Marc Acito, a humor columnist, whose syndicated column “The Gospel According to Marc,” appears in 18 newspapers nationwide (and can be read on his website), was born in Bayonne, New Jersey (“attended by three wiseguys,” he quips) and studied drama when, at the age of 9, his parents sent him to an art and drama camp.
“I had an early aptitude for drawing as a kid,” he told me. “... But on the second day I wandered into the drama building and was immediately struck by the vitality and the cleverness of the kids hanging out there. It was like finding my tribe.
“My first show at camp was a production of The Sound of Music that was so low-tech the entire family Von Trapp had to squeeze behind a prop tree in order to hide from the Nazis. At the first rehearsal, when the Mother Abbess (a 15-year-old Jewess from Long Island) reached the point in the script which says, “The nuns sing “Maria,” she stepped downstage, tossed her music aside and belted:
Ma-riiiiia, I’ve just kissed a nun named Maria…
“I knew then that this was where I belonged.”
“I spent seven summers in various drama camps, roughly a year of my life, as well as taking weekend classes in Manhattan when I was a teenager. Then I studied acting in the musical theater program at Carnegie-Mellon University until I left because of artistic differences: I thought I could act and they didn’t.
“Then I did the opera thing for close to ten years, playing supporting roles (mad scientists, hunchbacks, and drunks) until I realized I’d rather create the art myself.”
PopMatters: The backbone of this novel is built on musical theater, how integral has acting and the theater been to your life?
Marc Acito: Ever since I saw Fame and A Chorus Line I just knew it was my destiny to live in New York City and wear leg warmers. In retrospect my dreams were less about ambition and more about fashion. Growing up, theater was a safe haven for me, a place I could go every day and feel like I belonged. I never found my place in it as an adult, however. I gave it my best shot. But since being a writer suits me so well, I’m glad it worked out that way. And the skills I learned as a performer serve me well, not only as a writer, but simply in the way I interact with the world.
PM: You’ve said that your struggles on the opera circuit led to an abrupt shift in your life, one where you got a job that you hated and dedicated your life to something relatively new: writing. What inspired you to explore literature as opposed to, say, performance art?
MA: I had flirted with writing when I was twenty, finishing a play that was produced at college, as well as a novella and some short stories, but I put it all aside to pursue singing. Ten years later, it was like my biological clock went off—I simply could not postpone creating art of my own any longer. Performance art is too esoteric for my taste, but I did experiment with writing nonsense verse, composing dirty cabaret songs, and drawing a comic strip, which ran in Just Out, Portland’s gay paper, for four years.
The editor knew I had been a singer and asked me if I would interview a visiting gay opera singer, who turned out to be someone I had worked with. With his permission, I made up a bunch of stuff to make the interview funnier, and the paper started giving me assignments. Within nine months I had my own column.
Since I knew something about sales from running a business, I syndicated it myself. But in the back of my mind, I knew I wouldn’t feel like a “real writer” until I wrote a novel. I had been kicking around the idea for “How I Paid for College” for quite some time, making notes on the sly, and I couldn’t resist doing it any longer. I’ve since written two screenplays, but I think of myself as a novelist and intend to focus on writing more.
PM: There’s an old adage that says that if you haven’t done what you want to do by the age of thirty, the chances of succeeding diminish. Yet you were thirty-two when you jumped head first into writing. Did you let that deter you or did it somehow motivate you to get things done?
MA: What adage is this? It’s a good thing I’ve never heard it.
Just look at our president. If an alcoholic cokehead with a C average and a string of failed businesses can become the leader of the free world, then anything’s possible. I continue to take my inspiration from people who didn’t even begin their life’s work until they were my age or older. My goal was to be able to go to my 20th high school reunion this fall and not feel like a loser.
PM: In the novel, How I Paid For College, Edward and his friends are motivated by selfishness, and they manage to get things done. Yet when they’re motivated by love and human emotions, they seem daunted and detracted.
MA: All I can say is that, as a fan of cons and heists, I wanted to write a story in which you were rooting for the hero to get away with a crime.
PM: Early in the book, Edward and his friends bide their time by committing “creative vandalism,” you’ve stated that that portion on the novel was inspired by your life—even down to harassing the Buddha statue. Is this book heavily autobiographical or did you just squeeze the vandalism in there because it fit the characters?
MA: I definitely wanted the Creative Vandalism in there because it opens the door on all the larceny that follows. The moral degeneration of the characters needed to be gradual; I don’t think readers would have been willing to accept the farcical lengths the story goes to unless it began in the world as they knew it. I’m still committed to the cause of Creative Vandalism. I’ve been known to sneak into the host’s bedroom during a party and short-sheet the bed.
PM: Edward suffers a great deal in the novel, but none more than when he’s confronted with his sexuality. Yet you manage to maintain an objective, fairly light approach to the subject. As a gay man, did you feel the desire to really delve into the topic? If so, how did you suppress your urges, because it doesn’t get too serious or overwrought with John Hughes-esque teen angst and melodrama?
