The Questioning Voice: It's such a tremendous pleasure to meet you, Joe. May I call you Joe? Haha, well, good then. I'd like to ask a few questions, please.
No, nothing much, except that I was very curious about things. I wondered why a lot.
We had very few books in the home and no one except my older sister Jackie read much or strove academically. If one of my parents were reading it was a local newspaper, The Daily News, Readers’ Digest, or The TV Guide. But I've got to say this about my dad: If I woke up at two or three a.m., it was likely I'd find him at the kitchen table, sipping from a glass of beer, smoking a cigarette, and reading the encyclopedia.
I read some, not too much. What I loved more than reading books was being around them. I could roam around our small library for hours—well at least an hour—staring at mostly colorful book spines, now and then opening a book like I was opening a treasure chest, weighing the book's weight in my hands--the ones with glossy pages weighed a ton.
The “some level of seriousness” is the hard part of the question. By the age of twelve or so I realized I wasn’t going to be a professional athlete so I started doing some pondering. It was until around the midpoint of my four years at Rutgers that the word "seriously" might slip in. I submitted a poem to the college literary magazine in sophomore and when I got the rejection envelope back, it came, accidentally, I hope, with the harshest ridicule. Bmph. One really big bmph. A year later, I submitted a two or three page short story that was accepted: "Okay, I'm not a complete joke." It wasn’t until I sat down to write these responses that I realized what a huge deal that acceptance was. That seems like a general rule of life: acceptance beats rejection. Welcome beats derision every time.
I write for a lot of reasons, a mosaic of them. Trying to write that mosaic would take incredibly long in time and words. It might be impossible. I'll make a list and readers can imagine it as a mosaic:
--Since high school, thanks to the encouragement of teachers, writing is something I've thought I'm good at.
--Writing, maybe any art, is a good way for a shy person to show off.
--When I was younger identifying myself as a writer beat identifying as a temp secretary, or a copy boy, or a waiter in a Mexican restaurant.
--It allows me to turn chaos into a composition complete with a purpose.
--It gives me something healthy to obsess about and something that intrigues me to talk about.
--It's a lot of fun to enter the alternative reality it requires of you.
--It presents me with a mirror of myself in a version I respect.
--There are very many things I'm terrible at--very extremely terribly terrible at.
--I've got something to prove, still, at seventy.
--It's pleasing when you get down what you were aiming for even though that aimed for thing may shift during the process.
--It gives all your thoughts ad observations a purpose, a usefulness, a role.
This is a tricky question. From a literary perspective I can think only of a few and they go all the way back to when I was a teenager. These three made deep impressions so I'm assuming they also had an influence: Dostoevsky for his ruthlessness in exploring the human condition and his ability to (or inability not to) gnaw on a bone in a page-long paragraph or across hundreds of pages; Graham Greene for his matter-fact-moralistic and empathic prose; and Kurt Vonnegut for the rhythm he established in setting up and delivering his jokes, and for the speed with which I could chalk up another book as read!
Honestly, though, I think the non-literary influences are much greater than the literary. I can’t think of a classification in which I feel I belong. But if we can assign folk literature a category--as we do with folk music--then that’s where I see similarities: writing that deals with important matters in language anyone can understand delivered in a non-scholastic style. Put differently, anybody can understand a John Prine song.
Much of how I write has to do with how (working class) and where (Jersey City) and when (born in '52) I grew up. I can think of a couple of things in particular:
Like most kids, I spent a lot of time out of the house, and if you grow up in the city that means the parks, playgrounds, streets and streetcorners. And that background--the voices and images--created what I take to be my writing voice: wise cracking, skeptical, sharp, punch-and-counter punchy. If you weren't the toughest kid, not the best of ladies' men, not the best athlete, then being funny--not being smart or even insightful--getting laughs all around, carried cache.
Also, when I was a kid, I believed that a lot that was in print was not for us--not merely that we weren't the intended audience, but that we were intentionally excluded. In my world, that included The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Vogue, The New Yorker. We weren't something enough--knowing enough, smart enough, monied enough for the ads. I carry around a lot of working-class pride and a good dose of disdain for those I feel dismissed us. I think the sense in the back of my mind that I'm writing for these, my people influences me a lot.