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"Read. Read widely. Always be reading": An Interview with Novelist Tony Ardizzone
One of the professors I admired most when I was a student in Indiana University’s MFA program was Tony Ardizzone. An experienced hand on the fiction faculty, he was tasked with shepherding us new MFAs through our first semester teaching undergraduate writing courses. He presented a craft lecture on Mondays to the entire Introduction to Creative Writing class, 120+ students, and we greenhorn MFAs taught small-group sections on Wednesdays and Fridays, meeting with Tony several times during the semester to discuss our pedagogy.
It was hard work (and nerveracking to stand in front of 20 undergrads who were only a few years younger than I was), but Tony made sure we neophytes had the right tools (25+ years later, I still have the craft handouts he shared with us).
The summer before I moved from Chicago to Bloomington, I read Tony’s first story collection, The Evening News, which received the Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction. Many of the stories are set in the city I was leaving, the same one where Tony had grown up, and I loved these poignant, atmospheric stories. (Woe is me—I was a poetry MFA and never had the opportunity to take a fiction workshop with him!)
In addition to the Flannery O’Connor Award, Tony has received the Milkweed Editions National Fiction Prize, the Chicago Foundation for Literature Award for Fiction, the Virginia Prize for Fiction, an Oregon Literary Fellowship, the Pushcart Prize, two Individual Artist Fellowships from the NEA, among other honors.
His most recent novel, In Bruno’s Shadow, was published in April by Guernica Editions. (His four previous novels are The Whale Chaser, In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, Heart of the Order, and In the Name of the Father).
In Bruno’s Shadow is immersive and beautifully written. Tony is equally at home writing summary and scene, dialogue and sensory detail.
Before we get to the interview, here’s a quick synopsis: A young Croatian woman travels to Medugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina, site of apparitions of the Virgin Mary, where she meets an angel and witnesses a miracle. Twenty years later, after living in a cloistered convent, she travels to Rome where her habit of prayer transforms the lives of seven strangers. Their stories intertwine and connect in this portrayal of several Roman churches, the art of Bernini, Caravaggio, and Borromini, and Rome’s rich architectural history.
CS: In In Bruno's Shadow you inhabit several points of view. Did you begin the novel with these alternating POVs already front of mind?
TA: Thanks for your interest in my novel, Christine. The book’s structure revealed itself to me as I wrote it. My usual practice is to start out with a story. In Bruno’s Shadow began with a piece about a couple spending the Christmas holidays in Rome. They visit a church where the woman prays for something she hasn’t yet revealed to her partner, while the man looks at a painting by Caravaggio. After they leave and share lunch in a wine bar, the narrative in the painting repeats itself in their lives.
Then I moved on to a second story, a third, a fourth, each time using the setting of something in Rome as the trigger for the story. It took me a while to see how these pieces would come together as a cohesive book.
CS: I love that you were using setting as a way to generate ideas for your stories. This reminds me of Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town.
TA: Exactly. I decided I could use specific elements of Rome to inspire stories about contemporary characters. Sort of similar to ekphrastic poetry, though rather than describe and muse on a piece of art, I wanted the art to stimulate a story. I think most writers use setting as a background, as a kind of tone setter. I wanted to put setting in the forefront, use it as a generator.
As an example, Bernini’s The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa offered me a real challenge. The piece shows a woman who seems overcome by the ecstasy of grace but at the same time her expression is often compared to a woman who’s having an orgasm. The statuary is both sacred and sexually charged, and Bernini added a pair of boxes where six men are watching, as if they’re in a theater, as if what’s happening before them is a performance. So that adds voyeurism to the mix. That triggered another chapter.
CS: How did you decide to turn this story collection into a novel?
TA: The morning of the 2004 South-East Asian tsunami changed much of the world, as well as my Rome book. As I walked about the city that day, I noticed that Rome felt different. Though the sun was shining, the air was cold. It seemed that within hours every church and public building displayed flyers and appeals for tsunami relief. Even Pasquino, the stone statue that Romans for centuries have used to air their complaints and desires, had poems about the tsunami taped onto it. After a while I imagined a woman moving through the holiday crowds on the Piazza Navona with a collection box, silently asking for money. The tragedy had prompted me to write about and discover my novel’s ruling character.
