“November Rust” – Updated Interview with Author Julian Gallo
November Rust, Julian Gallo’s first novel, is one of those rare books that isn’t scared to take risks and doesn’t shy away from demanding the reader’s attention.
This interview was first published in 2009 after the release of Julian Gallo’s first novel November Rust. This interview includes an update in which Julian talks about November Rust almost five years after publication and the challenges faced when writing his subsequent novels.
“I spent half my life searching for Goddard days and Fellini evenings. Instead I found the dog days, lying in wait, watching the faces go by my window. They haven’t changed in all these years. But I have.” – November Rust
Very few writers these days are willing to take risks when it comes to their work. There are seemingly too few who are willing to experiment or play jazz with language and narrative. It may of course be the case that publishers are not willing to take a chance when it comes to writers who are actually trying to create something different from the mass marketed, over hyped next big thing. November Rust, Julian Gallo’s first novel, is one of those rare books that isn’t scared to take risks and doesn’t shy away from demanding the reader’s attention.
Ostensibly November Rust is the tale of an aspiring New York writer who decides to escape his problems by living in Paris. This plotline has been trodden before by the likes of Hemmingway and Miller but Gallo updates it for the 21st century. He holds up a mirror to today’s society and asks the reader to decide between reality and perception. Relationships between the sexes no matter what country they live in is the fundamental plotline here. The complex mind games people play with each other, and ultimately themselves, will be instantly recognizable to those who have a tendency to analyze their relationships, continually look for answers to age old questions. In this multi-layered story there are also numerous subplots including a bickering creative community living abroad, which many aspiring writers and artists will recognize and relate to.
November Rust is also an exhilarating experiment when it comes to leaving behind the cosy confines of the tried and tested prose routes. Various writing styles are peppered throughout the book between the more straightforward narrative structure. This does keep the reader on their toes and adds an extra dimension to the tale, perfectly capturing the ‘in transit’ dreamlike quality of living in a foreign country. When it comes to setting a scene Gallo cannot be faulted. He has been a published poet for many years now and has a way with imagery that takes the reader into the Parisian settings as if stepping onto the set of an Eric Rohmer film. The flashback New York passages are also touching, evocative, and above all, realistic.
Overall, November Rust is an ambitious first novel that requires a certain amount of investment from the reader. This is not a quick and easy read. But if you are looking for a book that will leave you thinking and doesn’t take the straightforward plodding plotline that has been used numerous times before then November Rust will be well worth the investment.
I talked recently to Julian Gallo about November Rust, his thoughts on writing that first novel, New York life and today’s literary world.
GC: Explain the first line of the novel.
JG: It’s taken from a Hungarian version of “Once Upon A Time”. It’s my little nod to Eastern European literature which I really enjoyed reading over the years. Hungarian fairytales usually begin with something like “It happened, it didn’t happen”. That’s the first clue that what you are reading may not actually be true. But a lot of it is really—for the most part.
GC: November Rust is partly about a writer escaping his problems in New York only to be ultimately faced with the same problems in Paris. Was this your initial intention?
JG: Part of the point of the novel is that you can’t run away from your problems since you will always bring them with you no matter where you go. It’s also a little bit of an ironic look at the “expatriate novel” as well; the romantic notion of the “writer running off to Paris” to write his book as if this, in and of itself, would make any issues one may have disappear. This is really a novel about growth; it’s a novel of ideas rather than plot. The idea of not being able to run from your problems or issues is one of those ideas I wanted to explore. Of course, not all the ideas expressed are necessarily “mine”, but are observations of the character.
GC: The narrator gives a great deal of good advice throughout the book to others but ultimately cannot help screwing up a relationship that he himself is in.
JG: I am always fascinated by how people relate to one another and what criteria they use to sometimes judge one another. The fact that in the book it’s mainly between men and women wasn’t intentional but I guess subconsciously I was trying to work something out based on my own experiences, which unfortunately were never all that good, with the exception of a few instances.
