with Castellani, he shared some fun facts about himself and his favorite interests:
"It's no secret that my parents -- who are Italian immigrants -- are the inspiration for virtually all of my work. They not only taught me the power of stories, but also the importance of preserving them."
"My first job was as a caddy at a swanky country club. My dad used to drop me off at 7:00 a.m. every morning, and I'd wait in the caddyshack, praying no one would pick me. (I was an eleven-year-old too scrawny to carry the bag for 18 holes, and I knew nothing about golf). If no one picked me by 8:00 a.m., I'd hit the vending machines in the clubhouse, sit under a pine tree near the 3rd tee, read Agatha Christie mysteries, and eat candy until my dad picked me up at noon. I made no money, but it was probably my happiest summer."
"As is true of most writers I know, my life is quite ordinary. I write most mornings from 8:00-12:00, work two or three other jobs in the afternoon to make money, hope someone invites me out to dinner (there's very little I wouldn't do for a free meal; it doesn't even have to be a nice restaurant), then spend the evening writing email, reading or watching old sitcoms or the Game Show network. Ah, the glamour!"
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In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Christopher Castellani had to say:
I'm not someone who reads "lighter" books from June-September, so it's hard for me to decide what makes a good summer book. Here are ten picks (in no particular order) that are good any time of the year. Some take place in the summer, others were read for the first time in summer and therefore hold a personal nostalgia, and the rest are coming out in hardcover or paperback for the first time in the next month:
Light in August by William Faulkner -- 11 harrowing days in the life of the
iconic Joe Christmas.
The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken -- Hilarious, moving and surprisingly sexy story of a Cape Cod librarian's "romance" with a super-sized teenager.
Little Children by Tom Perrotta -- a delicious satire that never sacrifices the humanity of its large cast of dissatisfied suburban character.
Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum -- A young woman discovers the truth about
her mother's life in WWII Germany in this stunning first novel.
Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America by Steve Almond – The witty and irreverent Almond goes on an addictive search for the candy bars of his youth. On the way, he learns as much about the injustices of the candy industry as himself and his family relationships.
The Hazards of Good Breeding by Jessica Shattuck -- A masterful novel about the
secrets and lies in a respectable Boston family.
Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh -- A nuanced portrait of a serial monogamist and
the women he leaves in his wake. A luminous first novel.
Early from the Dance by David Payne -- My only guilty pleasure here;
overlong but addictive and steamy summer love triangle -- with tragic consequences, of course.
The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter -- An innovative and vivid dramatization of the heartbreak, passion, and dreams of a wide cast of characters; one of those novels about "everything" (including love, marriage, parent-child relationships, writing) that also feels deeply personal.
Eva Moves the Furniture by Margot Livesey -- One of the most elegant novels
I've ever read -- The story of a young Scottish girl's relationship to her ghostly "companions," with subtle and moving insights into war, love, and the nature of motherhood.
In the summer of 2003, Christopher Castellani took some time out to talk with us about his favorite book, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. When I first read this book in high school, I appreciated it solely for its surreal elements (the years of rain, the meandering drop of blood, all those butterflies!). When I returned to it in college and graduate school, I was fascinated by Márquez's devastating take on Latin American history and family. The stories I once found "cool" were now profoundly sad, haunting, resonant, and important -- even for someone who had no connection to Latin America.
Though I love reading Márquez, I am determined not to imitate his style. He does it better than just about anyone, and I have no interest in competing with him. I also worry that readers now expect stories set in "exotic" cultures to be "magical" and that, in most cases, they take them less seriously because of it. In too many Márquez imitations, I think, the metaphors feel arbitrary, the characters more like ideas than flesh and blood. I try hard for classic realism and hope that the uniqueness of the culture comes through in the words and actions of the characters.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, and Howards End by E. M. Forster -- Put-upon heroines. The politics of marriage. Fate wielding its cruel hand. It doesn't get any better.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates -- Why are people still looking for the Great American Novel? This perfect book about an unraveling marriage, failed art, and the anxiety of the suburbs in the 1950s dramatizes ordinary Americans in their quiet desperation -- and subtly asks us, 50 years later, why we still haven't figured out how to be happy.
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman --The power of Whitman's images, his epic and intimate narratives, and his sensuality make these poems revelatory to me. "Camerado," he says, "this is no book / Who touches this touches a man." I can't read these poems and not feel Whitman's breath on my neck.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley -- As metaphor and as alienated child just wanting to be loved, the monster wins my heart immediately. As a feat of imagination and astonishing prescience, the novel endures because we now have even less of a clue how to handle the monsters we've created.
