Lou Gaglia’s short story, Damaged Goods, was published in the most recent issue of Niche. You can read it here or by downloading the PDF from Niche. Meanwhile, we invited him to Niche Features to chat about the finer elements of fiction, and he very kindly agreed.
NICHE: Let’s start with the basics: When and why did you start writing?
LOU GAGLIA: I’ve always been a big fan of comedy, and have had a lifetime love for Laurel and Hardy and The Marx Brothers and Don Adams and Dick Van Dyke and Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields and Abbott and Costello and John Cleese and Mel Brooks, and many others. So I wrote ridiculous stories in late elementary and junior high school. Some teachers marked them up and scoffed, and others encouraged me. Then my father gave me a typewriter as a Christmas gift, with a note attached. He told me he’d always wanted to be a writer himself, but he never stuck with it, and he hoped I would. I loved that typewriter and continued writing my ridiculous stories all the way into high school where I took a creative writing class with a great teacher. She was incredibly patient with me, and after a couple of years I began to write more seriously, and tried the techniques she’d taught me. Thank goodness for her patience! I was hooked for life… but I still like to write silly stories—like the kid that I still am—when I’m in the mood.
NICHE: Who are some of the authors who inspired you? Have they influenced your writing and do you see some of their techniques seeping into your own work?
LOU GAGLIA: My junior high school English teacher gave me Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al because he knew I was crazy about baseball. I was surprised because I wasn’t much of a reader up to that point, but I took his gift to heart. I’ve loved Lardner’s work ever since and still read him. He was another comic genius with great timing! Reading his work is like visiting an old friend.
In high school I read Dostoyevsky and Aldous Huxley and Vonnegut and Hermann Hesse and Salinger, and then I was very big on Faulkner and Chekhov. During college English class, the professor lectured on the poetry of Whittier and Browning, but I sat in the back sneaking peaks at Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” and James Joyce’s “The Boarding House”. I wasn’t interested in Whittier and Browning. Yes, I struggled through college. I was so stubborn.
Later I found Tolstoy, and Steinbeck, and Katherine Anne Porter, and Scott Fitzgerald, and Heinrich Boll.I go back to them often and read their work for pleasure, but at the same time I study them. Faulkner’s The Sound and Fury and As I Lay Dying are incredible to me. Whenever I read the Benji section of The Sound and the Fury, I think, “Teach me, Faulkner, how to bring the reader into the moment.” To Chekhov I say, “Teach me, Anton, how to stand back and let my characters have their experiences without my interference.”
Every once in a while I read Chekhov’s “Gooseberries”— a story about nothing and everything—and I read “The Lady with the Pet Dog”, a beautiful story during which nothing is resolved, and I want to write one story like either of those. Just one.
I talk to Steinbeck, too (in my mind, of course): I say, “Teach me, John, how to create scenes, and how to write dialogue naturally, and how to use setting.” His East of Eden is so great. Like War and Peace, Steinbeck’s Eden is just life on the page. I want to write like him, just a little—one sentence.
Anyway, I don’t know if they’ve influenced my writing other than that I try not to interfere with my characters. I listen carefully to the way people speak. I watch faces—from a safe distance. And I try to write dialogue naturally and juxtapose scenes for effect, and stay in control of a story’s pacing. Most importantly, I urge myself not to hold back, to take chances. It’s all such a challenge and a struggle, but I keep trying.
NICHE: Could you give readers a preview of Damaged Goods in your own words?
LOU GAGLIA: It started in my mind with three moments: a boy in a junior high cafeteria overhearing gossip about a girl he likes; the same boy watching his father cleverly handle would-be muggers outside his window in the middle of the night; and football players ramming the boy between fences. In each scene, the boy is innocent about the world. He can’t comprehend rape, or that other students would so torture a girl with mean-spirited rumor; or that someone could so convincingly sound like he wants to help when he really wants to rob or kill; or that older boys wearing shoulder pads would smash him between fences, just for the heck of it.
NICHE: One of the things that struck me about Damaged Goods is that you were able to balance a large cast of characters so expertly. What advice would you give writers who are trying to perfect the same technique?
