Note – I am slowly going through and cleaning up my folders on our hard drive. I just came across a bunch of old interviews I did with people while I was a journalism student at Columbia College Chicago. This one was from when I was working on the college magazine for two semesters. It was done in the fall of 2000, I think. If you happen to be Don De Grazia and you want this taken down, just let me know. I’m putting it here for posterity and nerdy archival reasons.
Don De Grazia is the soft spoken (and deep voiced) author of the recently published book, American Skin. It’s a story of a young kid coming of age (and becoming a punk) in Chicago in the 80s. Don is currently a fiction writing teacher at Columbia College Chicago.
What made you want to be an author?
I read a lot of fiction as a kid. I think, like a lot of writers, I’m a sort of natural born introvert – but one with a strong desire to interact with society. Reading and writing fiction are solitary ways to join the fray.
What books have influenced you the most?
That’s easy – Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye. I picked up those two books as a kid, and since that time I’ve gone through a lot of phases – from Dostoyevsky to Bukowski to Fitzgerald to Shakespeare to Cormac McCarthy – and they’ve all changed me as a writer. Even authors I hate have influenced me. But I’m amazed at the way Huck Finn and Catcher have stood up over the years. Those two novels, along with Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio are currently my three favorite works of fiction.
Have films influenced your writing?
Yeah, and any writer who says that film doesn’t influence his writing is either a liar, or mistaken. The novelist Charles Johnson says that when you write a novel it’s a dialogue between you and all of the novels you’ve ever read, which I think is an excellent way of putting it. But I would expand that to a dialogue between you and all of the stories you’ve ever been exposed to, regardless of the form – the one your friend told you that night at the bar, that Belgian film you can’t remember the name of, that performance of Henry V you saw at The Globe, the funniest column Mike Royko ever wrote, that one episode of Bonanza, and so on. Every form of communication you come in contact with has its influence on you as a writer. It’s not always a positive influence, but it’s an influence nonetheless.
It is true that film is in many ways a very different way to tell a story than prose fiction, but so is oral storytelling, and who can deny the relationship there? Where the filmmaker might use a soundtrack to get something across, and the oral storyteller might raise an eyebrow, the prose fiction writer will have to do something else. But to deny that they are all first cousins is silly. I think that a lot of writers of literary fiction resent film because it’s clearly the dominant storytelling medium of our time. And the fact of the matter is that watching a film is, creatively speaking, a much more passive mental experience than reading a novel. Whether it’s a supermarket romance or Tolstoy, the demand is put on the novel audience to use their own life experience to sort of co-write the story, so each reader’s experience is absolutely unique. And that’s why novels will always be an important part of the human experience. Just look at all those zillions of Internet-Generation kids who devour every Harry Potter novel. And just wait – when the movie comes out, they’ll all say it sucks.
How has your writing process developed over the years?
As a student at Columbia College I learned how to re-write. And not just edit, but re-see and reconsider the possibilities of what I initially put down on paper. That was not initially an intuitive part of my process. In fact, I resisted the whole idea of it. It’s a classic beginning writer’s copout: Kerouac didn’t rewrite! But even that’s bullshit. Kerouac rewrote. And, in my opinion, he should have rewritten more.
Where’s your favorite place to hang out?
You mean besides the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot at Clark and Belmont? Probably the Caribou Coffee place down the street from me. I also like to drop in and bug the artists Tony Fitpatrick and Teresa Mucha at Tony’s Big Cat Press studio.
What’s the best thing about Chicago and is that what keeps you here?
The best thing about Chicago is that it’s a better place to live than anywhere else. It’s all relative. I mean, LA is some kind of glad-hand stripmall nightmare, and New York is filled with disaffected New Yorkers who need to be forcibly sent to charm school – preferably one that relies heavily on the cattle prod. I’m not just being glib. New Yorkers – and I’m referring here to the Manhattanites who run publishing – make my skin crawl. Chicago is a world class city, but it’s truly unpretentious. However, that does make it a little harder place to be an artist or a writer or a filmmaker or whatever. Chicagoans are more likely than most other big city people to say stuff like: You’re a POET? What kind of money can you make doing THAT? And I don’t like this slick Disney turn Chicago has taken with the fiberglass cows and the iron fences and the gondolas. But whatever, it’s the best city in the world, the archetypal American city, the city of writers. But the main reason I stay here is because I lost my drivers license.
Where were you from originally?
I was born in Chicago. I spent part of my childhood in rural unincorporated Lake County, Illinois, so you can see why I spent a lot of time reading fiction.
Is there an overall theme, from story to story, that you come back to in your writing?
That’s a good question. When I first started out writing there certainly was a theme very close to my heart that kept popping up – Girls. But as I look at my writing now I see the theme of the individual who keeps trying and failing to find his place in society. But he never stops trying.
Does music kick your ass? What kind?
Yes, if it wasn’t for the music of The Mentors, I would not be a writer today. Actually, yeah, I love music, but it’s not a lifestyle. I was one of the tens of thousands of kids who got into the Chicago punk scene in the eighties and thought Naked Raygun was the coolest. I still think Naked Raygun was the coolest, but I’m repulsed by the idea of people who live their lives according to music subculture. I mean, it’s understandable for kids, but I see people who are pushing forty who still wrap a lot of their self-esteem around the fact that they were the first person at their high school to listen to Minor Threat, or whatever. It becomes this sort of competitive, fascistic, intellectually empty attempt to turn pop music into some kind of scholarly discipline – to make music appreciation a tightly controlled clique – and that takes all the fun out of it. Also, I like a lot of music, but I truly love very little – at least enough to buy it and listen to it again and again. I’ve probably only listened to a half dozen albums in the last six months, but I’ve played each one hundreds of times – Hank Williams, Sr. Rare Demos, Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown, some Memphis Slim CD, Elvis’ Sun Sessions, Mike Ness’ two solo albums, and a couple compilations of old classic country heartbreak songs I picked up in England of all places. Oh yeah, and every once in a while – Throb Throb by Naked Raygun.
Do you speak or read in a language besides English?
Yes, Keith, the language of love.
If you were to collaborate with any other authors – who? What?
That’s a hard question. OK. It would be a book of essays meditating on race and class relations in America, and the limitations of the Liberal-Conservative paradigm. The featured authors would be me, Jim (The Redneck Manifesto) Goad and Larry (The Ten Things You Can’t Say in America) Elder.
Have you ever found true love?
Yeah, the Chicago skyline from about fifty different vantage points. Don’t groan. I mean it.
When you die, what do you want to be remembered for?
Honestly? My first thought was: Who cares? I’ll be dead. But I suppose if I’m survived by any loved ones I’d like to be remembered as a writer whose work lasted, so my people can live large off my royalty checks.