Being a writer is dangerous. That’s the impression I got from Papa. He didn’t like the idea that I wanted to be a writer. He thought that all literature was somehow subversive. Not to mention pointless.
Everything I needed to know in life, he informed me, was contained in tradition. I simply had to live my life according to la via vecchia, the old ways from the old country, southern Italia, and everything would be fine. I didn’t need to have any aspirations other than wanting to work at Papa’s gas station for the rest of my life.
No way was that going to happen. So I slipped into Mama’s room when she wasn’t around to tap away on the old Underwood typewriter she kept on her bureau. I don’t know why she had it, she never used it. She and Papa never read books, either. Literature was just not a necessity to them, as it was to me.
I was an avid reader, digesting everything from Jean-Paul Sartre to Isaac Asmiov. I was desperate to absorb whatever inspired them to create great works.
My pursuit of the muse had me standing on a chair to reach the typewriter. I dared not move it. I had to press hard on the keys because I didn’t have enough strength in my fingers to make them strike the paper. It was easiest when I used only two fingers. Something I still do.
I never had trouble filling up a blank sheet of paper. I had a lot to say. I may have been barely in my teens, but I was already imagining worlds much different from the one in which I lived. Worlds that weren’t even on planet Earth.
In my first science-fiction story, I imagined a lonely old scientist toiling endlessly to perfect a way to get back to his youth so that he could have the girl of his dreams. He lost her in a freak accident. He eventually manages to get back, but of course it has unforeseen consequences.
I still have a copy of that story in a box of old writings that I have carried with me all these years. I haven’t looked at it for a long time.
The box also contains poems I wrote back then, some of which were published in a neighborhood newspaper called the South Philadelphia Review Chronicle. In the late 60s, the paper had this hip editor who encouraged young people in the hood to submit poems, some of which he would feature in the “Poetry Corner” every Friday.
In a college creative writing class, I submitted a few chapters of an autobiographical novel I was working on. The teacher loved it and asked if she could show it to a friend of her, a literary agent. He shopped it around New York publishing houses.
Everyone loved it. There was only one problem. It needed more “action,” he told me, meaning of course that I should add a Mafia character or two. That was the formula for Italian/American writing, especially since The Godfather was about to be made into a movie.
I said no.
Many times I have wondered what would have happened if I had re-worked the novel, which still sits in my closet. Would I have written the great Italian/American queer novel, something I might still be remembered for, like Rita Mae Brown will forever be seen as the author of Rubyfruit Jungle?
Sometimes I regret that decision. It’s hard not to, but at the end of the day, I know I did the right thing.