“Sometimes you put up walls not to keep people out, but to see who cares enough to break them down.” This is the fitting epigraph by Greek philosopher Socrates that leads us into Julian Gallo’s latest novel, Breathe. But the origins and consequences of these self-constructed emotional walls are the underpinning story-line here.
Although Breathe explores the lives of three main characters, to me, it’s Marco Pazzolini’s journey that binds together the converging plot-lines. We first encounter Pazzolini and his girlfriend living a seemingly contented, mid-life existence on the Greek island of Monoxia. But obtaining this sun-drenched solitude has cost Marco both a flourishing career as a musician and his relationship with his daughter, Jenna, who is herself paying a price for her father’s virtual abandonment.
The theme of absent parents, whether through work or desertion, and how this affects the children left behind, is prevalent throughout the novel. Christos, an island native and Marco’s friend for the past two decades, is another central character; a man who although he has tried not to make the same mistakes as his absent father, has ultimately spent much of his life working at sea, providing financially but missing physically from his family.
Each of these characters encounter a defining moment, and it’s a point that ties in with the title of the book, and one that I’m sure many readers can relate to or perhaps have thought of doing during life’s darker moments. It’s that character-testing point when the pressure becomes so intense that you can either succumb and eventually lose yourself altogether or stand up and say, ‘enough’. But in Breathe, Gallo takes it beyond this point to explore the knock-on effect, the ripples over the water, which occur when a person breaks free from the old to forge a new, and in some cases unrecognizable, life.
Breathe is a slow burn of a novel, one which will easily reward the reader if they invest the time. The writing is lean and tight, yet Gallo’s fully-formed descriptions of Mediterranean island life, as well as a back-story set in the anti-folk music scene of a nineties New York, where Marco’s rise and eventual abandonment of fame is explored, are vividly brought to life and will make you feel as if you’re travelling through these polar opposite worlds; the New York story is a hugely enjoyable read and succinctly explores the pettiness and rivalry that comes when one person achieves what others desire.
The themes in Breathe bring to mind that famous quote, ‘You may be done with the past but the past is not done with you’ or as Gallo poetically sums up just before Marco’s life is thrown into turmoil, “You had no idea that night that your life was an extremely precarious house of cards and all it would take was a feather to land on it to have it all tumbling down.”
Julian Gallo Discusses His Latest Novel ‘Breathe’
I can see Breathe as being the antithesis to your last novel, Rhombus Denied. Rhombus explored, at a frenetic pace, the theme of creative posterity; the narrator scrambling desperately to make a final mark on the New York theater world, while Breathe concerns a recently famous musician who discards his career and fame without a second thought. Yet both books do highlight the importance of life ultimately lying elsewhere – as in, life shouldn’t be all about the work no matter how important it is to you.
Marco dropped everything in a heartbeat, mainly because nothing turned out how he imagined it would be. He imagined being an “artist” but soon learns that music is a business more than anything else and no matter what your artistic aspirations are, the bottom line always matters more, at least to those who are in control of your career, those who hold the purse strings. You can see that difference when he recorded his album for the small record label and when he decides to make the jump to the corporate label; and he only did so because he suddenly found himself with a child to care for and he needed the money. His priorities begin to change and he suddenly realizes that it isn’t about him anymore. Add to this that he learns right away that the music business is a business.
He spends a lot of the time on the road, away from his wife and daughter, so much time that it starts to cause a rift in his marriage. Between that and the phoniness of the whole business unfolding before him, he was more than willing to drop everything and become the family man, the father he knew he was supposed to be. But his wife had other plans, which acts as the catalyst for him pulling his disappearing act. With all the pressure mounting from his career and with his wife running off with another man, taking their child with them, he decides to simply give up and run off, to live a sort of life where he could be left alone, a chance to breathe, or at least that’s how he saw it.
Absent parents and their relationships or non-relationships with their children is a main theme. In some ways you seem to have placed a lot of the blame for the children’s problems on the adult’s shoulders.
