[9 November 2009]
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.
photo courtesy of Virginia Tech/Jim Stroup
PM: Does that inherent violence make it difficult for the characters to connect?
Ed: I think that’s suggested in Avery and Grant’s relationship. Instead of a healthy bonding connection that might be sexual, it’s a violent act. Where I think the issue is interesting is the degree of complicity and awareness on both their parts. Is that scene a rape? That’s the question.
PM: So maybe we’re complicit in that violence some times, as well.
Ed: Yeah, I think that’s the issue the novel is exploring. The violence in our nature, the degrees to which we’re complicit with acts of violence, the ways in which violence disrupts our lives. It asks: Is this simply our nature, are we always going to be like this, is there some way to change?
So Lindsey looking at Ronnie’s MySpace page comes to the conclusion that little brothers will always be dying in war. But Grant rejects the violence in the most extreme way. He’s willing to get shot, instead of killing somebody else. That’s a sort of Saint John connection.
PM: It’s almost like a martyrdom.
Ed: Yeah, it’s almost like, “I can’t do this again,” because he just spent the last 12 years suffering for that momentary act of violence. He keeps thinking through, you know, why did he do it: the gun was beside him, he picked it up, he pointed it out the window, it was almost instinctual. But he says, nothing happens without thought.
PM: He said: “Yes.”
Ed: Yes. And so at the end, of course, he says, “No.” So maybe we are not doomed to this violence in our nature that’s definitely there, maybe we can make choices. And as a novelist I don’t have to answer questions… (he laughs)
PM: You just have to raise them …
Ed: I just have to raise them and pose them in the story. I like the idea that we can evolve beyond our violent natures. There’s not a lot of evidence of it at the moment in the world that that’s a possibility.
PM: If we’re going to be talking about violence and its effect — and it’s such a big part of this book — it’s hard not to talk about the Virginia Tech shootings, because the shooter was one of your students.
Ed: It happened in the midst of the novel, so I was already writing about this when it happened. And people have asked me, because I write about violence regularly in my fiction, what is it to have one of your students do something like that. I’ve never been able to really come up with any sort of coherent response to it. It seems to me like another example of the kind of horrific cultural violence endemic in America. And it just hit home this time.
The next day, after the shootings, something like 200 people were killed in a bombing in Iraq, so this violence just came right up into the mountains of southwest Virginia. But the kind of violence that happened here is happening every day, and there have been, I forget the number, but, a couple hundred people killed in massacres by lone gunmen since Virginia Tech. So my answer is — I’ve been writing about this my whole life.
PM: Did the Virginia Tech shootings have an influence on Saint John?
Ed: I can’t see how it didn’t, because it happened right in the middle of the writing of it, but again, I was already writing about that issue. I was thinking of it in terms of the Iraq War and individual violence.
PM: There are many scenes in the book where people are looking at their reflections and wondering about who they really are, and feeling that they’re trapped in these narratives that other people have thrust upon them.
I know that the shooter in the Virginia Tech shootings had a really tough time communicating and talking about his problems and his issues. Maybe some of that violence that you write about stems from the confusion that people have about who they really are ,and what they’re supposed to be.
Ed: It’s an interesting connection. (The shooter) suffered from something called selective mutism. It was a mental, emotional issue with him, he couldn’t speak. He could speak, but he just wouldn’t speak.
On some level it’s fairly obvious he was furious and that fury comes from being so different, from not being able to be a part of the world around him. Certainly the stuff we saw him broadcast on TV after the shooting illustrates a whole lot of anger at all of the others around him whom he thought were persecuting him, and treating him badly. What I see that connects is that he was furious, and he was angry, and trapped inside that body. He had no outlet, he was mentally damaged enough to not have the kinds of protective layers that keep us from acting out on the violence. He acted out, and he lived in a culture where he can ride into town and buy guns and ammunition.
PM: The constant struggle for the characters in Saint John is to break from narratives that are thrust upon them. Do you think that it’s possible to reinvent yourself, and get away from how people see you, or how people perceive you?
Ed: I do, but I think it’s very hard. I grew up in a working-class culture in Brooklyn, and you would’ve never bet that I would go on to be a writer. We’re sort of defined by our class, by our culture, and I think it is hard to change. But your question is even more to the point. When we find ourselves in a particular narrative in our relationships, how can you change that narrative? It’s common between parents and children and in marriages, where you have a role, and that role is what defines you. It’s very hard if you want to change that role and be somebody different, I do think it’s very difficult…
PM: Art also plays a big role in this book for almost all of the characters, except for the male characters outside of Grant. Do you see art as a way to help deal with that violence that’s inherent in all of us? Are artistic outlets a way that we can become “more human”?
Ed: I truly do. Certainly for the artists, and for some artists, it’s a way of negotiating those intense, maybe difficult, maybe violent feelings, frustrations. There’s a line about artists: you don’t have to look too far to find the wound, and that’s true of most artists. So art is a way of dealing with things, of negotiating pain, negotiating chaos. That chaos doesn’t necessarily have to be an abusive family, it can be an emotional chaos, a sense of alienation, or a lack of understanding of who you are in the world, and a need to understand better the purpose of things.
Art is a way of exploring, a way of thinking about life, and it’s a way of formalizing feelings. So you have a chaos of feelings inside you, and art provides you a way of getting them out of you and transferring them to the page, or to the screen, or to the canvas, or to the sculpture. When Avery is thinking about what she believes in, she comes back to art, she thinks that art has a tremendous gripping power, and there’s something about it that she can believe in.
PM: You write pretty convincingly about the New York art scene. Have you spent time in these penthouse apartments and art galleries?
Ed: More SoHo than penthouse, but yeah. I dated a photographer who lived in Brooklyn for several years, and that area of Brooklyn I’m writing about is when I was dating her and I knew that area. My brother was always making art, and producing art.
And that’s Edie’s apartment that turns up in the novel.
PM: The other world in this book that’s also clearly drawn is the underworld of the Mafia. I don’t like to make suppositions about you being Italian and Catholic, but is this another world that you are familiar with?
Ed: I’m not familiar with it, but I know a little bit about it growing up in Brooklyn. I worked for a while with racehorses on racetracks and I know a little bit about it from that world.
In the part of the novel at the funeral where Grant discovers for the first time that he has an uncle — that comes out of life. I actually had an uncle whom I knew nothing about until after he was dead, because my father didn’t want us to have anything to do with him, and it was because, I don’t know the details, but, how can I put this diplomatically…
PM: He was shady?
Ed: Yeah, good. Because he still has family around, and his sons are my cousins, who I don’t really know, but I know of, so there’s that kind of level of background knowledge of it. But I don’t have any real first-hand knowledge.
PM: Do you feel that being in the world of academia helps you as a writer?
Ed: I get to be around a lot of people who care about writing. When I graduated from college, I had read some W.H. Auden, and Auden had always recommended that if you want to be a writer don’t do anything that takes up the same kind of mental energy. Don’t be a journalist, don’t be a teacher.
I followed that advice for a long time, and found myself getting kind of schizophrenic, since I was paying all this attention to writing and I was living in a world were no writing hardly existed for the people I was working with. And when I went back to school for a graduate degree I found myself much happier being around people who cared about writing, who read, and could talk about writing. And I’ve stayed in this world largely for that reason. Now that I’m teaching an MFA program and working with young writers who come in full of the new folks that they’re reading, it’s a world I feel pretty comfortable in.