There are too many games people play with one another because people become so damaged over the course of their lives they always have their defenses up and it makes it difficult for people to truly be open and honest with one another. I do believe people can change and people often do change, that is, if they are aware of their own issues and work on them and not always look at themselves as if they were a victim all the time. I also wanted to show the flimsy and fragile nature of relationships at the turn of the 21st century, how things are as they always have been. Complicated, but sometimes unnecessarily so.
GC: One of the characters becomes a homeless artist on the streets of Paris. There is a cliché that certain would be artists/writers think they need to experience as a certain pathway to greatness falling upon them. Does he exist in the book as a way of getting this idea across and showing it for what it really is?
JG: This character is actually based on a couple of people I have known, young New York artists who feel that in order to be creative you must live this sort of dumpster diver existence. It’s to show the fallacy of the whole “Bohemian” idea that one “must” be starving in order to be a creative individual. The whole idea of being the “vagabond”, to me at least, is a purely romantic notion that I don’t think was ever really true to begin with. Maybe there were a few out there like that. Van Gogh comes to mind and maybe a few others. They never lived on the streets. I mean, Picasso never lived on the street and neither did any other of the great artists and writers. It’s more of a fictional, romantic notion of the “starving artist” that unfortunately a lot of young people still embrace today. All around New York you still see this and believe me there is no way in hell you can live like this in New York and be a creative artist, you would wind up dead.
GC: Hardship and taking risks can lead to a different set of experiences and bring out some great writing.
JG: This is true, but I don’t know if intentionally putting yourself in that position would really do this. It’s a risk that you would have to take. Many people in this world suffer silently, you know? The character in November Rust who intentionally throws himself into such a predicament is far different from say the kid who had his hands cut off by criminals looking to export diamonds like they do in Sierra Leone; or the young women getting acid thrown in their faces by Islamic extremists in Afghanistan. I conceived this character as a typical upper Middle Class American kid with a trust fund who throws it all away in order to “suffer” when he has the option to leave it all behind whenever he wants.
GC: The main character has a great distain for ‘hipsters’ who pose as writers/artists but actually create very little. The book has a great deal to say on perception influencing reality and vice versa.
JG: Well, I guess it just goes back to those I’ve known over the years. Many who cop the attitude and judge others harshly but never actually produce anything themselves. And not only artists do this but in any profession, really. It’s really just my rant against those who think just because they look the part that they are what they appear to be. I’ve personally dealt with this nonsense all the time because I don’t “look the part”, sometimes it’s hard to be taken seriously by these cretins. Of course, I’m referring to specifically American “hipsters”. Americans are obsessed with appearances. All style and hardly any substance. So long as something looks a certain way, it is, despite what the reality may actually be. America’s whole cultural ethos is based on that, I think. In certain cases aspiring creative people in America are viewed by those who don’t understand as being “foolish” or “madmen”, unless they are making tons of money.
GC: The novel seems biographical, how much was taken from real life?
JG: The New York sections are virtually completely factual, except for the names being changed, where certain events happened, when they happened. Some of the characters are composites of different people I knew or met along the way. But the events themselves are all true. Maybe just not exactly the way you read them. These scenes were all drawn from a very troubling period in my life but I tried to express some of it with a little humor.
GC: Why did you decide on Paris as the main setting?
JG: The Paris sections are a mixture of fact and complete fiction. I had spent some time there but not nearly as long as the book implies. I drew on a lot of those experiences for the Paris sections of the book. The Paris characters are all fictional, although the American characters are loosely based on actual people I had known or met in New York. So I sort of blur the lines between fact and fiction throughout the whole thing. Part of the goal was to make the reader wonder what was true and what was fictional.
GC: Do you think Paris still holds this attraction for writers/artists from other parts of the world or is it simply a case of needing to escape the confines of your own culture in order to broaden your horizons or to see that actually everything is basically the same no matter where you go?
