An Interview with Chris Castellani, Author of Leading Men

Christopher Castellani, Grub Street’s extraordinary artistic director, is a critically acclaimed author who has won numerous awards and unending praise because his writing is as brilliant as his heart is large. Personally, I’ve never met another writer with his combination of kindness and talent; with the ability to channel these gifts into his characters so you adore every one of them. And now he’s done it again. His latest novel, Leading Men (Viking, 2019), is just out and already it’s being called glorious, elegant and delicious. I couldn’t agree more.

On its surface, Leading Men is a love story primarily focused on Frank Merlo and Tennessee Williams, set alternately between Italy in 1953 when their romance was at its height, Manhattan ten years later on Frank’s deathbed, and an Unnamed American City/Provincetown in the present-day where the famous (fictional) actress Anja Bloom struggles to produce a late Williams play Anja has kept hidden. While Castellani is a master at blending fact and fiction, his true achievement lies in his ability to reveal just how complex love and art can be. And he does it with searing prose forcing us to ask the hard questions that make us all uncomfortable but nevertheless need to be asked. Not to mention his phenomenal use of plays within plays as a way to emphasize these themes—a nod to the prolific use of mise en abyme in theater and films produced during the years when Frank and Tenn were together.

What do you do? a man asks Frank in one scene. I sleep with Mr. Williams, he replies. The answer is a punchline and a gateway to a far more important idea that stayed with me for days after reading this book. What am I asking when I pose this question? And when I answer, what am I saying? I could go on and on about how much I loved this book but instead I’ll give you this: Read Leading Men. You won’t want to put it down. We at Dead Darlings were thrilled when Chris agreed to this interview, so let’s get to the good stuff.

Chris, Leading Men included the entire script of a play you wrote, ‘Call It Joy.’ What came first, the play or the book? And did you work with an outline to keep track of all the plots within plots?

The play actually came first, but in the form of a failed short story I wrote twenty years ago in my MFA program. Though the story—then called “The Last Days of Tennessee”—didn’t work, it was the only one I wrote in my entire program that my workshop deemed salvageable. I tinkered with it off and on over the years, at one point turning it into a novella narrated by Tennessee Williams in his final days in Key West, but that failed even more spectacularly than the short story version, so I decided to scrap the idea altogether and write a novel from the perspective of Frank Merlo. Frank had been the true heart of “The Last Days of Tennessee,” and he became the true heart of Leading Men; I just had to give him a voice.

I didn’t start with an outline, but because I was dealing with real people, and because it was very important to me that everything that happened to them in this novel could actually have happened in their lives, I did create an elaborate 65-page narrative outline of dates and locations and maps and important details I’d learned from their letters, journals, and biographies. This was key for a novel that toggled between three distinct time zones that had to inform and play against each other, and which featured the death—some still see it as a murder—of its main character and one of its real-life secondary characters, John Horne Burns.

While you’ve talked about the enormous amount of research you did for this book, and shared that the idea has been sitting with you for many years, how long did it take to write a draft once you sat down to work on it?  

Though I’d been researching the book off and on since 2000, I started writing Leading Men in earnest in the fall of 2014 and my agent sold it in June 2017. That sounds fast—to me, at least!—but of course I worked on multiple revisions up until the last possible moment, which was last summer. Let’s call that four years.

This novel was a labor of love—for the characters, Italy, theater and love itself. Can you tell us what it’s like to write about something you feel so passionate about and what it’s like to then release it out into the world as a book?

You’ve caught me a month before publication, which is the time of peak anxiety—unless you count, well, every other stage of the process. You keep thinking you’re going to get the point of reasonable confidence, or at least of relative peace with what you’ve made, but I’ve published enough books to know those are points I’ll never reach. I’m enormously proud of Leading Men, but I also live with its ghosts—all the things it could have been if I’d spent more time, if I had more talent, if I’d made different choices, if I’d been bolder, braver, wiser, smarter. Writing this book gave me the happiest creative hours I’ve ever had with any project, by far, and, though I’m thrilled it’s finished, a big part of me already misses having Frank and Tenn and Anja to play with every day. That’s really what we were doing—playing, telling each other stories, drinking lots of wine, smoking kif, confiding in each other, breaking each other’s hearts. Who wouldn’t miss that—or at least long for that kind of intensity again?

Our readers LOVE this one. What was the biggest editorial change you made while editing Leading Men?

The earliest versions of Leading Men were narrated by two men: Frank Merlo and Sandro Nencini, the two partners of the two famous writers Tennessee Williams and John Horne Burns. The novel’s structure was essentially a “compare and contrast” of the two couples in the summer of 1953 in Italy, ending in Burns’s death in August. It was too neat, though, and too “true;” it was less than the sum of its parts; it hewed too closely to historical fact, and it felt claustrophobic. I knew the answers already. I like a little mess in novels, but I was too scared to make a mess with this one because of all that reality I was contending with. Then, while reading Truman Capote’s letters from that Portofino summer, I came upon his otherwise throwaway bit of gossip about an unnamed and unidentified Swedish mother and daughter who were sleeping with the same fisherman. I immediately decided that one of those characters–whoever they were–would be the disruptor, and that she would narrate half the book. I didn’t know how she’d mess things up, or why, so I wrote to find out.

