Jonathan Marcantoni: How We Tell Stories

Jonathan Marcantoni

I am Editor in Chief for Aignos Publishing (www.aignospublishing.com) and I have been a professional writer and editor for nine years this month. I have worked on regional television shows, newspapers, books and plays. I have had two books published by Savant Books and Publications and my third will be published by Aignos, hopefully this summer. I spent the first 21 years of my life on a course to be either an actor or a film director. In fact, the very first story I ever wrote was a play. I have acted in eleven plays, two of which – Angels in America and Suburbia – I am still proud to have been a part of. I attended the Art Institute of Atlanta briefly, and in 2008 I directed a student film called Discover Fresh Breath which won the TBS Very Funny Award at the Campus Movie Festival in Tampa, Fl.  In spite of these accomplishments and others, I have not been able to consistently provide for myself and my family purely through the arts. I have always had a day job, and in all likelihood, I always will.

I lay out this professional resume of mine first because I want you – the reader – to know who I am and where I am coming from.  Theresa has been gracious enough to give me this space to write in and I want to use it to talk about how we approach storytelling, and the only way to write about that is to also write about our approach to life. You can tell a lot about an author based on the way they write, much more than by what they write about. One of my favorite authors, the one who has had the biggest stylistic influence on me, Hubert Selby Jr., was a part of the New York beat writer scene of the 1950s and 60s, and wrote predominantly about the underbelly of not only society, but also of our minds. His books are brutal in their violence, both physical and psychological. One of his books, The Room, is essentially one long argument inside the main character’s head. It is an incredible, frightening argument, but when you step back you realize the entire book takes place inside a jail cell, and only once does the main character leave it. Just based on his book’s content, you would think Selby was a very dark, twisted individual, as conflicted and intense as his characters. In reality, he was a soft spoken, funny, and kind man. Every interview I have seen of him, he is smiling and cracking jokes.

This is surprising for anyone who has read his books, especially considering that he once described his early books as being about ‘Going from the light to the dark’ and his later books being about ‘Going from the dark to the light’, and that one of those later books was about a man who cures his suicidal depression by discovering that the purpose of his life is to kill people he deems morally corrupt. But the point is that if you get caught up in what a story is about, you can lose what the story is saying, as well as how it is told.

Selby wrote in a style inspired by jazz. He would place paragraph breaks all over the page, almost like the words were falling over themselves.

He would sometimes be the middle of a sentence and suddenly jump

 

to the next line, giving his work a disorienting feel visually. He blended dialogue, thought and narrative side by side, using no quotes and few mentions of he said, or she said following a line of dialogue. He was big on the way characters sound, and he created distinct voices for each of his characters as well as for his narrator. He was so good at this that a reader could figure out who was speaking just by the word usage.

His writing was also based on his physical limitations. Selby contracted tuberculosis while serving as a Merchant Marine in World War II. This illness caused him to lose an entire lung and part of the other one. He was often bed-ridden, and his visually eclectic style grew out of his inability to reach certain keys on the typewriter. The typewriter he used was also partly broken, and wouldn’t recoil to the other side of the page when he skipped to the next line, hence the odd placement of paragraphs. As a result, he created certain signature grammatical quirks, such as writing ‘it’ll’ as ‘it/ll’ because the (/) was closer than the (‘). While all these qualities make reading Selby’s work difficult for a first time reader, they are also incredibly consistent and have a cumulative effect that is powerful and gripping. He experimented but understood the way language works, he understood the importance of consistency in writing, he understood the importance of efficiency, that making things more complicated than necessary is a waste of time. For all his quirks, once you adjust to his style, you find that he actually has a very pared down and simple way of telling stories. His novels are not excessive, they are direct and have a clear moral compass. You know what Selby’s views on his character’s actions are without him saying it.