Oh, absolutely. Having a solid, stable family environment is the most important thing for a child to have. A child is brought into this world not of its own choosing. Others make that choice and it’s quite unfortunate that in some cases parents don’t see that it’s not about them anymore. There’s a little life here now, one that didn’t ask to be here. That child depends on the parents for literally everything. I find it sad that many children are often brought into the world not of their own choosing and their parents don’t want the “bourdon” of having to care for them. I know shit happens, marriages come apart, but that doesn’t mean that each parent can’t still be in the child’s life. Marco fucked up by running away from his responsibilities as a father. Yes, he tried to keep in touch with his daughter but it isn’t the same as being present in her life. He was more concerned with his own shit, his own issues but it was something he struggled with all the years he was in self-imposed exile. He was running away from life but he thinks he’s actually finding it.
Jenna’s mother makes all the wrong choices too, especially when Jenna was at her most vulnerable age. Her life comes apart once her mother makes a very irresponsible choice of her own and all of this begins to confuse Jenna, who then began to question what really happened with regard to her biological father. She begins to think something is afoot and she needed to learn the truth so she sets out to learn the truth. In each case, both of Jenna’s parents make the wrong choices, more concerned with their own well-being than that of their child.
Christos’ case is a bit different. He was an absentee father due to his job, always being out at sea. He loved his son dearly but he couldn’t be there for him as much as he wanted to or as much as he should have been, much like his own father wasn’t there for him. But he learns too, in a different way and a different situation, what he had missed all those years. He essentially missed his son growing up and he gets a sharp reminder of that when that incident occurs on his last job which was the ultimate wake up call for him.
Leaving his NY life behind, as Marco did without a second thought for the responsibilities of his child and career, can either be seen as running away and hiding or as bravely saying ‘no’ to the pressures around him.
I think it’s a bit of both, really. On one hand, he had no compunction about walking away from his music career because he came to see it was in reality against everything he believed in artistically but he essentially walks away from it because of what it did to his family life. But as I said earlier, his wife had other plans, plans that didn’t include him. He drops everything, tries to settle everything with her but once he realized that his marriage was over and that he still had a career to think about, he decides to say ‘Fuck it” and run away from all of it, go into hiding, although he initially saw it as temporary. His temporary hiatus winds up lasting twenty years. But this is a question I’d rather let the readers decide for themselves.
The title fits in well with the pacing of the story. Reading Breathe, specifically the Greek island scenes, was like taking a vacation after the NY ‘younger Marco’ scenes. You seem to have written it specifically in a way that makes the reader take their time when reading. There’s even a part where Marco and Christos are having the same conversation they did almost 10 years previously, as if time stands still on this island.
The island that Marco lives is a fictional one, Monoxiá, which in Greek means solitude. It’s a name I chose intentionally, as sort of symbolic for the kind of life he thought he was living all those years and for what he had been yearning for since leaving his old life behind. He initially discovers the island while playing dates in Athens and he has a couple of free days to go exploring. He winds up on that island and loves it for it’s slow pace, it’s simplicity. While there he discovers the house, which at that time was owned by an old Greek fisherman.
The old man lets him into his home and begins to tell him stories about his life, and what he learns about the old man is also another thing that figures into his decision to walk away from everything. After he gives up his music, he goes back to that island for a visit, only to discover that the house was now for sale, the old man had passed on. He doesn’t hesitate to buy it, thinking it would be some kind of ‘vacation home’ for him. He winds up never leaving.
I wanted to capture a mood, a particular atmosphere, the slow pace of life on that island and contrast it to the frenetic beehive-like existence he had been living for most of his life. It was a place where he could disappear, be as far away from everything he had ever known. He essentially drops out of life but he believes he’s beginning a new one. And for those two decades he pretty much lives that kind of life — lounging about at home with his girlfriend, going down to the marina to drink coffee with Christos, or buy food from the old vendor in town; it’s quite an idyllic existence and I wanted to capture that.
In a way, time does stand still for him and he’s gotten into a new routine, a new way of life. The first hint that something was going to change is when a tourist shows up on the island one day and knows who he is, recognizes him, which startles him, especially after twenty years. That sort of sets the stage for what’s to come.
The guitar hanging on the wall of Marco’s Greek home seems symbolic, as if he’s hung up his guitar but can’t quite let it go. Is this also a reflection on the years you spent as a musician in NY?
