an interview with Robert Girardi   interview  
photo of Robert Girardi

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  Bold Type: Where did you grow up?

Robert Girardi: I was born in Springfield, just a few miles outside of the [District of Columbia] beltway. My father worked for a government agency, and we lived in Europe. So I was in Europe from the time that I was three until the time that I was twelve. Other than that, I've been here, other than a year in New York and two years in LA. I came back to D.C. after New York because I nearly died in New York. I couldn't handle it.

BT: Did growing up overseas inspire you to choose writing as a profession?

RG: Certainly, when I was a kid and moving over there [Greece and France], you're isolated. And my father worked for the CIA, so they're very careful about whom you associate with. And when you're isolated, you tend to read a lot and become more introspective. Also, in first and second grade in Greece we had story hour every day. And first a nun came, I went to Catholic school, and she told us stories from the Bible. Then she left, and a Greek woman came and told us Greek myths. So as a narrative, it was the best education that you could get. Certainly the biblical tales and the Greek myths, over and above whether you believe them as questions of faith, are great stories.

BT: What else did you do before you decided to write full-time?

RG: At one point when I was poor, right before I went to New York, I decided that I would get a Masters Degree in Classics because I didn't know what to do. I written something like four or five novels after Iowa and nothing was happening. I was working in restaurants as what they refer to as a "dish pig." So I submitted for a grant to do an intensive Latin and Greek course in New York through NYU. You live in the dorms and for a month or two months you do nothing but speak Latin. It was designed to get you to the point that you could apply to some of the Classics programs. I applied and won a scholarship to do it and I talked to somebody there and they said, "You know, we do have a twenty-four-hour Latin hotline so that if you're up at 3am trying to conjugate some of your verbs, just give us a call. Don't panic." I thought wait a minute, I can't do this. So I backed out.

BT: You graduated from the Iowa Writer's Workshop in 1986 and Madeleine's Ghost was published in 1995. What did you do during what was basically a decade?

RG: I starved. I ended up in jail a couple of times for various infractions having to do with the fact that I couldn't pay my parking tickets and stuff. I had, literally, twenty or thirty different jobs. I rarely took a permanent job, basically I survived through office temp work. I was proficient in Word Perfect and Wang, so I made my living being a low-level secretary with the occasional stint of restaurant work. I was writing the whole time trying to get better.

BT: And how did you get from Los Angeles to New York?

RG: Madeleine's Ghost was probably my fifth novel, but I had written a bunch of screenplays, too. But I didn't write anything in LA, you can't concentrate there. I had written five screenplays, because I had gone to film school. Before I went to Iowa, I had gone to USC Film School. My first desire out of college was to go to film school. Directly after graduating from University of Virginia, I went to USC. And I hated it. It was amazing. I had come from UVA, which at that time had the first or second rated English Department in the country. It was intense. It was a level of intellectual life that was very high. Then I went to LA. I have never met more stupid people in my entire life. It was stunning. The city itself was the hardest place that I have ever had to live, harder than New York, as a poor person.

BT: How has your Catholic upbringing affected your writing and your characters within the novels?

RG: Well, I consider my books to be Catholic books. So it has affected my writing in every possible way. I do my best to be a practicing Catholic, I mean I go to Mass. My father was a very pious man, as only pious immigrants can be-he was born in Pennsylvania, but my grandfather was born in Italy. Very pious, we all went to Mass every Sunday. I remember my sisters wearing these doilies on their heads. Vatican II did away with that, as it did a lot of picaresque things about the Church, which is unfortunate. This is my attitude, this is a tradition that has lasted literally two thousand years. Why in the Sixties, the worst of all possible decades, would you say all of a sudden that it has got to be changed? I guess that you can tell that I'm a conservative in these matters.

BT: In the subjects of your books, you've gone from ghosts to pirates and then back to ghosts. Is the reason for this historical?

RG: As for the ghost thing, when I lived in the neighborhood in Brooklyn, I would come home on the F train and walk to my home. The neighborhood really seemed haunted. It was completely deserted. The wind was blowing paper down the streets. It was very old with cobblestone streets out there. You're right in the middle of New York and there was no one there. The neighborhood seemed haunted. And I got the idea to do a bohemian ghost story, if you will. There were a couple of blocks of apartments back there that were largely inhabited by people like myself, but that's how I got that idea. Also, I like ghost stories. Mind you, I do not believe in ghosts. Let me say that.

