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Christopher Castellani is the award-winning author of the Grasso family trilogy (A Kiss from Maddalena, The Saint of Lost Things, and All This Talk of Love) and the Artistic Director of Boston-based non-profit creative writing center Grub Street. Castellani brings his special brand of authorial authority to the wild, writing west this Thursday, March 14 with his Craft Tribunal: Words on Trial workshop at Lighthouse. We caught up with Castellani recently to ask him a few questions about the workshop, his writing process, and Psychology Today.
The workshop you’re doing for Lighthouse is called Words on Trial. Why is it important to put the words in question on trial? How can we determine the guilt or innocence of these words and what punishment should these words face if/when found guilty?
I took the title from Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: “As I wrote,” Prose states, “I discovered that writing, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It required … ‘putting every word on trial for its life:’ changing an adjective, cutting a phrase, removing a comma, and putting the comma back in.” This resonated with me because, as someone who reads everything like a writer (even when I wish I could turn off those sensors (and censors)), I have little patience for fatty sentences. And when I’m writing, I try hard to practice what I preach, to honor readers’ time by not giving them a single syllable that’s not essential. The problem is that the trial process for words is imperfect and messy and long – not to mention subjective – so even after you are confident that every word is essential, you’re never quite sure you won’t look back on a sentence or scene and realize it could have been tighter. What I do in the craft class is close-read a short-short story in which I believe every single word is necessary; we then try to apply what we learn to our own work. I also look at a story that is hyper-conscious of language, but which doesn’t always get it right.
As for how to punish the guilty words, that’s an easy one: Death By Deletion.
Can you name a time in your most recent book All This Talk of Love when you had to put words or ideas or a character on trial? What was the verdict?
Well, every single page, every single sentence, is haunted by the ghosts of words past. But there’s a long chapter in All This Talk of Love where one of the characters is losing her mind over a period of years, and where, to capture that, the prose veers into something close to poetry. That was a particularly challenging section because, even more than in the rest of the book, the pitch had to be perfect, and one false word would cause the entire chapter to crumble. I had to show a gradual degeneration without being too blatant and while maintaining the dramatic irony. For the 10 pages or so that ended up in the novel, I wrote about 25 or 30, and I was pruning and changing the rhythm of the sentences until the 11th hour.
In a recent interview with Psychology Today you said, “I think the most important thing I learned is that there is no past.” What does that mean to you? How does that knowledge impact you as a person and as a writer?
As I said in the interview, as we get older we accumulate so much memory and so much loss and love. As a person, I find it overwhelming; it makes me more risk-averse, more tired, more anxious. As a writer, I think/hope it makes me more empathetic, better at more fully exploring character. My books have always been character-driven, but I think they’re going to get even moreso as I get older, and as the world of people I know and imagine becomes even more complex and layered.
Words on Trial with Christopher Castellani will take place Thursday, March 14 from 1:00 to 4:00 PM in the Lighthouse Grotto (lower level). Cost is $55.00 for Lighthouse members and $75.00 for non-members.
After the workshop, at 6:00 PM will be The Pop-Up Reading with Christopher Castellani. Please join us for wine, beer, and light eats as Castellani reads from the book All This Talk of Love.