Nathan Graziano isn’t fucking around. Since the publication of Frostbite, a hardcover collection of short fiction works, over 10 years ago, he has continually published heartfelt work (poetry as well as fiction) that reveals the core of humanity of characters at their lowest ebb. Last year his short work “Fishbone” was nominated for the Norman Mailer Prize ( a piece that we were lucky enough to re-publish on Drunk Monkeys), and this year has seen the publication ofHangover Breakfasts, a collection of interconnected short fiction pieces.
Graziano conducted this interview with Matthew Guerruckey about writing, family, and that dumbshit Manny Ramirez.
When did you start writing, and can you remember what triggered it?
I’m not one of those authors who dreamed of writing books as a young boy, or who was reading Chekov in the second grade. I vaguely remember scribbling down poems in high school after my first real girlfriend dumped me and then, while fishing for pity, I gave them to her. She told me they were “good”—what’s not to love about teen-angst poems?—and I thought that writing might be a way to get attention from girls. I believed that myth right through my undergraduate years, and by the time I realized that chicks could care less about poets, that they prefer guys who play sports or instruments, it was too late. I had a few chapbooks published at that point and realized I was in this for the long haul.
Your style carries echoes of American short story masters Carver and Cheever, with a real emphasis on capturing true moments. Is that something that was always a part of your work? And if not, how did it develop?
One of the first writers I really identified with was Carver, and I remember reading a quote from Hemingway about writing “one true line” sticking with me as well. I’m still looking for that one line, the one that writes itself. But I’ve always been interested in characters who are ordinary people, living out their rather ordinary lives, and finding significance in their struggles and small triumphs. The short story, in my opinion, is a perfect amount of space to explore this. It’s difficult, however, to generate enough narrative momentum to sustain a novel unless you have larger plot hooks and dramatic conflicts. My sole goal with short stories and poetry is to make just one reader nod their head and feel a little less alone in the universe.
What is your process? What triggers a story for you, and how do you capture it?
That’s a tough question. I guess it depends on what I’m writing. With novels, for example, I try to write everyday. If you let a novel sit for too long, you lose your momentum and it gets cold. Novels, in my experience, are about endurance, like jogging. For me, stories usually start with a character and an incident—often something I’ve witnessed or read about—that struck it me as strange, scary, interesting, or all of the above. From there, I imagine the rest. For example, the story “Fishbone” started with something I experienced in my early-20s. I was on a date with an old girlfriend and witnessed someone at another table, an older man, choking. It was terrifying. But I later, while thinking about the main character Mark, I wondered what would happen if he were at a restaurant with his ex-wife and someone started choking to death.
How do you think living on the East Coast has affected not just your writing, but your life? Have you lived there all your life, or have you spent a larger chunk of time in any other part of the country?
I am a lifelong New Englander. I grew up in Rhode Island, and I’ve lived my adult life in New Hampshire—with the exception of one year when I taught high school in Las Vegas. I identify myself with this region, and almost all of my stories are set in New England. While I wouldn’t call myself a regionalist—that’s a term fancy-pants critics love to throw around—I would say New England is the lens through which I’ve experienced my life. For example—and this is part of the reason so many people, like myself, feel so connected to the Red Sox—we endure long winters in New England, and I, personally, struggle with depression every year, so the spring, and by extension baseball season, never fails to lift me. It’s a cycle that is not entirely dissimilar to writing, the ups and the downs, the failures and infrequent successes. I also can never imagine being land-locked again, or driving six hours and arriving nowhere. There’s an intimacy, but also coldness, literal and metaphoric, to New England, along with a distinct Puritanical hangover. But, honestly, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. In that sense, I’m somewhat provincial.
Manny Ramirez: Hall-of-Famer or piece of human garbage?
He’s a piece of shit—a Hall of Fame caliber hitter, sure—but a piece of shit as a person. I would keep all of the cheaters out of Cooperstown, but the problem is that there are so many more cheaters who made it through the Mitchell Report unblemished. Can we only punish the ones who got caught? Probably. That’s life, no? Terry Francona called Manny Ramirez “one the worst human beings [he’d] ever met.” Enough said.