For myself, I approach stories like movies or plays. As a young writer I was often criticized for how ‘talky’ my work can be, or I would be criticized for being overly descriptive of visuals. The visual element has always been important to me. I often write sequences as though I am observing them through the lens of a camera. In my newest book, The Feast of San Sebastian, I have a club scene where two of the central characters are having a conversation in the downstairs portion and two others are having a conversation in the upstairs portion. So what do I do? I make the scene continuous by following the comings and goings of the waitress serving both tables. Where many writers would make the conversations separate scenes entirely, I approach it like a visual sequence in a movie. As a result, the scene becomes a sort of mini-story, since the thoughts and feelings of the waitress become a central part of making the scene work, although she is not in the rest of the book. In the same book, I have chapters set aside for the five main characters to explain their actions, past and present, as monologues being presented to an unknown audience. This mixture of the theatrical and cinematic is a part of who I am as a person. The fact that I use devices like that says more about me than the content, which is incredibly violent and pessimistic in its views of politics and the social structure of Puerto Rico. Do I share some of the pessimism found in my book? Sure I do. Are many of my own political beliefs expressed, particularly my support for Puerto Rican independence? Yes, but there are also lots of views I don’t share that are also expressed in the book. But you know what is the most personal thing in the book? It’s not the political aspect or any of the speeches or the violence. The personal aspect of the story is the relationship between one of the characters and his daughter. It is a subplot, albeit a significant one, but if I had to pinpoint any autobiographical aspects in the novel, it would be that relationship, if for no other reason than because the sentiment of a father doing anything to make a good life for his daughter is one that I, as the father of three girls, share.

But what says far more about me creatively are my choices for set pieces. The aforementioned club scene being one, and the fact that in my previous book as well my newest (and for that matter, my next one), the use of festivals as a setting for personal dramas to play out is central, speaks to who I am as a writer. Why festivals? Few things in life are more visual, more all-encompassing and more energetic than a festival. To place a handful of characters at the heart of one during the most intense moments of a story creates a backdrop that is highly theatrical. It also provides a contrast. In my book Traveler’s Rest, a woman coming to terms with her loneliness and sadness over missing her husband play out against the celebration of the first year of the Cuban Revolution. While people are cheering and singing and dancing, she marches through the street, lost in thought, living amongst ghosts. In The Feast of San Sebastian, three characters attend the Calle San Sebastian street festival, dancing and laughing and interacting with the performers, all the while the reader knows that their happiness is about to be cut short as a monstrous psychopath comes closer and closer to tracking them down. In my next book, a married couple on the brink of collapse have one final confrontation in the aftermath of Tampa’s Gasparilla night parade.

The dark personal drama in each of these books is contrasted with festivals that are full of happiness and complete abandon on behalf of the participants. Such a contrast couldn’t be provided by many other scenarios, and again, it is both theatrical and cinematic. What the characters are going through is in some ways less important than how they go through them.

I believe that stories are best told when we invest our influences in a way that cedes more to our personal taste than to the taste of our influences. When people call something Tarantino-esque or Fellini-esque (again with the film references), it is usually meant as a detraction. It is way of saying the artist was unoriginal. The truth is that nobody is truly original, because we are beholden to our influences if for no other reason than because that is how we learn to tell stories. Selby is not my only influence, I have been just as much influenced by Borges, Marquez, Cortazar, Scorsese, Almodovar, Paul Thomas Anderson, Eugene O’Neill and Ibsen. I use a little bit from all of them and others, and while they have all influenced my tastes and aesthetic, I also carry with me the influence of the life I live as a husband and father, of the contradiction of being both a struggling artist and as head of the editorial department at Aignos (unfortunately an official title doesn’t always carry with it financial stability). I carry the experience of being a Puerto Rican in the United States, of being a Hispanic author, of rejections and victories. All of this plays into who I am as a storyteller, leaving me the ability to tell stories that, while they may have bits and pieces of other ones, are wholly my own. I’d like to ask you, the reader, what is your experience? How do you approach storytelling? Leave a comment here or email me directly, at jon.marcantoni@gmail.com. Check out our facebook page at www.facebook.com/AignosPublishing.

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