Writer Anthony Giardina has authored the novels Men With Debts and A Boy’s Pretensions and a collection of short stories, The Country of Marriage. His critically acclaimed plays have been produced at, among other places, the Manhattan Theater Club in New York, the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven and the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. He has also written for various magazines including GQ, Harper’s, Esquire and The New York Times Magazine. He lives with his family in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Recent History, Anthony Giardina’s new novel, tells the story of 12-year old Luca Carcera, who, growing up in a small Massachusetts town in 1961, is presented with the then-novel situation of his father’s moving out of the family home to live with another man. As we follow Luca’s growth into adulthood and observe his relationship with his wife, the narrative continues to pose questions about sexual identity and personal boundaries and limits of our ability to open our selves up to our partners and more.
Robert Birnbaum: You’ve just come from a publicity tour of the West Coast?
Anthony Giardina: The woman in San Francisco [at Black Oak Books], when I introduced myself, said, "Well, you know, we almost didn’t have you here, ‘cuz I can’t stand books by men. They’re in charge of the world and they whine. When I discovered in this book you weren’t whining, we decided to have you out here."
RB: You are a playwright and a writer of fiction. Where is the greater emphasis?
AG: I started out as an actor. Then I moved into playwriting, and once I started writing novels it’s really been very split. It’s a very split life. And primarily for the past ten years it’s been mostly fiction. I’ve been writing stories and this novel [Recent History].
RB: And do you teach?
AG: I have taught. I taught at Mt. Holyoke. I left teaching. I occasionally guest professor at the University of Texas in Austin.
RB: I ask that because Northampton, where you live, is such an academic community.
AG: We originally moved there not because I had a job but because we were living in New York, and we had a small child, and we thought that seemed a reasonable place to move. And then I got a job there. It ended in ’95 or ’96.
RB: I read Men With Debts, your first novel, which deals with the same themes that surface in Recent History. It seems to me that the protagonists in that book and Recent History are particularly brittle. I didn’t recognize them as the kind of men that I know.
AG: The protagonists of Men With Debts and Recent History? Because they seem awfully sensitive? Or awfully sensitized?
RB: I don’t know that I understand the difference. I think it’s because there was something about their responsiveness to the world that wasn’t spontaneous, stilted…You show, in Recent History, men being absent from their lives. Luca referred to himself and his father in that way…
AG: I am interested in this — I don’t know if the word would be ‘phenomenon’. I am interested in men who simultaneously live and observe their lives. I am not sure — perhaps that’s the way I live — and I assume a lot of other men live that way as well. Whatever the answer to that, the actions of a man’s life, I don’t find that compelling. What I find is, is perspective and sensibility. So I like to go in that direction with characters.
RB: I wouldn’t generalize and say that everybody lives and observes their lives, but that doesn’t seem to be an extraordinary way of living one’s life.
AG: And yet you said that you didn’t recognize these men as men that you knew.
RB: The things that they observe and fret about, and even the judgments and conclusions they make, are not ones that are clear to me. In Recent History you have Luca thinking, “And here is the essential thing, the thing I was most drawn to: when a man, the owner of the house, would come out of the front door, and stand in the lighted entrance, it was as though he were surveying something. Nothing need be going on physically for the world to seem alive and full of movement…a curtain had been lifted for me.” …Those men who stoked themselves by standing in their doorways at night, surveying the cleared forest. I have, at certain times, attempted to replicate such a moment…but there is always a hollowness that comes over me. It’s just not the same; recent history has moved us all on….We have passed that single male moment, I’m afraid it’s unrecoverable. The necessary goal of a man’s life is no longer dominion, the settled claim: it is now something else: it is intimacy…Where does he [you] get that from these gestures of these men?
AG: For me, the singular moment of my life, and this gets into the part of this novel that is autobiographical, was when I watched my father attempt to move us up a class. By moving us from a very working-class neighborhood to a neighborhood of Italians building big houses. And I was fourteen years old at the time. I think fourteen is a good time to observe adult males. When you are an adolescent male. I guess I was — to get back to the phrase I use — highly sensitized to the way they were living their manhood. And it seemed that they had done the thing that they needed to do. They had moved their families to big houses. That’s a moment that I would have liked to have gotten to in my own adulthood. And Luca would have liked to have gotten to in his…a moment where he can say, "Well I’ve done what I need to do and now I can kind of rest." I think what he is remarking on is the fact that when you are in an alive marriage there isn’t a moment of rest. There isn’t a moment where you can say, "Well, I can take it easy now." As he perceives it, there is a constant demand for more. I think he is feeling that because he is feeling a little less.
RB: My take on that is that in life whatever plateau or resting moments that there are are rarely at one’s own initiative. They just sort of happen, and to think that getting to some place and the rest of life is a coast is not what happens. It never ends until it finally ends.
AG: Right. But he doesn’t know that. He’s thinking historically. He’s thinking those guys had it made.
