Value the Mad Impulse: A Conversation with John Domini

During my years as an undergraduate at Linfield College, I had the luck of meeting John Domini, then an adjunct professor in creative writing. As a philosophy major, I didn’t take many classes from him, but I lurked around the hallways of the English department. I had many a conversation with him as I stood in the doorway of his office/closet. I’ve kept in touch and become friends with John long since we both left Linfield. At the time we met, John had two short story collections, Bedlam and Highway Trade. Since then, John has written six more books, completed a full translation, and been published in The New York Times and The Paris Review. His most recent collection, MOVIEOLA! (Dzanc) was released in May of this year, and has garnered praise from Vanity Fair and BBC Culture. The Chicago Tribune listed it as one of “30 Books You Should Read this Summer.”  Since we live on opposite sides of the country, we conducted this interview via email exchange and phone conversations.

 

MOVIEOLA!  is your ninth book, and a bit of a digression from your previous material, albeit your previous material is quite varied. How would you say that your writing has evolved through the years?

Well, “evolved,” that would suggest I’ve arrived at the fittest, when in this case, isn’t the upshot a freak? It’s an outlier, my MOVIEOLA! “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,” as Prospero says of Caliban — and having admitted that much, I guess one implication for my compositional growth is that I’ve learned to take risks. I’ve learned to value the mad impulse.    

Film plays a huge role in MOVIEOLA! It becomes the framework through which your stories are told. Can you talk about the role of cinema in your own life?

Movies were the backdrop to so many important events in my life over the past half a century: Family bonding with my parents, first kisses, and eventually, watching movies with my own child. By the time I finished these stories, I had half a notion what I was doing, saluting a form of entertainment — an art form? — whose time was past. I’m not the only guy to say so, either; see Steve Erickson’s Zeroville.

The narrative fix offered by movies, the swoon into identification and catharsis, that’s no longer a group experience. It plays on ever-smaller screens, as well.

I worked a bit in film industry over in Naples, Italy, where it’s a very different sort of “industry.”

Yes, you’ve written extensively on southern Italy, and specifically about Naples.

Very different sorts of work, that. A Naples novel like Earthquake I.D., for instance, tells a story we’re supposed to take as “real;” the players suffer historical and economic pressures we recognize. My time in Naples was, in some ways, the origin of MOVIEOLA! I found myself there in the late-‘90s wreckage of my first marriage, when I seriously investigated relocating to under the shadow of Vesuvius, where my father grew to manhood.  

Among the shattered pieces I clung to, in those days, were my occasional contracts with local film companies, newly sprung up in the ancient city. There was something of a Neapolitan movie boom, actually; Paolo Sorrentino came out of that scene. I lived with my family in town, very much on the cheap, and I quickly saw that Sorrentino and the others worked the same way. They made compelling movies for roughly the cost of pasta and wine. They spoke of the work as personal expression and as art, as opposed to Hollywood’s obsession with the bottom line. Then by the time I realized Naples wouldn’t work for me, and that I’d be another sort of artist, I’d written the first of the MOVIEOLA! pieces, “Making the Trailer.” Perhaps the real trailer was that of the rest of my life, a funhouse mirror held up to the alternative film universe I’d flirted with a while.

Let’s stick with the question of place. In what way does place become a character in your work?

As someone who’s lived in a number of different spots, I’m leery of romanticizing any particular one. For instance the Pacific Northwest, where you and I met — talk about romanticized! “Colorized,” as they say in the movie biz! Too much writing about the Northwest is garishly colorized.

I’d advise anyone with a project in which setting matters — as it doesn’t in my latest — to go back to journalism’s Who, What, When, Where, and Why, and behind those the sensory alertness (how’s it taste? how’s it feel?) that undergirds psychological realism and Fiction 101.  

Now that you’ve mentioned teaching, let’s talk about that. You’ve been a mentor for my writing over the years. Did you have a mentor when you were a beginning writer?

Fair warning: nostalgia’s a trap. It’s the malarkey behind “Make America Great Again.” That said, though, I’m sure you noticed the dedication on my MOVIEOLA! A list of “early exemplars,” no question it indulges in some nostalgia. Those five were all workshop leaders for me in the remarkable Boston University program, run by George Starbuck — the “George” on the list.

Starbuck is now the least well known, but he was a whip-smart poet, and his first hire was “Anne,” Anne Sexton. Later he brought in “Jack” Barth, “Don” Barthelme, and “Stanley” Elkin. What I remember most about the gang as a whole is how tough they could be, in spurring us toward excellence; they were tough even as they were generous. Jack for instance, the only one still with us, just sent a lovely postcard about MOVIEOLA!

Anne was first, however, and my experience with her seems exemplary. When she let the eighteen-year-old Domini into class, actually she committed a radical act. I was for a couple of meetings the lone man in the group. But then she called me into her office and, chain-smoking as ever, explained that she’d decided her workshop would be women only. 

