JOHN BONANNI, Author of the JUST OFF, STAGE RIGHT
1.Tell us a bit about yourself – something that we will not find in the official author’s bio?
I love being the old guy in the group. I am comfortable being a benevolent father figure. That is a difficult task, given the male-dominated misogynist culture we cultivated in the past. But we are not all angry patriarchs as we are not all raging feminists. We are all people with an opinion developed from our own disappointments and successes.
As a writer, I have learned to listen carefully. I have discovered that much of what people say is not always true. They are either protecting, designing, or hiding information. So, when I am having a conversation, I ask questions that inadvertently reveal who they are without them realizing it. That is a bit dishonest, I admit, but it helps me get to know their true selves. Being the old guy in the room also gives me license to ask, since I, too, am profiled as being insignificant. That can be an advantage because people will be freer to reveal information to me. I do not impress anymore so I tell the truth about myself. It is quite a productive arrangement.
2. Do you remember what was your first story (article, essay, or poem) about and when did you write it?
I remember writing in grammar school and being influenced by television. Growing up in the late 1950’s brought science, nuclear annihilation, outer space, and consumerism into the national consciousness, making up our American identity. We learned to be invincible defenders of the Superman code: “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” At school, we were trained to crawl and hide under our school desks if we heard a siren go off at the local fire station. Dealing with that mind set in one’s formative years, I wondered how I could minimize the threatening nature of the unknown and avoid the big bomb lurking in the back of my mind.
That’s when I remember seeing an ad for the “Famous Writers School” where for $5.00, they promised to review one’s work. I was 10 years old and submitted a story of an invasion of benevolent creatures from outer space who would blast Mallowmars from their ray-guns as a friendly gesture. One of the “Famous Writers” included Rod Serling, the creator of “The Twilight Zone.” The sci-fi show was far and above my favorite TV program, because, as I realized later, the stories were morality plays set in uniquely imaginary environments. Those stories, as inventive and fantasy-filled entertainment, always provided hope for humanity to do the right thing.
3. What is the title of your latest book and what inspired it?
“Pay No Attention to the Last Century,” which is a kind of baby boomer anthology. When I was working on my MFA thesis, which evolved into my first book, “Just Off, Stage Right,” I began to realize that everyone’s perspective on the significance of their life experiences slowly faded with time. It is as if we were writing our own history rather than inventing new viewpoints. How we lived 50 years ago within certain moral and societal values became the subject for evaluation and revision. Looking back and assessing why we did what we did became a fascinating writing prompt to create stories based on an accurate truth in terms of how we lived, how we treated one another. This book reveals how we created a culture around race, feminism, gender, patriarchy, economics all playing a role in our national psyche. While the book is enhanced with nostalgic trimmings, the real story is about awareness of how we came to be who we are.
4. How long did it take you to write your latest work and how fast do you write (how many words daily)?
I usually write about 3000 words in a day, but not every day. I leave it alone, and come back a few days later, cutting and revising. I may end up keeping about 500-1000 words. It is important to me to keep my writing as an enjoyment. I have no interest in managing a deadline. This is my leisure pursuit, which is not to say it is an insignificant hobby. Quite the contrary. It is my statement of who I am, and my platform from which to proclaim what I think matters in life. “Pay No Attention to the Last Century” has taken about a year so far, and I think I should be finished with it by spring of 2022.
5. Do you have any unusual writing habits?
Creativity and writing are messy propositions. Ideas come in spurts and at any time. I usually go about my life and when something comes to my head, I will write it down immediately and continue to write until my thought subside. When it stops, I have learned to leave it alone. My writing habit is at the disposal of inspiration. I have this vision of the quintessential writing environment. A literary man-cave, a wall of bookshelves, Persian carpet, oak furniture, a roaring fire which can be seen reflected in a glass made golden with scotch—all genuinely nice, but it seldom happens. Nothing creative ever occurs from order and process. Writing is like a baby that never grows up. It is constantly attended to, fed, cleaned, until the next time it calls. But the upside is that being creative requires one to be free of any rules, and that is a wonderfully liberating exercise. It also sets the tone for your best work. Writing is an act of faith in yourself. I have also learned that when I am too lazy to write down a thought, it usually escapes me and I kick myself for not capturing it when it sped through my mind.
6. Is writing the only form of artistic expression that you utilize, or is there more to your creativity than just writing?
For the moment, yes. I was never good at dancing, or singing, or music, but I revered the folks who could. Carpentry was interesting for about 15 minutes, and I would rather order out than cook in. But I am considering taking up violin. Why I think I would be capable is a daydream, but music is an expression that transcends our sleeping emotions. That is why writing is so thrilling to me. It is the only artistic expression of which I am capable.
7. Authors and books that have influenced your writings?
James Thurber, “My Life and Hard Times.” I was impressed with how he crafted a moral to a story through humility and humor. No one achieved that level of storytelling within a self-deprecating approach and still maintained his respect as an author without diminishing his message.
