John Domini // The Cagibi Express Interview

With MOVIEOLA!, John Domini has three short story collections and three novels in print. Other books include selections of criticism and poetry. John Domini has published fiction in Paris Review and Ploughshares, non-fiction in GQ and The New York Times, and won a poetry prize from Meridian. Grants include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. The New York Times praised his work as “dreamlike… grabs hold of both reader and character,” and Alan Cheuse, of NPR, described it as “witty and biting.” He has taught at Harvard, Northwestern and elsewhere, and makes his home in Des Moines.


Cagibi: Hilaire Belloc, the early twentieth century Anglo-French writer and historian, wrote, “We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

John Domini: ​Belloc’s distinction is sound—I agree, I mean—but foremost among the thoughts it provokes is how the man’s out of date. Sad news, I suppose, but the Shizz nonetheless. For distraction these days, most folks turn on the TV or the web-browser, and as for travel, that’s all about the money. Business meetings and network opportunities determine our itinerary, not strolling the boulevards and browsing the guidebooks. As for wandering, if a person can find the time, doesn’t he or she first slip in the earbuds? Might as well catch a TED Talk while I’m out.

But enough of the Gloom Balloon. Instead, let’s look at how Belloc’s observation reflects an immigrant’s fascination with the language of his adopted country. A Frenchman turned British, even a Member of Parliament briefly, I imagine old Hilaire spent a lot of his adult life mulling over the idiosyncrasies of English, among them two words so similar as these, equally functional as both noun and verb, yet in connotation worlds apart.

Cagibi: Name some of your favorite distractions when you travel somewhere.

Domini: Well, lots. For starters I love the ghosts of older cultures peeking out amid the constant clamor of New & Improved! Many a spanking new Chicago condo, for instance, still bears the fading sign of the print shop or meatpacker that used to occupy that space. The city as palimpsest: a familiar metaphor but it still holds up. Another great pleasure comes in the mornings, if you can get away from Starbucks over to some independent local breakfast place. There both workers and clients are regulars, and they enjoy some banter. I recall especially the greetings, the joshing complaints, that rang out in an espresso bar near Rome’s Testaccio market, about 7:30 one morning.

Cagibi: A cagibi, loosely interpreted, is a space such as a cubbyhole, or a space where you store things. Or the workspace in which authors write. For ourselves we’ve translated it as “any shelter, no matter how tiny, that allows for big imaginings to take shape.” Pick what kind of cagibi would be best suited for your creative process: a) a super organized cubbyhole b) a super messy tool shed c) any restricted space d) a space as vast as the universe.

Domini: First, that word, “cagibi!” A delight, no less, and thanks very much for reintroducing me; it’s been years. Now, as for my space, I’d say it looks like b), but feels like a)—and I suspect that goes for most writers. I mean, I’m working here. I find the clutter not just manageable, but actually sensible. I’m comfortable even with the jerry-rigged lift for my laptop, allowing me to stand. As for the bookshelves, I do wish the walls and ceiling had room for more, but they suffice. John Updike, these days, has fallen among the Uncool, but he was right on when he claimed that, while at work, he stopped to read only in order to write. He’d stop to see how someone else had managed the trick. Myself, if for instance I need to know how Colette pulled off one of her delicious ironies, I can find it.

Cagibi: Please explain your choice in previous question—we are dying to understand your creative process.

Domini: ​Now we’re getting into material I’ve written about a lot over the past couple of years. Here’s one case in point, an essay that considers both my workspace and my process.

That said, I can say that I generally start in longhand, with notes and then drafts, and then as I start creating a Word doc, I watch all that sort of explode from within. The Alien bursting from some poor sucker’s chest, sure. The same applies to the shorter work I compose on the keyboard, shorter non-fiction, like book reviews and this interview. Those too can explode from within, ¶  #2 becoming, instead, ¶‘s 1 & 4, though #2 still retains a few flecks of gore from its host body.

These many ruptures and spatters do, in time, assume a form of their own. They do cohere into something comprehensible and even, every now and again, moving. Once that happens, revision becomes a matter of drawing out that shape, rendering it as perfectly as possible, and unencumbered. The Alien becomes Michelangelo’s figure in the marble, much nicer.

Cagibi: How does traveling to a new place influence your writing? In what ways do you incorporate travel experiences into your writing?

DominiThis question too is one I’ve often wrestled with, since so much of my fiction and non-fiction wrestles somehow with Southern Italy. I’ve even got a Naples memoir pretty much done and, since Einstein was an aesthete, that action has triggered an equal and opposite reaction: my latest imaginative foray (I guess it’ll wind up a novel) is taking place somewhere I’ve never been.

Still, I don’t have to answer at novel length. I can say travel best serves writing as a soldier, if not a whole battalion, in the War on Cliché. Travel challenges lazy thinking both out in the field and after you return to the desk. Out on the journey, an alert sensibility must confront the assumptions on which his or her own life relies. In a foreign setting, urban or otherwise, even the ordinary takes new shape and so raises questions about what the human animal requires, and what it strives for—about our very nature. Then once the voyager comes home to the hardscrabble of composition, his or her first chore is to scrape off barnacles of hand-me-down language. Such parasites breed across all travel writing. Ah, up in the mountains, the air purifies your every thought! Ah, over in Naples, everyone’s so carefree, so sensual! Ah… manure. Such trash interferes with the real job, the feelingfull rendering of the hard knocks and intuitions travel has afforded. Whatever the task for the writer, from article to novel, it demands fresh-minted and honest form in every phrase.

Cagibi: Do you use your work as an excuse to travel? Do you use travel as an excuse to not work?

Domini: These questions belong together, since in both cases the answer’s yes, and more than that each complements the other. That’s how it’s been for Domini, anyway: I’ve used work to take me new places, even once winning a good state arts grant in order to get over from Naples to Puglia.  Yes, over by the Adriatic I did important research, visiting a camp for refugees out of Africa. Those were boat people, actually, and their stories fired me up for my work even as they reduced me, more than once, to swallowing sobs. But also I took time to be a tourist, particularly in the fascinating old port of Otranto. Then too, such tourist days, unregimented, with no more “writing” than an occasional note (on the back of a receipt, if necessary)—those are essential to building up the imaginative storehouse. As a tourist, even if you’re carrying a notebook, you stumble across images and flavors that will eventually fill out scenes and stories. The surprise, the sense of discovery, is key. Aren’t you trying to create the same, down on the page?

Cagibi: Did you ever have to hide in order to write? Where, and how long did you stay in there?

Domini: ​Not tellin’.

About John Domini’s MOVIEOLA!

John Domini’s latest book is a set of linked stories, MOVIEOLA! From the publisher:

Domini+-+Movieola!+-+Final+Cover 250w - border.jpgA collection of linked short stories that delights in and exploits the language and paraphernalia of industrial Hollywood.

The collection delves into a night at the movies, featuring all the familiar types—the rom-com, the action-adventure, the superhero, and the spy—but the narratives are still under construction, and every storyline is an opportunity for the unimaginable twist. Motive and identity are constantly shifting in these short stories that offer both narrative and anti-narrative, while the stunted shop-talk of the movie business struggles to keep up.

With the wit of Steve Erickson’s Zeroville and the inventive spirit of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, John Domini offers a collection at once comical and moving, care- fully suspended between a game of language and a celebration of American film.

Appears In

Issue 3

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