Moving along to content. You write, ‘They are different things: being loved and being chosen. Being chosen is the more powerful drug. It enslaves you. And what you miss when it ends is not the man who did the choosing, but that rush of having been seen by him.’ This juxtaposition was a constant theme in Leading Men. Can you tell us how you thought about it as you wrote the various love stories in this novel?

First of all, thank you for invoking one of my favorite scenes. When I wrote that line, I wasn’t quite sure I knew what I was saying, but I knew that it was true for the character—Anja, the famous actress —who spoke it. She was telling her friends, two young romantic and idealistic gay men, about the drug of being fully exposed, of being completely on display, which was something she herself could do not for her husband or even for Frank, but only for her Bergman-like director, and only because she didn’t love him. It’s an exposure—a radical nakedness—I think Frank longs for, too, and that maybe everyone —artists especially—longs for: for someone to see that part of yourself that transcends your own understanding, that ineffable, indescribable, possibly ugly part which is the source of your uniqueness and unrepeatability, that part you don’t even know is there until it asserts itself or is recognized by someone else, someone else who says to that part of you, “YES.”

The inaccurate and insufficient name for that recognition—that “seeing” that Anja mentions—is “love” or even “true love” (ugh), but I don’t think that’s really what it is; and another theme I was exploring in this novel is the idea that you can’t get this kind of recognition from your partner, mostly because love and partnership are based largely on the illusions we tell ourselves about each other in order to survive living together in such close quarters. I kept asking the characters, aren’t you constantly protecting yourselves from really seeing each other, and from letting your partners see you?

Anja says, ‘I am acting right now. Are you not acting, as well? Do we not play our parts every minute of every day, even when we are alone?’ This is a powerful question: What is the line between what’s real v. acting? Can you tell us how you thought about this in relation to your novel, a book packed with actors/ acting/ plays and novels?

This is related to the previous answer. I definitely wanted to explore that line, and perhaps even to assert that we almost never cross it. In other words, that we are always playing a part for ourselves even in our most vulnerable and raw hours; we are always outside of ourselves looking down on what we’re saying and thinking and feeling, making ourselves both spectator and leading man. We get very anxious and even furious when we’re forced to deviate from the lines and narratives we’ve spent our entire lives learning and following. I wrote about this a little bit in The Art of Perspective: how hard it is to tell ourselves a different story about ourselves, to change those narratives we’ve committed to, to admit we’ve been wrong about ourselves all along. We’re taught to “write what we know” primarily because we think we’re actually living what we know, that we actually know who we are. And so, one of the things that fascinates me about actors and writers is that they’re just literalizing what the rest of us are doing all the time: playing a part, inventing our lives.

Finally, let’s get personal. What are you reading now? What books do you recommend?

At the moment, I’m reading a bunch of galleys for blurbs, which is always both stressful and thrilling. Stressful because you want to do justice to the book for the authors, thrilling because you have this manuscript most of the world hasn’t seen yet. I’m halfway through The Nine, the second novel by Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg—a wonderful fellow Grubbie; it’s a highly suspenseful and affecting novel about a scandal at a New England boarding school, and it comes out later this year. I’ll also be reading a first novel called Another Life by Robert Haller, whose chapbook I chose to win a prize when he was an MFA student, so that’s exciting. I can recommend the four books I most recently finished: Michael Carroll’s Stella Maris, a collection of deliciously uncategorizable, candid, and wise stories set in Key West; Steven Rowley’s super-fun and nostalgic The Editor, about a fictional relationship between a young gay writer and Jacqueline Kennedy O’Nassis; the latest from another Grubbie, Elinor Lipman, whose Good Riddance is, as usual, delightfully clever and funny and surprising; and Laura van den Berg’s astonishingly wise, pitch-perfect, and creepy The Third Hotel. Laura’s book has been out for a while, but Michael, Steven’s, and Elinor’s books come out later this year.

About Christopher Castellani: Christopher Castellani is the son of Italian immigrants and a native of Wilmington, Delaware. He currently lives in Boston, where he is the artistic director of Grub Street, the country’s largest and leading independent creative writing center. He is the author of three critically-acclaimed novels, A Kiss from Maddalena (Algonquin Books, 2003)—winner of the Massachusetts Book Award in 2004—The Saint of Lost Things (Algonquin, 2005), a BookSense (IndieBound) Notable Book; and All This Talk of Love(Algonquin, 2013), a New York Times Editors’ Choice and finalist for the Ferro-Grumley Literary Award. The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story, a collection of essays on point of view in fiction, was published in 2016 by Graywolf Press. While writing Leading Men he received Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

In addition to his work with Grub Street, Christopher is on the faculty and academic board of the Warren Wilson MFA program and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Christopher was educated at Swarthmore College, received his Masters in English Literature from Tufts University, and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Boston University.

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