|Author Julian Gallo at home in New York|
Julian Gallo’s latest novel Rhombus Denied may, at 108 pages, be slim compared to his previous books but it’s nonetheless a compelling page turner exploring the themes of artistic posterity, second chances in later life and that issue faced by most creatives whether artists, actors, writers or musicians – those sometimes crippling, always excruciating and in many cases career-killing doubts and insecurities.
Dante Russo is the narrator, a man a few years shy of his fiftieth year living a seemingly contented life in Morningside Heights, New York. In his 20s Dante had been a budding actor and playwright but his dreams of a career under the Klieg lights burned out rapidly when a production he was involved in was scathingly reviewed by a critic who has since carved out a successful career as a film reviewer. Dante’s own career now consists of, “teaching theater to a bunch of starry eyed, naïve, dopey kids at a city high school. Talk about crushed dreams…” His wife Julia, an actor in her younger years, has now found her niche on Wall Street, earning considerably more than he and it’s thanks to her earnings that they’re able to afford the upmarket apartment they live in and the nice car they drive.
For all intents and purposes Dante leads a life where he clings to the edges of the acting/theater world albeit in a teaching capacity with some lingering regrets but no apparent silent screaming. The catalyst in Dante’s life and in this story seemingly arrives in the form of the death of Jacques Martre, his long-time mentor and inspiration in the world of theater. But it’s Martre’s play that is the real catalyst, the experimental Rhombus Denied, a play so controversial that it caused riots when staged 60 years earlier and has never been produced since.
This is the play that Dante, with the help of some of his old theater friends, decides to produce as a tribute to his mentor. But with this production the stage is also set to reignite Dante’s long-held doubts and grudges as well as offering up an underlying message on the true value of creativity in a society where artistic success is mostly defined by financial worth.
Rhombus Denied is a book that delves deeply into the theme of posterity and what that actually means to creative individuals.
The playwright Jacques Martre didn’t care about posterity. Martre’s wife Margot reinforces this to Dante, “His attitude was if you missed it while he was alive that was everyone else’s loss.” Dante on the other hand is a man conflicted, having given up on his dreams long ago, he still has, unconsciously, something to prove to himself and to his former critic Kale Forbes, a writer who decades earlier described and dismissed Dante’s acting efforts as wooden. This is a man who has lot at stake in this play in terms of second chances in later life and his own shot at some form of posterity. But success doesn’t seem assured with a play where even the current cast are having trouble understanding its meaning.
There’s a lot to like about Rhombus Denied. Written in a journal style, the reader gets a hilarious trip behind the scenes including cast auditions, in-fighting and creative squabbles. And Gallo also explores the changing face of New York and a theatrical world where audiences are more enthusiastic towards ‘jukebox musicals’ than experimental theater.
This is a book that should appeal to a wide range of readers but those involved in the world of writing, acting or theater will definitely recognize and get additional pleasure from the themes explored. Those bad reviews we pretend not to care about but with one more chance we’ll change that critic’s mind or those ‘what could have been’ moments when those set in stone artistic dreams have been chiseled away at bit by bit until they’re little more than dust and the realization hits that we’ve been fully committed for decades now to a nine to five world wondering how the hell that happened, and is it too late to make a change.
While Dante has spent decades pondering over what might have been, time has marched on and he recognizes this all too well when looking over his class of hopeful, starry-eyed students – “Generation X is greying now and still invisible in the shadow of the aging “Baby Boomers” and these kids…”
It is posterity that wins the day in this novel although not in the way Dante imagines. Ultimately, the play itself has its own way of living on and affecting people after the playwright Jacques Martre has passed on.
For anyone out there working through those nagging doubts whilst writing that book or play or creating that work of art and trying to find the answer to that haunting question of, “what’s the point?”, Rhombus Denied should help you to realize that in the end there’s only one person who can answer that question, and a little patience may be required.
Rhombus Denied Book Trailer
I talked with Julian Gallo recently and he discussed his new novel, the new generation of online indie book reviewers and the changing face of New York.
