The Sitterly House Interview: William Giraldi

Busy Monsters, his accidental homage to Homer’s Odyssey, explores raging male insecurity and a crazy little thing called love.

Interview by Robert Ready

Photo by Bill Cardoni.

A former competitive bodybuilder, William Giraldi C’01 grew up in a working-class, central Jersey town called Manville, a place straight out of a Bruce Springsteen ballad. It’s also a town where, surrounded by nascent mechanics and wrestlers, he cultivated his addiction to words and ideas at the public library, poring over books on Greek gods and heroes, which he amplified at Drew as an English major and theatre arts minor. This potent mix of influences has endowed Giraldi, who teaches writing at Boston University, with a particularly heady, picaresque prose style that immediately distinguishes Busy Monsters, a debut novel that The New York Times says “abounds in antics and satire.”

“Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, he’s building a world of outrageously beautiful language,” says his former professor Robert Ready, Baldwin Professor of Humanities and interim dean of the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies. “It is a book about heroes, about grief, about love, about language. He combines the tall tale with a highly sophisticated book about the fate of writing and writers in a world that has its monsters.”

Busy Monsters follows Charles Homar, who, besotted with love for his fiancée, Gillian, is desperate to keep her even as she sets sail to find the legendary Kraken, a colossal squid. What sends Charlie into a jealous homicidal rage is the fact that her partner for the lengthy voyage is a man Charlie describes as “a big-shot squid hunter, some ocean yahoo affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution,” a “jerk-off” with “Stalinesque” eyebrows. After a bumbling incident involving a .223-caliber rifle, Charlie lands in jail and, upon release, begins a hopelessly wrongheaded odyssey to recapture Gillian’s heart.—Renée Olson

Robert Ready: When you were a young writer at Drew, were you thinking of the nakedness, the risk, the danger of writing?

William GiraldI: No, I definitely wasn’t. I came to Drew kind of late. I was 25 when I got here, and I started writing when I was about 18 or 19. But even at 25, I didn’t know how to think about writing. I knew that it was the hardest thing I’d ever done, but I also knew that I couldn’t not do it. I don’t know if it’s a paradox, but writing is not easy for me. I don’t like it. So I’m always very skeptical when I meet new writers and they say, “I love to write. God, I just love it. It’s great.” I say, ohhh man.

RR: What’s your sense of your development as a writer since college?

WG: I’ll tell you how Drew changed my development as a writer, or rather how Drew changed my direction as a writer. You’ll be happy to know, I hope, that it had to do with your class in Romanticism because, prior to that, I had always thought of myself as just a fiction writer. I had written two novels by that time. I’d written a few dozen stories, but I hadn’t ever thought of myself as a man of letters or a literary scholar; but your delivering me Wordsworth and Byron, and [Professor of English] Frank Occhiogrosso introducing me to Donne, that had a lot to do with it. Drew changed the trajectory because so much of what I’ve published has been literary criticism. This is something I’d never expected. It’s not something that I ever wanted. I can’t quite explain how that happened, except that once you gave me Wordsworth I knew that it was the essence, the substance I didn’t even know I needed.

Giraldi (left) and Professor Robert Ready catch up in Sitterly House. Photo by Bill Cardoni.

RR: This intense literary consciousness comes shining through in Busy Monsters with your protagonist. As I was reading it, I began to write down writers. There are about 50 whom Charles refers to, just gently, and never pretentiously. Tennyson, Dante, Shakespeare, Jack London, Jules Verne, Michel Foucault, Lewis Carroll, Bram Stoker, Aeschylus, Fitzgerald, H.G. Wells, Sophocles, Graham Greene, Dickens, O’Neill, the list goes on and on. It is an extraordinary element of your character’s consciousness. It’s not a weight, it’s a kind of liberating force within him, all he knows.

WG: I’m glad that was powerful for you because I was worried that Charlie was going to come across as a wannabe, and in some ways he is conscious of all this literary posing and literary shenanigans. But it is, as you say, something very genuine inside of him. He doesn’t know how to make sense of what is happening to him unless he can see it through Tennyson or through Homer. I needed to make this an organic part of his character.