“There are a lot of old fogies here,” Anne told me, nicely. “I want to see if I can help a few girls steer clear.”

That story suggests that by the age of eighteen, you already knew you wanted to be a writer. Was there a particular point when you simply knew this was your calling?

Next to nothing about a writing life unfolds simply, let’s not kid ourselves. As for me, I did get an early start, at age eleven, while my family was living over in Naples. My father was trying to make a go of one of his earlier food ventures from the Italian end (it didn’t work), and one day my middle school installed vending machines with writing pads, pencils, and such. I had the necessary coins, and I’d always been drawn to the stationary section in any store that had one. Then that afternoon in class, when we were supposed to be studying fractions, I got out my new pad and started an adventure novel. With that, I was hooked.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to it, my so-called “career.” I was lucky I had a pretty supportive family, lucky in my high-school faculty (shout-out to the yearbook crew!), lucky to get this fellowship and that job. As for what wasn’t luck, sure, I developed some discipline, showed some persistence, brought off some artistic growth. If I notice anything that sets me apart, it’s my way of finding and then keeping up with a community. My criticism in particular helped me define both what I was about and who else shared my concerns, and now and again those people came through with suggestions that mattered. Both my first two books, the story collections Bedlam and Highway Trade, were the results of such suggestions.     

I’d like to hear which newer authors you recommend and why their work is interesting.

For that, I’ll point to Sea-God’s Herb and the writers I celebrate there. Jaimy Gordon, for instance. I’ve also discovered Jenny Erpenbeck recently, a German author and director who refracts tortured European history through multiple voices and perspectives in ways far more entertaining than they have any right to be. Try End of Days, in particular. Also, I very much admire what Amber Sparks accomplished in her 2015 book of stories, The Unfinished World. She gave me a blurb for MOVIEOLA!, and I’m grateful, but I only approached her because I’d so admired the dramatic range, the intelligent humor, and the freewheeling imagination of her own most recent set of stories.

You have written in the voices of many different characters in you work. Do you have a favorite character?

No doubt there are exceptions, but most artists will claim their most recent work to be their favorite. They’re getting better and better, always. Right? So my favorite now would be Alya, the actress on the verge of a nerve-wracking breakthrough, in the penultimate story from MOVIEOLA! She so bewitches me, with her kick and good thinking, she’s got me trotting out that awful fashion-mag cliché, “spunky.”   

If I step back a bit, she’s not unlike Barbara Lulucita, the heroine of Earthquake I.D. For that matter, she may have even more in common with the lead in the title novella from Highway Trade, Nellie Therow. You can see I’ve got a thing for these “strong woman protagonists.”. Come to think, more than once when I’ve felt truly stuck, blocked, some good woman brought me out of it.

The case I recall most clearly came about two-thirds into my first novel, Talking Heads: 77. That’s two-thirds after fifteen years, you understand, and my progress had slowed, literally, to the point where I wondered if I could finish a paragraph. My lone recourse, one I didn’t really think about, was to begin analyzing one woman, brave yet fallen, getting into what made her tick. When I got her working the wall come a-tumblin’ down. Paragraph, scene, chapter, and novel.

While I’m at it, I may as well add that my first “big hit,” a story in The Paris Review, concerned a pair of transsexual devils in Hell. Oh yes, they get it on too, swinging either way as they said in the ‘70s. Those two, I must admit, still rank among my favorites. It’s a wonder I don’t work wearing a dress.  

Can you describe your typical week as a professional writer?  When do you write? Do you have a daily routine?

I’m not sure my “typical week” would be useful to anyone. Technically, I’m retired now, so I’m a poster boy for Boomer Magazine, I just follow my bliss all day. By and large I’m actually composing from after breakfast till mid-afternoon, though I go longer when I’ve settled into the groove of get-‘er-done.

The more instructive example comes when I look at those months, even years, I lost to the exigencies of making ends meet for a struggling family. In the last years of Marriage #1, I gave a lot of energy to that: teaching high and low, plus PR, advertising, business writing. Wrote a textbook, wrote government reports. All that, plus running a child to school and activities and more, plus working on the marriage through counseling, I lost a lot of time. Along the rocky way, though, every now and then I got to finish another story or write an essay that mattered; I pulled together Highway Trade, finished one novel mostly, and got a bit of the way into another. There’s the “routine” most writers in a grinding economic system like ours have to come to terms with, and with luck surmount.

What would you like to write, or work on, that you have not yet had the opportunity to?

Oh, yeah! I’ve wanted for some years now to do one of those books in the 331/3 series, on Frank Zappa’s 1969 masterpiece, Hot Rats. “Peaches en Regalia,” anyone?  

 

Naomi is a memoir and fiction writer, who is also the director of a Job Corps center for underprivileged youth. She has an MA in English and BA in English and Philosophy. For several years, she’s been involved with Write Around Portland, an organization promoting underrepresented creative voices. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband her two young boys.

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