Dante seems to be a very conflicted character. He’s telling his students one thing, (the introductory quote above) but he’s unconsciously doing the opposite and chasing again the dreams he had 20 years earlier, even goes as far as inviting the reviewer who provided the bad review two decades earlier. Is this Dante’s second chance, to put an end to this inner conflict and to get rid of those doubts that have haunted him?
Dante is most definitely a conflicted character. When he was young and very green, he had the kind of artistic aspirations most young people do. They all believe that they are going to make a huge success at whatever their chosen medium is. They usually have fantasies of “fame”, “stardom”, “riches” and “importance”. They usually enter the field with ideas they gleaned from reading their favorite books about their favorite artists or have been bombarded with images from Hollywood or MTV and these days “American Idol”. This is perfectly normal, of course and some do actually succeed in that way, obviously. But the overwhelming majority of them do not. The majority of us do not.
So Dante went through his journey and came out the other side a little disillusioned. He learned that perhaps the reality didn’t quite measure up to the fantasy he held onto his entire life. His first learning experience was being stung by a bad review with regard to his acting, which haunted him to the point where he thought perhaps he wasn’t as talented as he always believed himself to be and thought he’d be better suited behind the scenes. So he turned his focus towards playwriting and directing instead. And he found some measure of success in doing that, having produced a number of little known, off-off-broadway plays over the years but that success didn’t coincide with the one he had always wanted for himself.
“Generation X is greying now and still invisible in the shadow of the aging “Baby Boomers” and these kids…”
Now middle aged and of course, over time, while one is pursuing their dreams, life happens. He got married and needed to make a living so he winds up a drama teacher in a specialized Manhattan high school, something he never saw himself doing. He learns more about himself while teaching this next generation than he learns about the kids he’s teaching – a generation weaned on “American Idol” and other reality shows which often focus squarely on the “fame” aspect of pursuing the arts. It seems alien to him, having come up through a more “underground” scene in his youth. In a way, it frightens him and in another way, it kind of makes him think about his own situation, how he wound up where he did, how those seemingly naive dreams were able to slowly dissipate over the course of his life.
On one hand, he accepts it for what it is. On the other, while not exactly bitter about it, sees an opportunity to give it one “last hurrah”, one last go around on the ride. On the surface, he’s merely paying tribute to a dear friend who he always believed should have been more known than he actually was. Underneath, it’s also a chance to redeem himself, to feel that he hadn’t really “given up”, that he still had something to share with the world, even though, again, it’s more behind the scenes. The question is, though, what is he trying to prove and to whom?
A main theme of this book is the doubts and insecurities faced by writers, playwrights, actors, people who put their work out there and are judged by others. Dante is a character who in the past has been crippled by doubts and is haunted by one bad review, still holding a grudge against the reviewer, it does seem as if this bad review stopped Dante from pursuing a career as a playwright. But now this grudge spurs him on, he has something to prove. Could this be a case that perhaps bad reviews push writers or should writers always completely ignore ‘bad’ reviews as simply a negative influence on the writing?
I think it depends on the review and who is giving it and how it’s given. Anyone pursuing this kind of thing knows full well that not everyone is going to think you’re so great at what you do. In a lot of instances, when it comes to critics, the default position is cynicism, doubt. Rarely do you find a critic who is enthusiastic about a new work going into it. They sometimes begin from a more jaded perspective and of course a more deeply personal one (some are just trying to curry favor with a particular “in-crowd” and should just be ignored altogether). I think a lot of the time a bad review will spurn a writer or any other artist on because they will either take the criticism to heart and try to improve or they won’t and try to stick it to the reviewer. Either way, if a bad review helps an artist push themselves forward, it’s not really all that bad a review, right? Dante does have a grudge and he’s working that out through the process of trying to put on this work that he knows in the back of his mind that most people aren’t going to care about. Yet he does it anyway.
