John Domini is a dazzling writer and one of my first Facebook friends when I started connecting with writers I admire. I was thrilled to get the chance to meet John at AWP in Portland this past year to get a signed copy of his inventive collection of linked short stories MOVIEOLA!, a dizzying, literary tour de force following the foibles and fables of Hollywood with a lens that zooms in and out to capture the absurdity of life and our obsessions with modern Hollywood.
Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to read John’s timely novel The Color Inside a Melon, that came out earlier this summer on Dzanc Books (one of my favorite presses). Part literary noir, part detective story and set in John’s beloved Naples, The Color Inside a Melon addresses the issues of our age head on: race, class, and violence. The real mystery being unwound in the piazzas and dark underbelly of old Italy is humanity’s true nature and bottomless capacity to love and hate one another. Please consider giving it a read.
– Martin Ott
Who has been a major influence on your writing?
For starters, why don’t I mention someone else featured here on WriteLiving, namely, Ellen Bass? I’ve been reading her poetry since the late 1970s, when we were both in Boston. It’s an inspiration to see her late-career breakthrough to new success. That said, my constellation of influences stretches across the sky: a long shadow like Dante, a recent mindblower like Colette, a former prof like John Barth, an early crush like Grace Paley… and Kafka too. On this Naples project, and The Color Inside a Melon in particular, I developed new influences as I went along, like Elena Ferrante and Roberto Saviano.
Can you give us insight into your creative process?
Creative work is so idiosyncratic, it’s different not only for each maker, but also often for each new project. Insight, therefore, proves elusive; what’s good for the goose may be toxic for Forrest Gander. On the three Naples novels I did a lot of freewriting by hand, filling small notebooks with both hard research and imaginative drafts. Once I shifted my materials into word-processing, onscreen, I can’t ell you how many drafts I went through, since I wasn’t always composing sequentially. One of the earliest finished sections of The Color Inside…, published separately in Web del Sol, was actually from the novel’s climax, and completed three years before the whole.
What is the best advice you can give to a writer finding her/his voice and subject matter?
As it happens, my writing’s been praised for its voice, early and late. Yet I’d argue that your subject, what Melville called your “mighty theme”— this dictates voice. Once you have your project, it sets up a way of seeing, a frame of mind, which in turn generates a tone and rhythm.
Your most recent novel The Color Inside a Melon combines elements of a literary and mystery novel. How did you approach writing a novel that’s cross genre and also puts issues of immigration and refugees front and center?
This question too needs to be turned around, I’d say. The Color Inside... is fundamentally a social novel, an in-the-round portrait of a complicated human hive in Southern Italy. As you say, the closest focus is on one part of that community, the new African immigrants to Naples and nearby, but the story won’t work unless these are seen as part of a multifarious whole. It’s all about many fingers knitting and unknitting, the outsiders struggling for a place and the insiders exacting their tolls. Such stuff takes us inevitably to abuse, to illegality, even to bloodletting.
To put the point another way, you can’t render Naples whole-cloth unless you stitch in the Camorra and its abuses— and I don’t see how such a rendering excludes whatever is meant by “literary.” Doesn’t Balzac include crime and mystery in Cousin Bette? Or, more recently, Marlon James in A Brief History of Seven Killings? A social novel is still a novel, and an artist of sensibility faces the same challenges as ever. There’s got to be empathy, subtlety, even when writing about the backroom slaughter of an illegal immigrant.
Your protagonists struggle at times with reality, and your prose, sometimes surreal, unearths these fissures of the mind. How do you juggle the psychological exploration of your characters while still driving the plot / narrative of your fiction forward?
Questions about character, how it’s created and sustained, dovetail neatly with my last point. If my “immigrant success story,” Risto, is to function within a complex story like The Color Inside.., he’s got to generate empathy even while making sketchy moves. He’s got to reveal subtlety even in the midst of extreme action. Seems to me that the crucial tool in bringing off such combinations is dialog, by which I mean not just the words said.
Of course the conversation needs to have a natural bounce and stutter, even when it’s an English version of Italian palaver (with other languages tossed in, now and again). But besides that, effective dialog must consider just how much gets revealed, and to whom. Two speakers are always picking their way through a no-man’s-land, before arriving at something they agree on as the truth. Such negotiations have a direct impact of driving the plot, naturally, and for Risto none matters so much as those he hammers out with Paola, his Neapolitan wife, nominally “white.” If her Somali husband’s success has any value, that must be coined in their marriage—and Paola must demonstrates smarts and spine to match her husband’s. I strove to make her as canny as the great women figures of Naguib Mahfouz, in his trilogy of the Cairo slums.
What’s are you working on now that you’ve completed your Naples trilogy? Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?
Actually, I’m still working with Naples, though in an alternative way. After a good deal more exploratory writing, including what appear to be the elements of a strange new novel, I fell into a memoir. The ancient Mediterranean seaport, I discovered, demanded one more treatment, a non-fiction work or as close as I could make it. I’m writing about how Naples changed me, indeed saved me, in a time of adversity. Of course, “adversity” for a comfy white American doesn’t seem especially rugged. Still, in midlife, well past 40, I found my 20-year marriage dead and my teaching career in tatters; I’d published one book years earlier and had little promise for anything to come— indeed, I had my doubts I was any sort of writer at all. Insofar as I’ve found an answer since, with several more books out and regular writing for a number of publications, it’s thanks in large part to Naples, my father’s home.
At my lowest point, I began returning to the old city, traveling on the cheap and staying with family. I kept on going back, winning grants and getting assignments, and now I’m writing about the personal transformations brought about by the place. My title is The Archeology of a Good Ragù, and my emphasis is on the place, not little old me. Good work always strives against others, and for this text the antagonist is the usual American take on Italy, as an exotic background for the main player’s happiness. I wanted to avoid what Elizabeth Gilbert did in Eat, Pray, Love— making Naples all about her
Have you read anything recently that really got you excited?
Lately I’ve been terrifically excited— moved, frightened, outraged— by the novels of Khaled Kahlifa. I read him in translation, of course; he’s Syrian, still hanging on somehow in Damascus, and his great subject is the breakdown of his country’s society, one of the most sophisticated cultures in the world, under the brutal regime of Assad. His portrayals always extend to whole families and neighborhoods, everyone caught up in hapless flailing, all terribly alive while also casting long shadows across the future of the fat and happy West. The voyage of his latest, Death is Hard Work, makes McCarthy’s The Road look like a trip to Disneyland.
What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?
Most days I get in a happy half-hour of singing and strumming. It’s all about the cowboy chords; with enough hammering, just about any number that comes to mind can be shoehorned into C, F, G, and Am.
About the Author:
The Color Inside a Melon, published this summer, is John Domini‘s fourth novel. With blurbs from Salman Rushdie and Marlon James, the book is set in Naples, Italy, and completes a loose trilogy. Domini also has three books of stories, the latest MOVIEOLA!, which J.C. Hallman, in The Millions, called “a new shriek for a new century.” The fiction has appeared in Paris Review, non-fiction in The New York Times, and grants include an NEA. He has held long-term appointments at Harvard, Northwestern, and other universities, and lives in Des Moines.
One response to “Writeliving Interview: John Domini”
Martin, thanks very much. Your intelligent questions made me re-engage with my own efforts, perhaps understanding myself better.
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