Christopher Castellani’s new novel, All This Talk of Love is the third installment of a trilogy about the Grassos, a lively and complex Italian-American family, their history and their struggles with being first-generation immigrants. “My parents both grew up in a small village in Italy and emigrated to the U.S. after World War II,” says Castellani, who drew on his own family history for his fiction. “Like many immigrants, they have a complicated relationship with home and with identity.” Here’s more from Christopher Castellani, who’s the Artistic Director of the creative writing non-profit Grub Street, Inc., in Boston:
Jennifer Haupt: How much of your own family history did you draw on for this and your previous two novels?
Christopher Castellani: Though I used many of the stories they told me -- and those I heard from my aunts and uncles, cousins, family friends, and other family in the U. S. and in Italy -- as source material for all three novels, there is virtually no storyline or character in any of the books that is a literal retelling of a family story or an exact representation of a family member. I’m not interested in telling stories that have already been lived or putting people I know well in situations they’ve already experienced; like most writers, the joy is in the imagination, the invention.
In other words, my goal was to be faithful to the immigrant and first-generation experience, but to avoid the literal.
JH: This is your third novel in a trilogy that explores the theme of an immigrant family settling in a new land, leaving behind their community and traditions, and reconciling two different worlds. How has this theme evolved in this novel?
CC:I had these themes in mind from the time I started writing. I wanted to dramatize traditional village life in the first novel, the lives of hard-working immigrants and the husband and wife in an arranged marriage in the second, and the family tensions between tradition and modernity in the third. All This Talk of Love was the hardest, by far, to write, mainly because those tensions didn’t as easily map onto plot the way the other themes did. (For example, the theme of nostalgia and longing for one’s homeland doesn’t exactly keep a reader turning the pages; I needed the plot of returning to the characters’ homeland to create a conflict that brings out the theme of nostalgia). Also, I was closer to the subject matter in the third novel than I was in the first two, and it’s always more difficult to write about experiences close to the ones you’ve had yourself.
JH: How many years have you lived with the Grassos, the family in your novels, and are there times when you just need to get them out of your head?
CC: I started writing about the Grasso family in 1999, and over the past fourteen years they’ve been the best companions a writer could ask for: inspiring, vexing, challenging, hilarious, faithful, tender, complex, sometimes elusive, surprising and, of course, always loving. They are my other Italian family, and it will be very hard to let them go. My guess is that, when I do, I will be just as nostalgic for them as they have been for their home.
JH: What authors are your inspiration, and whose books are now on your bedside table?
CC: I am lucky enough to have many friends who are authors, and I find that they are the ones who inspire me most: my friends whom I see working hard at their books day after day, year after year, getting better and better and going deeper and deeper with each effort. We read each other’s drafts, go to each other’s readings, recommend books to each other, help each other with research and plots and characters, and when we do publish something, we answer to each other for its quality. We are a kind of family ourselves, and our faith in each other is often what keeps us going.
I’m currently reading a few books: Fire in the Belly, Cynthia Carr’s biography of artist and activist David Wojnarowicz; Alice Munro’s Dear Life; a galley of Doug Trevor’s debut novel Girls I Know; Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers; and Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers.
JH: What role does faith (beyond religion), if any, play in your latest novel and your writing life?
CC: Writing -- any art, really -- requires a daily leap of faith. Every time you sit down to draft or revise, you are doing so without the guarantee that anyone will publish it or want to read it. This is true even if you have a contract, which can always be cancelled. The Muse is a fickle creature; your novel can always fail; but you keep at it because you have some inherent faith in your ability to see the story through.
When you write, you create something out of nothing, constantly shining light into the void. You look hard into that void for lives to illuminate, and you try to make sure you see every side of them.
I think it’s significant that the women of both the older and younger generations (one an immigrant, one a first-generation wife and mother) in All This Talk of Love call on God while the father and son are non-believers. I didn’t plan this, but it does reveal a certain divide I’ve seen in many Italian families. I know women who go to two masses on Sunday: one for them and one for their husbands.
JH: How did you get involved with Grub Street and how has this community of writers supported your writing life?
CC: I started teaching at Grub Street after getting my MFA from BU in 1999. It was (and still is) one of the few places in Boston where an unpublished writer can get teaching experience. Grub Street is so much more than a place to work, though; it is a strong and vibrant community of writers and readers who teach and support each other in various simple and profound ways. It’s one of the few places aspiring, emerging and established writers alike can call home, that rejects elitism while stressing artistic excellence. I’m particularly proud of how Grub Street has evolved into one of the leading writing centers in the country and is now embracing the needs of writers in the changing publishing landscape.
JH: What’s the One True Thing you learned from the Grassos?
CC: I think the most important thing I learned is that there is no past. Everything we’ve done, every place we’ve been, every person we’ve lost or left behind, every act of love we’ve experienced is always present. That’s why it’s so hard to get older; we have so much more to carry every year, and it can often overwhelm us. In this way, All This Talk of Love is very much about the weight of memory.
Christopher Castellani is the author of three novels: All This Talk of Love, The Saint of Lost Things, and A Kiss from Maddalena. He is the artistic director of Grub Street, teaches every other semester in the Warren Wilson MFA Program, and for the fall 2013 term will be a visiting professor at Swarthmore College. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.