JG: I chose Paris because I just happened to be there at the time I was really struggling to write this book. It very well could have been Rome or Madrid or Buenos Aires. I love Paris. It’s such a beautiful city and it is a character in and of itself. I think this came from my love of the old Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane books where the city they are in is often a character in the stories as well. And I love Film Noir as well and these films also feature the “city as character”. I always loved that idea. And this book was influenced by films as much as it was by books.
But to get back to your question, yes. I think we all bring something to wherever we go and tend to look at it through that prism. I’m sure your average Parisian doesn’t find their city as wonderful and beautiful as I experienced it. Just like when I hear people tell me how wonderful New York is, I kind of shrug and say, ‘if you say so.’
GC: I loved the writing device where characters seem to ‘mix’ together and to me it seemed to be the narrator was ‘hearing’ other people’s thoughts. Was this actually a take on how writers often create their own worlds or is this again to do with people’s perceptions of others?
JG: I was experimenting. The whole book there is experimenting going on. Some of the narrative is actually poems of mine that I incorporated into it. There is some stream of consciousness, “cut-up” writing ala William S. Burroughs & Bryon Gysin, etc. What I wanted to do in those scenes was to get into the minds of the other characters for a bit, to see how they were perceiving the narrator since in a first person telling, you are always forced to see it through the narrator’s eyes. I thought it would be interesting to sort of start blending the two to kind of give the reader a glimpse into the mind of the other characters rather than through the filter of the narrator. It was an experiment I didn’t know would work…and still don’t know if it does, really, but I wanted to try something different.
I suppose that idea was influenced a lot from Latin American writers who often play with the narrations of their novels, switching tenses, time, perceptions, etc. But I didn’t want to write it in third person because I thought first person was a much easier route to be free with expressing some of the ideas that I wanted to get across…but first person can be very limiting so I tried to play around with the narrative a bit just to give a glimpse into the minds of the other characters.
GC: You mention Burroughs and Gysin, but the publishing world now seems to play it very safe in what it offers the public. Do you think that that group of writers, artists etc are still relevant today?
JG: I think the whole Beat movement is very relevant, yes. I came to the Beats when I was in my late teens. At first, I really didn’t have any use for poetry because of all the crap they taught you at school. Robert Frost and all that. I remember liking T.S. Eliot a lot and his “Wasteland” but when I first read “Howl” by Ginsberg when I was about 16 or 17 it changed my view of what poetry could be. It really stunned me. From there, I went on to Kerouac and the rest of the Beats: Corso, Ferlinghetti, etc. Really powerful stuff. Then I read the novels. The first Beat novel I read was “The Dharma Bums” which really had a huge affect on me. Again, it showed that a novel could be something different and that it didn’t necessarily have to follow a certain criteria. There are plenty of others who write the way writing teachers insist that you shouldn’t, which is all the more reason why you should, in my opinion.
GC: At 510 pages for a first novel it is quite an epic, how long did it take to write?
JG: I’ve mainly written poetry but I’ve always wanted to write a novel because most of my favorite writers are novelists. I began writing it in 1996. I struggled with it for a number of years, not knowing where it was going, what I was trying to say, etc. I just kept going back to it, writing whole sections, getting rid of them, trying again, etc. I let it sit for a long while too since I just couldn’t get a handle on it, really. I essentially gave up on it for a while.
One day I was on-line, in one of those writer’s forums, and I wrote about what I was trying to do and this woman in the group—I really wish I could remember her name because I owe everything to her—told me that what I was trying to do reminded her of Julio Cortazar’s “Hopscotch”. I never heard of Cortazar at that point. Well…that afternoon, I ran out to the bookstore to get this book to see what she was talking about. I read the first 5 pages and it immediately changed everything. It showed me how a novel can be…that it didn’t necessarily have to be a linear narrative, it could basically be anything it wants to be. After I finished reading that book, the floodgates opened and I began to approach it from a new perspective, that it could be whatever it wanted to be. There were no rules.
