An Interview with Ed Falco

Weston Cutter
August 22, 2012
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Before getting even remotely into the following interview with the phenomenal Ed Falco: this is as far from objective, disinsterested* coverage as a review or interview can get. Not only do I know Ed, but I know him well, and he was one of my mentors while I was in graduate school, and he blurbed my book, and he’s one of a handful of truly Great Men I know, along with being, yes, a great writer. So: if the following reads as casual or insidery, that’s why.

What follows is a brief emailed interview with Ed regarding his latest book, which book happens to be The Family Corleone which you’ve likely heard or read about sometime this summer or perhaps you’ve seen it at your local everywhere (I first saw it at Sam’s Club). In the wake of TFC, though, you should be aware that Ed’s been writing for decades, and has had stuff awarded O’Henry prizes, and has written plays that make their way to New York, and yes, that’s his neice, Edie, in either “Nurse Jackie” or “The Sopranos.” Be advised: if you ever have the chance, Ed’s among the very best company possible, anywhere. You’re hereby advised to seek him out, on the page or in the flesh.

*= the misuse of that word is one of his big peeves; it means, says the Google, “[n]ot influenced by considerations of personal advantage”

The first and obvious big question: was The Family Corleone the same sort of fun to write as the literary fiction you’re more known for? Along those lines: was there a different writing style and process (other than the fact that you got early Puzo manuscript pages and had to work from them) you used for this vs other stuff? Basically I’m real curious about the felt differences between literary fiction and more popular fiction, as the two are written. Or is that a false dichotomy, and the thing that was different was working from/toward someone else’s creations vs just having/making your own world?

TFC was a lot of fun to write. (Well, fun in the way writers think of fun: many hours of very hard work that culminate, blessedly, in a story that works.) I went into writing TFC with the major advantage of already knowing many of the principal characters. Usually, that’s some of the hardest and most challenging work: developing characters who emerge into a life of their own. I already had Vito, Sonny, Michael, Fredo, Luca, and several minor characters. I knew them from the book and the movies, so my principal work involved coming up with a good story and then developing my own characters to engage with Puzo’s characters. In that sense, the book was truly a collaboration.

For TFC, I changed just about everything in my writing process. I wrote from a well-developed outline, which I had never done before. I wrote with a mass audience in mind, also something entirely new to me. And I wrote fast, shooting for five or more pages a day, every day; and working at least five days a week, usually eight or more hours. I usually write a couple of hours a day, and I’m happy with one or two pages. This in large part because I also have a demanding day job teaching in Virginia Tech’s MFA program. With TFC, I started writing as soon as the spring semester ended and worked through the summer right up until the academic year started. In that way I was able to turn out the bulk of the novel during the summer and finish it up working when I could during the school year, usually on weekends and during breaks.

TFC was written with concern for a mass audience’s response to the characters and the stories. I couldn’t have Vito, for example, visiting brothels and snorting coke when he was away from his family. No one would have put up with it—not the publisher, not the audience, not the Puzo family, and certainly not the fans. I was constrained by the terms of the project to write a novel that allowed readers to revisit beloved characters and follow them through a story that fit nicely with the movies and the original novel, The Godfather. That’s a very different project than writing a literary novel in which you invent new characters and attempt to do something interesting with form and subject matter while still telling an engaging story. Working within those constraints, however, and still trying to write a good novel—a novel that was compelling and well-written and had something worthwhile to say––provided a puzzle-like challenge that it turned out I greatly enjoyed. When I say it was fun writing TFC, that’s what I mean.

And along with all of the above–I’m curious just becuase you’re a prof, and have been one for years–is there a difference in how literary fiction and popular fiction is or should be taught? (I don’t want to make you an apologist or defender of the faith about more popular fiction; I just think you happen to know more about the inside of that than maybe anyone in upper-level academic stuff at present, and I’m really hoping, in my own deluded way, that people who read the Kenyon Review + it’s blog might back down from the snootiness of a readership that believes somehow literary fiction’s just *better*. I apologize if this line of questionin’s dull or leading or whatever).