M Jackson, “While Glaciers Slept.” Dr. Jackson was one of my mentors, a scientist, and a glaciologist. She crafted an exquisite memoir which weaved the personal loss of her parents with the effects of climate change as seen through the dramatic change in glacial activity. Her candor, expertise, and compassion expressed in her memoir, despite having to fight a crusty, male dominated scientific community, inspired me to create a similar narrative arc for “Just Off, Stage Right.” She touched me with her vulnerability and honesty. I fell in love with her adventure.
Tom Wolfe, “The Right Stuff.” Never mind the movie, which happens to be my favorite film. The book is even better. Wolfe identified the purity of exceptionalism devoid of political intrusion. He defined all those altruistic buzzwords — honor, bravery, courage— in their raw, pure forms before they were tainted by commercialism and misguided aggression.
8. What are you working on right now? Anything new cooking in the wordsmith’s kitchen?
In addition to “Pay No Attention to the Last Century,” I am working on a series entitled “The Perfectly Appropriate Adventures of Molly Bryn Tweed,” which depicts the lives of a 21st century couple living in the remnants of a provincial bubble of white privilege. The story follows their misguided efforts to maintain an irrelevant social order. It is a humorous, rollicking treasure trove of missteps in the glib environment of debutante balls, Land Rovers, boutique shopping, nautical pedigree, and a host of dubious accomplishments that beg for relevance of an increasingly irrelevant lifestyle. A humorous look at frivolous social faux pas.
9. Did you ever think about the profile of your readers? What do you think – who reads and who should read your books?
The baby boomer will love the nostalgia. They may purchase it, forget it at the beach, and get picked up by another who will want a clean copy of their own. They will reminisce over shared experiences, and maybe wish for those simpler times. The ex-gen will love the honesty, the vulnerability, the realization that this old man author recognizes that a recalibration of the social order is necessary in any strong society.
10. Do you have any advice for new writers/authors?
Listen to what mentors have to say, but then make your own choices. Write every time your mind invites you. You will think the result is silly, ready for the trash, and it will be. That is part of the process. Be inspired to write. Keep at it. Do not be quaint or filled with yourself. Thank folks for reading your work. Listen to what they say, but only after their third comment. The first two are courteous lies.
The second most important part: Read. Read like you need to eat. You cannot imagine the creative perspectives some authors have wrought. They are inspiring, overwhelmingly beautiful, breathtaking thoughts. Lydia Yuknavitch’s “The Chronology of Water” is just one example. Do not feel inferior when you experience an incredible book. Be privileged to have the opportunity to read it. Learn from it. Read every day.
11. What is the best advice (about writing) you have ever heard?
Cut the adverbs, from Stephen King’s “About Writing.” Eliminating adverbs helps you get to the point, and the clearer you are, the more interesting the read. Do not meander by squirming in what ifs and perhaps. Using adverbs modifies what you just wrote, thereby diminishing the subject of your writing. Say what you want to say without qualifiers.
12. How many books you read annually and what are you reading now? What is your favorite literary genre?
I read about 12 books a year, and would like to go back to my old, short-lived record of 3 per month when I was in school. Good history fascinates me, the more obscure, the better. I am currently reading essays by William Faulkner to determine if his reputation is as good as his writing. It’s OK if you don’t like the authors who make the NY Times bestseller list, or if you don’t agree with the leading critic or literary scholar. You are only competing against an opinion. Social media was filled with condolences for the passing of Joan Didion, and while I am saddened by the loss of any life, her passing did not change my opinion that she was officious and self-serving in her writing. Though I like nonfiction the best, I visit poetry and like to critique memoirs.
13. What do you deem the most relevant about your writing? What is the most important to be remembered by readers?
My voice. It is how I speak to readers and how effective I am in telegraphing my viewpoint. If readers can come away moved, touched, unsettled, provoked, then I have connected. What I am saying may be important or irrelevant. But if the reader relates to how it is said, they might read me again. If they dismiss me with flippant, cruel remarks, I hope they never come near my words or my thoughts again.
14. What is your opinion about the publishing industry today and about the ways authors can best fit into the contemporary trends?
Given the present societal transformations, every industry is evaluating business processes to enhance their role in ecological stewardship, climate change, and responding to social injustice. Adding the devasting effects of the pandemic environment forces us to seek a new perspective on how we operate as a society.
Writing is no different. Going fast are the days of agents pushing publishers and authors receiving advances. Paper shortages, bookstore closings, supply chain issues have forced all players to formulate responsible alternatives to how we publish books. Authors also need to take charge of their bookselling. There are services out there to enhance visibility, but it does not hurt to become market savvy so that you can help your publisher move your work along. Author the book, pitch it to an agent, but do not hold your breath. If you are a new writer, your best bet is to pitch it to a publisher and hope for the best. I would not vanity publish. Even though the act is getting more acceptable, you need the viewpoint of an established publisher to determine, with frankness, whether your book is worth publishing.
But that should not stop you. You must want to write. Not for money, or fame, but for love. It is like anything else in life. If we love what we do, it no longer becomes work, but part of our pleasure of being alive. Sure, there are folks who write for a living and are good at it. But for me, meeting editing deadlines, or writing technical manuals would be a processing of a talent to communicate. Authoring a novel or poem raises the bar a bit more, until you become preoccupied with whether sales will pay the rent. Writing is a work of art, subject to waste, futility and grand visions.