I think all artists are plagued by doubt and insecurities. All artists want people to like what they do, to feel like all their hard work meant something. The interesting psychological aspect of creative people is that most will do the work because it’s what they love to do. What people think about it isn’t the primary motivation for why they are doing it. However, we all put our work out there in some way – whether we publish ourselves, or start blogs, or send our work around to get published or performed – musicians will take to the stage – and the reason why we do this is because we want accolades. We want someone to applaud and say, “Good Job!” We want to touch others the way other artists have touched us. So there’s that sort of psychological contradiction taking place. A true artist will continue to create, even if it’s purely for themselves. It’s a compulsion, a drive, a need. Criticism is part of it and necessary, as long as it’s constructive and is meant to help an artist. The other kind – the so-called “hatchet jobs” that many writers are so enamored with (unless they’re the target of one, of course), the petty sniping, and other infantile things you often see are best ignored by everyone. This kind of criticism – to me – says more about the critic than the artist.
A line I read recently – ‘everyone wants to be a writer now’ due to the popularity of indie publishing. Along with the huge increase of self-published writers there’s also been a huge increase in ‘professional’ indie book reviewers as well as companies that charge writers for book reviews. Do you think this is a positive especially now that it seems some of these reviewers think they can ‘make or break’ a writer as well as for instance the many stories that have come out recently of the bullying reviewers and cliques that are going on in places such as Goodreads.
Overall, I see it as a good thing. It has given many writers who may have lacked confidence to gain the confidence to just go ahead and do it. The whole Indie Author thing is something new for a lot of people out there. As I’ve said in the past, it seems the idea of authors taking control over their own work and careers wasn’t anything unusual when I was young but for many – those who had never been exposed to the alternative scene before – never thought it possible to do, thought it even taboo. But over the past seven years – since I put out my first novel – attitudes are changing about this, even to the point where these highly sophisticated panels discussing the “changes in the publishing world” are taking place all the time at book expos and the like.
However, sometimes things have a way of becoming what it was supposed to be an alternative to. The so-called “Indie” world among writers have their own gatekeepers too, those who took hold of it and started imposing rules on everything from how your book should look, to how one’s blog should be and just about everything else in between. Of course this also brings in those who have other motivations – usually financial – and start creating these book review websites, blogs and “services”. They themselves suddenly start becoming judge and jury, seeing to, as you said, “make or break” a writer. Other writers, too, have also become this monster, some going as far as suddenly feeling the need to “snub” those who are just starting out, those for whom a little attention has gone to their heads. With regard to the bullying tactics you see on Amazon or Goodreads, it goes back to what I was saying earlier: it reveals more about them than it does the artist. It’s frighteningly petty and I don’t think any fair minded person takes it seriously.
The theme of posterity runs through Rhombus Denied and Dante seems to be chasing this not only for the (recently deceased) writer of the play but also for himself as he heads towards his fifties. Is posterity an issue that concerns writers, it’s their chance to leave something behind or is the whole notion slightly absurd?
That’s a great question because the answer to this is sort of elusive. What I mean is, I suppose we all seek some sense of posterity because we put the work out there for public consumption. Then again, after I’m gone, I’m not going to care, am I? I won’t be around to benefit from it, so what does it matter? In a way it is absurd. Most of the world’s highly respected artists are all dead and gone and many of them did not achieve the success that they now have while they were alive. The Chilean author Roberto Bolaño comes to mind. Here is – to my mind – a brilliant writer who had some measure of success while he was alive in the Spanish speaking world but didn’t live long enough to enjoy the benefits of the world wide, critical and commercial success he now enjoys. Another example is John Kennedy O’Toole, the author of A Confederacy of Dunces, a book he could get published while he was alive but becomes published and a massive success after he committed suicide. Writers like Jack Kerouac are far more influential and have more of an impact now than he did when he was alive (although he did achieve some measure of success while he was alive). For these writers – and this is only a small sampling – posterity worked out very well for them, although none of them are here to enjoy it or even be pleased by it.
When it comes to posterity, I tend to think more along the lines of Woody Allen who said in a recent interview, something that makes a good point, although it may seem a little cynical to many. He said something to the effect that in 100 years time, everyone we know, every book, film, etc, is all going to be wiped away and something and someone else will come and take its place, that most of it will be forgotten and it’s senseless to worry about posterity, even if something does survive the test of time. The creator of those works won’t be around to see its impact, so what’s the point?
