Crafting a believable story is no small feat. Character, plot, subtext, conflict, dialogue, setting, detail: these are just a few of the elements that make up a believable but fictitious world. The art and craft of writing can, at times, be a slow and painstaking process—and at other times a seemingly channeled slew of words that come as an outpouring so quickly that fingers and pen can hardly keep up.
Each writer has their own personal process, perhaps by way of a schedule or series of rituals, an unplanned meet-cute with the muse, or a deliberate pairing of pen and paper in an intimate way that draws forth word after word.
If ever you’ve had a conversation with a writer who truly knows their craft (or you yourself are a writer), you already know that writing is a delicate process. That craft is essential for the work to convey what it intends to convey is unquestionable. And art, then, becomes the specific way in which a writer expresses his or her voice.
A word that works well in one sentence, doesn’t make sense in another. Syntax is married to pace; pace to plot; plot to character. And dialogue—some works can function on dialogue alone. So, how does a writer make careful choices to bring these intricacies together in a cohesive thing called “story”?
Writer James Balestrieri is one whose command of language is steeped in careful craft, with no word left unpondered, no sentence out of place, appearing to readers as an effortless task—and with wit that other writers may only envy. He received his B.A. from Columbia and his M.F.A. in Playwriting from Carnegie-Mellon. He was also a screenwriting fellow at the American Film Institute. His plays Forbidding Mourning, Terrapin and Extraordinary Rendition have been performed in New York, and his adaptation of Rip Van Winkle appeared in the one and only Sleepy Hollow, New York. His first book The Ballad of Ethan Burns was released this year.
Let’s get to know James Balestrieri:
One place that you haven’t yet visited in the world, but would like to see:
“Oh, too many to list. India, Yemen. Ethiopia and Eritrea. Argentina and Chile. Greece. Going back to Wales, where I lived and taught for a year. But right now, Sicily would likely be uppermost. The village my father left in 1916 and never saw again. The crisscrossing layers of history there, from the Phoenicians to the Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Byzantines, Vikings.”
Jim’s favorite book:
“Again, so many. But if you twisted my arm—Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. I know, a kid’s book, right? But the whole narrative is so beautifully constructed. You see Jim Hawkins mature, even when he himself is unaware that he is maturing. He has to grapple with his father’s death and leaving his home and mother and, at the same time, faces the moral ambiguity that comes with age. Long John Silver is good to Jim but the ringleader of a band of mutinous pirates, then he’s rough with Jim but prevents him from coming to harm. And the same is true of the other adults. Each is flawed in some important way that forces Jim, ultimately, to make his own decisions. Oh yes, and it’s about pirates and treasure and filled with swordplay. By the way, it’s never been done properly on the big or small screen. I know—I’ve read it at least half a dozen times.”
Jim’s favorite movies:
“I’m a huge fan of film noir made between the 1940’s and, say, 1955. One film, which is relatively unknown, even in the noir canon, is Ride the Pink Horse, made in 1947, starring Robert Montgomery. It’s freely adapted from a great Dorothy Hughes novel (of the same title). The main character, Gagin, a WWII vet, goes to Santa Fe to avenge his buddy’s murder and get some money out of a war profiteer. But he arrives at Fiesta time, when the mixed Hispanic and Native American community burns a big puppet called Zozobra in effigy to cleanse the past and start anew. But Gagin can’t find a room, so he ends up with a young Hispanic woman and a poor old Hispanic man who runs an old carousel. The racial tension is amazing for that time and in the end, there are no easy answers or resolutions. The characters—those who live—take away their lives and the story they have to tell, a story of stepping out of the familiar, taking chances.
I also love silent films. Abel Gance’s Napoleon; The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; Metropolis. If I’m flipping through the channels and Casablanca is on, it’s on. Same with Rear Window, Notorious, North by Northwest, The Quiet Man, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Chinatown, L.A. Confidential. Guilty pleasure: Twister. Tornadoes as giant, unpredictable monsters! Top that Michael Bay or Guillermo del Toro!”
Jim’s favorite food:
“Pasta, grilled fish, smoked meats of almost any kind. Artichokes. Peaches. Pears. And pizza—of course.”
One little known interesting fact about you that you would like to share with readers:
“I love to fish. Fly fishing for trout, soaking worms for panfish off a dock with my wife and kids, throwing big lures for muskies, throwing small lures for bass. Doesn’t matter. Messing around with bamboo rods, boats and tackle of all kinds, tying flies, carving lures—the best.”
“My background and training is in writing for the stage, where everything unfolds in the present. A play is a succession of nows. As a result, I am very aware, no matter what I am writing, whether it’s a piece of fiction, a poem or an article in a magazine, of the narrative presence and stance. Present tense, to me, almost eliminates the narrator by diminishing the sense that time has elapsed between the events of the text and the telling. It brings the reader/audience closer to the moment of action. Past tense suggests that the teller has had time to be selective, that the tale may have been refined, perhaps many times. When I read a classic written in past tense, I begin to imagine the narrator: his or her bias, agenda, interest. Sometimes this is a wonderful addition to the experience. Sometimes it’s a distraction. But then, when writing, you have to consider voice, and for me, voice begins with the guy—man or woman—on the next barstool who starts telling a story. That’s the level I want to get my stuff to work on: the idea that someone you don’t know can make you throw your whole evening, your whole schedule—your whole planned out life—out the window just by telling you a good story. That’s what I shoot for, whatever the tense and voice.”
The work is similar to a screenplay—or perhaps a new twist on traditional narrative, with arrows for scene changes. How do you want readers to receive this work?
“The format is intentionally similar to a screenplay. It was devised by Ed Gray, the publisher at Graybooks and Aisle Seat Books. The idea is to simulate the experience of watching a film by merging the screenplay—which is, after all, a blueprint—with traditional narrative—in my mind, the novella is the closest form. The reader, ideally, should see the action unfold as an audience member sees a film. For example, we don’t know a character’s name until someone says it.”
The Ballad of Ethan Burns contains many references to old films, art, post-modernism, even Rolling Stones lyrics—Do you feel like the characters are embodiments of portions of your own character or personality? Why or why not?
“Since the characters spring from my imagination they embody aspects of my experience, sometimes that means my own character and personality. But imagination, experience, character—art, culture, nature—these move in a constant feedback loop. We take in information, assimilate it, assign it, shape it. Some of it comes back out in my writing. I do identify with aspects of the characters—Tavi, the screenwriting student, for instance, comes out of my experience, but also out of the crazy wish fulfillment reverie that most (maybe all) would-be artists feel—that somehow all would be right if only we’d meet the right person at the right time who would understand what we are trying to do and help us to achieve it, whatever “it” is. I gave Tavi the imagination and cleverness I wish I had myself so that he can make his own dream real. But Ethan Burns is someone we can all relate to on some level. He’s the guy who’s going a bit crazy, watching the days go by, ready to bust out of his day job, but not sure how to do it—. What makes him interesting, I hope, is that as the son of a Western movie icon, it should come easy to him. That it doesn’t make him a kind of Everyman. You know, it is possible, even likely, that there’s no such thing as nature, that culture creates us. I think about this quite often in reference to the post-Modernists, especially Foucault. That the ways in which I imagine that I create a “nature,” a “self,” are discernible mechanisms of the culture I live in. But if I thought about that too much, I’m not sure I could write at all.”
We’ll learn more about Jim’s approach to the craft of writing in the next post. Be sure to check back shortly…Thanks for reading!