Interview with Julian Gallo, Author of Be Still and Know That I Am
Is teenage rebellion a product of its environment or does the environment encourage teenage rebellion? This is one of themes explored in Julian Gallo’s third novel Be Still and Know That I Am. Gallo’s latest novel takes us far from the Parisian settings of his previous two books to a time and place he has firsthand knowledge of, New York in 1982. It’s a time when President Ronald Reagan was telling the American people that, “Each generation goes further than the generation preceding. You will have opportunities beyond anything we’ve ever known.” But the opportunities peddled by Reagan are nowhere to be found for the characters that inhabit the working class neighborhood of Queens, New York, during the eighties.
The Italian-American Razza family is the core of this story, a family frozen by the death of its mother. Each member unable to move on and dealing with the loss in their own way. Fifteen year old Nico Razzo represents the eternal teenage outsider looking for an escape from his school and family problems and finding some solace in the punk clubs of New York’s Lower East Side. The Lower East Side setting is a character in itself and should be instantly recognizable to those who have ventured there during the early eighties. For those who have not had first hand experience it’s a fascinating glimpse of a world that no longer exists except in the memories of those who have lived through it. With its infamous clubs, squats, junkies and counter culture music scene it epitomizes the spirit of rebellion that was in direct opposition to the American dream that Reagan was selling nightly from every television set in America.
The clubs of the Lower East Side such as the A7 are now long gone but the themes in Be Still are as relevant today as they were back in the 80s. Over the course of 10 days the children will face officious teachers, troubled parents, brutal high school bullies, sex, drugs and a daily fight for survival. Meanwhile the adults contend with, among other problems, unemployment and the fear of immigrant workers stealing their jobs. Reagan’s government propaganda is always present in the background, selling a delusional dream that many bought into but few could actually afford.
As with his previous novel Naderia, Be Still and Know That I Am is a story that skillfully interweaves many characters and plotlines over its 600 pages. This isn’t a novel that preaches politics or lays blames at the door of any individual or group; the answers are never always that simple. It’s a story of resilience as the characters fight against the forces that try to grind them down on a daily basis while finding their own way within the world.
If you have had a childhood that was less than idyllic you will be able to relate to the characters in this book. Adult readers may find themselves pausing during the book and removing those rose tinted glasses that come with age as they begin to remember clearly the seemingly insurmountable problems they themselves endured as teenagers. That experience alone makes Be Still and Know That I Am a praiseworthy achievement.
In the first of a two part interview I talked with Julian Gallo about his third novel Be Still and Know That I Am.
Be Still is a complete change in direction from your previous novels what made you choose this subject matter?
I had always wanted to write this story – but the problem was I could never figure out how to do it. I always kept it in the back of my mind. I didn’t want it to be a nostalgia trip. I always had the idea of setting a story based around the whole Punk Rock thing in the early 1980s but I didn’t want it to be ABOUT that exactly. I wanted to have a story that was set around all that – and that time period in general – without it being a “Remember when” story or a silly thing that just dropped 80s cultural references in just for the hell of it (although there is some of that there, of course.)
A strange thing happened that actually pulled it all together. I was in St. Lucia and I got an email from a guy that I hadn’t seen in years regarding an old Punk Rock band I played with back in the early 80s. He sent me a link to a rehearsal video of us that was posted on YouTube. Imagine how much my mind was blown at that. Anyway, he managed to get us all reunited via Facebook after almost 30 years and we all got together one night – almost 30 years to the DAY that our band played our first gig – and in a bar right down the street from where the old club, A7, was. We got to talking, catching up, reminiscing and all that. When I left, the idea of the story hit me and I finally figured out how to go about it. I suppose you could say the stars were aligned for this one. I mean, really, what are the chances of all that happening out of the blue?
The title is a quote from the bible, how did this come about?
Originally that wasn’t going to be the title of the book. I had some other ridiculous thing that didn’t really sit well with me but I kind of just kept it there until something better came along. When I came across that quote, I kept turning it over and over in my head and I realized that it would work perfectly for the story. I purposely dropped the word “God” from it – for reasons that are in the story – and what was left was a quote I thought would work on many different levels – the idea of someone who is striving to be himself, one who’s constantly trying to reassure himself that he is okay. It also worked in a different way regarding the other characters in the story: Tommy feeling “God-like” as he spirals further and further into violence; the sense of comfort that Nico’s dad gets as he tries to cope with the loss of his wife, etc. It can apply to just about every character in the story in different ways.
How much of the novel is autobiographical?