In Dante’s case, he struggles with it, as most artist do, deep down. His idol, his mentor, Jacques, couldn’t care less about it. He was never a major success. He lived a comfortable life due to money from his wife’s side being able to keep them afloat and live in that nice apartment in Paris all those years. Jacques did his work, the way he wanted to do it, and cared little for what people thought of it after he was gone. He got the stage in his life where he was comfortable being who he was and was proud of the work he did, even though many wanted his neck for it. Dante, on the other hand, still needs to discover this for himself. He still has an axe to grind, still has something to prove, even if it’s to himself. Perhaps one day he’ll truly learn the ultimate lesson from his mentor and he’ll make peace with his creative demons. Perhaps the performance of Jacques’s play will help move him in that direction.
There’s some great advice for writers, artists, actors etc, running through this book especially with regards to the ‘don’t chase money, don’t chase stardom. It’s creating that counts’. The whole story is almost a cautionary tale for creatives and yet throughout the book you see the creative act at work, the risks being taken and the hard work to get the play out there, even if ultimately it might not be seen or understood by anyone. It’s kind of the antithesis to today’s American Idol concept where people are judged by others within a few minutes then deem themselves to be a failure because a judge says no as well as the thought that a creative work isn’t seen as successful by some unless it makes a lot of money.
Yes, this is the ultimate shame of it all because there are many very talented people out there whose work is worthy and interesting, provocative, original and creative and ultimately, most of the world will never know about them or their work. The advent of the internet has changed this, of course, and for younger artists, they have no idea how fortunate they are to have this tool at their disposal. Now someone in the most remote places on earth can reach just about anyone, which was something completely unheard of 25-30 years ago. It even benefits someone like myself, who is old enough to have experienced what it was like pre-internet, when “word of mouth” wasn’t as easy as it is now. There were no “share” buttons or “Facebook Likes” in those days. It was all word of mouth, underground print publications and literally mailing off packages to places that you weren’t even sure if you’d ever get a response from. Technology has made it much easier today but in a lot of cases I don’t see people taking full advantage of it. For many, it’s a mere stepping stone to something larger, a means to an end rather than a tool to build something for themselves.
I think shows like “American Idol” and their like-minded offshoots have done more harm than good. These shows reinforce the idea that an artist’s hard work isn’t worthy of attention unless it is anointed by someone else. It reinforces the notion that a creative individual needs “permission” to do their work, something I never believed in, obviously. To be fair, those who follow this route are specifically seeking a certain level of fame and celebrity. These are the kids who want to be the next Beyoncé or whoever else. If that’s the level of success you want, then this is the trial you must submit yourself to. I also think it gives a lot of young people the wrong message, ultimately. There are different levels of success one can reach. It isn’t all or nothing. Sure, most will have to contend with making a living some other way but they can also continue to pursue their passions and find an audience for it. If there is a cautionary tale to be told in the novel it’s to try to keep your head screwed on as much as possible, that a lot of what they see is smoke and mirrors, that there is a good amount of work that goes into making these celebrities who they are – marketing teams, publicity agencies, advertising – a whole big business machine behind it all, carefully crafting how they want their clients to be seen and presented. In a lot of ways it’s fiction in and of itself.
There are a lot of creative people out there who need to understand that the work that they produce is a worthy effort, no matter what happens. It’s a part of them. It’s self-expression. When you look at those cave paintings in southern France and Spain from 35,000 years ago, they were being done without any of this bullshit in mind, right? The people who created those did so because they felt a need to express themselves and their surroundings. Ironically, there is a sense of posterity there because we, the humans tens of thousands of years in the future can catch a glimpse of how little difference there was between us and our ancestors, the huge difference being that those cave artists most likely didn’t care about posterity, although it’s quite possible that they did, who knows for sure? It’s a most basic part of being a human being. It’s when all this other distracting bullshit gets in the way that ruins it – and in some cases, even drives some unfortunate folks to suicide, this sense of ultimate rejection they must have felt to resort to such an extreme act; and all of it brought about by turning what is most basic and human into a “business”, into something that makes one feel that part of who they are is ultimately up to scrutiny by everyone around them, that their worth as a human being is up for judgment by those who merely put themselves (along with the artists themselves, sometimes) into the position to judge, leaving the fate of their hard work into the hands of others who really don’t have a stake in it, unless it’s to profit from it.
