Anthony D’Aries CNF W’09 was Randolph College’s Emerging Writer in spring 2011. While there, he finished a draft of his memoir The Language of Men. Bunny Goodjohn P W’07, professor at Randolph and member of their Visiting Writer selection committee, spoke with Anthony shortly after he landed a publishing contract with Hudson Whitman.
Goodjohn: So, Anthony, how did you get into writing?
D’Aries: I was a very shy kid — still am in some ways — and I think writing was my quiet way of making noise. I had an English teacher in high school, Mr. Driscoll, who was such a cool guy. He taught a creative writing class, played in a band with a few of the other teachers, had long hair and often brought in Tom Waits albums for us to listen to in class. I loved the way he ran the workshop — he would read our work out loud anonymously, even swear words, which some of us took advantage of. I liked that for fifteen minutes the class listened to my thoughts, and I didn’t have to say a word.
Goodjohn: Do you have an elevator pitch for The Language of Men?
D’Aries: A darkly funny look at a father-son relationship, and the unsettled terrain that shapes fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands.
Goodjohn: Why memoir? Why this memoir?
D’Aries: There are those moments when I’m talking about my book and the word “memoir” comes up in the conversation. Some people roll their eyes and think I’m publishing a glorified diary or that I must think my life is so tragic. Sometimes memoirists are viewed as narcissists. But I don’t see it that way. Our lives are our stories and sometimes sharing them makes us and others feel less alone. I was always interested in domestic, suburban stories about families.…The different roles we play in a family and how the dynamic shifts when people step outside those roles. I wanted to write about “normal” families, living “normal” lives, sift the murky waters at home. I didn’t feel the need to read or write about faraway lands when there was so much here I didn’t understand.
Goodjohn: Keyboard or legal pad? Starbucks or the kitchen table? What can you tell us about your process?
D’Aries: Early mornings and coffee. Not much else is consistent for me. Knowing when to stop writing for the day. Sometimes I write best when I’m not writing.
Goodjohn: The Language of Men is about family. Did that have any impact on the shape of the work…where it goes…where it doesn’t?
D’Aries: I think I hesitated the most when I began to write about myself. When I was growing up, I hardly read. But as I got older, I read Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff and Ernest Hemingway and reading their stories was like watching my uncle suck the marrow out of rib bones. These guys didn’t give you much. So for a while, I felt strongly that the scene itself was enough. No reflection. No exposition. I think I was still uncomfortable with memoir itself and didn’t want to bog the story down with me, me, me. But slowly, very slowly, I realized that I could do both. Keep the scene subtle yet also lay down a road map for the reader to follow. The book has a lot to do with masculinity and femininity, and I think the bare-bones scenes I wrote was an attempt to write in a macho way and the digressions and questions (the parts I often edited out) were too flowery and feminine. A lot of the book is about me asking questions, questioning masculinity and gender roles and sexuality and all the things that men like my father summed up as “Well, it is what is.” Marrying a feminist from a strong family of women exposed me to different viewpoints. I began to no longer be satisfied with flippant answers.
So, back to the question: It took me some time to feel like it was NECESSARY to show my mind at work on the page, to write thoughts and reflection and questions. To doubt myself. To second guess myself. To allow myself to hint at things I don’t know about my family. I also realized I couldn’t dig into other people’s lives unless I was willing to unearth my own. My family has always read my work and my father was very willing to be interviewed by me. At many points I felt: Wow, all I had to do was ask.
Goodjohn: Sue Silverman says, “What shrinks readership is the failure of writers to take emotional and stylistic risks.” What is the grandest emotional and/or stylistic risk you’ve taken in your writing?
D’Aries: I think writing about me and my wife Vanessa was a risk for me. Some of the things I write about were and are sore spots in our relationship, those topics couples skate around when someone breaches the subject. But I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to accept that married couples are supposed to act a certain way.
Goodjohn: You work or have worked as an Instructor inside the Corrections system. Can you tell us a little about that and whether that experience has had any impact on your own writing or on your outlook on writing?
D’Aries: Because the book deals with how men express themselves, often times non-verbally, I think the way my students at the prison are silenced had an impact on me. I teach basic literacy, many guys can hardly read or write. I encourage them to talk in my class, share their opinions. It’s hard, at first. Like learning another language. But most of the time, at one point or another, they’ll open up. I think there are different levels of silence, how we communicate with others and ourselves. What’s interesting is the scene in the book about my classes is dialogue-driven. Our discussions are loud and the personalities in class are all over the map. Some of the toughest men I’ve met have been scared off by three-syllable words.
Goodjohn: If you couldn’t write or teach, what job do you think you are best suited for?
D’Aries: Perhaps a therapist. I like listening to people. Or maybe a traveling salesman of some kind. I enjoy teaching because it allows for moments of intense interactions and periods of isolation. Prepare alone and then jump in to a room full of people. I need a job that has both. I used to think I could do a job without interacting with people all day, but eventually, my mind feels stagnant. So traveling salesman could work — long drives, then meetings, then long drives. Do those jobs still exist?
Goodjohn: What was the hunt for an agent/publisher like for you?
D’Aries: I’d been working on The Language of Men for five years. After my time at Randolph, I got to a place where I felt it was finished. I didn’t realize I’d feel that way many more times. But I think it was important for me to feel and believe that each of those drafts was the final. It gave me permission to back off for a while and let it sit and then get back to it and see what I needed to fix. Then I started writing query letters to agents. But the book still didn’t feel finished to me, and writing a query about a book I didn’t fully understand yet was slow-going, at best. I felt like “okay, if I write this query, then that’s what the book will have to be about.” So, the query got rejected a bunch of times. A few agents took a peek at the manuscript, but rejected it. Then I got discouraged, hit a wall with the manuscript itself and wasn’t sure where to go. Then I met Bill Patrick at Hudson Whitman Press. We crossed paths at Stonecoast years ago. I told him about the book and he seemed interested and willing to work with it. These past few months have been incredible for me because Bill and I formed that writer-editor relationship that I thought didn’t think exist anymore. I sent him what I had plus pages and pages of raw material and together we shaped it. I remember hearing Tracy Kidder talk about his relationship with his editor Richard Todd, how Tracy would read drafts over the phone to Richard and vice versa. I didn’t think anyone could care about my book as much as me, but if it’s possible, then Bill was that person for me. From what I’m told, this type of situation is rare, so I feel lucky.
Goodjohn: The printing press changed the relationship between writer and audience. It also changed the nature of that audience. Do you feel the e-book is forcing a similar change?
D’Aries: Perhaps. I like paper books. So much of writing is intangible — thoughts, questions, Word documents, emails, etc., so it’s nice to have something to hold at some point. But as much as I find it sad watching people in restaurants stare down at their phones through dinner, I notice that my younger cousins are voracious readers and now they constantly have access to words. Does it make the work seem more disposable? Perhaps, but there are benefits, too.
Goodjohn: Where can we get hold of “The Language of Men”?
D’Aries: The book is available for pre-order through my website, www.anthonydaries.com and will be available through Amazon and your local bookstore by July.
Bunny Goodjohn is the author of Sticklebacks and Snow Globes (Permanent Press, 2007). She has published in various journals including The Texas Review, The Cortland Review, Zone 3, and Reed Magazine and has work forthcoming at Connecticut Review. Goodjohn recently won the 2011 Edwin Markham Poetry Prize.