A writer for over three decades, Rocco Lo Bosco has published poetry, short stories and two novels. His first novel, Buddha Wept (Greycore Press, 2003), about a spiritually gifted matriarch’s experience of the Cambodian genocide, received good reviews (e.g., Publishers Weekly) and much praise from readers, many of whom called it “life changing.” His current novel, Ninety Nine, is published by LettersAt3amPress. Lo Bosco also has a nonfiction book in press with Routledge (2016), co-authored with Dr. Danielle Knafo, a practicing psychoanalyst, entitled Love Machines: A Psychoanalytic Perspective on the Age of Techno-perversion. He is currently working on his third novel, Midnight at the Red Flamingo. Additionally, he has edited papers in the fields of psychoanalysis and the philosophy of science and has also worked as a ghost writer.
Connect with Rocco on the Web:
Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Ninety Nine. To begin with, can you give us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?
A: Thank you. My book is about a poor and mixed––mine, yours and ours–– Italian-American family fighting desperately to survive in Brooklyn in the early 1960s. The story centers on the two (step) brothers living in a family threatened by psychological fragmentation from within, dangerous levels of poverty and two vicious loan sharks who will have no trouble killing the father if he doesn’t find a way to pay their boss. Meanwhile the two boys run with a small gang, The Decatur Street Angels, led by one of the brother’s cousins, a dark-minded genius who invents wild and daring exploits for the group that become progressively more dangerous during the summer of 1963. One of the brothers is involved in his first (and secret) love affair with an older woman while the other is losing his mind over the abandonment of his mother. The event streams of the book culminate at the novel’s end in a stunning and unexpected climax.
Michael Ventura, novelist, essayist and cultural critic said, “In Lo Bosco’s Ninety Nine you experience the vitality, brutality, faith, doom and grace of people whose only choice is to figure out how to take it. They endure situations from which there is no escape, surrounded by beliefs and attitudes from which there is no escape, and their nobility is that, in the midst of such a Brooklyn, they nevertheless know and value beauty and are exalted by wonder.” I think this properly captures the spirit of my book, and what I secretly intended in writing it.
The novel creatively draws on my early years growing up in Brooklyn, but its inspiration emerged from two very specific things: a dream and a book. When I was five years old I had a dream that has stayed with me my entire life, a dream that in essence predicted the character and quest of my life. The dream appears in the book, and it will become clear to the reader why that very dream inspired the novel. The second inspirational element came from finding a book I was never supposed to see. When I was fourteen I found it in the bottom of a box that held my father’s war memorabilia—a large, government-issued volume about the Second World War. It contained far more pictures than text. I returned to this forbidden book repeatedly and viewed images that literally altered the trajectory of my life and shaped my particular interests in human endeavor. I knew I could not remain silent. Though I did not yet know that I would write, I knew that I would not want to pass through this life quietly, hunkered down in some existential bunker until the danger passed. At fourteen I already knew the danger never passes. That forbidden book appears in Ninety Nine, but it was also part of the inspiration for Buddha Wept.
Q: What do you think makes a good novel? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?
- Well, it is not truly possible to narrow a good novel down to a formula of some kind. If it was possible to do so, a novel would not be . . . well, novel. In that there are certain areas of overlap that good novels share, I can say with some certainty that a good novel has interesting and complex characters facing interesting and difficult situations, and the whole of what they do and what happens makes for a damned good story. Additionally, the characters and their story may imbue the reader’s experiential perspective with renewed radiance and a degree of insight. It does no matter how bright or dark the novel is; a good novel deeply affects the reader in some way.
Now on the other side of the question, because language and human imagination suggest infinite capacity, any attempt to reduce the novel to some theory will ultimately fail. Literary theory is necessarily incomplete because human experience is infinite, as is the human imagination and the capacity of language. There can be great novels that do not meet conventional criteria. Finnegan’s Wake, for example, is considered by many to be a literary masterpiece. Also future technological developments will create new possibilities for stories. I’m thinking here of Charlie Booker’s television series, Black Mirror. I believe that the stories/scripts of these shows, which freely mix science and science fiction, have great literary merit. They’re like a 21st century version of the Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.
Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover the plot as you worked on the book?
I first saw and wrote scenes. Characters and situations based on memory and imagination began popping into my head. A scene would begin as a kind “of picture poem” –– a snapshot of characters and situations that conveyed an intense emotion or insight. These “picture poems” seemed to constellate around the recollected dream (mentioned above), which provided the gravitas that drew them together. As I collected more scenes, they began to suggest a linkage and a trajectory. As I sequenced and connected the individual scenes, the story began to form. At this point characters were bouncing around in my mind, telling me what they wanted to do within the story that was forming. I felt I was always a little behind while writing the book, kind of catching up to the story (and its characters) that was telling itself through me.
Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?
Dante is a complicated character. He attempts to manage the chaos and violence of his life by using his intellect. He takes refuge in the laws of nature, trying somehow to reconcile them with his wild family life and his crazy life in the streets of Brooklyn. He wishes he could be brave and fearless like his stepbrother, but he thinks too much. What he doesn’t realize is how much he feels and how what he feels gives him a power of which he is not yet aware.
Dante emerged from the dance between my memory and imagination. It’s not like I developed him. It’s more like he was hidden within me, and I had to find him–– as were the other characters as well. Once I found them, they had a lot to say.
Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?
There’s no one villain in my story. Everyone is a villain in some way, and some may be heroes as well. Memory provided the realism, imagination the radiance, and intellect the insight.
Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?
Okay, keeping in mind that the experience of writing for me is more like a possession than something I plan out carefully from the beginning:
I kept foremost in my mind the art of showing as opposed to the craft of telling. I wanted to create a portal into another world—in this case the world of a family fighting to survive in Brooklyn during the early 1960s. I wanted the reader to experience this world through every sense. I kept my verbs sharp and my descriptions brief but packed with appeal to the five senses. I read everything I wrote aloud to hear it and see if it transported me, if it felt real and strong, if it made music. I paid close attention to how I paced the story, making sure I always had the reader wondering what would happen next, utilizing scene cuts to gas the story and imbuing scenes with plenty of action and cliffhangers. I wrote the story so the suspense and tension keep building throughout until it all culminated in a denouement with multiple outcomes.
I paid attention to how I stacked long and short sentences. I kept my chapters short. I peppered the narrative with insights and unexpected brief assertions that quickened the pulse. I worked with great care around the dialogue. The dialogue is what brings the characters to life. They have to speak somewhere in between the way people really talk and how they would talk if they always said the brightest, sharpest, wittiest, or most interesting things. They have to speak so that the reader wants them to say even more than they do. They have to say unexpected things at times. Not because it’s cool for them to do that, but because they themselves carry a depth they are not consciously aware of. That depth in which so much is hidden is where they come from and where their story comes from as well.
Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?
I went back to Brooklyn. I took lots of pictures. I walked the streets that I’d known so many years ago. I stopped in a bakery and got a lemon ice. I went home, got drunk and climbed into a hot bath and looked at the pictures until the water got cold. By then, I knew I had the setting.
Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start, or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?
I think certain themes occur throughout my work, my thought and my life: the tragic nature of human existence, the unending desire to be loved and to love, love’s relationship to death, the limits of human knowledge and the search for certainty, the irrepressible urge for transcendence that wars with human limitation, and the incredible beauty to be found in all of this. I never concern myself with a theme when writing fiction. The “theme” will emerge from the story. I am foremost and obsessively concerned with writing a damned good story.
Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?
I don’t think there is a clear divide between the two or even a truly satisfying definition for either. Both make their presence known in different ways. With the important caveat that they cannot be separated or even cleanly defined, I think we admire craft but are amazed by art. Craft is the technique, art the vision, though one cannot exist without the other. Craft is learned through study, discipline and endless repetition. Art comes onto the scene with defiant wings mounted on the body of craft. Art is the result an upsurge of one’s being that must manifest as a concrete demonstration. Its form is always tied to its culture, but its motive transcends culture.
Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?
The three things that come to mind are: (1) the ability to write a distinctively good story with interesting characters that affects the reader in a meaningful way; (2) the ability to rework the story until it sings; (3) a relentless devotion to both.
Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?
Who am I to argue with Lawrence Kasdan, whom I have followed since his debut as the writer and director of Body Heat, a neo-noir which I found perfectly diabolical. What a plot and what characters, especially Matty! (“You aren’t too bright. I like that in a man.”) Yet, I would concede to his statement only with the caveat that homework is also defined as something given to oneself rather than only by a teacher. And what is that homework? Read, read, read and write, write, write.
Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?
I’ve relied almost wholly on books because I’m a cranky and stubborn loner. I shall name only a few that proved critical in my development as a writer and novelist.
- Early inspiration was Beat Poetry along with other beat writing (e.g., Kerouac’s On The Road).
- Writing The Natural Way, by Gabriele Lusser Rico.
- Using Both Sides of Your Brain, by Tony Buzan. Get the latest edition.
- 1984, by George Orwell.
- Lolita, by Vladmir Nabokov.
- A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess.
- The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, by Oscar Hijuelos.
- Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges.
A recent set of novels, among the best I’ve read, and that I strongly feel every aspiring writer should not only read—but deeply and repeatedly study—are the four Neapolitan Novels written by the brilliant Elena Ferrante and translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. These books are treasures of story, insight and writing genius.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?
Learn to tolerate the terror evoked by the blank page, and learn to love enduring bouts of solitude.