CONTRIBUTED BY JULIA BARONTI
29-year-old author and professor, Joe Stracci, is in the midst of his creative and busy lifestyle as a writer. He’s currently juggling multiple writing contribution jobs, the production of a new novel, a newborn, and on top of it all, a class full of college students. After winning the New Rivers Press Many Voices award, he may be just as influential as his lifelong inspirations, but still sees the road ahead as a struggling, and long journey as the life of a writer.
When did you first start writing – creatively, etc., and what was the first thing that made you interested?
I seriously started writing in high school in my senior year. We were allowed to take one elective, and I took a creative writing and journalism course. It was the first teacher that told me to my face, “You have a serious writing talent.” Then, when I got to college, I was only a creative writing minor, and didn’t think about graduate school until my senior year. I stopped preparing to get a PHD in Sociology, and threw it all away and said I was going to be a writer.
When did you first think of becoming a writer, and devoting so much time to writing?
I fully committed when I went to grad school, and by my third semester I had an idea for a novel, and that was also the semester that you had to start deciding your thesis. I decided that since I knew what I wanted to write, that my thesis would be the novel, “Whitney”, or at least the first draft of it. In my fourth semester I started publishing myself online, and became more motivated about writing.
Why did you entitle your novel, “Whitney?”
My personal theory is that titles are one or the other: either one word, that has a completely obvious meaning, because it’s either a person or a thing, mainly involving an obsession, or they are multi-word titles that never really get explained fully throughout the work, and that has always frustrated me. So, I thought that “Whitney” worked perfectly.
What is your favorite part of writing, and what is the hardest part of writing?
My favorite part about writing is when you’re writing and you get into a place where you are no longer thinking about writing, and you stop after a while and you realize that you had just written a lot of stuff, and you didn’t even consciously think about writing any of it.
It’s just that sensation after you have written for a while and you just feel spent…its come to be my favorite part. The hardest thing is when you’re working on something really big and trying to keep the whole world of it in your head, and doing it as somebody who doesn’t have the ability to just constantly write. I am at the place in life now where I don’t have every second of every day, so I have to make a schedule to sit down and focus. I only try to write when I have something I really want to write about. I would set a quota of words for myself per day to get through my first novel, which came to be about 274 words, to make 100,000 for the year. So, that usually caused me to have to stop in the middle of sentences and leave it for the next day, which allowed me to think, and always find something to say, and pick back up on. You have to find what works for you.
How do you get your ideas for your stories?
I strip mine my life, and everyone around me. No just kidding. But, actually, it is true. The book I’m working on now comes from the original idea that after 9/11, Exit 15 on the FDR Parkway in New York City was closed, and it always blew my mind that no one ever mentioned that 10 years later, and to this day in 2014, no one talked about how it remained closed. It just says, “CLOSED” on a large yellow sign. That image was in my head for 7-8 years, and one day when I sat down trying to write something new, I wrote a short piece on it and then I realized, “Oh crap,” there’s book here.
What about characters and personality traits?
I’d be lying if I said it didn’t come out of people that I know. I constantly observe people. The littlest details are what make characters believable. I am a major believer of observing. I force myself to write characters that think the opposite of the way that I do, because then they all wind up sounding the same if I don’t. You have to be creative, while being realistic.
Has there been a person or event in your life that has influenced some of your stories, themes, voices, etc.?
Ha, yes. One that will always stick out to me…There is a chapter in “Whitney” called, “The Day Before Christmas Eve,” which started as a short story I wrote in high school. My girlfriend at the time and I use to watch movies over the phone, and one night we were watching “The Graduate”. Afterwards, we were bemoaning the fact that we never did anything like the characters in the movie; nothing spontaneous, so we decided that the next morning we would drive to Cape Cod for breakfast. It definitely was much more romantic in our heads, though, and we ended up getting stuck in six hours of traffic coming home being that it was the day before Christmas eve. It was so anti-climatic.
What are some major life influences that have contributed to your writing?
When I was a kid, I knew that whenever I was out with my parents, shopping, doing errands, the one thing that they would never say no to was a new book. By the 3rd grade I was reading adult novels, that’s where my reading and writing desire and passion came from. I’ve always been reading. J.D Salinger, Amy Hempel, Don DeLillo are my “Mount Rushmore’s,” if you will, of writing. They’ve inspired me.
If you could refer to your writing style in 3 words, what would they be?
Detailed, concise, and funny. Above all, I value saying as much as possible in as few words as possible, and I think that humor is a huge part of building characters that people care about. And, arranging details in stories is the fun part to me.
What writing form do you prefer most?
I think, right now, I like non-fiction the most. Short stories and novels, I like them, but I am so aware of the nuts and bolts of how they work. A lot of writing is frustrating to me because I know how authors worked the magic to create it. A lot of it becomes predictable. All writers read books and have one of two reactions: “Goddamn it, why did they publish this and not my stuff? Or, “Why did they publish this crap at all?” The best writing that you do is when you’re not thinking about it. Non-fiction is the “batting cage,” a preparation time. Develop a voice, write about yourself in a very loose way and transfer it to the other writing that you do. Writing fiction is always like dismantling a bomb. It’s explosive, individual, and singular.
What piece of yours is your favorite? Why?
Thus far, it is not out yet, but it’s an essay for New Rivers Press. It’s about being a writer in general, and I am really happy about how it came out. I think it’s my best writing so far. It’s my favorite because I get to the end, and I get the same emotional response and charge out of it as that when I did when I first wrote it. That’s when you know it’s good.
In the future is there anything that you want to try differently in your writing?
I’m kind of doing it now. I wrote “Whitney” very deliberately, and it took me a very long time, but with my new book, Lyon In a Coma, I did the exact opposite. I just wrote, and let the writing take me where it needed to go. So that is my experiment right now. I think that both sides of technique have their positives, and negatives, though.
On a side note, you’re currently a professor at Manhattanville College. What motivated you to teach Creative Writing?
A couple of things: you don’t need a MFA to be a writer, but the part of a reason you get it is to teach. I like seeing where students start and where they come to by the end of class. If they leave my class with one thing, I feel like I helped them, and then I’ll be successful. I treat everyone like they want to be a professional writer.
How did you feel when you were awarded the New Rivers Press Many Voices prize in 2011?
Up until that point, 37 agents had turned down “Whitney”. I literally put it aside, and my writing mentor at the time said to start something new, but I had sent the book to a few contests and it ended up winning. It felt great. The first day you do something like that is amazing, but then the next day you realize you have to go back and do it all again to eventually achieve the same thing another time.
You are currently working on a new novel, can you tell me a little about it?
The title is from a song by the band, Animal Collective, “Lion in a Coma.” The epigraph of the book is the chorus in the song. But, it’s about a family living in the Bronx, and the 3-generations of that family, along with 9/11, photography, art, religion, the future, and politics. It’s a big book. I hope to have it done by September.
Do you ever get frustrated by how long it sometimes takes to finish a piece?
Ha! I’m frustrated as we speak! I hate writing and being a writer. I’m mad at myself for going into it, but you blow off steam. You wake up the next day and go back to work.
Does “Lion In a Coma” show any new techniques from you as an author? What should readers expect from it?
“Whitney” is a minimalist book, its written in very short clipped fragments. “Lion In a Coma” is huge, its maximalist writing, including literary theatrics, page long sentences, and more expansive writing than people would normally expect from me. Buy it!