Remember that cool uncle you idolized when you were growing up? You know, the one with the long hair, the motorcycle and enigmatic lifestyle? Well, Edie Falco has one of those uncles. In fact, the onetime Carmela Soprano, current Nurse Jackie, and three-time Emmy winner has an uncle who’s still cool, even if he is a little older. His name’s Ed, and he’s an award-winner in his own right, having won honors for his work as a playwright, novelist and poet. He’s also the director of Virginia Tech’s MFA writing program.
The two have been close since Ed lived with Edie and her family when she was just a kid. Since then, they have been active supporters of each other’s artistic ambitions. Ed has been to the premieres of many of Edie’s stage productions and has visited his niece often on the sets of her TV shows. Edie relishes any opportunity to crow about her uncle’s talent, including at a recent Book Expo America, where she shared her enthusiasm with an equally enthusiastic standing-room-only crowd at New York’s famed Algonquin.
Edie is also a fan of Ed’s new book, Saint John of the Five Boroughs, an action-packed novel that bounds from the sleepy Virginia suburbs to the party-hearty campus of Penn State to the sophisticated but mean streets of New York. Set against the backdrop of the height of the Iraq War, Saint John of the Five Boroughs is about the collateral damage inflicted by violence—both literal and metaphorical.
The novel centers on Avery, a disillusioned college senior and budding artist, and Grant, a onetime performance artist (the Saint John of the book’s title) from Brooklyn who’s now in over his head with risky mob business. After meeting Grant during a booze-soaked night at PSU Avery, on a whim, decides to leave behind her comfortable collegiate experience and run away with Grant to the bright lights of bohemian New York. Shocked by her daughter’s sudden change in course, Avery’s widowed mother Kate is soon en route to New York looking for answers, unaware that her life is soon to reach its own crisis point.
We talked to Ed and Edie about their support for each other, their mutual admiration society, and to Ed about Saint John of the Five Boroughs, the origins of violence and how the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007 touched his life.
PM: Could you talk about your relationship and how that’s helped your respective careers?
Ed: Edie is my older brother’s daughter. My brother (Frank) is almost 12-years older than me, and so my relationship to him is sort of half-brother, half-father-figure to me. I kinda grew up with him and his family, I was very attached to him and his wife and his children. I did a lot of growing up with him, and I watched the kids go their various ways, and when Edie went into the arts that was always a thrill for me to watch her, in high school and out of college.
I never dreamed that Edie would go on to the kind of success she’s gone on to, only because the field is so competitive and so hard. But I knew she’d make a life in the arts, one way or another, because she was talented and dedicated, and the way it all worked out has just been a terrific thrill. I’ve been thrilled for her every step of the way.We’ve become friends as she has done well in her career, and I often go and visit her and I’ll stay with her in (New York City).
If one thinks about support, it’s been just simply going to see her plays. I’ve gone to see all her premieres… Frank and I went to London to see the last performance of Side Man, and just in general, I’m a huge fan. It’s a thrill—we’re a working class family, and to have two of us in the arts, and Edie succeeding as famously as she has, and I’m doing OK in my career, it’s nice, it’s fun.
Edie: Because he’s a family member, you certainly would do it anyway, just to be supportive, but someplace along the line, as an adult, I forget when it first occured to me, that as an artist he is someone I would have noticed regardless of our relationship. Before I really understood his work, not that I completely understand it now, I think it was when I first saw a production of Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha. He had a production done at his school and it was so impressive as a play, not just as my uncle’s play, and things really shifted at that point.
I had been reading his stuff up until then, but it was such a captivating play, it really resonated on so many levels. It’s also interesting because you can’t tell if you really are recognizing people who may have acted as inspiration for some of the characters, which is also a trippy thing as a family member. Any chance I get to talk about his work, and how proud I am of it, and how exciting it is to be his niece, I will take.
PM: Edie, do you continue to have a strong relationship with Ed?
Edie: He comes to the city with a certain degree of regularity and he stays with me. And he has been actually a pretty large part of the lives of my kids, who are very young, but Ed is definitely one of the characters who comes in and out and visits and brings toys. He’s really watched my son, who’s now four-and-a-half, grow up.
To have gone from him being somewhat of an idol of mine as a kid, my cool Uncle Ed… he was Uncle Eddie back then… to being almost like a peer, where we can talk about artwork and plays that are good, and politics, like an adult, it’s still a little hard for me to believe this is Uncle Eddie I’m having these conversations with.
