An Interview with Victor Giannini

9 Jan
Vic G Bio Pic 07

Victor Giannini is the author of Scott Too, which has been compared to “the best speculative fiction of Philip K. Dick, and the magical realism of Jose Saramago” by novelist Kaylie Jones.

Victor Giannini is the author of the novella Scott Too and the forthcoming novel Counselor. His writing has appeared at Carrier Pigeon, The Southampton Review, Narratively, (a)Bonac, and Silverthought Press’ IPPY winning anthologies: Silverthought: Ignition and Thank You Death Robot. His art has been featured by various magazines, clothing companies, and skateboard shops.

In this interview, Giannini talks about finding the right frame for a story, the role of pain in writing a personal essay, and why not all facts are necessary to convey the truth.

To read “His Living Room’s a Jungle” and an exercise on using transitions to move through time, click here.

Michael Noll

“His Living Room’s a Jungle” tells a story that spans your entire lifetime and, really, reaches back before you were born. A story that like presents certain challenges, such as how do you, in terms of pure mechanics, move between and link events that occurred in very different time periods. What was your approach to this problem?

Victor Giannini

My first and only idea was this: My father is the center of the story, and I wanted to approach him through my subjective experience. This allowed me an honesty and self-deprecation that balanced out factual errors or emotional wounds.

So I needed to nail the mechanics before I fleshed out the narrative, and it took a few days of writing in my head to find the right flow, like a song with the verses and chorus in the correct places. Memory was the greatest advantage, because at their core, memories are stories. I could slip in and out of memory to find the thematic thread for this story, but that took a few revisions.

The biggest challenge was how to get to the end, which was already set from the moment I pitched the article. The end became the beginning, so it framed the story as a circular piece with nearly linear sequences broken up by flashes to ‘now’ as transitions. The storms and rain were key, and once I moved that idea up front, it allowed me to continue in a more or less linear fashion with the memories.

Handpicking the most dense and condensed memories, with appropriate transitions, became the final puzzle to solve. My memory is highly evocative, if not perfect, meaning I can remember a moment, relive it, even who I was and how I perceived life at the time.

It’s a funny map in my head…start with a scene that sets theme, jump to a scene establishing my narrative reliability (emotionally honest at best), and then, since I was the lens to see my father, jump to the earliest moment I could remember regarding his time in Vietnam, and then work my way back to the opening scene, revealing far more along the way. Throughout the many revisions, which were based on my editor’s questions and suggestions, the framing remained intact as I wrote, rewrote, rewrote, revised, and then cut, cut, cut, all the while keeping that vital key: the framing device, which I view as the frame of a house. When that is confidently set, then it came time to sit down and fill the rooms, so to speak.

Michael Noll

How did you find this framing device (you and your father watching a storm that happened recently, which reminds you of another storm that happened when you were thirteen years old and discovered something about your father)? On one hand, it works the way that our memories really do work, sliding back and forth between past and present. On the other hand, there were probably other intimate, in-scene moments that you could started with–including the scene that you remember when you learn that storms always bring your father vivid reminders of his time in Vietnam. How did you figure out which opening would work best?

Victor Giannini

From the start, I always knew I’d start “today”, me 30 years old and my father at 70.

The theme of rain and storms, making my father slip back in time, and my knowledge of that, gave me the structure I needed to leap back and forth in time as needed. It was an intuitive thing, one of those ideas that wake you up in the night and you just feel confident in it. That was my initial pitch to Narratively.

Victor Giannini with his father, Joe Giannini.

Victor Giannini with his father, Joe Giannini, a relationship that is the subject of “His Living Room’s a Jungle”

Starting “today”, with the storms as a device to link memories across time to “today”, allowed me to hook the reader in with just a bit of mystery and drama, and then slip into that night of interaction and revelation, and back to “today’s storm”, where there is no overt interaction. Now the reader knew that the main subject, my father, would be seen from a lens that can be factually shaky, but emotionally true.

The transitions between these scenes, past to present, memory to now, back again, are the most vital technical aspect. They needed to work on three levels: Functional to the frame as a whole, factual regarding what needs to be known at that narrative moment, and most importantly, emotionally: the transitions making sense that I would take you from “here” to “today” without breaking the flow. If I couldn’t nail the transitions in a very natural way, one that engaged the reader to continue without becoming a road bump, it’d all fall apart. I began to think of them as the last sentence of each chapter. One that gives closure to the section, and a hook to the next.