RR: Another part of this book is the way it mirrors writing. Charlie is a writer and he is writing what we read. There’s this doubleness going on.

WG: I had a lot of fun playing with that metafictional or even postmodern element of writing mirroring writing. Charlie is going on all of these adventures and writing about them for a weekly magazine, and you are reading what he is writing. This is a story about storytelling. It’s about mythology and folklore as well, but also about the stories we tell ourselves in order to live. He can’t help but write, and he becomes this minor celebrity. I’m a little bit nervous about how that is going to be received. There have been novels about writers that have fallen pretty flat. I think it’s hard to get across.

RR: The great national Turkish writer, Yashar Kemal, referring to writing his magnificent book, Memed, My Hawk, says that “when people find themselves cornered, when they feel the pain of death in their heart, they tend to create a world of myth, in which they try to take refuge.” Do you connect with that?

WG: Oh, wow, it’s beautiful. I wish I had written that. My Lord, I mean, religion, myth—the narrative structures we have built that we can then retreat into. Charlie’s focus on mythologies, his focus on monsters, is, I think, a perfect illustration of this beautiful quote. He’s got no other way to process what’s happening to him, so there’s this conscious mimicking of mythological tropes, of mythological paths. The name he has chosen for himself—Homar—he admits that that’s a pen name; you never find out what his real name is. But he has chosen this pseudonym for a reason. The book has this kind of Odyssey feel to it, where it is just monster to monster to monster and travail to travail to travail. And I didn’t realize that was happening until about three quarters of the way through, when I said, “I’m stealing from Homer.” I said, “Well, what do you expect, what’s Charlie’s last name?”

RR: Why not steal from the best.

WG: [Laughs.] Why not steal from the best. Exactly.

RR: There are a number of references in this book to Christ, Christianity and even a wonderful adjective—I’ve never heard it before—“Christic.” What is that?

WG: Charlie’s being a former Catholic, a lapsed Catholic, like myself, is important because the mythic aspect is pronounced in Catholicism: the ritual, the mass, the stations of the cross, the music and the pageantry that is involved. It is like Greek theater in a way. Christ-ic or Kris-tic, I’m not sure how it is pronounced. I was like “Oh, I love that”—you know, not Christian, but Christic. And Charlie, in his own way, looks like Jesus. In fact, someone in the book says to him, or he admits, “God, I got to get a haircut and shave before I reunite with Gillian because I look like a Christ wannabe here.” You know, he’s got a beard and he’s got shoulder-length hair and his mother accuses him of having a hero worship with Christ; she says, “that hero of yours who died at 33.” Of course, Charlie is 33 in the book.

RR: [Pause.] Hmmm.

WG: I know, I know, it’s there. In the writing process, these things come up when you’re not aware of them. You put something there, and not until later do you realize it.

RR: At one point, Charlie has this grand phrase. He speaks about his “willingness to be berserk in the service of the heart.” Were you content when you wrote that phrase? I was very content to read it.

WG: It’s what we men do, Bob. We can sort of go bonkers with overweening love and then usually get punched for it. Was I content when I wrote it? I’m not sure one should ever be too happy with what he’s written, but I like the line. This book was the first experience I’ve ever had where I liked what I was doing. I began writing as a sort of avenue out of my melancholy. I was such a depressed kid. To go back to Wordsworth, I had so much trouble as a young man, troubles of the heart, family troubles; I’ve got a very complicated relationship with my family. Charlie definitely has the willingness to go berserk in service of the heart. I’m not sure that he’d know what to do otherwise.

Illustration by Miguel Santamarina.

RR: At one point, Charlie says that in writing you can’t just drop in female characters. You have this extraordinary object of male desire, Gillian, who finds her own Kraken. One of the grandest moments in the book is when they raise this creature up out of the wet and Gillian confronts this beauty of her own monster. How was it creating this female character?