LOU GAGLIA: Be patient and see an entire scene in one’s mind before writing. Go back to a familiar place and be there for a while. Setting is everything. Eventually, characters will fit naturally into that place and reveal themselves. It’s important to be patient though, rather than to write and “see what happens”. Know where everyone is and (generally or specifically) what each character wants beforehand. Every character, even the friends-of-friends sitting against a wall on an open-gym night, wants or needs something.
NICHE: Along the same technical lines, you strike a nice balance in this piece between narrating omnisciently and then narrowing into a close third person. (As is apparent when we’re suddenly introduced to Sister Crucifix. Obviously this is not her name, but it’s what our narrator, Steve, has nicknamed her.) In a writing sense, how do you accomplish the switch from omniscient to close third?
LOU GAGLIA: Well, in that scene I tried first to zero in on the perspective of a frustrated Sr. Crucifix, and then “pan” to Steve as observer, who hears his classmates’ mocking laughter and is reminded of how they’d mocked the absent Cristina. That scene had to start with Sr. Crucifix, because Steve identified with her frustration. For me, it was all about needing to reveal Cristina as an object of cruelty, and I had to show it through scene, shifting the focus from Crucifix to the miserable Steve, rather than interfering to explain—as an intrusive narrator—that Steve was disgusted with the kids who’d been so rotten to a girl that he loved.
NICHE: The ending of Damaged Goods takes a surprising turn (in a good way). That is, I could see Damaged Goods ending in several different ways but very much liked that you chose to end it on the “theme”—of maturity. The way I see it, this is very much—a coming of age story. Is that wrong to say? What was the rationale behind the ending?
LOU GAGLIA: Well, this boy believed in goodness. The girl was Goodness to him, and it hurt him to know that she suffered. He’d been surprised by the drunk teacher, surprised that his classmates would be so cruel about this girl, surprised at the casual talk about rape, surprised at the criminal outside his window who sounded so much like he wanted to help, and surprised at the football players’ attack. He realized fast that people could be cruel, but he believed in the goodness of this girl, and he put himself in a vulnerable position by first standing in front of her house, and then getting himself trapped between fences. But even after the football players smashed him into submission, he didn’t stay in the one safe spot he found where they could no longer ram into him. He didn’t keep himself trapped and safe behind that fence. He came out, damaged as he was, and went on.
NICHE: What general advice would you give aspiring writers, primarily about submitting stories to lit journals?
LOU GAGLIA: Don’t do what I did. I stopped writing for about twenty years—except just to fool around on a story every year or two—because I let rejections bother me when I was younger. I took rejections personally. Even after I did write a story, I put it in a folder and wouldn’t send it out. I still take rejections hard, but instead of fuming now, I keep writing.
So my advice would be to write and send stories out and hope for the best, but have that next story already swimming around within, waiting to be written. When a rejection comes—and many of them do come, for every writer—shrug it off and send the story out again, or take another look at it and revise. There are so many reasons for rejection, and many times it’s just about an editor’s taste. Writers can’t blame them for that.
But when a publication invites future submissions along with a rejection, take that seriously. Wait a while, of course, and send them another story. Thank editors who respond personally. Sometimes thank them anyway. They do what they do out of a love for literature
It is satisfying to be published—and it will happen for the writer who is serious and doesn’t give up— but it’s even more satisfying to write. There is a beauty about the process of trying to tell a story the best way one knows how.
NICHE: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?
LOU GAGLIA: Yes, I have a book coming out in July, 2015 (Poor Advice, Aqueous Books). I’m very excited about it. And I’m sending out a second collection and hoping for the best. “Damaged Goods” is part of that collection, and I’m proud to credit Niche as its first home. I’m also now an assistant editor with Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine. It’s fascinating to read others’ work, and I’m always looking for a gem of a story.
LOU GAGLIA’S work has appeared in The Cortland Review, Eclectica, The Brooklyner, FRiGG, JMWW, Hawai’i Review, Oklahoma Review, and elsewhere. His collection of short stories, Poor Advice, will be available in 2015 from Aqueous Books. His story, “Hands”, published by Waccamaw, was a finalist for storySouth’s 2013 Million Writers Award, and his story, “Little Leagues” was a finalist for the Jim Palmer Award sponsored by Cobalt Review. He lives and breathes in upstate New York.