Not as much as one would probably think. I was a lot like Nico in a lot of ways – small, shy, angry with the world, rebellious, etc, but aren’t a lot of teenagers that way? I drew from my own experiences as being an “outsider” in those years and gave that to Nico but there are differences too. I didn’t look as extreme as he does, for one, and there are things he does that I wouldn’t have done and vice versa. But there is a lot drawn from my teenage years: the high school the kids go to, the junior high Giovanna goes to, the teachers, the dean, the church, the parks, etc, although most of them are never specifically named. Even some of the other kids in the story were loosely based on people I actually knew. Even some of the events that happen actually happened as well.
The story itself is purely fictional, of course. But I tried to capture that time period – as it was in my neighborhood in Queens, New York and the Lower East Side in late 1982. And some of the other things are quite factual as well – little things like the teams playing in the ball games, what was on TV at a particular time and particular night – even the weather was 100% accurate for September 1982. The internet makes all those little details so easy to verify. You can find just about anything if you know what you’re looking for. That’s why I always say that writers should utilize the internet and not shun it as a distraction when writing fiction.
Will people who were around in New York during this period recognize the places you have written about?
Not around New York generally but a particular area in Queens specifically, I think. Although I never name the high school, the junior high school, anyone who lived in my area of Queens would definitely be able to figure it out. Probably because other areas are specifically mentioned – street names, etc. But I made it a point to not quite identify exactly where Nico’s family lived. It’s actually an amalgam of two different neighborhoods near where I grew up – a sort of fictional blend of the two. The scenes in the Lower East Side are exactly how it was back at that time – down to the last detail as far as I can remember it. I also wanted to keep it as general as I could so that one didn’t have to be from that area to be able to relate to it.
Did you intentionally pick certain plotlines that you knew would be as relevant today as the time period the story is set in?
Not at all. I wanted it to be purely late 1982 and I had to wrack my brain for a while to remember how things were and not get too nostalgic about it. I wanted to try to portray things just as they were at the time. The things that everyone does in this story, kids actually did things like that around where I grew up. The plotlines evolved as I was writing the story. A lot of it wasn’t planned out at all. In fact, what it started out to be was something completely different to how it eventually turned out. I just went with it and see where it would take me.
The younger characters’ stories are timeless; the outsiders, the bullies, drugs, sex, music and also the death of a parent to deal. Did you try to encompass most of the issues kids go through within this small group of teens?
Sort of, yes. When I first set out to write this story, I originally envisioned something a little darker, actually – something more “serious” in a way but that approach was not working at all. I had to keep reminding myself that the bulk of the story is seen through the eyes of a bunch of 16 year olds – at a certain time and place as well. I originally started writing it from an omniscient point of view of an older man looking back but that wasn’t working at all. I wanted it to be more immediate, more “in the moment” so to speak. I thought about those teen books I loved growing up – particularly S.E. Hinton’s books (“The Outsiders”, “That Was Then This is Now” and “Rumble Fish”) and thought perhaps I should try that approach – and I thought doing that worked very well, although I wouldn’t say that this is a “Young Adult” novel like the one’s she wrote. But if comes off that way, so be it. That’s fine with me.
When I reached the point where I thought it wasn’t working the way I hoped, I went back and rewrote everything from this perspective – consciously keeping Hinton in mind. It’s a sort of tribute to her and those books in a way, which I devoured when I was like 13, 14 years old. Of course, the fictional element comes in via all the things that happen in such a short span of time the story takes place – over 10 days. But I think many teens in America – and probably elsewhere too – deal with these issues all the time. When I was growing up, a lot of kids I knew actually had these problems to contend with – and some even far worse than this. I tried to get it all in there as much as possible without going too overboard with it. I also think I was trying to make a statement about my generation in particular: this is what it was like for us in our adolescence. Didn’t any one notice? In some ways, no, they didn’t.
The adults don’t come across, on the whole, as entirely likeable. Alcoholic and uncaring parents, bullying teachers and a pedophilic priest. Again, issues that have a knock on effect on the behavior of some of the younger characters. Is there a sense of laying blame partly on the parents for the children’s problems?
Kids are a product of their environment. This is what was going on for a lot of kids around my neighborhood and a lot of kids I knew personally. While I wouldn’t exactly place the blame on them – I would most definitely say that they contributed to it. The way you see the parents interacting with their kids is not something I just made up for the story. I knew kids who had parents just like this. I was always horrified by that. I was one of the lucky kids who grew up in a stable home with parents who gave a shit. I can’t say that for some of the kids I knew growing up. The way they interacted with them was something alien to me. I tried to bring a little of my own family experience into Nico’s family. Naturally, his situation is fictionalized. My father wasn’t an alcoholic, my mother was and is still alive but for Nico, I wanted to make his environment troubled but still loving.
