Antonio Elefano is a fiction writer/playwright/attorney living in Houston, TX. He received his JD from Yale Law School in 2005 and his MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University in 2011. He has been published in 236 and is currently a Writing Fellow/Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Houston. His story “Italy” appears in this issue of The Journal. Recently associate fiction editor J. Preston Witt talked to Antonio about “Italy,” writing, and Lorrie Moore-induced shame.
J. Preston Witt: Why do you write? In other words, why not spend your time running marathons, drinking beer, and watching HBO?
Antonio Elefano: I do it for the money and the acclaim.
Actually, I write because I can’t not write. Even when I was in law school, I spent a lot of time convincing professors to accept novellas and plays instead of research papers because I needed to justify all the time away from casebooks. In the freshman writing class I teach, I begin with this David Hare quote: “The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.” I can’t say it better than that.
JPW: What is the most important piece of fiction you’ve ever read?
AE: I’m going to cheat and give you two answers. The summer before my sophomore year of high school I read A Tale of Two Cities. I hated it until about two thirds of the way in, when all the plots started tying together. I couldn’t put it down. I remember finishing around four in the morning and feeling devastated but at the same time thrilled to discover that a book could do that.
My current favorite book is Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America. She’s the author I want to be when I grow up. I taught one of her stories at the end of my Advanced Fiction course just in case anyone was getting too big of an ego. “You think you’re good? Read this.” This is what I pull off the shelf whenever I want to feel like a piece of garbage.
JPW: How do you approach the stories you write?
a. Like little life rafts.
b. Like working out the abdominals.
c. Like helping sick children and recycling.
d. Like making a nice dinner for a friend.
e. Like telling a good friend that you slept with his wife.
AE: Definitely (e). When I read the scenario, I smiled and thought: I’d write that as a comedy for sure. For me, all truly funny stories come from a place of extreme discomfort. I remember sitting in a mall in Boston a few months ago, and this man approached and asked if I’d like to hear his theories on God. I know what you’re thinking: who says yes to this guy?
I do. I’m such a lazy researcher I just sit on benches and wait for stories to come to me. “Yes, please show me what’s in that little pamphlet you’ve got . . . What was that? . . . God has a wife? Good for him! Now, he can stop picking on virgins . . . You want to show me a video on your portable DVD player? Sure, fire it up! . . . What’s that now? You’d like me to go where? . . . Yeah, I think my wife is getting out of the shoe store, so—”
JPW: To some, the art of fiction is professional lying. Yet for centuries people have looked to authors as guides toward elucidating and complicating truths about human existence. Thoughts?
AE: Someone once asked me at a picnic why I bother with this fiction nonsense when there are so many “real” stories worth telling. And my answer to that is: The Sun Also Rises is real. And “Bullet in the Brain” and “The Bear Came over the Mountain” are real. It doesn’t matter that the characters don’t exist in actual life; they exist for me. I know them. I connect to them. And, most importantly, these are the stories that never fail to stir something in my heart and mind. There’s nothing more real, more substantial and lasting, than that.
JPW: Where did your story “Italy” come from?
AE: I was on a trip with my family. I don’t write traditional journals because they’re never very interesting (“Dear Diary, what a day!”), but I want to preserve the experience. So I make up a character and write my accounts through his or her eyes. At the time, I was still working as a corporate attorney, so that’s probably why the narrator’s voice is so persnickety. To answer your question then: “Italy” started in Italy. And it actually became the centerpiece of my MFA application.
JPW: Instead of a record in a diary, you made the memory into something that feels truer.
AE: I think so. I could go home every day and write an account of what happened here and there, but an accumulation of facts doesn’t really do justice to the experience. For me, that trip will always be remembered through the prism of this story. Because of that, those places and the feelings they conjured stay vivid and alive.
JPW: It seems that you recognize a relationship between memory and creativity. How long after an experience do you find yourself writing about it?
AE: It normally takes some time before a given memory becomes a story. I can tell it’s “ready” when it’s persisted long enough and I can’t get it out of my head. It normally starts with something very small—an image or a sound. And then I’ll build a character and an entire plot just to make sense of that image or sound. It’s very circuitous, I suppose.
JPW: How would you prefer to die?
a. Parachute malfunction.
b. Drowning in a rogue wave of hot caramel.
c. Black hole spaghettification.
d. Like Mel Gibson in Braveheart.
e. Peacefully in your sleep.
AE: I’m tempted to choose (b) because it reminds me of the dessert menu at Applebee’s: Death by Chocolate, Strawberry Sin, Statutory Rape Crisp. But I’m going to be boring and say (e). My day-to-day life is pretty dull. A happy Friday night is dinner out, followed by an hour of grocery shopping. Even my dreams are banal. I wake up in the morning, turn to my wife, and say, “I had the worst dream. I was going to the hardware store to get a hammer.”
“And I got a hammer.”
“I came home. That’s it.”
Blinking eyes. Mild concern that I’ve chosen storytelling for a living. “Go back to sleep, dear.”
My theory is that I get all the outrageous stuff out in my writing, so there’s nothing left for either my conscious or unconscious mind. (Either that, or I’m dead inside.)
JPW: Death, shame, and stories have a fascinating relationship, especially in your work. Is shame an interesting concept for you?
AE: I’m Filipino and was raised Catholic, so shame and I are old friends. I also write comedy from time to time, and shame is almost always at the center of that, too. There was a time when I did feel ashamed to call myself a writer. At my old law firm, when someone would hear about my little hobby, I’d always act very casual. “It’s just something fun I do on the side.” It’s taken some time, but that part of who I am is no longer something I distance myself from. It’s brought me too much happiness and too much perspective. To answer your question more directly, I’m no longer ashamed to say I’m a writer but will probably be writing about shame in some capacity for the rest of my life.
JPW: Shame is that all-encompassing feeling we get when we have no way to properly atone for some fault. Shame seems to be of particular importance to your story “Italy.”
AE: You’re right that shame is very much at the center of “Italy.” The narrator, like any author, is telling a story but the story is telling him something, too, and it’s not very nice. The entire account represents a lot of things for him, but I think most of all—it’s an apology.
JPW: There are a number of similarities between how you tackle shame, and the strategies Lorrie Moore uses to address shame in her stories. There’s a dance between regret, fear, and humor that happens in both of your prose. Just yesterday I re-read Moore’s short story from Birds of America, “People Like That are the Only People Here.” Normally, great writing inspires me to write. Moore’s writing leaves me delighted, but sedated, like a fudge cake. Frequently I return to my own work after Moore feeling ashamed: ashamed about the stories I can’t tell, ashamed at own ignorance, ashamed at the people I won’t become. I’m not sure there is a question here.
AE: First of all, thank you for putting Lorrie Moore and me in the same sentence. Second, “People Like That are the Only People Here” is the story I was referring to earlier, the one that just fills me with awe and self-loathing. One of my best students was having the same feelings of crippling inadequacy after reading a Tobias Wolff novel (Wolff is one of my favorites as well). And this is what I told him: “We’ll never out-Moore Moore or out-Wolff Wolff. We can merely bask in their brilliance and try to be the best version of whatever it is we are.”