GC: Did you have any problems sustaining the story for this length? JG: I was worried that it may be a bit much and I did do a hell of a lot of editing. I cut more than a quarter of it, actually. I really didn’t know where it was going, really. I had no set plan. I just let it take me for the ride rather than the other way around. It finally got to the point where I just felt, ok, this is over. I said what I wanted to say. I had to finally put an end to it. I have no illusions that it’s “perfect” and lord knows it isn’t, but it was just a matter of letting go and let it be what it was. It was time to let it go, let the chips fall where they may.
GC: How long have you lived in New York and how does living in this city influence the creative process?
JG: I grew up in New York and have lived here all my life. New York influenced this book a lot. It’s such a dynamic place. I am one of those typical New Yorker’s that have a love/hate relationship with it. There are things I love about it. It’s my home. But there are things I hate about it too and use every opportunity to run out of here and go somewhere else. The older I get, the less inclined I am to find so much “charm” in it. After awhile, it’s “dynamic” side gets a little tiresome. I don’t have that Woody Allen love for New York, since his vision of New York is not really based in reality either, more his idealism of it. I love that New York, but the real New York of everyone rushing around, competing with one another, stepping over everyone, the nasty attitudes, etc…all that is tiring after a while, especially after a lifetime of it.
GC: What is your take on the current New York literary world?
JG: The New York literary world is alien to me. There are a whole crew of writers based in Brooklyn who are highly regarded and I think they’re all ok but they don’t excite me as much as other writers do. I do like Paul Auster though, who I think is the best of the bunch, really. He still comes out with very interesting and highly exciting work, in my opinion. That whole “Park Slope” contingent. Highly regarded in New York book circles. All really good writers but they do nothing for me, really. They are all coming from a different place than I am. Most of these writers are coming from a very New York literary place whereas I don’t identify with them or their esthetic at all. I think their books are all well written and all but they have a very “American” literary feel to them, meaning most of them don’t experiment as the French novelists did or how the Latin American authors do. This is not to knock them but they are just coming from a different place than I am, that’s all. And it makes it hard to “fit in”, really, not that I ever tried to.
There are some independent publishers who are doing some great things in New York: Akashic Books, Green Interger, Soft Skull, etc. Interesting writers, all but again, not coming from the same place I am at all. That’s more of a “scene”, really. They all have a very “New York” sensibility in the books and writers they publish, which makes sense, but I don’t feel a part of that at all. Ronald Sukenick did some interesting things in the 80s. I love his novels “Up” and “98 Degrees”. He pushed the boundaries but I can’t say what he’s been doing lately.
GC: November Rust contains a lot that aspiring writers can relate to, especially when it comes to doubts over whether or not the work they produce will be worth reading. Do you have any advice for those starting out on their first book?
JG: The only advice I would give is to write the book you want to write and not worry about what’s popular or what you think editors are “looking for”. Then again, it really depends on what your goal is. For me, I wanted to write something that I like to read. I knew right off the bat that what I was doing was never going to be touched by a big, mainstream publisher. Although I did have someone at Scribners have a look at it a few years ago. They had a lot of good things to say put they passed obviously. I knew they would. So I went to small publishers, more open to experimental work. One of them turned it away because it wasn’t experimental enough! They thought it was too mainstream, so you just never know who’s going to like what.
The one thing I learned over the years submitting my poetry is that there really is no rhyme or reason to any of it. It’s all subjective. One editor may think you’re great and another will think you’re shit. It’s really a crap shoot, in my opinion. The same goes with readers. You just don’t know who is going to like what you do and who isn’t. Art by it’s very nature is a very subjective thing, despite what others may want you to believe. In the end there are no guarantees.
January 2012 Update
GC: It’s been just over two years now since November Rust first came out. How do you feel about the book now?
JG: Actually, “November Rust” was first released in 2007. It sort of languished there for a couple of years before anyone even bought it. It was thanks to your initial interview and review of it that the book started to sell some copies and for that I am always eternally grateful. It really helped it out a lot. I still feel that the original, full length version of the novel was flawed in many ways, which is why I went ahead and did what I had always wanted to do and issue an edited, more streamlined, dare I say, more “commercial” version of it.