You’re from New York and that city has always been a magnet for those in the creative arts but it’s changing rapidly in terms of affordability especially Manhattan, although many of the boroughs are becoming just as unaffordable – $2500 + minimum per month for small apartment is definitely out of my price range as a freelance writer. In the novel you mention the disappearance of certain establishments over the years and there seems to be daily online reports about long-standing New York eateries, cafes and bookstore closing due to rising prices. It may have become a safer city compared to say the 1980s but has it lost something in the process and how do you think it’s going to be in say the next decade?
It most definitely lost a lot of its character, sure. Compared to the 1980s it’s an entirely different city and today’s young people have no clue as to what it once was, how vibrant it once was. But I’m sure the generation before ours were saying the same thing once I started venturing downtown when I was a kid. It’s funny because I just saw a panel on C-Span’s “Book TV” the other night discussing the changes in publishing and how hard it is now for a novelist to earn a living off their writing these days. One of the panellists said something to the effect that it used to be where a writer could live in “decent poverty”, where he/she could afford the rent, send their kids to a decent public school which today, of course, is utterly impossible.
|MacDougal Street, New York|
Lately, a lot of what they call the “creative class” is fleeing New York for more affordable, artist friendly cities. You simply can’t make a decent living as an artist in New York. You have to have something else to pay the bills. The next decade doesn’t bode well either because many of the places that once made these areas unique and vibrant have been giving way to banks, chain stores and luxury condos and there is no sign of it abating any time soon. The whole vibe of the city has changed. I’m about done with it, to be honest. After a lifetime here, I don’t really see the point of trying to eke out a living where most of your income goes to rent and bills. It’s not important to me anymore to be in New York. Nearly 50 years is enough. I’m starting to seriously consider going somewhere else, somewhere warmer, somewhere more laid back. I don’t really do the things I used to do when I was younger, anyway, and I no longer have the patience to hang out in the clubs, bars and be surrounded by people young enough to be my own kids. It’s their time now, I guess. Let ‘em have it. I can write anywhere. I never really believed in the whole “bohemian thing”, anyway. I’ve never lived my life that way and I never identified as one. I come from a very typical Italian-American stock and even though my father was a Jazz musician in his younger years (in which he never made a living from, by the way) and had other relatives in the arts (who also never did), I was brought up with a different sensibility to begin with.
I notice in the novel that Dante and Jacques both have wives with a lot more money that they do. Jacques is able to continue writing throughout his life due to being supported by his wife’s money. There was a recent article in Salon about writer’s who are supported financially by a partner and also about the fact that it’s the rich who can afford to write full-time and also have the publishing connections. Is this ‘living the writer’s dream’ without ‘paying their dues’ as some have said?
Yes, I saw that article and found it highly interesting. I’m not sure if it’s “not paying one’s dues” as it is that these writers aren’t making a living off their work and don’t want that to be known so they conveniently leave that part out of the discussion. The connections help though, I’m sure, especially when the “new hot author” is the child of an “older hot author”. I think it’s to create the illusion that that’s all they do in life. If you have a benefactor or patron, sure, it’s easy, but most don’t. Most get by with a day job and many writers – even well-known writers – have them. You only have to read the author bios to see this. Many of them are creative writing teachers, some are lawyers, a lot of the current Italian authors are either journalists, lawyers and one – Paolo Giordano – who is phenomenal – was a particle physicist when his first novel came out. The point is that many authors hold down other jobs and there’s no shame in that. In the end, it’s the work that counts not what the author is or does with his/her life. Even the past masters, someone like William Carlos Williams and Louis-Ferdinand Celine were doctors. Jack Kerouac had a bunch of odd jobs like a railroad brakeman and a fire watcher (which he writes about in Desolation Angels) to earn some money and Julio Cortazar was a translator for UNESCO. Does it really matter?