I take it you mean “taught” as in teaching someone how to write popular vs literary fiction—and in answer to that I’d say yes. In writing popular fiction, the imagined audience has to be foregrounded in the writing process. What you write in popular fiction will be dictated by what people want to read. In literary fiction—well, I should say in the best literary fiction––the exploration of language, character, theme, and culture are foregrounded. I’m using the word foregrounded here because some popular fiction does an excellent job of exploring precisely the same territory as literary fiction––while also giving readers what they want. Dickens comes to mind. So does the best of Richard Price. And literary fiction commonly gets caught up in fashions that are largely about serving an audience, though albeit a literary audience. So there’s no black and white here, as usual. But as a useful generalization, it’s fair to say that popular fiction has to foreground consideration of an audience, while literary fiction does not. Literary fiction can be, and often is, interested in challenging its audience. Think Gertrude Stein or Franz Kafka—or scores of contemporary writers who most people, of course, have never heard of, like, say Carol Maso or Raymond Federman. Personally, the writing I like best is work that lives someplace between the extremes of literary and popular. I like stories that are compelling and engaging while also serious about the honest exploration of characters and events––and if the manner of telling is fresh and new and challenging, that’s even better. I loved, for example, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, too. And all of Ray Carver. But also Carol Maso’s AVA. But I’ve gotten away from your question here. Yes, I think an instructor would take a different approach in teaching popular or literary fiction. Popular fiction has to be concerned with what people want to read. Literary fiction does not. I’m not interested in taking a stand on which kind of writing is better or more important. Writers of popular fiction tend to dismiss literary fiction as irrelevant and self-indulgent. Literary writers often dismiss popular authors as talentless hacks. Neither attack seems to me to be justified.

Just because you sent me your radio call sheet and I’m still reeling: how much does being a celebrity writer, or having a celebrated book, mess one up, writing wise? You’re usually intensely good at getting work done in the summer, and I’m sure work was harder to finish while doing publicity for the book (maybe still ongoing), but is there any lingering after-effects? I guess the uglier question at the heart of this question is: should writers be celebrated like that, ever, anyway? Is such a celebration automatically dooming to the writer and the work?

The publicity part of hyping TFC was all pretty new to me, and, frankly, I enjoyed it. Of course, I’ve been writing and publishing in relative obscurity for my whole career—so suddenly doing a lot of radio and a handful of appearances was hardly an unbearable burden. I’m still pretty much enjoying it, though sometimes it gets silly––as in the guy who wrote today asking for my autographed picture and a literary quote for his scrapbook. But the notion that doing publicity for a book has to keep you from writing is dubious. How then would you explain a Joyce Carol Oates or any of the many writers who seem to be everywhere while still turning out novels and stories regularly?  In terms of time issues, I’m not buying that being a part of the selling of a book has to keep you from writing more books. As for the uglier part of the question about lingering after-effects, that I can’t answer yet. So far though, no, I don’t see a problem. Of course I’m old enough to have a level head about these things. I know that the business of selling books is entirerly separate from the work of good writing; that celebrity is manufactured and meaningless; and that the real value of writing is the work itself. I’m not going to suddenly get confused about those things. But then I’m not anything like a literary celebrity. At best I’ve gone from being a writer only other writers have heard of, to being a writer a few more readers have actually heard of and perhaps read. That’s not celebrity. Franzen is a celebrity writer. Toni Morrison is a celebrity.

What books have you been reading lately? I imagine you read all extant Godfather novels to prep for The Family Corlone, but are you reading anything otherwise, now that it’s summer? Anything great? Also, just because you emailed me about it and I don’t think I asked you back: what’d you think of no Pulitzer being awarded?