As I wrote her story I saw that she’s a kind of director, the generator of all of the others’ stories. She’s foreign, I realized, Croatian. Her name is Dubravka. She grew up in Dubrovnik, in the former Yugoslavia, with her abusive alcoholic father. At an early age she was betrayed by love. You have to read the novel to learn more.
CS: This really is a cosmopolitan novel – Italy, North America, Croatia, Bosnia. While you were writing, did you travel to each of the countries where In Bruno's Shadow is set?
I traveled repeatedly to Rome, doing the necessary research, and also spent time in Dubrovnik in Croatia as well as Mostar, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I set a few chapters in Mostar’s Islamic section. While I was in the region I took a trip down to Medugorje, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a group of children. I walked the paths that Dubravka walked when she was unknowingly accompanied by an angel, before she was witness to a miracle. All of these settings are described in the novel.
CS: Would you comment on writing from the female v. the male POV? Male writers who write from a female POV are sometimes taken to task for this choice, but I really don’t think we all should only be writing autofiction.
TA: I agree. I think writing from a woman’s perspective frees me in ways I don’t even understand. Somehow the character’s concerns seem elevated from my own. I know there are some who argue that writers should stay in their own lane, but I also believe in being sensible. I’m certainly not going to misrepresent myself and claim to be what I’m not. Gender is a spectrum, and I have both a masculine and a feminine side. I do my best to pay due diligence. I rely on others, whose backgrounds may differ from my own, to read and critique my work before I share it with wider audiences.
CS: I love the chapter in In Bruno’s Shadow that features college professors – I’d call it darkly comic and insightful about the vanity that can prevail among academics. Have you considered writing a campus novel in the vein of Richard Russo's Straight Man or David Lodge's Small World?
TA: One chapter, yes. But an entire novel, no (at least not yet!). For creative writers who’ve endured the indignity of working in English departments, where they’re routinely treated like second-class citizens, writing about the pomposities of their colleagues can be a lot of fun. The associate professor in my novel compares her department’s culture to a fictional TV show she’s fond of, Monkey Gangs, which portrays troops of vervets who go about baring their backsides and preening nits off the coats of their superiors when they aren’t exhibiting sham displays of dominance. In my experience, an apt portrait of English department life.
I do admire both Russo’s and Lodge’s novels and would add a third, Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror, by James Haynes.
(CS: And Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members—I really enjoyed it too.)
CS: What were some of the key principles you focused on when you were teaching fiction-writing at Indiana University's MFA program and at the other schools where you've taught?
Read. Read widely. Always be reading. I don’t think a writer can write better than they’ve read. And that includes the hard stuff. The pages that challenge. Faulkner, Joyce, Woolf, Melville. Morrison, Mitchell, Mukherjee. Also poetry, which absolutely demands rereading and close study.
I also encourage writers to separate the act from possible outcomes. Don’t write for a result (to be popular, to be published, and so on). Write for its own sake. Take as much pleasure as one can from performing the act itself. God knows, there are days when it’s not easy to follow my own advice on that last one.
CS: What advice do you have for someone who is contemplating making a life as a fiction writer? (As a professor myself now, I try not to downplay the difficulty of earning a living as a writer – hence one reason why I also teach.)
TA: Perhaps the best answers are either to support yourself in some other way, such as teaching or working another relatively stable job, or to endear oneself to someone who’s rich. The making of art has historically depended upon patronage. The writer needs to either become their own patron (through some other job) or find someone willing to support them (ideally someone who admires and respects creativity and writing, and gives them a room of their own).
CS: What are you working on now if you don't mind sharing a few words about it?
TA: I don’t like to talk much about work in progress. When I was in graduate school, the fiction writers would gather in a bar after workshop and drink and tell stories, and some would tell the others about the unfinished pages lying on their desks. In several cases when we read their story later in class we thought the stronger version was the one they’d told in the bar.
Still, the short answer is that I’m working on a book set in Chicago that focuses on children.
Thanks, Christine. I really appreciate your interest in my work.
CS: This was such a pleasure, Tony.