In all seriousness, how has being a Red Sox fan influenced the way you look at the world – both pre and post 2004?
Growing up a Red Sox fan has definitely shaped my worldview, as it shaped the worldview of my father and his father before him. For 86 years, every possible calamity that could befall a team happened to the Red Sox. By 1986, the first real choke I remember—I was only three in ’78 when Bucky fuckin’ Dent happened—three generations of Red Sox fans considered their team, and themselves, snake-bitten. The Curse of the Bambino seemed like a real thing. Therefore, I grew up always expecting the worst to happen, an incorrigible cynic. If I applied for a job, I expected that I’d either not get the position, or if I did, the person who hired me would perish in some tragic and preposterous way—they’d slip getting off the toilet, knock their heads on the seat and drown in their own shit—and things just wouldn’t work out for me. It was a worldview widely espoused around these parts: prepare the worst and anything else is gravy. But I have to say that this prepared me to deal with the literary world and all of the subsequent rejections and disappointments that would follow, and continue to follow me.
After 2004, I didn’t know what to do with myself. On the day after the Sox won the World Series, I woke up to a strange, new world. The fear of impending cataclysm could no longer be justified. I remember taking that day off work and walking through the supermarket, waving to complete strangers, all of us smiling at each other like we were in on some kind of joke. It was surreal. But I never got comfortable with that world, the world where the Red Sox were winners. And luckily, after last September’s epic collapse, and this season’s steaming shit in the pants, it feels like things have returned to normal. Someday, I imagine I’ll probably look back at 2004-07 as a five year aberration as I die waiting for the Red Sox to win another World Series. Perhaps it never happened in the first place.
Has fatherhood changed the way you write?
Fatherhood not only changes the way you write, it changes the way you live, which is interchangeable if you think about it. After my wife and I had Paige in 2003, and I became a father, there was subtle shift away from solipsism. I mean, for the first time, things weren’t solely about me, or my goals, or my writing. Then my son Owen was born in 2005, and what used to be my office became his bedroom. The transformation was complete. I wouldn’t say it changed the way I composed sentences or approached the craft—although there was a lot less time to write, and I had to learn to be more economical with the time when I have it—but it changed the way that I approached the world. It made me a modicum more responsible as a man.
How did you meet up with Dan Crocker, and how did the “Idiot Trilogy” develop?
Dan and I met through Ian Griffin, who was the publisher of the now-defunct Green Bean Press. Dan and I both published our early books of poetry and fiction with Green Bean Press, and in 2002, Dan invited Ian and me to visit him in Grayling, Michigan, where Dan was teaching at a community college. That was in the fall, and the next summer, Dan came visit me in New Hampshire, and we did some readings in Portland, Maine, which we wrote about in Idiot Warriors, the first chapbook of what would later become our Idiot Trilogy. From there, every time Dan and I would get together, we’d write about our escapades, but we were really writing about our friendship. To this day, Dan and I talk nearly every weekend over Skype and remain best friends. In The Idiot Trilogy, we write about our thinly-veiled fictional alter-egos, Natty and Cracker, and we have a lot of fun with it. We cover all of the important things—beer, dog balls, panic attacks, and fear of fatness, among other things. We’re currently in the process of collecting and revising the three chapbooks, which are all out of print, and adding some new stories and poems for a full-length collection. It will be quite a sad and hilarious book when we’re finished. It’s great working Dan. Not many people have the opportunity to create something like this with their best friend. I consider myself lucky.
What projects do you have coming up, and what future work are you getting excited about now?
I have a chapbook of prose pieces that is available for pre-order from Bottle of Smoke Press titled Hangover Breakfasts. I’m sure when it will be out, seeing the publication date keeps getting pushed back, but the Bottle of Smoke website says November, so I’ll go with that answer. I have two young adult novel manuscripts that my agent is shopping, and a publisher has expressed interest in The Idiot Trilogy, so I’m working with Dan Crocker on that manuscript right now. There are also plans for my new and selected poems titled My Next Bad Decision to be released sometime in 2014. There’s also a double top-secret one-man robot-dancing show that I may or may not be a part of.
Hangover Breakfasts is now available from Bottle of Smoke Press
For the latest on Graziano’s work, check his website.