Ed Falco has been writing poetry, fiction, and plays for 30 years, but his story “Millat’s Orchids” in Image 102 is his first publication in Image. He took time out of his vacation on the East Coast to talk with Good Letters contributor Brad Fruhauff about his evolution as a person and as an author, the origins of stories, and the way fiction seeks to say true things about great mysteries.
Image: What would you like Image readers to know about you?
Ed Falco: About me personally? I’d like readers to be interested in my character, Millat, and not so much in me. I kind of like to disappear behind whatever I’m writing, so I have this pretext that I can write whatever I want and it’s never been really about me.
But I was raised in Brooklyn. I’ve been teaching at Syracuse University and Virginia Tech since my late 20s and publishing in lots of different genres: fiction, poetry, playwriting. I like moving around from genre to genre.
Image: What draws you to different genres?
EF: There was an evolution. I started out thinking of myself as a poet. Then I discovered Baudelaire and Rimbaud and the prose poem, and I began to write paragraph poems. That evolved into longer pieces, and I wrote short stories almost exclusively for quite a while.
And then, you know, I ran out of stories! I didn’t want to keep telling the same stories over and over again, so I started writing novels. Only in my late 50s did I discover playwriting and fall in love with that for a while.
I find that in different genres, different parts of myself are expressed. Somehow, in theater I’m funny, which makes me happy. In fiction I can’t be quite as funny; it doesn’t come out there. Genres provide different avenues for me, and I’m happiest bouncing around from genre to genre.
Image: Why did you submit this story to Image?
EF: One of my colleagues, Erika Meitner, has a beautiful piece in a recent issue of Image, and she had mentioned it to me. It’s a gorgeous magazine. I like its editorial focus: it seems outside the mainstream in terms of who it publishes and what it publishes, and its focus on spirituality and faith was very appealing.
They do a beautiful job with the physical object itself. I like well-made books. Southern Review and Virginia Quarterly Review are my favorite magazines because I like just picking them up and holding them.
Image: What is your spiritual background, and is that something that you feel you explore much in your work?
EF: I was raised Roman Catholic in New York in a working-class Italian family. By the time I was a teenager I started moving away from all of those traditional beliefs.
I wandered aimlessly for a long time. I was caught up in that whole 70s Eastern high-minded, kind of philosophical moment, which I later also rejected. For a while I was a Unitarian.
Now I’ve evolved into a very individual spirituality that believes in the great mystery of things. If you asked me what I believed in, I would say I believe it’s all a mystery. And yet I feel a connection to that mystery, an essential and important connection, and I’m happy if I can find some way to express that in language. That’s usually in shorter forms.
Image: Was there a question or problem that motivated “Millat’s Orchids?”
I can tell you precisely where it came from. The root of it—and root is not an intentional pun—was that, after going through a divorce, I did move my stuff into a new house, and I had this plant that I didn’t know what it was and I stuck it in a windowsill and ignored it for ten years, and it just didn’t die. Everything that’s in “Millat’s Orchids” comes out of that experience.
EF: I like to talk about writing “out of” rather than “about” experience, so it comes “out of” this experience of an abandoned orchid that I just left alone in the basement. When my daughter got into orchids, I pulled it up and put it next to the kitchen sink and started watering it. Now it flowers two or three times a year and they last a long time. It’s just a gorgeous plant.
That notion of surviving a long time while being ignored, then blossoming with some attention, felt very powerful to me.
Image: That’s very specific. And it shows that you’re obviously still finding stories.
EF: I’ve published probably close to one hundred short stories. You change. After a decade or more away from the traditional short story, I’ve started writing them again, so I didn’t run out of short stories. The short story format has always been one of my favorites.
Image: I’ve been interested in this trend towards poetry in short stories. What do you think that’s about for you?
EF: I think that’s true of some of the shorter pieces I’ve written. Most of the stories I’ve written have been pretty traditional in terms of structure: conflict, complication, resolution.
I like to think I find ways of varying the organic structure of a short story, but still, I like short stories that have a problem, a conflict, something urgent that needs to be thought through and resolved.