Let’s see . . . Recently I’ve read Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia; Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife; James Sallis’s The Killer is Dying; Janyc Stephan-Cole’s Hollywood Boulevard; Emily St. John Mandel’s The Lola Quartert, and Richard Kramer’s These Things Happen. Also Little Caesar by W.R. Burnett, the 1929 novel that’s the basis for the classic Edward G. Robinson gangster movie of the same title. And I just reread Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, because one of my current students is an Iraq vet and he references Slaughterhouse-Five in the novel he’s working on, and I hadn’t read it in decades. Little Caesar is a trip. It’s a great little noir novel, much better written and much more interesting than you’d guess. I liked Slaughterhouse-Five better this time around, though there’s still a great deal in the novel that I don’t find convincing. Kramer’s These Things Happen won’t be out for another couple of months, but I recommend it. It’s about contemporary family life in Manhattan and it’s moving, very funny, and convincing. (I read an ARC, obviously.)

I think it’s a shame that no Pulitzer was awarded in fiction. If the board didn’t like the finalists, they could have asked for more choices. It feels insulting to say there was no book written in 2011 worthy of the award.  And even if they didn’t love Train Dreams or The Pale King, they could have given it to Denis Johnson or DFW just in recognition of their accomplishments as writers. Hell, I would have given it to DFW just for the first sentence of The Pale King.

I don’t know if I’ve ever asked you this, but was there any one story that made you want to be a writer? You’ve talked about “Guests of the Nation,” and we’ve talked before about how you wrote poetry before fiction, but was there one thing?

The simple answer to this question is Jack London’s Call of the Wild. I read it when I was twelve or thirteen and fell in love with it. The real answer is more complex, and has a lot to do with a moldy set of Harvard Classics that sat unread (by anyone but me) in a dank hallway space outside my bedroom in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Something about those books––the elevated diction I found in them; the intelligence of the writers; the celebrated status of the authors––resonated with me. Looking at them and reading what I could in them made me want to be a writer. To go much deeper into this would require an embarrassing analysis of the unhappiness of my childhood. Suffice it to say that I came to think of those authors––Edgar Allen Poe, Guy deMaupassant, Herman Mellville––as giants, and I deeply wanted to be in their company.

And you don’t have to even address this one at all, or you’re welcome to plead the everywhere’s-different defense, but I’m curious about your thoughts about MFA programs after five (? yes? or 6?) years running one that’s blasted off in that same time period. Care to at all prognosticate the next decade of MFA programs? Or the next two? I’m not at all trying to ask this jokingly–I’m hugely curious what you think.

I think MFA Programs will continue to flourish. Too many young writers see the programs as way into careers in both writing and academia. And as long as students don’t have to go into debt to complete a program, and they understand that a degree is not going to immediately open up a job for them, then I think MFA programs are wonderful. They bring writers together and provide time for writing and reading and for talking about craft and vision. I can’t see anything wrong with that.

I expect MFA programs to thrive in the coming decades as America becomes more and more and more and more about money and commerce. As long as those trends continue, great numbers of young people will look to art and literature as an alternative way of life, or at least as a way to escape an utterly spiritually constricted life, or to express contrary views, or even to indulge a perfectly comercially useless creative spirit.

How hard was it to write characters that are such cultural touchstones? I think you did a great job, but simultaneously even just for me as a reader it was hard not to picture Sonny as Caan, Pacino as Michael, Brando as Vito, whoever as Luca, etc. Was that hard, to shake those entrenched depictions and voices?

Lenny Montana, a professional wrestler turned actor, played Luca Brasi. The guy’s on screen for about ten minutes and he steals the franchise.

As I say above, one of the things that made writing the novel easier was having character who are well-known, both by me and by my readers. In a real sense––and this is how conceived of it from the start––this is what the Greek’s did, using mythological characters well known to everyone and working familiar themes, but overlaying it all with their own vision and language. My Vito, for example, is Puzo’s Vito and Marlon Brando’s Vito––but for those readers who are willing and able to see past Puzo and Brando, those readers who pay attention to the story I actually wrote––those readers will notice that my Vito is a darker and more tragic figure. I make him darker by painting him as the flip side of the monster Luca Brasi, and more tragic in that it is clearly his influence that leads to his childrens’ ruin. Admittedly, it’s difficult for readers to see past all the accumlated readings of the story they take into the reading of my particular version. But its there. My interpretaton of the story, which is somewhat different from Puzo’s, is there. And some readers will see it.

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