I think there may be a little of myself in that, sure. For most of my life, since I was a boy, music was my first love. I’d played in bands up until my early 40s and occasionally I still go out there to play but music has taken a back seat to writing for a long time now. I wouldn’t say I’d ‘given it up’ exactly, but essentially I did, I guess. I have no desire whatsoever to begin that all over again, not at this age. In fact, I think there’s a line where Marco alludes to people ‘not wanting to see this middle aged, overweight man prancing about the stage’. I guess I was sort of thinking of myself there, sure. But in Marco’s case, it’s exactly as you describe. He’s “hung it up” but it’s still there, calling to him. At any moment he can take it off the wall and begin playing again. It’s there as a reminder of his former life. He wants to put it all behind him but at the same time he misses it. He hasn’t let it go entirely.
A lot of those scenes were drawn directly from my time as a musician — the kinds of people I knew, that sort of pettiness that takes place at times, the competitiveness, the hustling one has to do, as well as the great and fun times, of course. Most importantly, the reality that music is a business and there’s no escaping that. When you’re young you think it’s going to be solely artistic but you soon learn that doesn’t really mean much.
Music, unfortunately, is a “product” like everything else and those on the business end see it as such and make sure you know it as well. There are a lot of illusions about it that one doesn’t see when they’re young, eager and hungry. The funny thing is the literary world isn’t much different. It’s just a different medium.
There’s a great flashback section in the book entitled Bright Lights, Folk City, which describes Marco’s rise from obscurity to fame in the 1996 NY music scene, and you’ve written this section in the second person. It’s more than a nod to Jay McInerney’s novel. What made you choose to write that section in this way apart from the hindsight aspect?
When I was ready to write that section of the story, Marco’s “backstory” in a sense, the title of the section occurred to me almost immediately and I thought by writing it in the second person would be a nice tribute to McInerney’s novel, which I loved. It’s the only book of his that I read, actually. That was completely intentional. I also thought it would be a different way to present that part of the story instead of using the first person which I thought would be typical to do, so I wanted to try something a bit different. In a way, it’s really a “false” second person and by the end of that section, the reader will see how.
I thought the pun of the title section was kind of funny too, not only as a nod to the McInerney novel but also there used to be a folk club in New York called Folk City many moons ago, which closed around 1987 or so. During the mid-late 80s, they started having more than just singer/songwriters and folk music there. A lot of “alternative” acts like Sonic Youth and Hüsker Dü did shows there. But as the story goes in New York, they lost their lease and the club shut down for good. So it’s all a play on that, really. Marco was part of what was called the “Anti-Folk” scene in the 1990s, which is where people like Beck and Ani DiFranco got their start. I’m not all that knowledgeable about that scene but I was aware of it all at the time. My old band was still playing around New York in those days. It was there but we weren’t part of it. The club Marco plays at, Sidewalk Café, is where it was based. That club is still around and I’ve played there a couple of times.
I also get the feeling of a connection, not sure if it was intentional, but McInerney’s novel has been called, by some, as an updated Catcher in the Rye, that famous novel written by Salinger who then disappeared from public life at the height of his fame, as Marco does.
I did think of Salinger when it came to Marco. Sort of, anyway. Mainly the idea of someone who was willing to shun fame and celebrity in order to be left alone. “Catcher In The Rye” had no influence at all on the story, though, but I can see some connections there so perhaps it came through subconsciously. Marco was disillusioned with what he saw as “phony” about his music career and in “Catcher”, Holden Caulfield was preoccupied with the idea of “phoniness”. It wasn’t a conscious thing at all.
“Breathe” was more influenced by film, if anything else. The structure of the novel was heavily influenced by some independent films that I absolutely love, the idea of bookending the present-time story around the backstories of each of the main characters to kind of show what led up to the present moment. As I was writing it, I was “seeing” it, if you know what I mean, as if there were a movie screen in front of me and I was watching these characters move about.
Hindsight plays a big part in Breathe with the flashback sections; the adults are middle-aged, looking back at their actions and consequences. You’ve very recently made some major life changes yourself, which occurred after you had written Breathe. Did you come to a point in your life where you decided to take control of your life and that hindsight could take care of itself?
