One of the many perks of publishing a writer’s first novel is that even when he’s on a summer sojourn in Italy, you usually can convince him to grant the occasional interview. Joseph Zeppetello, author of the forthcoming novel, Daring to Eat a Peach (November 2010, Atticus Books), takes time to shed some light on the birth and growth of his first full-grown literary child. He graciously shares with us some insight into the novel’s development from its humble beginnings as a short story and offers reflections on a few of the novel’s central concerns – from puffed-up poets to soulmates.
Atticus Books: I hear that the novel originally started out as a short story. How do you as an author decide that the work has enough depth and complexity to warrant the length of a novel? Was this a conscious decision or did the characters demand it?
Joseph Zeppetello: My first idea was to have Denton (the main character) end up by choice and circumstance in a life changing moment as a climax to a short story. By the time Peter arrived, I knew the short story form would no longer work.
Atticus Books: As I understand it, you were inspired by T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to write the story. How did you conceive the characters? Did you work off an outline with the characters already drawn? How much of the story told itself?
Joseph Zeppetello: I heard someone recite the poem on NPR, and then talk about it. At that moment I got the idea for Denton Pike. I saw him working at his desk.
Atticus Books: Are there specific parts of the novel that are directly influenced by the poem? Did you go back to the poem if and when you became stuck?
Joseph Zeppetello: Not really. I’ve known the poem for a long time, as I teach literature. There are subtle references here and there, but nothing really too overt. I hope!
Atticus Books: How much do you draw on real life with your writing? Is Denton Pike a person or a composite of individuals who you know or have met?
Joseph Zeppetello: He’s made up of several people I know, with a dash of me, although I know only one language, and sometimes mess up with that one. I have friends who know several languages, but none of them is Denton.
Atticus Books: The book is very much about relationships and fate, serendipity and happenstance. When the characters are taking shape, does their development occur organically or are their paths predetermined?
Joseph Zeppetello: The way they develop is pretty organic, but I usually know what’s going to happen to them, or the general direction they are heading. I work out the details as I go along. Certain details will then make other elements happen; fate and serendipity keep everything else moving along.
Atticus Books: Do the events unfold naturally? Do you know who will be sleeping with who, who’s to remain platonic, who’s to fall hard, who’s to move on? Is it in their DNA?
Joseph Zeppetello: Sometimes there is a surprise here and there, but I try to keep them in character. I like to use any behavior that underscores and supports them. I had several scenes that I cut out because they seemed forced to me. They were things the person simply wouldn’t do.
Atticus Books: The novel is not a traditional romance. It is not an ensemble romance, either, since the characters seem to display little outward emotions of love or affection (i.e., there are no steamy sex scenes, no linear and predictable course of actions). The characters sometimes seem to be on autopilot, where decisions are being made for them from some unseen force. Is this a fair/ accurate assessment or do they have free will? In other words, how much agency do these characters really possess, and does this change at all throughout the course of the novel?
Joseph Zeppetello: I think we all have moments when we can make a real decision that affects us. Many of us, though, seem to be happy to let others make those choices, or let events take over. After those points of free will, though, we are locked into the consequences, until we run into another decision point. I don’t think we are nearly as free as the Existentialists thought we were, but I don’t believe in total determinism either.
Atticus Books: The novel is also about translations, literal, literary and historic. Denton is a foreign language translator. Peter is working on discerning the veracity of historical documents. Both find falsehoods, or interpretations that ring false. Is this a commentary on communications? Limitations and weaknesses? Are you touching on the significance of Revisionism? How our history is recorded and perhaps distorted?
Joseph Zeppetello: Yep! Just look at how school boards choose books, or ban them, and require certain “facts” to be included in the curriculum. Translating from language to language or era to era is something that needs to be done with great care. We seem too willing to accept distortion to suit an agenda.
Atticus Books: With the poetic translations, you’re clearly poking fun at what sometimes passes for literature and how a successful writer’s reputation may supersede the quality of their effort and subsequent work. The esteemed ‘Famous Poet’ appears to be a lush and a louse and his writing appears vulgar and sophomoric. Is this meant as farcical, art imitating life, or a combination thereof which also speaks to the great difficulty and nuance of translation in general?
Joseph Zeppetello: Nuance and subtlety can be translated. There are excellent translations of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and others. Remember that the second writer in the book actually has subtle nuances to translate. The Famous Poet is aimed at no one in particular, but is a lampoon of some poets and writers who seem to exist only in an academic setting because their writing is terrible, and as you said “sophomoric,” but they are somehow tolerated and even held in high regard. It’s a mystery to me, as if they’ve won some sort of lottery.
Atticus Books: The friendships we form as we grow older and move to areas where we have no roots, no familiar faces: you do a superb job of capturing the essence of how rank strangers become intimate and rely heavily on each other after they’ve experienced hardship, job loss, divorce, death of a loved one? Is this a reflection of man’s need to find companionship?
Joseph Zeppetello: Not to sound cliché, but we are social animals. In large, understaffed orphanages, babies die if they are not held enough, don’t have enough human contact. Adults aren’t much different.
Atticus Books: Your book doesn’t romanticize ‘Love’ as much as it necessitates it and makes social connections vital to existence. Are the couples better characterized as soul mates or earth mates? Why?
Joseph Zeppetello: I think the soul mate thing is overrated and leads to a lot of disappointment. There are many people who can be your soul mate. The idea of earth mate makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve known people who seem to find soul mates on a regular basis only to be disappointed when they turn out to be too human.
Joseph Zeppetello is the Director of Writing at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. He currently is exploring the country of his ancestors while conducting job-related research for Marist, which has a branch campus at the Scuola Lorenzo de’Medici in Florence, Italy.