Collected Poems by Anne Sexton -- Documents of an artist struggling to stay alive, these poems are stunning and heartbreaking, line by line. Sexton's intensity and arresting images keep me coming back and discovering nuances I'd missed in previous readings.
Cat On a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams -- Brick's unutterable past, Maggie's loud and relentless longing, Big Daddy's indictment of "Mendacity!" I love this play for its unapologetic melodrama and its complex layering of the American family.
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie -- This was one of the first "adult" books I read. I was in sixth grade, and amazed that someone could pull off such an intricate mystery. From the moment I finished, writers became my heroes, and I knew I wanted to write books for a living.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott -- I read this wonderful book once a year and refer to it constantly for words of wisdom about the writing life. Somehow Lamott makes the discipline of writing fiction fun, impossible, important, and inspiring all at once. She's also laugh-out-loud funny.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Cinema Paradiso -- Perfectly captures the nostalgia, longing, sadness, and joys of the Italian family. It also has one of my all-time favorite endings.
Ordinary People -- One of the few cases where the movie is better than the book, and one of the most poignantly articulated family dramas I've ever seen. Every character is flawed and fully human.
The Dead -- I think even Joyce would have loved this adaptation, especially the last quarter. It's literature rendered lovingly and pitch-perfectly onscreen.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I listen to traditional Italian music if I write at home: a ten-tape set of Italian radio songs from the 1930s and '40s, and CDs of Italian tenors like Carlo Buti and Claudio Villa. When I'm not writing, I listen to more contemporary stuff: Björk, Sigur Ros, Mojave 3, Lisa Germano, and many others.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
I actually do run a monthly book club through a great nonprofit in Boston called Grub Street Writers (www.grubstreet.org). Our most vibrant recent discussions have been about three excellent works of fiction: Steve Almond's My Life in Heavy Metal (a book of nuanced short stories that explore desire in contemporary romantic relationships); Michael Lowenthal's Avoidance (a powerful, surprising and expertly written novel about the tension between a camp counselor and one particularly disarming charge); and Kristin Duisberg's The Good Patient (a searing and moving tale of one woman's struggle to maintain her sanity and marriage). All three of these books provided hours of intense discussion.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I love when I get (or can afford to give!) first or unique editions of American classics. I also love when someone surprises me with a book I have mentioned wanting to read but haven't yet gotten around to buying.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I write in the mornings at a coffee shop down the street from my house. I set up my laptop in a table near the window, order a large coffee and a pear Danish, and get to work. Most of the time there are screaming children around me, a group of people speaking loudly in French, and a CD I don't particularly like on an endless loop through the speakers. But this is where I get the most work done. I feel connected to the world and yet am able to tune out most of it. The energy in the room keeps me from getting tired.
What are you working on now?
A novel set in the 1950s and '60s both in Italy and in the Philadelphia area.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I started writing seriously in the fall of 1998. I started my novel in January 1999, and it was accepted for publication in April 2002. Along the way I was told by various people -- classmates, professors, agents, and editors -- that my stories were "tedious and disappointing," my characters "unlikable," and my novel "unmarketable." My only inspirational anecdote is that I think my work got better because of this feedback; I was always able to take something valuable from it and tune out the stuff that was just mean-spirited.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
Michelle Chalfoun, author of two novels -- Roustabout and The Width of the Sea -- is a wonderful writer who deserves more recognition for her varied and compelling work. Her prose is vivid and tough, and both of her novels wrestle with complex cultural issues without sacrificing fully human characters. The Width of the Sea is especially remarkable for its unsentimental portrait of a dying fishing village.
It would also thrill me if the poet Jennifer Grotz, winner of the Bakeless Prize for her gorgeous first collection, Cusp, found a wide audience. Her haunting poems -- just within reach but ever-elusive, resisting easy answers -- are about being caught in between things, and explore a kind of negative capability in a truly unforgettable way.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
The work is what matters. I like how Richard Bausch put it in "Letters to a Fiction Writer": Your only worry for yourself should be Did I work today? Keep sending your stuff out, of course, and go to conferences and workshops, but only if you are still able to write meaningfully every day. The work is what will sustain you if you are true to it -- not the (fleeting) joy of publication or the money or the fame.
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