WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Joseph, I want to welcome you to Writers Tell All. I loved your novel, The Swallows of Lunetto. This was a beautiful book in measured and elegant prose, sprawling and charming and tragic and contained, all at once. This is the story of Alexandra and Leonardo, in post-World War II Italy. It’s a remarkably different place, but there were a lot of parts of the novel that carried significant echoes of modern day America, even. What led you to set this novel here and now? What are the challenges and rewards that go into writing historical fiction like this?
Joseph Fasano: Italy faced a crisis of identity during the Second World War, particularly after 1943, when the country was essentially split between Mussolini's Republic of Salò—really a puppet government of Hitler's—and the "liberated" Italy, for whom Italians partisans fought alongside the Allied powers. The theme of a country's "split" sense of self runs through the novel, and of course my intention, in part, was to draw historical parallels to the fractured state of mind that many countries, including the United States, find themselves in today. We are pulled—by different fidelities, by different fears, by the echo-chambers of social media—toward the extremes, and the risk is that we will tear ourselves (as a whole, as individuals) in two.
It is for this reason that my novel becomes the story of the main characters' quests for wholeness, for the integration of the various parts of themselves. The central myth is a reimagining of the Psyche and Eros narrative, a story that, in its aspect that I chose to focus on, is about that search for wholeness.
MT: I love your use of language, how spare and lush it can feel within the world of the novel, and also your use of Italian in the book. I love novels that interchange and mix different languages even within the same sentence, and frequently (one of my very favorite novels is Carmelo by the great Sandra Cisneros). What books were important to you during your formative years as a writer, and what books especially had an impact on your language? How do you go about using different languages in a text, and what’s important to remember for writers who are approaching writing in a similar way?
JF: It was very important for me to create a sense of atmosphere, and the occasional Italian phrase helped this happen. By way of example, a writer such as Hemingway was after very different things from what I've been after, but his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls is an excellent example of how a writer can texture an English-language book with the feelings, cadences, and flavors of another language. Hemingway uses many kinds of linguistic tricks in that novel to make the reader feel that she is reading another language (or at least a translation from another language) when she in fact is reading English. In a very different way, I went about the same illusion in The Swallows of Lunetto.
MT: This is a great love story in many ways—what do you feel is essential to involving the audience in a romance between two characters in a novel? How did you approach this love story, and what were the obstacles you had to overcome as a writer to produce this novel?
JF: I think the essential thing is of course getting the audience to care about the individuals in the relationship as individuals. We need to feel their roots, their hungers, their frustrations. We need to feel how every relationship is attempt to love within history.
I would say one of the obstacles I had to overcome was the problem of how to let a reader care about Leonardo Gemetti despite that character's past mistakes. I think his youth, his backstory, his traumas, and his genuine contrition helped.
MT: How attached were you to your own characters, and what do you feel are the obstacles that come along with creating characters you love, and characters you may ultimately have to do away with or hurt in your/their narratives?
JF: My main characters seemed to come to life for me very early in the writing of this book. I followed them, listened to them, learned from them, but it was no more or less difficult to accept their fates than it is to accept the inevitable fate of each of us. At least, as so few of us do, they had a chance to tell their stories.
MT: I think about the masks used in this novel, and what they represent and are used for, as well as the masks I see paralleled in modern day America—very different masks, used for different purposes. It’s strange though, to see how America is changing as we wear masks, and what we can hide behind these masks, other than simply avoiding illness. Can you talk a little about the use of the mask in your novel, and what was like creating a bond between characters divided behind the use of masks?
JF: Like everyone in 2020-2022, the time when this novel was written, I was thinking a lot about masks, particularly the masks we wore in the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic. I found, in writing this novel, a curious way to alchemize those masks into a different historical time period, so that, in stripping away the masks' association with the pandemic, the reader could more freely reflect on how we mask and unmask ourselves and each other, and how every love story is a slow, often painful unmasking.
MT: What are your favorite historical novels? Which novels do you feel capture different times and places elegantly, profoundly, excellently? What books did you look to for guidance in writing your novel?
JF: It is perhaps odd, but I don't think in terms of "historical novels." That term is an invention of marketers. Some novels and plays need to reach into the past to see the present most clearly. In that sense, Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy is historical, as is Hamlet, as is John Williams' triumphant epistolary novel, Augustus. Each tells the truth in its own way, and each can be a kind of guide into new realms.
I didn't particularly look for guidance for The Swallows of Lunetto, however, as much as I probably drew unconsciously on a lifetime of reading. It's hard to give a list of favorites, but I can tell you that some works I admire—if I had to choose six from my bookshelf almost at random—are Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels, Camus' play Caligula, Catullus' poems, Ian McGuire's The North Water, and Robert Lowell's Lord Weary's Castle. All such writers serve as guides up to a certain point, but eventually you reach a place from which no one can assist you, not even your waking self. Then you have to trust the work, the fates, and the life you've managed to live up to that point to take you where you have to go.
MT: What’s your writing process like? What’s important for you in your day-to-day process as a writer, and what does an average day’s work look like for you? Do you go through many drafts of a novel? Are there any drafts of works you haven’t finished, or do you ever come back to books you’ve started some time ago?
JF: After I finished my previous novel, The Dark Heart of Every Wild Thing, I worked on two other novel manuscripts, but I eventually concluded I had to set both of them aside; they simply were not coming to life. When I started working on The Swallows of Lunetto, the words that had been so hard to find in those previous efforts came steadily, smoothly, and I knew very quickly that I had finally found the characters who had been trying, all along, to bring this story to life.
Revision can be endless, but at some point you feel that you have done all you must do. Aesthetic completion is almost like a release from a moral responsibility.
MT: What was it like writing this novel, as opposed to The Dark Heart of Every Wild Thing (and what a title!), which is such a different novel in so many ways? What about in comparison to Vincent, your book-length poem that is—I believe—based on true events?
JF: Vincent was an attempt to show, through dramatic monologue, the tragedy that almost necessarily follows from one character being stuck in his own mind, his own story, even his own delusions. The Dark Heart of Every Wild Thing was my first novel, not at all a poem, yet in its own way it, too, was concerned with that predicament, and that novel is the first-person account of a character who has struggled to break the patterns of his own upbringing, struggled to connect with others, struggled to step out of the high-mountain wilderness of his own life. Yet Shakespeare reminds us "the world must be peopled." The Swallows of Lunetto was my attempt to step down into the valley of the living, with its characters, its relationships, its—in this case—brimming Mediterranean air.
The way I've recounted that development sounds like a teleology, but even my recounting is another kind of story. There are readers who may find any stage of that journey preferable, and I don't wish to get in their way. As I've told it, this is just the way I see my journey as a writer—another story I tell myself and you.
MT: What do you have planned next—do you have another book in the works? Can you tell us anything about this work-in-progress?
JF: I have been working on a new collection of poems for the past four or five years, and I am almost ready to think about putting it out into the world. It is called The Last Song of the World.
MT: Joseph, thank you so much for allowing me to interview you. I hope our readers will take the time to read your work and enjoy it—it’s immensely entertaining, beautifully written, and immersive in so many ways. Your newest novel, The Swallows of Lunetto is such a brilliant, tragic read, and I loved it. Thank you for allowing me to pick your brain.
JF: Thank you. I hope my little story helps anyone who might need it.
(author photo credit: Laura Rinaldi)