BT: What was the reaction to your first book?

RG: I got all these letters when I wrote the book, people saying, "My apartment is haunted, too." I was like, "No. It's fiction." I'm really finding that people are having a harder and harder time distinguishing between fiction and fact. There is no real sophistication out there. I think that this memoir craze just make me sick. Memoirs have always been with us, but what we have now is not the memoir. Memoirs in the old days were largely, I feel, true. There is a guy who has lived a long and interesting life, like Napoleon (I have a copy of Napoleon's memoirs lying around here somewhere), but he would write what he did in his long and interesting life. What we have now is really the first novel called a memoir. The autobiographical first novel. Ten years ago, the memoirs that are published as memoirs would be published as first novels. It is really kind of outrageous to me.

BT: Have you visited all of the places that you write about, because everything is so atmospheric in your writing?

RG: No, I make stuff up. Well, let me put it this way, Madeleine's Ghost is about New Orleans, I visited for three days before I wrote that story. I had never been there before in my life. So I went there for three days and then I wrote the story. Here's the thing, and it's sort of on the memoir topic, people really devalue the imagination these days. People feel, "How can you know this stuff?" And there is this whole attitude which is if you, for example, write a book from a woman's point of view, you're accused of co-opting their story. You're accused of appropriating. Not only is the imagination viewed with suspicion, it is viewed as being slightly criminal. Which is absurd, because this is what the artist deals in. This is the only thing that has allowed us to understand how other people feel. Empathy. You empathize with somebody to the point to which you can imagine what it is like. Well, maybe not what it is like to be an individual, but you can at least imagine. So I make a big point of making stuff up. My method is, if I can I'll visit the place for a couple of days, but then I read like ten book on it. I do a lot of travel reading. I find travel books invaluable. And also the encyclopedia.

BT: How do you write?

RG: I write with a pencil. Then, I confess, I do have a computer. But I'm not hooked up. I'm not on-line. I'm amazed that I haven't gotten carpal tunnel syndrome yet. I have it because I have to carry it to the library every day. I work at the library. I don't work at home. Otherwise I would go mad and never get out of the house. My wife works part-time, so I take care of the baby between the hours of nine and one and then I go off.

BT: Do you work every day?

RG: Yes, except for the weekends which I take off, just like every other person.

BT: Other than writing five days a week, what is your writing process like?

RG: [Anthony] Trollope would write these three-volume novels, I mean he has like forty or fifty books on the shelves, apparently he had a certain number of hours every day set aside for his work. And if he finished one of these three-volume novels and still had two hours to go, he would start another one. He wouldn't take the rest of the day off. I don't do that, but I do go from one thing to another--I always have to work. Usually, I like to take a week or so between each new project.

BT: What are you working on now?

RG: Actually, my next book is scheduled to come out in May of 1999. It is a volume of novellas called A Vaudeville of Devils: Seven Moral Tales. The novella is really my favorite form. They're all original, but one of them was originally published in The Tri-Quarterly. They are not genre pieces at all. They're literature with a twist. They're tales. And tales are something that I like. Tales in the sense of Hawthorne or Poe. Although Poe is often cited as the inventor of the short story. These are not like the modern short stories, in which it is an ambiguous slice of life. First of all, they're novellas so they are going to be more involved. And usually there is an old fashioned morality to them.

BT: What do you do when you're not writing?

RG: I am a collector of classic sports cars. It is my only vice besides booze, of course. I have four right now. I have a 1961 Alvis which is like a Bentley. It is a big convertible, British, the steering wheel is on the right hand side. I have a 1965 Lancia. I also have a 1952 Simpca, which is French of all things. And I have an Austin-Healy Sprite, which is kind of my getting around car. So those are my vices. And I have a lovely wife and baby. So I take care of my kid and I look at my cars, because they often don't run, and I go to movies.
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    Photo of Robert Girardi copyright © Kelly Campbell