But in short pieces, I like that place where poetry and fiction converge, where musicality is part of what’s being conveyed to the reader. In some ways, I’m just very simple as a reader: I like a good story. And if that good story also has a musicality to it and fantastic imagery, then I’m really in love with that writer.
I loved Faulkner as a young writer. The way his language is a signature has always been something I’ve striven for. Some writers talk about wanting their language to be transparent, so you don’t even pay attention to the language, you just pay attention to the story beneath it. But then there’s a writer like Faulkner who is very interested in style, whose language is not transparent that way. You know you’re reading constructed language, but you’re still engaged in the story. The late Lee K. Abbott could be so beautiful like that. He had this incredible maximalist style, but he always told really powerful stories.
Image: Another story of yours, “The Athlete,” is a very gripping as a story. You develop the characters very quickly and then it turns into a dramatic narrative. That to me felt closer to a complete story, whereas “Millat’s Orchids” is more a poetic story. Instead of solving a problem through narrative, it points more to the way the character, Millat, desires sacramentality, the sense that reality is soaked in meaning and that by getting closer to the world you can somehow simultaneously get closer to something transcendent…
EF: I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said. Again, these are structural devices. The story works toward that moment when something has to happen, and there’s going to be a consequence for that choice, and it’s going to change him in some way. The term for it is the “reversal,” where the thing that happens makes the character at the end of the story different than he was at the beginning.
Millat’s is not a short story in that way. Like you said, it’s a meditation, a monologue, a way of thinking through these events at the core of the narrative, which is essentially: He had these orchids, and they have become something special to him that they weren’t before.
And I like that word, sacramental.
Image: It seems like there is a skepticism about plot in a lot of fiction. I guess I wonder if this is a phase in the evolution of the short story, or are we seeing something broader in fiction that is a skepticism about meaning, about narrative’s ability to make meaning in our lives.
EF: It’s an excellent question. If you want to look specifically at somebody like Karen Russell, she writes outrageous stories like “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” or “Orangeland,” and there’s an ongoing metaphor that underlies the story.
But she is still writing about deeply human questions. The stories of hers I like the best still have that element of plot in that I’m asking what is going to happen, what’s the next thing that’s going to happen. To me, that’s all that plot is: Plot is a problem of some sort that keeps you asking what’s next.
I think I agree with you in terms of a lot of contemporary fiction that eschews plot or makes a point about distancing the reader. Some people can get away with that, some people I don’t buy it. I’m fine with whatever approach anybody takes as long as they’re writing stories that engage me eventually.
Image: You said in another interview that you are in your head a lot but would like to be more attentive to the world. Can you say more about your relationship to reality when you’re working with realism?
EF: The traditional notion of holding a mirror up to reality was easier to hold two hundred years ago than it is now. What is real now has been thrown into such chaos by scientific theory; string theory is weirder than any fiction I’ve ever read. So I don’t think we can think of writing as holding a mirror up to the real.
Still, for me, realistic fiction tries to portray the world as I see it, the world of experience, the world that I actually live in, the world of objects and people and good behavior and bad behavior. And one makes those moral judgments about what’s good and bad and what’s real and not, even if the science won’t support you on any of it.
Almost all of my fiction attempts to be true to the world as I see it, recognizing that, of course, it’s constructed out of language and it’s always going to be my perspective, how I see the world.
I don’t like escapist writing because it just feels fake, like a world I don’t really believe in. Some of my favorite writers are people like Stuart Dybek who can balance dark with light, who see the darkness in the world but always comes around to see the beauty of it at the same time. Lorrie Moore I like a whole lot. She can be funny while also recognizing all that is not right with the world.
Image: But at the same time, it’s possible to say that, if everything’s constructed out of language, then it’s all escapist. We might as well build castles in the sky because that’s all we’ve been doing…
EF: The writers that work for me convince me. Like Flannery O’Connor. She so convinces me of the reality of her world that I feel like I’m living in it. Those characters are so vivid to me, and she’s so hilarious and so funny in describing them, and yet she comes to these moments of revelation and moments of light and grace that I believe in. Even if I don’t buy, really, the almost fundamentalist philosophy of her religion, her stories are so moving and so believable to me.