I prefer the new version, which is the one that is widely available now. The original is still available for those who want to read that but I much prefer the new version because it concentrates more on the story. I carved away all the tangents and experimental things that were in it – for the most part, anyway – and stripped it down to the basic story. I think it works much better this way, personally, but both versions are available for people to make up their own minds. I don’t dislike it as much as I initially did, though. Once you get to the actual story, I realized it isn’t as bad as I thought at all. It was just all the extraneous stuff that got in the way of it in the original version.
GC: You’ve published two more novels since November Rust. Do you have a favourite or is it that similar to asking a parent if they have a favourite child?
JG: It’s hard to say, really. “Nadería” and “Be Still and Know That I Am” are very different from one another but the one thing they both have in common is the straight storytelling, which is where I’m at now. I want to tell stories, stories that can both entertain the reader as well as make them think about things. I’m not really interested in them being “literary” so much anymore – being the “writer’s writer.” I have tons of ideas and I just want to write them. This doesn’t mean that I won’t try to make them as interesting and as good as I can, but I like to look at each one as something unique, something different from the last. But to answer your question, it’s honestly hard to say. There are things about each one of them that I like more than the other.
GC: You’ve written three novels. Do you find it gets easier to write now when you begin a novel or does each book bring specific challenges?
JG: That depends. I think each one brings up their own specific challenges because I’m always eager to try out new things. The novel I am currently working on is very challenging for some reason. I’ve been working on it for over a year now. What started off as a simple idea grew to be much more complex and I almost gave up on it because I felt I painted myself into a corner. Thankfully, I figured out what to do with it but it’s coming along slowly. It was much easier for me to write “Be Still and Know That I Am” because I pretty much knew what I was going to write about. “Nadería” took many years because I was still trying to find my way after “November Rust”, not really knowing what kind of writer I wanted to be. Once that got sorted out, it became a little easier. It was just a matter of shedding this former skin I was trapped in, that sort of thing where the idea of being a novelist must mean that you had to go this heavily literary route. That’s fine for those who have that goal, but I’m much more interested in the storytelling element and keeping things simple.
GC: You’ve placed quite a number of short stories online. Are there any techniques you have that help when trying to think up short story plotlines?
JG: The short stories are usually ideas I have that I don’t think will work as a full length project. Usually what I’ll do is I’ll come up with a one line situation. For example, the story “Rage Against the Dying of the Light”, I had the idea “A coffee shop owner befriends a homeless poet.” Then I’d think of something to write around that idea. It doesn’t always work but when it does, it’s a great challenge for me. It’s not quite the idea for a full length novel, of course, but it works well for a short story. That’s how I usually go about it. I have a whole list of ideas like this, waiting to be written. Will all of them work out? I can’t guarantee that but it’s the challenge to try to come up with a story around that simple idea. In a way, it helps me move beyond my own restrictions, forcing me to write about something I may not have thought about writing before. It also allows me to dip into the many interests I have and write about them in some way. “Soon After the Fall” was written around my interest in Eastern European history and literature, by setting the story in Budapest, referencing the 1956 revolt and how that effected the culture.
GC: It’s January 2012, what lies ahead for you this year with regards to writing?
JG: For 2012, the plan is to try to finish the current novel I am working on at the moment, but I’ve also been releasing a series of single short story eBooks. For now, I’m going to continue to write these stories and issue them if I feel they work well enough. At some point, later in the year, I plan on issuing them in a collection, both paperback and ebook. I’m hoping to have the new novel out by the end of the year but I can’t say for sure that I’m even going to be able to finish it so for now, that’s what the plan is. The great thing about the short stories is that I am tackling the ideas I have that just won’t work as a full length work; and it also gives me a chance to experiment with different ideas, which has been a lot of fun. I’ll guess we’ll see what happens but I feel like I’m in a good place now. That’s really the only thing one could ask for.
Tags: first novel, hipsters, julian gallo, november rust, paris, short stories, writer