Last week, Books, Ink readers got a sneak peek at local author Joe Stracci's debut novel, "Whitney," which won the New Rivers Press 2011 Many Voices Project and is released this year by New Rivers Press.
Stracci's novel, a millenial love story set in the Bronx, earned early praise, being described as "socially astute and incredibly smart" by "Birds of a Lesser Paradise" author Megan Mayhew-Bergman. "'Whitney' is rough, beautiful, and sad, with singular characters who will challenge you and break your heart," she wrote of the book. "Stracci writes with a gritty urban mouth and the heart of a poet."
The Bronx native, who lives in New Fairfield with his wife and daughter, holds an MFA from Bennington College and teaches at Manhattanville College, his undergraduate alma mater. His writing has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Inkwell, Word Riot, and The Good Men Project, among others.
Click here to read an excerpt from "Whitney." And for more insight on the writer and his craft (and a great list of reading recommendations), explore some of Stracci's most memorable and influential reads, which he graciously shares below.
What is the first book you remember loving?
"Jurassic Park" by Michael Crichton. I was in the third grade, and it was a big deal to me that it was the first adult paperback novel that I ever read. I read it cover-to-cover dozens of time. I would hide it in my desk and read it during class. It would be interesting to go back and read it now, actually. But before that, I read a lot of John Bellairs books—all about nerdy loner kids who went on adventures, usually with an element of magic or mysticism and/or history involved. It's where I learned about topics like "real" magic and Constantinople.
What is a book that inspired you to be a writer?
I have a list of the books that, upon reading them, made me think the same thing every time: wow, I didn't know that you're allowed to write like that. Those books are:
- "Waiting for Godot" by Samuel Beckett
- "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" by James Joyce
- "Fight Club" by Chuck Palahniuk
- "Trainspotting" by Irvine Welsh
- "Bright Lights, Big City" by Jay McInerney
- "Reasons to Live" by Amy Hempel
- "White Noise" by Don DeLillo
- "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" by Milan Kundera
And I didn't know it at the time, but J.D. Salinger was the first author I ever loved. I started with "Catcher in the Rye" like most, but since then, I've read everything he's ever written several times.
What was the first thing you remember writing?
In the 3rd grade (what a big year for me, career-wise), we had a prep teacher who came into the classroom and did creative writing exercises with us. I was in the "gifted" program in elementary school, so I don't know if this prep was exclusive to our class or not, but I remember writing—I guess what you'd call a dramatization of a game show. I don't remember all of the specifics, but I remember that the host interviewed a bunch of superheroes who were all contestants on the game show.
I'm sure that my mom has the journal that the class' work was collected in (Mom, it's a brown cover if you read this). What was important was that it was the first piece of writing of mine that I clearly remember other people (adults, which obviously meant they knew something) responding to with passion. That itch, to create something out of thin air that people are impressed with, unfortunately, is at the core of many a writer's career. I'm no exception.
What book did you read in school that you did not fully appreciate until later?
I had the hardest time with this question. It sounds really know-it-all-ish, but I can't think of any books that I didn't enjoy that I've since gone back to. I just don't have the time. I'm the kind of person that, once you're on the list, you don't ever get off. My wife just read that statement and is nodding.
What book would you make required reading in school?
Amy Hempel's Collected Works. Taking 30 years to write about 400 pages worth of short stories is an incredible lesson in self-discipline, self-editing—all of the selfs. No writer on the planet wouldn't be improved by reading her work. Her prose is as close to perfection as I have ever read.
What's the last great book you read?
Junot Diaz's "This Is How You Lose Her." When you're a writer, you read books and have one of two reactions: how can they publish this junk and not mine, or I'll never be able to write something this good, no matter how hard I try. All three of Diaz's books have left me flattened by the latter feeling. It just happens that "Lose Her" is the most recent. He's one of the best writers writing right now.
What would you call a "great American novel"?
Don DeLillo's "Underworld." It might speak more to the hearts of those who grew up in a big city—especially New York City—but it's an astounding work. Don DeLillo is on my Mount Rushmore of writers, and "Underworld" is his magnum opus. A close second is David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest."
Photo via JoeStracci.Net