Fiction Points: Ed Falco

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Ed Falco

Ed Falco teaches literature and writing at Virginia Tech and most recently authored The Family Corleone (2012), a prequel to The Godfather. His previous novels include St. John of the Five Boroughs (2009), Wolf Point (2005), the hypertext work A Dream with Demons (1997), and Winter in Florida (1990). His 2011 short-story collection Burning Man made it on the longlist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the collection Acid (1996) secured him Notre Dame’s Richard Sullivan Prize, and he won the Virginia Quarterly Review‘s 1986 Emily Clark Balch Prize for the titular story from his debut, Plato at Scratch Daniel’s & Other Stories (1990); another collection, Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha (2005)combines previously-published stories with new writings. Falco’s fiction has earned him a Pushcart Prize, a 2008 NEA Fellowship, the Mishima Prize for Innovative Fiction from The St. Andrews Review, and a Dakin Fellowship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. As a playwright, Falco is the recipient of the Hampden-Sydney Playwright Award for Home Delivery (1992), a Virginia Commission for the Arts Fellowship, and the Governor’s Award for the Screenplay from the Virginia Festival of American Film. His work as a poet includes the prose-poem chapbook Concert in the Park of Culture (1985) and the hypertext poetry collection Sea Island (1996). An early innovator in the field, Falco edits The New River, an online journal of digital writing.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

I explain to the nuns that I went to Catholic Sunday School as a child, where I had dramatically impressed upon me the guilt and fear so essential to being a writer. For instance, I vividly remember a nun in a black habit looming over me, asking me to imagine the pain I’d feel if I held my hand over a flame, and then to imagine that pain unending, for eternity, with no hope of release, ever. So, I learned to live with the fear of hell. I’d explain this to the nuns, and then turn to the penguin and ask her what she thought of terrifying a child in that manner. I imagine the penguin being sympathetic. Maybe patting my back with a flipper. I’d buy her a beer. Then I’d talk a bit about the moral anguish I felt as I child because I couldn’t really imagine loving God more than I loved my mother–which is what the Sunday-school nuns insisted I must do to be a good Catholic. So, welcome guilt. The bar nuns at this point might ask me if I got anything good out of Sunday school, and I’d answer that, sure, I got lots of material I’d use throughout my life as a writer. All that guilt, all that fear–it found release in my writing. In fact, I’ve spent much of my writing life thinking about the tension between sin and piety. (I’d use these terms for the nuns, though really I’d be thinking freedom or abandon and domesticity and restrain, or the classical terms Dionysian and Apollonian). I’d explain further that a lot of my writing is about exploring the consequences of my characters’ choices, which is my writerly way of exploring human behavior, and perhaps that exploration of individual choices with unique consequences is a direct rejection of the dogma of religion. By this time I’m pretty sure the nuns would have left, and I’d hang out and get a little buzzed with the penguin.

Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?

Falco's short-story collection Burning Man
Falco’s short-story collection Burning Man

Drug use turns up in a number of my stories. In “Acid,” for example–the title story of my second collection–the central character, a man in his fifties, is the proprietor of a Christian bookstore, who in his youth was a jazz musician and heavy into drugs and alcohol. A dramatic incident in his life turns him around and he gives up his youthful, reckless life, including the drugs and jazz, and moves on to a conventional and religious life. In the story, he’s friends with a young woman who’s decided to use acid (LSD) and wants him to join her, because she knows his history. “Acid” explores what happens between them, and the influence of drugs on their lives. A more recent story, “American Martyrs,” from my 2011 collection Burning Man, is more solidly about addiction, and, again, involves an older man who has embarked on sobriety and a teenage girl, still enmeshed in a life of drugs and recklessness. Throughout my fiction, I explore drug and alcohol use, and I’d guess that might be of some interest to readers of Points.

What led you to write about drugs in the first place?

Well, I came of age in the sixties, part of a generation remarkably innocent about the dangers of drugs. Drug use was cool. If you were hip, you smoked marijuana and hashish, and maybe tried LSD. Cocaine and heroin were not then as commonplace, though of course they were around and people experimented. Marijuana and hashish loosened inhibitions and in effect gave permission to indulge desires usually repressed–especially sexual desires. Thus getting high and having sex usually went together. As I’ve said above, I’m interested in the tensions between freedom and domesticity, and thus drug use is associated with the freedom side of the equation and turns up often in my stories. I should say that by freedom I mean acting in a way that is guided by the senses and by desire. And by domesticity I mean living within the conventions of the culture and accepting the consequent restraint of desire. I should also say here that the way I’m talking about writing makes it sound like I started with a theme and built my fiction around it. That’s not the way fiction works. I started writing out of my experiences, which included youthful drug use, and then I explored the consequences. These themes I’m talking about, they evolved out of the writing and only in looking back analytically am I able to discern the recurring thematic patterns.

How would you describe the way that drugs function in your fiction, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a story? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?

I answered much of this question above, but I might add that, in terms of style, writing about characters using drugs can also allow writers an opportunity to explore a fractured, logically distorted language, especially when writing in first person or third person limited, when attempting to describe the world as the character sees it. Beyond that, there are important social and political issues involved both in individual drug use and the culture’s response to drug use. Simply thinking about why someone uses drugs takes the writer into a maze of psychological and cultural exploration. I’d have to give all that up if for some reason I ruled out writing about drugs and alcohol.

Falco goes pop with The Family Corleone
Falco goes pop with The Family Corleone

What do you personally find most interesting about the way that drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?

Well, again, I’m most interested in peeling away the various masks and uniforms we wear in our everyday lives and exploring what’s under the surface. For me, this usually means looking at the way we constrain and manipulate our individual desires to live comfortably in the larger society. Lately, after a lifetime of writing literary and experimental fiction, I’ve started writing novels aimed at a popular audience. The trick, for me, will be how to tell stories that people want to read while continuing to explore the issues that interest me. My most recent novel, a prequel to The Godfather titled The Family Corleone, was designed as a purely commercial venture. I tried, however, to shape the characters and situation into a vehicle for exploring my issues. This wasn’t especially difficult, since [Mario] Puzo (author of The Godfather) was at heart interested in very similar themes. In my newest book, another gangster novel (that’s the popular part), I have once again found a character whose behavior is an interesting study in the conflict between the monstrous and the humane.

Wolf Point, the book Falco would most like to see on the big screen.
Wolf Point

BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that one of your drug-themed books or short stories gets made into a major motion picture. If you have your choice, which is it, and what song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?

Wolf Point. Today’s Lesson,” Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.