RB: That’s not clear to me in Recent History. I can’t tell if the adults he was studying thought that. You have these characters looking a little lost or unfulfilled, after all, "The golden age of the middle sixties, the age of the parties…all seemed a prelude to something. It turned out, instead, to be their highpoint, the brief sunlit pocket of time before another set of questions emerged…" That was it. There was nothing better…
AG: You are talking about as he is looking at them later when he sees actually what became of their lives? Well, that’s his sadness that he does see that they were not able to have a legacy carried on.
RB: For some writers you sense their distance from their subject matter and it seems so created/concocted, perhaps contrived, that the autobiographical is irrelevant. But the issues in this novel and in your first one suggest that they have been on your mind for quite awhile…and in that sense maybe every piece of fiction is autobiographical.
AG: For me, when I am reading a novel — and I suppose that this is probably limited to contemporary novels, I don’t know that I feel this way when I am reading Dickens — I have to feel that on some level this happened. When I feel that fanciful thing you are talking about, I really lose interest. No matter how skillful the novel is, I want to feel what you are talking about. This is this man talking directly to me. And that’s the way I want this novel to feel. About the autobiographical nature…it’s always struck me that this is the last taboo for men. That women can sit around at a dinner party and talk about what they did in childhood and adolescence and whatever their lives are now. It’s something we accept, but for men they cannot talk about it. They still cannot talk about what happened in adolescence and youth. And I distinctly don’t see it as a novel about the closet — a novel about adult torment. I see it as a novel about how we as men integrate what I think one of the great Greek or Roman writers called indeterminacy, at a certain point. And it always strikes me — at dinner parties I can see people getting to the edge of that conversation and being frightened to go there. For me, it’s something that should be on the table.
RB: What’s the reason that your novels begin in the ’50s, and in the case of Men With Debts takes place entirely in 1959?
AG: It’s a very distinct time for me. Because I was a kid, I remember the movies. I remember the way people talked. I remember the cars people drove, the behavior. A lot of more recent history is much vaguer to me. So I can deal with the contemporary world and I can deal with the ’50s and early ’60s. It’s interesting that the next novel I’m going to write is about guys who grew up in the ’70s and it’s going to have to be pure research for me.
RB: Why do you think you have more intimate recollections of the ’50s?
AG: I think for writers the ages of 7 or 8 to 15 are the time when your senses are out like mad. And then as puberty hits and other things happen you close down a little bit. But those years, if you are going to be a writer those are the years when you are doing all your absorbing.
RB: How is this book being represented and marketed?
AG: It’s been a curious thing because they very much wanted to go after the gay market. And I said, "Right on. Do that." I think there should be a gay readership for this book. I think what they are trying to do is to say, "Here is this straight guy writing about [what a friend of mine called] the homosexual haunts of the heterosexual guy." And trying to play to both markets. I think heterosexual readers are going to be more frightened of this book. Gay reviewers have been the absolute best, the most sensitive reviews.
RB: Are heterosexual men going to read this book?
AG: That’s a real good question. I would hope they would. A funny thing happened to me. This is anecdotal, so it means nothing. A friend of mine, when I had told him the subject matter of the novel, when we were just talking, running one day. He seemed put off by it and was a little quiet. He’s a very macho guy. He’s a dentist. And then he read the book and he started to call me. Not to talk about the gay issues but to talk about what the book incited in him. He’s in a book club of doctors and they want to read the book and have me come and talk to them. I can’t imagine what that’s going to be. Or that it’s going to be widespread. I would love that to happen. I don’t know if it will.
RB: This book has lots of subtext about sex — a subject that people are endlessly curious about and about which they are virtually ignorant. Do you know about the recent UCLA study that suggests that your sexuality or identity is momentary, not constant, always in flux?
AG: Women always describe their sexuality as liquid. That’s the word I constantly hear. But male sexuality is harder and more fixed. How do we ever know about anybody else? What I wanted to write the novel about was one guy who couldn’t quite let go of a strange mysterious notion of himself and how that conjoins with the sense that I think probably everybody has that there is something about each of us is our blockage to a complete intimate wonderful relationship. For him it’s this: He has a chance to name it, “Oh I’m really gay, and that’s why I can’t…” And his wife keeps saying, “Well the evidence really is that you are not.”
RB: So what if he is really. What is his fear?
AG: If he is really gay, he has been made to feel illegitimate about the relationship… illegitimate about being with this woman. Should the guy come out? There is never a point in his life beyond the early point — where he actually felt something for his college roommate — where that seems an option. It’s not like this is a guy who in his dream life is lusting. It’s just a guy who feels, as anyone would feel, who could not say, “Maybe there is something unexplored in me? Maybe there is a road I just never took. And that would have taken me to the truth?"
RB: Why would we ever think we had perfect knowledge of ourselves?
AG: We want to feel safe. We want to feel reassured. It’s a scary world and the notion that we could leave our relationship and wind up with something worse or find out we were wrong. That’s very scary. So I think there is something about the fixedness of male sexuality that is comforting to us. Or the alleged fixedness.
RB: When I think about myself, I find it fascinating that I don’t know all about myself. And barring the coming forth of a great heart of darkness I have a naive trust that what I don’t know won’t harm me.