MA: I don’t need fiction to tell me that life is hard. I already know life is hard. I still fly coach. What interests me is turning pain into comedy. I think of it as creating a soufflé out of garbage. Every time I sit down to write, the closer I cut to the bone, the funnier I get.
Readers of my column often tell me that a passage I wrote made them laugh so hard they nearly wet their pants. And, while causing people to urinate against their will is high praise indeed, I’ll still think to myself, “Well, thanks for the compliment, but that was the serious part.”
What’s more, having been on the “bi now, gay later” plan myself, I wanted to explore a more fluid view of sexuality. What influenced me the most was actually a scene in the musical Rent, in which three couples get ready for bed: one gay, one straight, one lesbian, all three presented equally and matter-of-factly. But what blows me away about that scene is that Rent has a huge teen following. Kids from the suburbs still line up the day of the show to get the discount tickets and they scream in the theater in a way I’ve never heard at a Broadway show. So even though How I Paid For College is set in 1983, I really wanted to reflect that modern sensibility.
I think of my characters as being trisexual: They’ll try anything.
PM: This novel starts out relatively small in scope, but it quickly telescopes outward to encompass incredibly complex scams perpetrated by a group of teenagers. Yet as a reader I didn’t find myself questioning the plausibility of the schemes because the characters are so soundly developed. As a writer, how do you build your characters? Do you write out lengthy biographies for each character or do you more or less play it by ear?
MA: I can’t even begin to write until the characters are real people to me. Otherwise, the scenes just die on the page. I’m also a big outliner—I sketch out the whole story before I go. For me, writing without an outline would be like trying to drive cross-country without a map.
PM: You wrote on your website that How I Paid For College is a love letter to the surrogate family and friends that helped you get out of adolescence alive. Were there any Kelly’s or Kathleen’s [who, in the novel, symbolically adopts Edward when he has a falling out with his father] in your life who gave you a helping hand when you felt no one else could?
MA: Even kids with both parents at home need additional support; it’s corny, but true-it takes a village to raise a child. I was fortunate to have dozens of catchers in the rye looking out for me.
PM: You’re already being compared to David Sedaris and J.D. Salinger, do you find these comparisons daunting or are they encouraging?
MA: I find the comparisons flattering in the extreme. It pleases me no end that people seem to be seeing beyond the funny façade of the book and recognize there’s something literary there, as well.
PM: It took you 2 years to write this novel, and you’ve stated that most of it was written on the go, scratched out between red lights and breaks at work. Are there advantages to writing like this or would you prefer to sit in front of a computer for 8-10 hours at a time?
MA: The only advantage of writing while holding down a day job is that there’s not enough time for writer’s block. As my friend Henriette Klauser, the author of Write it Down, Make it Happen says, “You’d be amazed what you can accomplish in five-minute increments.” Writing full-time comes with its own challenges-some logistical (organizing your time, balancing the clerical with the creative), most of them psychological (facing the anxiety of the empty page, keeping self-doubt at bay, and filling the creative well). But after burning through 36 jobs in my lifetime, this one is a dream come true.
PM: Chuck Palahniuk had a hand in landing you an agent. How did you meet him?
MA: I went to a reading Chuck was giving for Lullaby. And like any other fan, I told him my name so he could sign my book. Then, in a moment that completely changed my life, he told me he knew who I was because he reads my column. Based on the column alone, he offered to give my manuscript to his agent.
PM: You attribute serendipity to your success in the publishing world. Could you tell us what you mean by that?
MA: Chuck’s agent is Edward Hibbert, who is also an actor best known for playing Gil Chesterton, the fussy restaurant critic on TV’s Frasier. Now, it just so happens that the head writer for Frasier, Joe Keenan, wrote one of my all-time favorite novels, a delightful Wodehouse-like farce called Blue Heaven, which was one of the books that inspired me to write mine in the first place.
But here’s the amazing part. Edward sent my book over to Chuck’s editor at Random House, Gerry Howard, who, as it turns out, was also the editor of Blue Heaven. It never occurred to me that the editor of Keenan’s comedy of manners also edited Chuck’s visions of apocalyptic violence. It was just one of those instances of all the planets lining up in a row.
PM: Producer Laura Ziskin, who’s produced the Spider-Man movies and Fight Club among others, snapped up the film rights and you recently posted that screenwriters have been hired to adapt the novel. Have the screenwriters contacted you or are you being left in the dark, so to speak?
MA: They get started next month, so we’ll see.
PM: Most comics and humorists cite dark backgrounds and skeleton-laden closets. As a humorist, do you find your comic abilities natural or were they developed as defense mechanisms?
MA: I’m actually a pretty serious person. I just have silly ideas. While I had gotten laughs onstage plenty of times, I didn’t realize that I was a funny person in my own right until I was nineteen. I was working as a singing waiter and had ground my voice to a pulp after a couple of weeks, so I started making jokes to compensate. It was then I learned I had a unique gift for ridiculing others. As for a dark background, I think growing up gay in this culture is tough under the best circumstances. Pain causes you to pay attention and paying attention is probably the most important thing an artist can do.
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