One of my favorite stories ever is “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” I love the story, and I love the final moments where the characters are walking off into the woods one by one, and the grandmother is yelling goodbye to them, because it conveys a truth that that’s what life is: One by one we march off into the woods and we’re not seen again.
I don’t care how she got there. That moment is so moving and so true that it’s indelible. That’s what I look for in fiction.
I believe that fiction can get to moments of truth, and I believe that the attempt to do so is what makes writing serious. If you’re trying to get to a moment that is ultimately true, then I think you’re a serious writer. If you’re trying to entertain me with how the rich live, you’re an escapist.
Image: I wasn’t going to ask you about The Family Corleone, because I know a lot of people have already talked to you about it, but how would you characterize that? It’s in a popular mode, and you describe in another interview how the popular foregrounds the audience’s expectations whereas the literary foregrounds style and technique more, but neither entirely excludes the other. But did you feel like you could go for truth in that book?
EF: I tried to write the best book I could. The Family Corleone was, frankly, a commercial gig. I’d wanted to try a popular novel for some time, not just for the money but because I wanted to reach a larger readership. My books reach maybe a couple thousand people. My most recent book is a book of poetry called Wolf Moon Blood Moon from LSU. I love the book, but I doubt it’s reached a thousand people. It’s just the reality of writing these kinds of books. I really wanted the experience of writing a book that reached hundreds of thousands of people.
My agent offered me a chance to write the sequel to The Godfather around 2000, which I turned down because I was working on a novel called St John of the Five Boroughs, but when he came back again ten years later with an offer to write the prequel, I was ready.
I think The Family Corleone is a pretty good book. I think it is constrained by the requirements of writing a popular novel in the mode of Mario Puzo, so it has operatic violence to it, but it also is essentially about corruption.
This is what Mario Puzo’s intent also was: to write about the way violence corrupts, how believing the ends justify the means corrupts. Vito Corleone is a tragic figure in that he wants nothing but to create a good American life for his kids and he thinks, “I’ll take on the sins, I’ll do the bad stuff, but I’ll make a good life for my children,” but of course he destroys his family in the process. So, what I tried to do in The Family Corleone is tell a similar story of that corruption.
Image: Okay, but to be clear, do you think that The Family Corleone is “serious fiction?”
EF: It’s a tough question. I tried to write the best book I could within the constraints that were given to me. I think there’s some good moments in the book. I like the overall effect of the book, but I was writing with an audience in mind. I don’t know how it came out.
Basically, it’s the story of Sonny Corleone, and in order to be the son of his father, he does something unforgivable, and that’s how he enters his family. There’s interesting stuff to think about there. I think if anybody reads the book and gives it its due, they’ll see that I’m interested in issues that are significant and relevant. I hope.
Image: Maybe because of the constraints of writing a popular narrative, the way you’re searching for truth is working within that world rather than working from a blank page.
EF: I had to find a way to make the Corleone family story interesting and new. It’s like being given a giant puzzle, how are you going to make this work?
The way I did it was by inventing a whole other set of Irish characters and having the Italian characters interacting with the Irish characters. And I know something of this from growing up in Brooklyn. I was a kid in the 60s when we still had the Italian neighborhoods and the Irish neighborhoods and the Hasidic Jewish neighborhoods and the Polish neighborhoods in that same area. I was tapping into some childhood experiences.
I really had a lot of fun writing the novel—even the operatic violence, which was crazy but I knew was necessary. The Family Corleone is anomalous, and of course it’s the thing I’m best known for.
None of this really matters to me as a writer. I’m always trying to write the best thing that I can. I can write “Millat’s Orchids” and The Family Corleone and be the same person.
Image: Absolutely. Graham Greene did it. Last question: Beer, bourbon, or burgundy?
EF: Bourbon. Makers on the rocks. It’s been my drink forever.