PM: Edie, have you ever thought about trying to get a film deal for Ed?
Edie: I wish I was that powerful. I’ve thought many times about how cinematic his books are, and how good his plays are, and we actually made a real attempt to make these things happen. It made me realize just how powerless I am insofar as producing is concerned. We talked to people, I did readings, and things looked like they were going to happen, and one after another they just fell through and we both got very frustrated and kinda walked away from it. It is not what I do, or what I know how to do, and I found it very disheartening.
The thing is, Ed’s work stands on its own, and productions will come, and screenplays will come, and he doesn’t need me to do anything to make that happen. But should the opportunity arise, he’s knows I’m there.
PM: Did you both grow up Catholic?
Edie: To be perfectly honest, I don’t have a Catholic background. My dad is Roman Catholic, and I was baptized as per my very religious grandmother, but I was never raised in any religion at all. I’m half-Italian, but I’m also half-Swedish. I think Ed has more of a background with that.
It’s just sort of coincidence, and an odd one, that any of the stuff that I’ve been involved in had Catholic imagery, or the characters have had some sort of a background in that. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve got nothing.
Ed: I grew up Catholic. My brother Frank was always less formally religious, and so I don’t think he raised his kids in the way we were raised. We were raised by an Italian-Catholic family who took us to church every Sunday. Frank was a jazz musician and a drummer and moved away from a conventional view of religion and I don’t think he raised his kids with any sort of conventional religious views.
PM: Ed, tell us about how your religious upbringing influences your writing.
Ed: I grew up in the Catholic Church. I was an altar boy at the age of 10, and the mythology of Christianity is just written in my bones. I don’t consider myself conventionally religious, I’m not like a churchgoing Catholic, but the mythology of Christianity is always interrogated and thought about in my writing. I think of myself as a spiritual person, but not a religious person.
PM: What about the Saint John in the title, how does he relate to the book?
Ed: I’m thinking of the Saint John who’s the author of Revelations. I use that roughly as a kind of structuring device for the novel. Saint John retreated to his cave to write the Revelations, and I sort of followed that structure within the novel. Saint John thinks about the apocalypse and the end of the world and he writes about the Antichrist, and my mock Saint John in the novel is sort of living the crisis of faith that Saint John the Divine is writing about.
But it’s loosely used as a structuring device. The last section is Off The Island, or when (Grant) leaves, and hopefully he starts thinking and regrouping and thinking about his life again.
PM: You mention the word “crisis”, I feel like in this book almost every character is at a stage of crisis.
Ed: Yeah. I’m thinking about violence in the book. And that’s another place where Revelations links up with it. The Revelations is incredibly violent. There’s locusts with stingers, and when they sting you, you suffer for six months before you die.
The issue of violence is something I’m thinking about throughout the novel. Each of the characters has suffered some act of violence, either natural or cultural that disrupts their lives. The first section is called Blasted, and they’re drinking in the first section, so I assume the reader is gonna think that Blasted is a slang term for getting drunk.
But also, each of them suffers an act of violence that blasts them out of their routine life… In each of the characters, sometimes (the violence is) natural… and sometimes it’s not natural, like death in Iraq, death in war, death in crime.
PM: Was it important for this book to be set in the year 2006, so that you can have the height of the Iraq War as a backdrop?
Ed: I think so. I have a political side to me, and yet I don’t want to write political writings, so the background events of the culture are of interest to me, and I hope that the personal events I am writing about are echoed in the background events of the cultural events. So I am writing about the violence in Grant’s character, or the ways violence disrupts life, but I’m also suggesting that there’s this whole wider cultural implication that that violence is played out on a cultural level. The violence inside us is played out outside us, also.
PM: Almost like war makes violence acceptable?
Ed: Yes that, and also it sort of questions, is it the violence in us that leads to war, are we violent by nature, and is war a sort of acting out of that violence, rather than the grandiose political reasons we have for war?
At the end of the book, when Lindsey (Avery’s aunt)… checks out (her brother) Ronnie’s MySpace page and sees that picture of Ronnie with his face all bruised up, I hope that suggestion says something about that violence in our nature as simply a part of us, and draws some connections between the violence in us and the cultural violence that’s played out in war.