Even though his father is troubled too, he loves his family and does whatever he can to try to hold it together while at the same time, trying to hold himself together. The whole Italian-American theme on family, I tried very hard to insert that into Nico’s environment. I also wanted the reader to think that Nico’s dad was a prick at the beginning then come to learn that he actually wasn’t – that he was actually a stand up guy who was only fighting his demons just like anyone else. Nico’s home life and mine were on opposite ends of the spectrum, for sure.
In the early 80s the American Dream espoused during the Reagan era doesn’t seem to exist for the adults in the novel. Do you think you anything has changed for the better for the working class in New York since then?
Not really, no. That was the dirty little secret during the Reagan years – at least as far as I saw it. Some won the lottery and others didn’t. Simple as that. Today you got much of the same thing happening – not only in New York but all over America these days. The gulf between the haves and the have-nots is growing wider and wider every year. But that doesn’t keep some from working against their own interests. This is what I tried to get across with Gaetano’s co-workers – guys who had absolutely nothing but yet were cheerleaders for everything that Reagan stood for at the time. It was only later on they learn the consequences of this. Peppered throughout the book there is this conflict. You see it with Gaetano’s coworkers attitudes towards Reagan as well as Nico’s teacher and her propagandizing in the classroom – who was based on a real teacher that I had in high school, who viewed me as this “radical” because I wore a Dead Kennedys T-shirt.
You also may notice the radical references throughout as well – Nico’s sister learning about Communism, the interest that Nico takes in Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Communist who was jailed by Mussolini, the working class frustration and the lengths they’d go to just to feel they are succeeding in something, etc. I wanted to have that gulf appear loud and clear but at the same time not get on the soapbox about it. During those years, the conflict between Capitalism and Communism was in full force – the Cold War years – meanwhile, although no one wanted to be a Communist and hated Communism, in fact, that didn’t mean that Capitalism was the answer to all their problems either. For many in this country – then and now – the deck is stacked against them.
You’ve lived in NY all your life, has it become corporatized beyond recognition compared to your early days?
In some ways yes, and in other ways it is as it always was. I would say that what’s happening now is not too dissimilar to what happened in the later 1980s – after Reagan was re-elected and the “Boom” began, the rise of the Yuppie and all that, that was portrayed brilliantly in Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho.” This story takes place before all of that happened but I think you can see the seeds being planted throughout the story – even if it’s just between the lines. Then, as now, things began to disappear. Only now it seems to be happening at a furious pace.
In reference to Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side in particular, all the old cultural landmarks – or things I felt SHOULD have been cultural landmarks – are all being pushed out by rising rents and luxury condos – which the “hip” seem to be so eager to move into by the way, no matter how much they decry the changing nature of the neighborhoods. All my favorite little haunts are disappearing: CBGBs, for one, and now even the old Chelsea Hotel is becoming a “luxury” hotel now. The old cafés that had been in the Village for decades – disappearing and being replaced by either fast food joints or chain drug stores. It’s a damn shame, really. One of the few that are left is Caffe Reggio. That’s been there since the 1930s. I pray that it will be able to hang on.
You have been very prolific with your writing in the last couple of years with Naderia, November Rust edit and now Be Still, what’s next on the writing front?
I haven’t been as prolific as it may seem. It took me 7-8 years to write “November Rust”, and then another 7 years to complete “Nadería.” I wrote “Be Still and Know That I Am” in about 5 months but have been working on edits and rewrites up until very recently so in total that one took closer to a year to write. My current project I began back in February this year and I’m only a third of the way through. For some reason, this one is a little more difficult to pull together. But I’ve got tons of ideas ready to go it’s just a matter of working on them but I don’t like to work on more than one thing at a time. I get too distracted and overwhelmed.
I’ve also written a bunch of short stories over the past year – something I’d been wanting to do for a while now. Some of them have appeared in various on-line venues such as BrooWaha, ShortStory.uk and IndieInk.com but most of them remain unpublished. The idea of the single story eBooks came to me recently and I thought this would be a great way to make these stories available directly to the reader. The plan I have for them is to release a single short story eBook about once a month and then eventually collect them all into a hardcopy collection. But we’ll see what happens. I’m also planning to make “Nadería” and “Be Still and Know That I Am” as eBooks as well. The more avenues the better, I say. I just want to keep writing – and if I finish something I feel proud of, I’ll put it out there and let the chips fall where they may. Take the bull by the horns, as they say, and try to build your audience, even if it’s one book at a time. That’s all one can really ask for, really.
Be Still and Know That I Am is available now
Tags: julian gallo, lower east side, Music, new york, novel, punk, queens, teenagers