It’s kind of funny, actually, because when I reread the manuscript, I saw all these things in it. There’s no doubt that this was on my mind when writing this. I wrote it back in 2013, so it’s already a couple of years old. It was actually written before “Rhombus Denied” but I chose to put out “Rhombus” first because it was a complete break from my earlier novels. I wanted to get something out there that signalled that change in direction. The first five novels are kind of dark, full of transgressive elements and black humor (or at least I think so). I wanted to move on from that, try something different. “Breathe” was my first attempt at something a bit more “serious” in tone. I’d never thought of tackling the subject matter of parenthood and fatherhood before, especially since I’m not one. But my friends, all of them are parents now and I guess being around them and their kids kind of made me think about things a bit differently, see the world in a very different way. Kids will do that to you, whether or not they’re your own.
Also, as I approach 50, I thought it was time to explore different themes. The first few novels were geared towards a very specific age group. I couldn’t imagine and still can’t imagine someone in their 50s and 60s relating to “November Rust” or “Be Still and Know That I Am”. I guess the older you get the more you begin thinking about things and new ideas and experiences creep into everything. I knew it was time for a huge change in my life and I finally took the steps towards that change. It’s scary, for sure. Walking away from a 27 year career is no small feat. I know eventually I’ll have to get another full time gig since the writing isn’t bringing in that kind of money. Looking back at “Breathe”, I could see that in a way it was a cry for help, a yearning to leave the past behind and move forward towards bigger and better things.
You seem to be in retrospective mood at the moment, with the theme of Breathe, your upcoming poetry anthology and your recently wrote a piece Letter To My Seven Year Old Self.
I suppose I go through periods of that, sure. The poetry anthology is set for a spring release. It’s going to be called “Scarecrows and Marionettes: Collected Poems 1995-2015”. It’s pretty much all the poetry that I had written over the past 20 years. All of my previous published poetry will be in it — all the poems that were in the chapbooks plus those that were published in various magazines over the years, plus many that were never published before. There’s also a few new poems in there as well, those written in 2015. I was looking them over and decided it was time to put that all in the past, so to speak. It’s simply a way of making it all available to all and sundry to sort of ‘clean the slate’ and start anew.
“Letter To My Seven Year Old Self” is a chapbook that was published by Budget Press in 2015. Budget Press had published one of my chapbooks back in 2000 and the editor had written me asking me if I had anything I might want to do for their new chapbook series. I had written this sort of “thought experiment” in which the idea behind it was if I were able to tell my younger self what kind of world he would be living in the 21st Century, how would my present self even begin to describe it to someone for whom our time period would be so alien. It was fun to do because it was a bit of a challenge. Imagine trying to explain the internet to someone in 1973! At any rate, it was a fun exercise and I’m happy that Johnnie B Baker of Budget Press thought of me to do something again. They publish a wide range of chapbooks and have a zine as well. One of the few people still fighting the good fight.
I recently found out that “Letter…” wound up in Iran. If you would have asked me — ever — if anything I’d ever written would ever wind up there, I would have thought you were crazy. But literature of all kinds has a way of crossing cultural barriers and that’s one of the things I’d always loved about writing and literature in general. God knows if anyone will actually read the thing over there but the thought of it pleases me a great deal
And some final words…
Right now I’m in a good place. There are a hell of a lot of writing projects I want to get done and now I have the time to do it. The novel I am currently working on is almost finished, or at least the first draft is. There are others that I never completed that I want to finish and I want to write more shorter works as well. I just want to keep writing and with any luck I’ll earn more readers. I want to focus on this more than anything else. I love writing. Woody Allen once said something to the effect that it’s a wonderful thing to be able to create your own world whenever you want to. This is what I love about writing more than anything else. And I’ll keep doing it, no matter what happens, whether I have ten readers, a thousand readers or even one. It was never about “celebrity” for me. It’s about sharing in the experience, to contribute my share to the pile and let the chips fall where they may.
Breathe is available now as an ebook from Amazon and other online bookstores, and as a paperback from Lulu Press.
More information can be found on Julian’s Desvario website.
About the Author: Garry Crystal
Garry Crystal is a freelance writer living in the UK. His short stories and articles have appeared in print and online including Expats Post, The Andirondack Review, Turnrow Journal, Roadside Fiction and Orato. br> His first book Leaving London is available on Amazon and other retailers now. br> View My Profile