by Lara Levitan
We’re excited to welcome award-winning novelist Christopher Castellani on March 26 to teach Ready for Your Close-Up: Manipulating Narrative Distance. Castellani is the author of three novels, including All This Talk of Love (2013), The Saint of Lost Things (2005) and A Kiss from Maddalena (2003). An experienced speaker and contributor to several creative writing anthologies, Castellani is also the Artistic Director of Grub Street, which is sort of like the StoryStudio of Boston.
We caught up with Castellani (who’s gearing up to interview Tom Perrotta and Alice Hoffman at AWP in Boston this year!) to discuss narrative distance, the best writing advice he ever got, and writing versus housework.
What is narrative distance?
Narrative distance is related to point of view, but asks questions that are more nuanced than “is this story in third or first person?” The goal is for authors to calibrate the narrative distance that best suits the overall goals of the story. Every good book calibrates narrative distance effectively, and most readers don’t even notice it; in fact, if they do notice it, that means the author isn’t doing it right. For example, the narrator in Forster’s A Passage to India is almost God-like, which allows him a certain authority; it’s a very different narrator from the narrator in Howards End, which is more intimate, almost gossipy, and therefore better-suited to that novel, which has more domestic concerns.
You’ve taught this course a number of times. What makes you want to revisit it?
My conversations with students keep teaching me new things I want to share with the next group. The main reason, though, is I’ve never read a draft of a story that couldn’t be improved by paying more attention to narrative distance specifically, and point of view in general. I’m amazed by how often a “technical fix” like this can bring out the themes and characters much more effectively than the usual advice that comes out of workshops, which sounds something like, “I’d like to know more about that character” or “I couldn’t relate to the story.” As anyone who’s been in a writing workshop knows, that sort of advice is rarely helpful.
What’s your workshop philosophy?
I try to look as clinically as possible at story or novel, ignoring what I might know about the author’s background or intention. I treat the story like an x-ray, looking for its strengths and weaknesses, and then I try to come up with ways to build on the strengths and either mitigate the weaknesses or excise them altogether. (Yes, sometimes, most times, amputation is necessary…) There is usually at least one line or image or move a story makes that seems to “block” the overall goal or intention, and I try to identify that ahead of time and have the rest of the workshop join me in examining it. I see myself as a facilitator of a discussion, not the judge and jury. I try to help the story succeed on its own terms, not on terms I design for it.
What have your students taught you?
They’ve taught me how important it is to stay in the moment. Reading their stories, and discussing craft with them, always reminds me of the importance of pushing forward with a plot and a character’s development, of not looking back. (Of course I rarely take this advice, and my own work relies much more heavily on back story than it should, but you didn’t ask me if I actually practice what I learn). I guess this is a way of saying that my students inspire me to be braver in my work, because retreating too often into backstory can be a cowardly act.
What’s the best writing advice you ever got?
I read Richard Bausch’s “Letter to a Young Writer” target=”_blank” many times a year. Pretty much everything he says in that essay is the best advice a writer can get. If I had to pick, though, I’d say #1 is to read as much as possible, and #2 is to make writing your part-time job, with set hours, and do it at the same time every day. If it weren’t for #2 in particular, I’d still be working on my first book, waiting for inspiration to strike.
What’s your favorite procrastination technique?
Oh, I’ve got a black belt in procrastination. It’s so very easy to walk away from your story or novel, mentally or physically, especially when no one is paying you to write it, or when no one even knows you’re writing it. Because I’m something of a workaholic, though, I usually procrastinate by doing other work. In other words, I’ll cheat on my novel by answering my Grub Street email; or I’ll spend more time responding to student manuscripts as a way of avoiding my own. In this way, I get a lot of work done for the people who are paying me, but I don’t always get as much writing done as I’d like. Other writers say they procrastinate by cleaning or doing laundry; that’s one thing I don’t do. As anxiety-producing as writing can be, it’s always preferable to housework…
What are you working on right now, and what are you reading?
All I’m willing to say about my next project is that it’s an historical novel that takes place in Italy and the U.S., and that it has nothing to do with the Grasso family (who are the subject of my first three novels). As for what’s on my bookshelf, right now it’s Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers and Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers; I’m interviewing both of them for the AWP conference and want to read as much of their work as I can beforehand.
You’ve written three novels. Does it get easier each time?
Oh, I wish. For me, writing gets more and more difficult and mysterious. The more I do it, the less I understand how it happens, or where it comes from. The more intentional I get with the story I want to tell, the more resistant that story is to getting told.
The only aspect of writing that’s easier now than it was in 1999, when I wrote my first novel, is that I understand a little better the implications of the craft choices I make in my drafts. For example, getting back to narrative distance, I can tell you that these days I can more easily recognize when the point of view isn’t working in the story I’m trying to tell. But recognizing the problem doesn’t always mean you know how to fix it.
This is why writers need objective readers with sharp eyes and ears. I rely on my writer friends more than ever to teach me about the draft I’ve just written, to show me the x-ray and give me the good news and the bad news.