Our latest guest is multitalented John Biscello, writer, poet, performer, and playwright from Brooklyn. He’s the author of two novels, Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale, and Raking the Dust, and a short story collection, Freeze Tag. He writes and directs for the stage and radio. Visit his little place on the web, but don’t forget to check (and buy) his books, as well.
Hey, John, tell us a little bit about yourself, please.
Well, to steal a Henry Miller line: I’m just a Brooklyn boy. Who now happens to live in the high desert of Taos, New Mexico. What else? Let me throw out a random hodgepodge just for fun: I’m a huge David Lynch fan, I teach drama to grade schoolers and middle schoolers, one of my comfort foods is peanut butter and jelly on Saltine crackers, when I was younger my holy trinity was Henry Miller-Jack Kerouac-Hermann Hesse, and my softball team won the championship last year. Hopefully that’s random enough.
When and how did you find out you were a writer?
I’ve been writing stories since I was a wee lad. I would serialize different storylines, I had a detective named Jack Booker, a super-hero named the Red Falcon. And when I was in grade school, I would write stories with myself as the main character, one or two friends as my sidekicks, and other kids in my class would feature into the stories. They would be these adventures or thrillers with romantic subplots thrown in (that way, I could play matchmaker and pair up kids in my class in the stories). And then I would circulate the stories around the classroom for my peers to read. In that respect, my writing life hasn’t changed that much: I’m often still the main character in my fiction, or rather one of my alter-egos is, a close friend may be the sidekick or soul-chum, and there’s always The Girl: the one that got away, the one you never had, the one whose heart you broke, the one who broke your heart, the one you dress up in fiction and pin all your hopes, dreams, obsessions and fears on. That Girl.
You write novels, short stories, poems, plays — which do you enjoy the most?
They each bring a different pleasure and joy. What I love about writing novels is that it’s a marathon and not a sprint. I love longer projects in which I can get fully absorbed for an extended period of time. And then there’s that happy-sad feeling when you finish a novel, and it’s like, “Fuck yea! ” and also, “Wow, it’s over. ” Happy-sad. The poetry, which usually comes in bursts that could last anywhere from two to three weeks, sometimes a month, are the closest to pure expression. What I mean is, and especially since these days much of my poetry tends to be pretty short, it is an exquisite distillation of a specific feeling or mood or image. The poet, Vera Pavola said: “The longer a poem, the weaker the impression that it has been dictated from above: Heaven is not verbose. The more you talk, the more you lie.” I like that. Especially as someone who has talked his fair share of shit, exaggerated, lied, and can go on and on about things. On the plus side, I guess we could call that the gift of gab. And as for plays, it’s really cool to write something that becomes so much more when it moves into the performance phase. To see it brought to life, on stage, with different actors bringing their energy and talent and creativity into the mix, then of course there’s the audience and what they bring to it: it’s a great communal ritual. The different forms also cater to different parts of me: there is the solitary hermit self, which loves to be alone, writing, just me and the ghosts. Then, there’s the part of me that enjoys creative camaraderie, and the “it’s not just me” aspect of the theater. Half-isolationist, half-team-player. Or something like that.
Did moving to Taos, New Mexico in any way change or influence your writing?
Absolutely. Taos and New York (City) function on different energetic levels, different paradigms. New York is definitely Hare to Taos’s Tortoise. I have acclimated to a slower rhythm in my life. I appreciate nature, and am learning more and more how to enjoy it minus the city-boy-paranoia. Also, Taos has a way of cracking people open, and forcing you to look at your shit and your shadow-show. Crack-ups occur here. Crack-ins. This place is sort of like a spiritual lost and found. Despite the industry and commercialism that forms part of the town’s veneer, beneath all of that this is still a desert. An ancient place, which the Pueblo natives have called home for a long, long time (Taos Pueblo is the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America). Anyways, this place, with its virulent blend of light and dark, will give you a real spiritual workout. At least it has me. And I’ve made some amazing soul-connections in this dusty little town, the spirit and generosity of the people here is extraordinary. So, in a sense, all of that has gone into influencing my character and perception, therefore my writing. And to have distance from Brooklyn, New York, my roots, my past, has allowed me to write about that stuff in an altogether different way. For me, in writing, distance often breeds a warm, felt intimacy. There’s a Goethe line I love: What I possess, I see as in the distance, and what has vanished, becomes my reality.
Can you tell us more about Raking the Dust?
Well, I’ve always thought about RTD in two ways: It’s my “Taos book,” and it’s my “Exorcism book.” It is a work of fiction inspired by certain aspects of my life and adventures and misadventures in Taos, or I’ve also referred to it as autobiographical surrealism. There’s a Richard Pryor quote I use in the beginning: “Some of what I say it true, some is not, but all of it really happened.” I love that. There are so many realities that we live which are unseen, multiple selves, with some getting a lot of stage-time, others remaining hidden, or maybe even unknown to us, and in the world fiction, in the world of art, in the world of dreams, all of this stuff has a chance to come forth and play and see the light of day and all that jazz. There’s a lot in RTD which is true, a lot which isn’t, but all of it really happened. And I thought of it as my “Exorcism book” because it deals with addiction and obsession, and these were the things that I needed to purge and address through literature (always my first purging station). I am grateful, extremely grateful, to have come out the other side. There’s only so long you can stay lost in the dark woods before a wolf devours your ass.
Do you see a writer as a man on a higher mission or just as someone who tells stories to anyone who’s willing to read them?
I’ll go with higher mission. For me, personally, it’s a vocation, and an ancient tradition to which I feel so honored and privileged to be a part of in my small way. I think writers, if you’re serious about craft and tradition and legacy and all that jazz, then you claim responsibility as a sort of torch-bearer. There were so so many before us, and there will be so so many after us (even if the melting of the Polar Ice Caps turns us into a Waterworld, writers and artists will continue to create, stories will still be told, songs will be sung: whether under-or-above-water creativity will manifest in some shape or form). Shit, we’ll just evolve into mer-people and write librettos on algae tablets.
What does your typical day look like?
Wake up. Immediately say, It’s a good day to be alive. Meditate, pray, exercise, shower. Make French press coffee (drink two to three cups), and a breakfast of either oatmeal or two hard-boiled eggs. Read some sports online, and then begin my writing session. Two to three hours before lunch, and off to whatever I might be doing (this varies) before teaching my drama classes at a charter school. That goes for two and a half hours (three days a week). I have always taken jobs that offered me flexibility and time to write. I’ve never in my life, not even in New York, been a 40 hr. week work guy. I’ve always made sure, and fanatically so, that writing-time was number one. That my time and energy was being spent on my passions and dreams and not other stuff, which to me and for me, was secondary. Thus far, it’s been a rich-in-time, poor-in-wallet kind of deal, but that’s okay: I fucking love and adore the writing life, the art life. It makes my spirit happy. And I know you were asking me about my typical day, and here I am digressing into some rant about passion and happy spirit time. C’est la vie, my typical day will end there.
What inspires your writing? Other writers’ work, other forms of art, life itself?
Everything Truly, truly. Everything.
Do you have any special routine, or ritual to get your juices flowing?
There’s a Stanislavsky quote: “Inspiration is born of hard work, not the other way around.” I like that. I admire discipline and consistency, I admire devotion in practice. I do the best I can, a little at a time.
You also write for stage and radio, have you ever wrote, or thought about writing, for film or TV?
I would love to do a screenplay. It’s one of my “bucket-list” things. But there’s a part of me that wants to know it’s a movie that’s going to be made, or it’s a project in which maybe I’ve been hired to do the screenplay. Not motivated right now to write a screenplay and go shopping it around, I do enough of that hustle-and-beg routine with my other creative projects. I also would be kid-in-the-candy-shop excited if someone wanted to adapt one of my novels into a film. As a man who adores cinema, I would be fucking thrilled. Any directors out there? Producers? Slovenian auteurs? Give me a buzz, let’s get the cameras rolling.
What are you working on at the moment, if it’s not a secret?
I just finished writing the text for a children’s book, based on a story about Franz Kafka. It’s titled The Jackdaw and the Doll, and my friend, Cris Qualiana Basham, a wonderful artist (who did the covers for three of my books) will be doing the illustrations. And I’m also working on a new novel titled No Man’s Brooklyn, which takes me back to my hometown of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.
What about Social Media and your work? How important it is for you to promote your writing and to network with other writers, readers, …?
Extremely important. My novels had been published by small presses. One of the presses went belly-up last year, and so I took it upon myself to re-release my first novel, Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale, and Raking the Dust, independently. It’s what I think of as The-Little-Engine-That-Could approach. And if you’re a Little Engine, and not one of those Monster Locomotives fueled by Knopf or others in the “Publishing Mafia,” then social media and the web are really important tracks for you to chug along on.
Who are your literary heroes?
Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Hermann Hesse, Knut Hamsun, Haruki Murakami, Ernest Hemingway, Marguerite Duras, Anais Nin, John Fante, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Paul Auster, Julio Cortazar, Yasunari Kawabata. Well, those are some.
You’ve just met a young (or maybe not that young) writer – what advice would you give him/her?
Develop a practice that works for you, and do your best to honor it.
Thank you, John!