I think a lot of this also comes from the fictional, Hollywood portrayal of what a “real artist” is supposed to be. Very few are lucky enough to earn enough off their writing so that is all that they do. But whether one does it for a living or not isn’t relevant, at least to me. Just be honest about it because there’s no shame in it. Whenever I hear someone is a writer in New York who isn’t a worldwide bestselling author, I know they have something else to pay the bills because many of them aren’t selling all that much in order to afford the New York City cost of living. No fucking way. I once met an author who had a novel nominated for the National Book Award and he holds down a day gig too. And Junot Diaz, whose monstrously successful The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – which has just been deemed “the best novel of the 21st Century so far” – is a creative writing teacher at MIT. Even every young novelist’s hero David Foster Wallace was a creative writing teacher. To be fair, perhaps some of them do this because they want to, not because they have to, but let’s face it, the cost of living in New York is way too high for someone to live off their writing income alone for most. So there’s a lot of myth and misunderstanding surrounding all this and this is one of the things Dante tries to teach his students: that just because you might have to contend with a day job doesn’t make your art any less legitimate.
And there is no way that someone like Jacques could have survived either, living in a city like Paris, although not as expensive as New York, is still an expensive city. He and his wife were fortunate enough to have had an inheritance (from his wife’s family) to live off of because the type of work he did would not pull in that kind of audience. In Dante’s case, his wife – who was originally part of his acting troupe – has a high finance job and Dante himself is a high school drama teacher. The bills and rent have to be paid somehow and having a job is the only way it’s going to happen. And not everyone is fortunate enough to earn a grant either, but that’s a whole other topic.
Rhombus Denied works through a lot of the issues faced by those in the creative arts. This is your sixth book – do you still encounter these issues, such as doubts, insecurities and frustrations or has it become easier with each book?
With each and every book I write, I am plagued with self-doubt and insecurities. It’s gotten a little easier because I’m beginning to learn that to worry about what people are going to think is a waste of precious energy because for the most part, most people don’t care anyway. Some of these feelings of doubt and insecurities were worked into this story as well because I think all creative people who are serious about what they do feel this way and Dante is sort of typical of those who were serious about making their way but have either run up against obstacles or utter indifference from those he thought wouldn’t be so. Most especially in the literary world, in which I see it more than in any other medium. Writers are obsessed with certain things that after a while, I try to steer clear from because it only makes things worse. But when it comes to the work, the doubts and insecurities creep in all the time. I’m still trying to work out why this is.
What’s up next for you?
I’m writing all the time. I do get out but not nearly as much as I did when I was younger so a lot of time spent at home, I’m working. If I’m not working on my books, I’ll work on my blog or write in my journal. If I can’t work I’ll do research, if need be, take notes for a project I’m working on or a projected project for the future.
I have another novel just about ready. It was written back in 2013 but it’s gone through a number of drafts. It’s called Breathe and I’m thinking of releasing it later this year. I’m personally very proud of this one because it’s very different from anything I’ve done previously. It’s a more “serious” novel, with more serious themes, and with none of the “transgressive” influences the others may have had, much like “Rhombus Denied” is absent of them as well. I’m trying to turn the page so to speak, move onto something different, though this doesn’t mean I won’t write another with those elements in it.
I’m currently working on another novel, one that is proving to be difficult due to the subject matter and research involved in it because part of it is based on my great-grandparents and their time in Tunisia in the early 20th century before coming to America. The rest of it is a contemporary story, set at the beginning of the Arab Spring. It’s proving to be a challenge. I also have two others that I’ve been working on but they are only partial drafts and will eventually get back to them.
Plus I have plans for a new set of short stories, which I outlined, but haven’t begun writing them as of yet. So I have a lot on my plate. It’s just a matter of not being distracted by the internet, social media and other bullshit and get disciplined enough to actually sit down and write them. I tend to procrastinate. A lot.
Rhombus Denied is available at Amazon as an ebook.
Also available in paperback.
Read more from Julian Gallo at his blog - Desvario
Also by Julian Gallo