Tonight, at the Newtonville Bookstore, we will be celebrating our beloved Artistic Director, Christopher Castellani. His third novel, All this Talk of Love, is hot off the press and man is it GOOD. For me, its his best yet – a moving, funny, complex portrait of immigrant family life, of loss and love. But I leave book reviewing to others less biased and more skilled. I’d like to mark this occasion by writing about why I love the guy.
The first time I met Chris, back in 2000, was over coffee at my house in Somerville. In theory, I was interviewing him to teach at Grub Street, but the interview didn’t go very well because we kept falling into fits of laughter, giggling madly for no apparent reason. I learned nothing useful about him in that initial meeting, but I hired him anyway. And he miraculously took the job despite the fact that he probably left my house thinking I was very odd if not crazy. When I think of it now, thirteen years later, after laughing my way through so much with Chris, our first encounter makes perfect sense.
Once we drove an enormous commercial truck through Boston’s clogged streets at rush hour, narrowly avoiding death. It wasn’t until we had survived our near death moment that Chris looked back to the one rickety black computer table sitting in the vast cabin of the commercial truck and questioned our logic. Another time, we invented a secret hand signal to communicate the direction of an important meeting only to collapse in fits of giggles when we forgot the secret signal mid- meeting. Whatever we are up to, Chris makes me laugh every day. His humor is dry, deliciously off-color, smart and true. Just last week, a few of us were trying to meet with Chris over Skype. The sound wasn’t working and Chris’s image kept freezing. We turned to google and things only got worse. We kept rebooting, trying new things. In the middle of the chaos, Chris texted me: And you want to start offering online workshops?
Once Chris started teaching at Grub Street, I learned that he was hard at work on his first novel, A Kiss from Maddalena. He was also running a tutoring business. Yet despite these other big commitments, he was one of ten early volunteers who committed to helping me turn Grub Street into a nonprofit. It wasn’t a trivial. We spent hours on it every week. We held a phone-a-thon in Houghton Mifflin’s office, planned the first Muse, did a dizzying amount of nonprofit paperwork, hired an administrator, searched for space and on and on. After a few months of hard labor, the other nine volunteers left their posts. And for good reason. They were moving, getting new jobs, etc. The problem was the timing. As it happened, the majority of them left within a two-week period, about a month after my second child was born, which was a mere eleven months after my first. I was terrified. I called Chris in a sleep-deprived, weepy, post-partum panic, telling him that we might have to close up shop, give the students who donated to the cause their money back. Chris let me vent, sob and generally freak out. When I had exhausted myself, he replied calmly: I’m Italian, which means I’m crazily loyal. I’m not going anywhere. Remembering this moment still makes me weepy. He was working without pay for a cause with an uncertain future with a woman who was NOT in that moment looking like a very good bet. I feel so lucky – and everyone who appreciates the writing community that Grub Street has become is lucky – that Chris had faith in the idea of Grub Street. From the very start, he set a high bar for this idea we shared, as high a bar as he sets for his own writing. To this day, I’m the one in meetings wanting to do more, to do the next thing. Chris is the one reminding us that anything we do has to be excellent or it’s not worth doing.
Chris is remarkable.
In the last twelve years, he has – fasten your seatbelts – done the following: built one of the country’s best writing conferences (The Muse and the Marketplace, of course), conceived of and run Grub Street’s National Book Prize, assembled an amazing array of writing instructors, overseen Grub Street’s workshops and seminars, become faculty at Warren Wilson and Breadloaf. He has published three critically acclaimed novels, the first of which won the Massachusetts Book Award. All the while, he has been a tireless advocate, reader, and generous advisor to his students and to a wide circle of writer friends. He’s been a generous, loving colleague to everyone at Grub Street and a warm, welcoming host to all the writers, editors, and publishers who have walked through our doors to teach, to read, or to say hello.
His accomplishments are more impressive because the work hasn’t been easy. All This Talk of Love is a case in point. Getting the book to the finish line entailed breaking up with his agent and turning the main storyline into distant backstory. Chris astonished me by finishing the rewrite – a total re-imagining, really – finding a new agent and securing a book deal within nine months. I was dumbstruck when he first told me the good news, but I’m not sure why given how long I’ve known Chris and how many times I’ve seen him work his graceful magic. It’s not that he doesn’t sweat it. He does. In fact, he usually completely freaks out, but then he recovers and gets to it. He pushes himself, takes risks and excels.
4. He is a dear friend
Chris and I have – incredibly – watched a horse dance on stage at the Venice Opera House together. The day that President Barack Obama became our first African American president, Chris and I were together at the Liberty Hotel, squeezed into one seat, crying as he took his oath. My daughter, at the glorious age of two, was a flower girl at Chris and Michael’s wedding. While she held flowers, I held a cell phone between Chris and Michael so that Michael’s mother could hear their wedding vows.
My husband can only “process” with me to a point and he hates gossip, political debates and reality television. Chris loves all of the above. One time, after gorging on “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” we decided to stage an intervention for my fashion challenged husband. Chris and Micheal went through his closet, gave the majority of his clothing to good will, forced him to toss an old pair of “cowboy” boots (which had been my main goal) and then took him shopping. Mimicking the show, I had dinner with friends waiting for them when they returned. Within two weeks, every expensive item of clothing my husband had purchased that afternoon was ruined. (He’s strictly a no iron, no delicates kind of guy).
More than horses doing ballet, historic inaugurations, and ill-advised fashion interventions, what has marked our time together are the more mundane moments: coffees at work, long walks through Arlington, late night drinks in his kitchen or mine. Over the years, we’ve gotten to know each other so well that we don’t have to talk to communicate. We look at each other and know what the other is thinking, what the other will say. We know how to talk each other off the ledge when one of us is momentarily crippled by hypochondria. We can be brutally honest with each other; we can fight, own up, and move on. When it comes down to it, there aren’t many people in my life outside of my own close family members who I trust and rely on as much as Chris. He’s been a trusting, loving, truth-telling, fun presence in my life as I’ve grown up, become a mother and a better wife (one who doesn’t try to dress her husband), ventured into publishing and back to Grub. Chris has had my back the whole time, and it’s made all the difference. I hope I’ve been as good to him as he’s been to me as he’s become the accomplished writer and teacher and singular human being that he’s become.