AG: Luca doesn’t have that naive trust. Because he had it happen to him. He had his father blast apart his world based on a sexual urge. And Luca in the dilemma of the novel about whether or not to have a child just does not have any area of safety where he can say, "It’s likely not to happen." It happened to him.
RB: You draw his father as an admirable person.
AG: Actually admirable?
RB: Yes, I think so. It’s arguable that leaving his wife and child for another man is…
AG: What kicked this novel into life was a letter I read in the Dallas Sunday News in 1995. They had been doing a forum on gay issues. A young man wrote in, “My father left us when I was 12 years old. My mother said, ‘If you go and hang out with him on the weekends you are going to be just like him.’ That turned out not to be the case. And in fact my father taught me a lot.” I wanted to deal with a character who really had a strong sense of responsibility. Who wanted to be with his son. Who wanted to teach his son, if not directly. If you want to fault the guy, he never came out and said, "This is who I am. This is why I made this choice. This is why your life is what it is." He allowed his son to live in a lot of mystery, but he demonstrated a successful working relationship.
RB: You give no reason(s) for why Luca’s father chose his partner? The man had no apparent specialness. I don’t know why, but that seemed peculiarly admirable.
AG: So yeah, there was no way I wanted to trash this guy. In the end he gives Luca some good advice. I think he has some wisdom about sexuality. The difficulty of the arc of the novel is that Luca is never direct about asking anything of anyone. He is such a quiet character. He is such an introspective character. He never comes out and says, “What’s going on?” with either of his parents.
RB: Even at this penultimate dinner he arranges with both his parents, he doesn’t ask them anything? It seemed anticlimactic…
AG: I think the only way we do find things out about people is not by how they represent themselves but what they demonstrate over time. I think that’s what is the value of the father.
RB: There’s a way in which…it’s really hard to think about Luca’s father as being gay. He’s not sexual…
AG: Right. The only indications of his private life…there’s a scene where they are sitting on the porch in New Hampshire and the father rubs the back of Bob’s [his partner] and Bob slaps his hand away. And there is an indication that you hear them ‘in the act’ at night. There are a couple of moments when Luca is looking at his father and realized something about his need for this other man. It’s all very mysterious. I think there are a lot of gay men who are like Luca Carcera in this novel. Who’s sexuality is not manifest. Who are just quiet men, competent men who keep a lid on it.
RB: That would run against the stereotype of flamboyance and hyper-sexuality. It doesn’t seem to be the case for the father…
AG: It may be, but he’s just not ever going to demonstrate that. There is, for him, a need for a kind of truth in his life. However that had to manifest itself in sex, the sexual act itself is another question. But he needed to make that declaration.
RB: Would this novel have been as successful for you if the father had fractured Luca’s life in another way?
AG: For another woman?
RB: Maybe, but that wouldn’t present the central problem for Luca about his own identity.
AG: I wouldn’t have written it without any other subject in mind. It wouldn’t have interested me as much. It was really that subject imposed on that world of the early 60’s and an adolescent coming through that world with that — my wife tells me not to use the word the ‘specter’ of homosexuality — but I do think homosexuality is frightening to those of us who are living essentially heterosexual lives. Like anything is a threat. Like having an affair with a woman. It hovers.
RB: Is this book done for you, completed? Have you stopped thinking about it?
AG: Ummm, I have. I can leave these characters. I think about them a great deal. I particularly think about some of the actual people who inspired the characters. No, I feel I can put these characters on a boat and put them to sea.
RB: But you are still going out and talking…
AG: Promoting? The endless activity of promoting. Yes.
RB: At readings do have a sense that the book has been read by the audience?
AG: It’s too early. Do I sense that they get it? It’s funny, how do you ever find that out except through conversations?
RB: Would you revisit this story? Is there more?
AG: Luca was such a hard character to live with because he was so reticent. At the moment, I’m thinking the next guy I write about, I want him to be talker. I don’t want to go back to the hermetic world of Luca. It’s not something I would close of immediately. I don’t know what the story would be at this point. Maybe I have to live a little bit more.
RB: In Recent History Luca says, "It had come to me in the nights of my marriage that the heart of a man’s life is not in his work or his thought or his actions…" What is the heart of a man’s life? What’s left?
AG: For him it’s the moment when he is waiting in bed for his wife to reach for him. Whatever we say about ourselves, there are these moments that are so basic for us and say so much about our characters and what we are going to do or not do. A man can tell himself, “I’m this, I’m this, I’m this. I want to do this.” If there is this incredible vulnerability at certain he’s got to recognize that as being…
RB: Let me understand this? For each man there is something specific to that man?
AG: That’s what I would say. Luca thinks it’s every man that is waiting for [his wife to reach for him] that.
RB: The promotional material says this novel is an exploration of what it means to be a man? Okay, what does it mean to be a man?
AG: I don’t know. That’s really promotional material. I have no idea what it means to be a man. I just was interested in exploring this man’s sense of it and once again revisiting the difference between the world I grew up in and that notion of manhood and the onus of intimacy in our time.
All fotos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing