I had the privilege to interview Eugene Christy, author of ‘The Twentieth Century Quintet’ and a great human being. Mr. Christy shares his valuable insights and experiences that we all can benefit from. His interesting life story, challenges he has faced, and lessons he has learned are inspirational. I am grateful to be able to call this exceptional person my friend. Thank you, Gene!
- When did you start writing and why?
I started writing because the muse tapped me on the shoulder one night in 1961 when I was playing in a trio at the Stardust Lounge on Rte 28, in Reading, Massachusetts.
I was 15 years old. Telling my mother we were going to music practice, I sneaked out of the house with two older men in their thirties who picked me up in a pick-up truck. I rode in the back with my accordion. I did not tell my mother that we were actually going to play a gig in a roadside nightclub where they sold liquor, as I was underage. I was afraid she would forbid me, or perhaps, kill me. Till the day she died she never knew about this. I knew the older men from Metro Music, where I took lessons. My mother paid for the lessons and made sure I practiced so that she got her money’s worth, $2 per ½ hour lesson. My teacher was Jerry Bellanti, who was only 17, just 2 years older than me. He was the regular player in this trio, but he had just been drafted by the US Army and left for boot camp, so he was out of town. Jerry would not be back for two years, so I was next in line at Metro Music to be considered an up-and-coming accordionist, and I took Jerry’s place in the trio. The older guys played drums and electric guitar. The guitarist was the singer. My job was to play piano-style backup for the other two. The repertoire we played that night included things like Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” and Errol Garner’s “Misty.” My mother would have been appalled to know that instead of playing Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” I was playing smoldering cheek-to-cheek numbers in a jazz trio in a nightclub with lounge lighting.
We were taking a break between sets and I was sitting at the end of the bar nursing a ginger-ale. The two older men were lined up beside me on barstools, complaining about their wives and children. I was asking myself, is this to be my future, to become a lounge lizard, grousing between sets about my impossibly dissatisfying life? Suddenly I was staring at the mirror behind the bar. In the mirror, which traveled the length of the bar, right behind the bottles of liquor stocked for customers so that the bartender could quickly grab what was wanted, in this mirror I could see the guitar player’s blood-red electric guitar, balanced on a guitar-stand, sitting on the low-stage behind my back, but reflected in the mirror in front of me. The guitar reflection seemed to be swimming in a pool of swirling light from the club’s mirror ball. It was very disorienting because what was behind me seemed to be in front of me. I didn’t know what that meant. Everything was a confusing, mesmerizing swirl of colored lights, like sea-creatures swimming in an aquarium, but the blood-red guitar standing upright on the guitar stand seemed to have the shape of a woman’s head, with long hair cascading down around her shoulders. I suddenly wanted to write down a couple of lines that flew into my head, so I grabbed a bar napkin and a pen begged from the bartender, and on the back of the paper bar-napkin wrote down these words:
In the mirror, on a guitar-stand,
Hangs the head of a maiden
Who found herself lost
In a land called Aden.
That was the first poem I ever wrote, the first thing I ever wrote, and after that, I never lost the desire to become a writer again, for the rest of my life.
I feel that it was a mystical moment in my existence when the muse reached out to draft me into her army of scribblers because before that moment, I never dreamed of or thought of or planned to become a writer. I thought I would be a carpenter, like my father, or a garment-industry worker, like my mother. It was a single instant in time which told me who I was and what I had to do with my life. I had felt the hand of the muse on my shoulder, telling me: “Write this down.”
- How long does it take you to write a book?
I have been working on the writing project that became The Twentieth Century Quintet, a series of five novels, for seven years. I started in 2013 and it’s now 2020, and 2020 has been my busiest year writing thus far, because of all the last-minute revisions I have had to do on three novels that came out in February, August, and November, this year.
However, the proper way to answer this question is to look at how long it took me to do the first draft of each book, not the revisions. So, Volume 1 and Volume 2 took me 2 years to write, 2013, and 2014. (They were originally one long book, not separated into two until later.) What then became Vol 3 was written (in 1st draft, remember) in 5 months in 2015. Then I stopped writing prose to concentrate on writing words and music, because, at that time, I had a trio of my own, The Dossers, and we had a year’s engagement at the high-rise hotel downtown, the Crowne Plaza, in 2015-2016, after having been together for 10 years. So that summer of 2015, I wrote 99 songs, some of which became staples that I played with my band every week. Then in June of 2016, I had my first heart attack. That resulted in a stent operation, but also put an end to my long-running band, as I had to miss the summer season at the hotel. The three of us, myself and Bill and Ricky, my partners, agreed that at our age time was catching up to us and we’d be better off staying home to take care of health problems. Then in July of 2017, I had a second heart attack which put me in the hospital for 7 days in critical care. Out of that, I had a pacemaker operation that saved me. I had scheduled writing the final volume of my series beginning in September of 2017, but it took me five months instead to recover from the second heart attack. So, on January 1, 2018, I started the final volumes, and I worked every day that year till August 19th, 8 months, and in that time produced the first draft of what later become both Vol 4 and Vol 5.
So, Ana, the answers are:
Vol 1 and Vol 2 2 years
Vol 3 5 months
Vol 4 and Vol 5 8 months
- What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
It varies. I usually work Monday thru Friday and take 2 days off on the weekends. After I recovered from my second heart attack, in 2018, I sometimes put in a day as long as 10, 12, 14 hours, maybe, if necessary, depending on how it was going. I tried to always finish 1 chapter by Friday each week. If it was a long chapter, and Friday was already here, then I might spend long hours to finish by the end of Friday. However, this year, I found, in revising the print editions of 3 books, I had to add Saturday and Sunday to my schedule. So, for instance, I did at least 5 re-writes of Vol 1 in 2019, so that the book that was accepted by Stevan Nikolic at Adelaide Books in January of 2019 was Draft No. 4, of Vol 1, but the final printed edition of the paperback of Vol 1 which came out a year later, in Feb of 2020, was actually Draft No. 10. In 2020 it took me two months to do the final revisions of Vol 2, April, and May. Then in August, I developed the symptoms that sent me to the doctor which ultimately revealed cancer. So, I lost the entire month of August, having an operation on the 18th, and it then took me a long time to recover from the operation, so I didn’t start the final revision of Vol 3 till Sep 4th, and I didn’t finish that till Oct 7th. It’s now due out for release this coming Sunday. November 1st, so it was hard to meet my deadlines because I had to start chemo treatments on September 30th for cancer.
So, Ana, it varies, but I live alone, and I can turn off everything, music, and TV, and just work, because even late at night, I am not bothering anyone else.
I believe the writer’s life is the writer’s struggle. The writer’s struggle is against all the obstacles to writing that have to be overcome, and for me, lately, these include health problems. It’s hard to compare one writer’s struggle to another’s. How do I know what obstacles Ivo Andric had to face to write The Bridge on the Drina? But I do know that I would not wish to trade my struggle for his.
- Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?
My books are written out of my personal DNA. The five books in my series are all based on people I knew personally. Of the characters in my first three novels, our generation of our family has lost all but one, my beloved Aunt Anna Silva, who lives in Florida and who, born in 1920, celebrated her 100th birthday in August this year. She is my mother’s sister, but all six of her siblings in the family founded by Antonio Scioscia and Giuseppina Fabrizio are gone now. Aunt Anna’s sister Mary, born in 1912, lived to the age of 104. So what I have done is to fictionalize my own birth-family 3-generation saga. That’s why I say my books are written out of my DNA, or you might say, my genetic heritage. If not for the characters in my first three novels, I would not be here to write about them. Also, it’s important to realize that I had a loving relationship with these family members as a child growing up. That was the origin of the fascination these real people had for me in my developing imagination as I became an adult, started my own family, and became a father myself. I personally don’t believe that I could have invented characters as interesting as these real people I grew up among. Therefore, I based my portrayals of them on the feelings I remembered from years and years ago. This gave me a strong emotional investment in the stories about them which I told. Now, although the people, or characters, in my books are based on real people, they are additionally drawn from imagination. One has to admit that one does not really know other family members as they see themselves, only as the observer sees them. So the writer’s invention has to fill in the blanks. This is where discernment and a loving, accepting, non-judgmental approach to the writing collide directly with the imperfect, flawed, and judgmental nature of the writer himself or herself. One has set oneself up as a sort of God manipulating real people into situations and scenes that may never, in real life, have taken place. That was a necessary part of the job because, for instance, I was never present on the wedding night of my grandparents and do not know what really happened on that occasion, yet I had to invent a story of that particular night that would involve, compel and fascinate a reader who never had the advantage of knowing the real people behind my characters. For example, it’s very true that one of my uncles, Augie Scioscia, my mother’s brother, who lived in my house as I was growing up till the day he died, at one time, during World War II, was an American soldier landing on D-Day, 1944, at Omaha Beach in the Normandy invasion. Now, this uncle never told me a thing about that day, what he did or what happened to him. I was obviously not there myself, yet my job as a writer was to write my uncle’s story of that day for him because he never told that story to anyone, nor did he write it down, but as a writer, I had to make my chapter on that real historical event, starring Augie, as the central character through whose eyes, the reader sees the battle, as compelling, as real, as in-the-moment, as full of truth and verisimilitude, as possible, so that the reader could vicariously experience going through the battle with Augie.
In other words, dear Ana, I had to do for my character, Augie LaStoria, on D-day, 1944, what Stendhal did for his character Fabrizio at the Battle of Waterloo in the 19th-century novel The Charterhouse of Parma—or, what Tolstoy does for his character, Pierre Bezukhov, at the Battle of Borodino, in War and Peace.
In a way, my job as a writer was identical with the task that Mary Trump set herself when she wrote her current bestseller about her Uncle Donald: to tell the truth about him, the truth about his life, which he was not capable of telling himself.
To sum up, Ana, I do not believe that I would have written any novels at all if I had not been a member of this fascinating family, and observed my elders personally, and could write an eyewitness account of certain scenes, and could use my own imagination to fill in the blanks of their lives, and I was very fortunate in my source material and my choice of subject matter, because this family really was so representative of the generations of the 20th century that, through them, one could tell the history of the United States, from 1899 to 1972, in microcosm, and connect the microcosm to the macrocosm: what this family experienced and went through, in three generations, is what our country went through in that same span of time.
One last observation: one should write about the things one is still angry about thirty years later. The real moving, the central, key motivation of the novelist must be some deeply held emotion that has never gone away and which has lasted a lifetime: the unforgettable moment when you were so angry at your mother that you hated her; the unforgettable moment when your eyes first beheld the sight of your first child, in all her beautiful and awesome vulnerability and need.
- If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
When I was age 15 to 25, I wrote some short stories which were never published, but primarily I wrote poetry and had some limited success as a published poet in New York in the late 60s, early 70s. Fifty years later, I still have not published many poems, and no short stories, but I am no longer a poet. Nowadays, I don’t think of any poems to write and I don’t write any, even though I have a mostly un-published storehouse of 181 poems I have written.
So, in retrospect, I would tell my younger self, poetry is a young person’s game. You do not know it now, but one day you will lose interest in it completely, and write no more poems. Your “inspiration,” so-called, will dry up completely. (Back then, I would never have believed this: I would have maintained that, like Yeats, I would be writing poetry on my deathbed.)
Now, back then, when younger, I never saw myself as a novelist, because I could not, back then, overcome the roadblock in my mind: but what will you write about? Since you are so young and have never done anything worth writing about and have had no experiences worth re-telling?
All that changed when I went overseas. I returned to this country a changed person and spent the next forty years trying to solve the issue of how I would get all that down on paper.
I did not begin to find the answer to that question until after 2010, and the result is the 5 novels I have now written.
So, I would now tell my younger self, aha! Though you do not know it, as yet, you will only become the writer you want to be and are meant to be until decades have passed, and you have become mature enough to handle it.
My younger self would never have believed this.
- How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
I quickly found that revision was the key to producing a manuscript up to the level of competence necessary to offer to the reading public something with my name on it which would not embarrass me. Fortunately, I love to revise and would revise forever, if allowed to. Of course, that’s not possible in practice: one must be pragmatic and call the book finished at some definite point. The other main point to stress is that there are two major forms of revision: structural revision and line-by-line revision. In this, I follow the philosophy of Sol Stein, novelist and master editor, author of 13 books, founder of Stein and Day Publishers, and champion of James Baldwin and Dylan Thomas, and I highly recommend his authoritative volume Stein on Writing, 1995, which I found to be virtually the only book on how to write novels that I ever found to be of any value whatsoever. Sol Stein was the authority who taught me how to revise a novel, especially in the area of structural revision. Only one other writer, I think, compares, and that would be EM Forster in his short book, Aspects of the Novel, 1927.
However, dear Ana, I do not really believe that creative writing can be taught, and I say this in full awareness that not only is there a cottage industry of MFA programs which has grown up in the US university community, but also that everyone from Neil Gaiman to Joyce Carol Oates will offer to take your money in return for gazing to your heart’s content at their video seminars on You-Tube! All rubbish, in my humble opinion. And I say this in the full knowledge that I myself have benefitted from taking classes with some of the most outstanding teachers in the world of English-language literature, including Seán Ó Faoláin, the noted Irish short-story writer, George Garrett, novelist, and Larry McMurtry and James Dickey, who really need no introduction.
What I really believe is that you learn to be a novelist by reading the great classics of world literature, even if only in translation, so my reading list would be led by Tolstoy, Proust, Shakespeare, and Melville, but also by Homer and Virgil and Dante: all masters at telling stories at great length which are foundational masterpieces of world culture (and I would add to that list some contemporary or near-contemporary authors, not necessarily dead white male Europeans, as V.S. Naipaul, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.)
In looking over this list, I recall reading somewhere that someone once said that there is no truly great work of literature that is not incommensurably strange.
Think about that.
- What does literary success look like to you?
At my age and stage of life, Ana, I am profoundly grateful that my books have been deemed worthy to have a life of their own in print. That’s success to me, to see my books in print. They may find readers, and they may not. They may find a market, and they may not. The fact is they have already found readers, though few in number. My goal has not been to become famous. I have already been notorious, in my own small way. Having one’s picture on the front page is not attainment worth pursuing. Donald Trump, I am not. I don’t need attention. What I needed was to find out that in spite of having loved and lost, in spite of having degrees bestowed upon me by institutions of higher education, in spite of having earned my living through careers as diverse as the paper industry, the real estate business, and 18 years in the healthcare field as a nurse serving cancer and Alzheimer’s residents, in spite of having supported my family only to see them grow up and move away and become estranged from me, in spite of losing two daughters through a divorce, only to find one of them return to me after 26 years of silence, in spite of having had love affairs and long-term relationships, in the end, I persevered to produce a work of the mind: a work of the mind which represents and embodies the realization of my highest self.
That is a success by another measure.
Would that it were not the case, but I fear that such a concept is not commonly held to by the numbers of humanity who live and die in pursuit of the material comforts and cult-manias which for them constitute happiness, while their fellow humans must grovel and claw for even basic necessities of existence, such as water, food, and freedom from exploitation, racism, tribalism, and genocide.
- What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
To me, research for writing a novel is highly over-rated.
In Vol 1 of my series, I contemplated writing about New York City in the decade 1900-1910. I consulted a couple of worthy tomes. One was You Must Remember This, by Jeff Kisselhoff. The second was World of Our Fathers by Irving Howe. Both of these writers were New York Jews. Not being Jewish myself but wishing to include the portrayal of a Jewish character and his family as one of the main components of my narrative, and realizing I knew nothing or next to nothing about Jewish life, I thought I needed to consult authors who lived it and wrote authoritatively about it. But I quickly discovered that if I spent time reading these books in their entirety, I would not write my own book! And—I might be in danger of plagiarizing these authors, as I might come across irresistible stories that would influence me to unconsciously copy them. So I decided I was far better off to avoid doing research this way. Going back to my undergraduate days, I was an inveterate note-taker: but taking notes on index cards was not going to help me write a novel! So, I had to get around my own worst tendencies. I ended up reading about half of Kisselhoff’s book and only 7 or 8 pages of Howe’s book.
Thereafter, I simply started my novel on page 1, and went from there. Whenever I came to a point in my story-telling where I needed to know something, I would google it, then and there, find the answer, and use it immediately. This became my method of research. In other words, I had to fall back on my own imagination, and only research the answer to a specific question, on an as-needed basis. Through Google, for instance, I found the fascinating material about the Harlem Speedway which is in my Vol 1, and that came as the answer to my question: where would two poor boys from the Lower East Side in 1905 go if they wanted to go to a racetrack? I had never heard of the Harlem Speedway. But googling my question led me there. And I thus added some irreplaceable local color to my story.
Now, this violated my every notion of doing proper research. Fifty years ago, when I was in grad school, you had to cross the whole campus on foot in the snow after dark to find the answer to your question in a book in the campus library, using the card catalog. Now, from 2013 to 2020, in writing 5 books, anything I didn’t already know, I could simply google without leaving my dining room table.
The result in Vol 1 of my series is that in the end, I was able to draw a portrait of the city of New York which virtually became another character in my book, and a New York made wholly out of my imagination, a New York which, in reality, no doubt, never existed—yet I defy any reader of mine to read this book and not come away with the feeling that, well, this must be the way it was! And of course, I made it all up!
That’s the role of historical research in writing a historical novel. It is not a question of sticking to the facts—that’s what a historian is mandated to do. What a novelist does with the same material is something a historian cannot do, which is: to make the story come vividly alive. To prove this point, read my Vol 1, and then read Tyler Anbinder’s City of Dreams: the 400-year Epic History of Immigrant New York. The difference between the two is unmistakable.
- How many hours a day do you write?
In the seven years, I have spent on this labor of love, I have sometimes put in a few 14-hour days. Before the worst of my health problems, I would usually do 6 – 8 hours. The length of time spent was always dictated by where I got to in the story. If I came to a place where I was stuck—I stopped and left it till tomorrow. I found that the way out of whatever dilemma made me stop yesterday would be solved overnight by sleeping on it, during which time the unconscious mind tackled the problem and found the answer for me, without any effort on my part. So, in the morning, I would just pick up where I left off, and lo and behold, whatever bothered me about this the day before was now gone.
The lesson I took from this was to always trust your own instincts and never to reject the impulses of the unconscious mind, however bizarre, because you always have inside you a censor at the gate who does not wish this stuff to get out, so, as a novelist, you have to learn to trust yourself in order to over-ride your own self-censor.
- You write nonfiction as well, right? What period of your life do you find you write about most often? (child, teenager, young adult)
I don’t write non-fiction, Ana. It’s true that Vol 4 and 5 in my series feature myself as the protagonist, and many of the incidents and even people, in these two volumes are real people I knew and loved, but even though these two books border on a memoir, because I’m writing about stuff that happened 60 and 50 years ago, memory fails, and imagination has to fill in the gap.
So the formulaic expression of what I actually did in these two books which I finally came up with was this:
Semi-autobiographical fiction based on personal experience . . .
Though they may look and feel and read like a memoir, neither of these books can qualify as a memoir because there is simply too much in them that never happened, nor did I ever attempt to tell only the truth. In fact, I leave it to the reader to try to guess what’s true and what isn’t, because after all, it’s not that truth is stranger than fiction, as someone said—it’s that fiction is truer than truth.
(In some fundamental way, that is always the case: fiction is truer than truth.)
P.S. in these two books, I wrote about all three: child, teenager, and young adult)
- Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I don’t have any reviews of my books to read, except those put on Amazon.
If I had any, from newspapers, or critics, I would do the same thing I always do in a writer’s workshop session, which is to ignore any criticism and only listen to the praises.
(I do recommend writer’s workshop for the first draft of any piece of fiction because you can get valuable feedback, but you have to have your filter on, and never let yourself be discouraged or diverted.)
- What is your favorite book ever and why?
Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo.
I read this story when I was 14 years old. I knew at the time that this would be the last summer I would have school vacation off because the next year I would be 15 and ½ years old and eligible for my work permit and working as a bag-boy at the local grocery shop. So I borrowed the novel from the library. I wanted something long that would last the whole summer. I read it lying on my back, and my side, and my stomach under a tree out in the back of the Nevins Library in my town. I think it was the story of the bishop’s candlesticks at the beginning of the novel which really grabbed me. At that time, I did not understand or even know enough about the history of France in the 19th century to really comprehend even the time period I was reading about. But the people in the story, starting with Jean Valjean himself, then continuing with Cosette, deeply moved me. Of course, Inspector Javert was the perfect villain, a policeman, representing authority, whom one could legitimately hate for his persecution of an innocent man who had the misfortune to be caught stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving children.
This book had such an influence on my life that I unconsciously modeled myself on the desperate rebels who go to the barricades, and indeed, I did myself go to the barricades, all my life (see, in particular, Vol 5 of my series): even the example of Jean Valjean changing his own course in life in order to redeem the transgressions of his younger self was played out by me in my mid-life career change to becoming a nurse and caring for the sick, demented elderly, which was my version of the Jean Valjean redemption tour.
(I have no use for the stage or musical versions of Hugo’s great story, and it is very difficult to find a film drama version of the story that measures up to the book.)
- What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Having been a student of music from age 7 onwards and then in adulthood a practicing musician playing in bands, I have always loved to do music, singing, playing, and songwriting.
In fact, since I preferred to play my instrument and sing, because it is so much more a social-art form than the solitary activity of writing, going all the way back to my early days as a poet in New York, my music took a great deal of time and energy and mental space away from my writing. In my life, I could not find it in me to engage with writing the way I engaged with music. Music means all parts of your body-mind-spirit complex are moving, from your toe-tapping to your heart beating time. Not only that, but you are in a group, so—you are not alone. You can play your riff off your partner’s riff. While you are playing and singing, throwing your heart on your sleeve out to all your listeners, your mates are supporting you!
What other job have you ever heard of in which, after you finish three minutes of your work, people give you a round of applause?
Sometimes they even stand up and applaud you, and you can always get them to sing along with you because there is no one who doesn’t love music as soon as they hear it!
Unfortunately, due to age and illness, I have had to finally give it up. But it was an irreplaceable part of my life, and it continued well into the years of my retirement from nursing when I was writing my novels at the same time my band was playing at the Crowne Plaza.
- Do you have any suggestions to help me become a better writer? If so, what are they?
My advice to you, Ana, is to remember that practice makes perfect. As a musician (and I played with the Black Velvet Band in Boston for 10 years) I never played a gig without practicing the songs I would have to play on Friday or Saturday night at least several times during the week before the gigs. Even if I had been playing these same songs every week for the last 4 or 7 years, I still practiced. Why? Because it helps your confidence. Before you appear on stage in front of people, you know you are ready, because you did not fail to practice. And I found over a long career of 40 years that practice always worked, and that I was never nervous or had stage fright as long as I knew I had practiced.
But why does no one ever say to writers, practice makes perfect? Writers think they must be, or can be, brilliant without any practice at all. That somehow writing is supposed to be spontaneous to be good.
I advise the opposite. The more you write, the better you become. Practice every day. I promise you that your writing will get better and better.