The only way to figure those out was revision. Thankfully I had a great editor to look at three of the eight versions I wrote. It took constant revision, keeping the focus on my father while still going back into my own mind, finding the most honest way to weave our lives together in service to the main theme, while maintaining emotional honesty.

 Michael Noll

How long have you been thinking about this essay—either working on it or just thinking about how you’d approach it? It seems like a story you might have been shaping and thinking about for a long time, and I wonder what finally clicked and allowed you to write it.

Victor Giannini

What finally clicked … fear. And pain.

Pain for every “character” in the article became the shared theme in which to view every event: Myself as naïve, selfish, expressive, the aftermath for my father and my family … I knew that I was on the right path when I became afraid to publish it. When I became truly afraid, not for portraying myself as imperfect, but for my father, who I treasure deeply, I knew I’d nailed it. Becoming afraid to accidentally misrepresent us was when I knew this story NEEDED to be told, rather than just me wanting to impress people. I was terrified right up until publication. But it was the right kind of fear. It meant I was honest with my reader, myself … and my father.

Victor Giannini's novella, Scott, Too, "echoes the best speculative fiction of Philip K. Dick and the magical realism of Jose Saramago."

Victor Giannini’s novella, Scott Too, from Silverthoght Press, “echoes the best speculative fiction of Philip K. Dick and the magical realism of Jose Saramago.”

As for how long it took…ever since I started writing at 15, I knew someday some aspect of his story must be told. So this particular essay was written for Narratively, and the editor wanted a “veteran story” that was unlike any he’d seen before. Given the non-fiction genre (I write fiction primarily), the greatest challenge was not what to put in, but rather what content to cut out. So I forgot about word count, took off all the restraints, off and wrote a version that was three times as long.

That allowed me to cut, cut, move, revise, which I believe are the key aspects to writing. Well, at least for me. Just let it all out. Be human. Then become an author, go back and revise everything to embrace the narrative. So the initial idea was always there for over a decade, the structural one was immediate, something from my subconscious, and the task of writing actually writing it took over a month. Actually, the context of it being a public article with a set word count was a great constraint during the entire process, even though I initially broke that constraint. Thankfully, my editor provided helpful questions and comments which led me down the path of what to cut, and what tiny parts to put in that weren’t there.

Michael Noll

Your father is publishing a memoir that will, presumably, cover some of this same material. How did that affect your writing of this essay. You’re using your perspective on your father as the lens for understanding him, and sometimes when writers do this, they worry that the lens is too strong–that they’re, in fact, writing more about themselves than about the other person. Did you ever find yourself checking to see if your memories were accurate? Or did the fact that your father was writing his own story free you up to write yours?

Victor Giannini

Bit of a mixture. Knowing my father was writing his own memoir allowed me to leave many facts, many amazing stories, for him to tell. That memoir is his life, his story. That was a huge burden taken off my shoulders, so I could focus on a subjective view of a veteran rather than a historical view.

I allowed myself to write about myself because, in a way, as long as my thoughts were focused on him, he is the main character, and I remain the narrator. This article is still about him but from my perspective. His own writing fills in all of the things I merely list. In a way they compliment each other, so a massive amount of information about his time in Vietnam was “allowed” to be truncated for me. I knew he’d reveal it all, in his own words. At times I did feel I was writing more about myself, but I waited for the revision process, when I had a break and a clear set of eyes to steer my way back towards him. That often meant cutting any ponderings or flowery prose, however pleased I was, that were merely my reactions to my own memories. Then focus the lens back on him.

As for fact checking … I was afraid to do so until the very final draft. To find out what I was right or wrong about outside my experience would skew my memories and emotions. Much of what I learned from my mother was at the last minute. Things that aren’t in the article, regarding my half-brother, my mother, and so on. But it’d be dishonest to force them into the final draft.

My father knew of the project, but I never showed him it. I was afraid it would taint the embarrassing, brutal, honesty that I’d finally cut the piece down to. New information about the past didn’t enhance the narrative at all. It castrated it, because from my point of view…those things didn’t happen. Knowing my father is writing his own memoir absolutely freed me to write honestly, “right or wrong”. Looking back…I’d say that’s actually the most important aspect. I could never write this article, showing him as both a veteran and a man, without the real life assurance that he’d be showing himself through his own memoirs. A strange case of life impacting art, and art reflecting life. This was a true challenge to write, and I’m happy and grateful that I was given the chance.

January 2014

Michael NollMichael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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