WG: It might be the only one I got right. One of the early criticisms of me as a writer was that I couldn’t do female characters very well, that I was too masculine. Charlie is forever wondering what it means to be a man. And he has trouble getting that right. He, in many ways, adheres to the stereotype that it must involve John Wayne and guns and knives and blowing things up, and certainly muscles. Richie Lombardo, the bodybuilder in the book, is definitely a manifestation of that American masculinity in the extreme. When that Kraken rises from the sea, she is a female—and there is my female character relishing it and delighting in the glory of this capture. It’s so nice for you to pick up on that because that was a real triumphant moment for me as a writer. Whether I succeeded or not, people will let me know, but in a book that’s saturated with the masculine, this was a real genuine moment of the feminine. In many ways, any book that’s constantly about the masculine is sort of, ipso facto, about the feminine.

RR: What question would you ask William Giraldi at this point in his career?

WG: The question I’ve asked myself is what am I going to do next? Can I even do anything? I’ll tell you the truth, after writing this book, I felt spent. I felt like I put everything I knew into this book, and in many ways I feel like I don’t know anything else now. How am I going to get full again? I think the answer has to do with my son. He’s almost 2, and he already contains multitudes. It’s amazing. I remember you telling me stories about when your own son was a boy, and the material there—you’re filled with worry and you’re filled with fear, but you’re also filled with bliss. I think the answer lies with him somehow. I’m just going to keep watching him and see what he shows me.

Busy Monsters  

An Excerpt

No beer in a bar, much less sex in my car, but just the two of us perched on the top step outside her one-bedroom prefab townhouse with a cheese pie so succulent it rendered us speechless for minutes at a time. She had said that, lifesaver though I was, if I attempted anything wacky or even suggestively satanic, she’d go succubus on my ass—she had studied ninjutsu and Descartes and knew how one enhances the other—“so don’t get snaky,” she said —and I warmed with admiration. Here was a gal with gumption, sang­froid, with a Virginia voice that might melt wrought iron. In the driveway slept her yellow Volkswagen Beetle, the face of a whopping flower painted on the hood and testifying to goodness.

We talked and ate till midnight, the familiar chatter about childhood, siblings, and what we would buy if we won the lottery. I said, “I’d donate half the money to the children’s hospital and use the other half to build a house with no other houses in view. Privacy matters.”

She hinted that she was unmoved by my soppy wish to play Robin Hood for a hospital, and that if I was trying to win her approval with stories of sick kids, the donkey in me could forget it. She said she’d spend all the money on a curvy boat and a team of scientists and fishermen, trying to be the first-ever person to capture a giant squid, which no modern human has ever seen alive but about which tales abound. Astonishing! Gillian collected giant squid curiosa and could hold court with any ocean-loving dweeb in thick glasses.

“It lives,” she said. “I know it. Ancient seafarers have seen it and written about it. The problem is, we think it lives at such great depths it’s nearly impossible to find. Some carcasses have washed up on shore, but we need it alive. There are only a handful of scientists who have dedicated themselves to finding it. Sadly, the really big funding is scarce for the giant squid.”

“Giant squid, huh? How’d you become interested in that?”

“In childhood, Charles. Always in childhood.”

“A monster?”

“No, not a monster,” she confirmed. “A beautiful animal.”

And I thought, Yes, a beautiful animal indeed. When I drove home that night—her number already entered in my cell phone, me jittery with a teenage thrill, alive again after what seemed bubonic eons, the lunar light pulling at my water—I was certain that if I switched on the news in my living room I’d find that the cosmos had been washed of brutality and outrage. Remember the stimulating incipience of romance, the excitement of possibility, of being rescued from the abscess of lonesomeness and having someone to share your hydrogen with? Recall the glee? It meant your little life was worth something, your personality, yes, have-able. It meant sex for your now-laudable seed, and dinnertime conversation, too. Go grab your lovers, people, hold them close, feel the validation. You’re barely carbon-based without them.

W.W. Norton released Busy Monsters on August 1.

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