Victor Lodato Spins a New Jersey Gothic Tale

Victor Lodato
Victor Lodato. Photo: Nancy Crampton.

Earlier this month, I traveled to Ashland, OR to speak with writer Victor Lodato about his new novel, Edgar and Lucy — due from St. Martin’s Press on March 7. I’ve known of Lodato’s prodigious talent since the late 1990s, when I read his play scripts while serving as an intern at New Dramatists, the Manhattan–based support organization for playwrights. Lodato was, at the time, a contender for the Princess Grace Award for Playwriting, an honor he would receive in 1998.

One especially impressive effort of Lodato’s was The Bread of Winter, a disturbing yet elegant work about a young boy caught in a trap of emotional and sexual abuse by his older brother. This script, however, languished on the shelf, perhaps in part because of its challenging, edgy subject matter. After many readings and workshops, it was finally staged by Washington, DC’s Theater Alliance in 2009. In her Washington Post review, Celia Wren praised the play’s “anguished lyricism.”

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Lodato has continued to keep a hand in theater. Arlington, a musical play he wrote with composer Polly Pen, was produced at  San Francisco’s Magic Theatre in 2013 and at Manhattan’s Vineyard Theatre the following year. But, increasingly, he has turned from the stage to fiction. His short stories have appeared in The New Yorker and other publications. Farrar, Straus and Giroux published his first novel, Mathilda Savitch — a seriocomedy about a pubescent girl coping with the death of her older sister — in 2009. It was awarded the PEN USA Award for Fiction, as well as the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize.

Lodato began work on Edgar and Lucy about a decade ago.

In writing Mathilda — a relatively short novel, told consistently from a first-person point of view —  Lodato relied on his scriptwriting skill set. “As a playwright, writing from a character’s voice comes naturally to me. At the beginning of working on this first-person novel, I thought I was writing a long monologue — but then it turned into a novel. I learned a lot in making that book, and it enabled me to feel brave enough to work on a more complicated piece like Edgar and Lucy.”

The new novel is much more ambitious in scope than Mathilda. It’s a saga of more than 500 pages, written largely (though not entirely) in the third person, with multiple points of view and shifts in time. It tells the tale of Edgar Allan Fini, an eight-year-old albino child, and his well-meaning but seemingly irresponsible mother, Lucy. They share a rather spooky house in a small town in New Jersey, not far from NYC. Living with them is Florence, the mother of Edgar’s presumed-dead father. Florence loves grandson Edgar fiercely (“Oh, if she could have a tall glass of this child every morning, she would live forever.”). But, before long, family circumstances change: Florence becomes no longer available to care for the boy. The fragile equilibrium of the household teeters near collapse.

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At one point, Lodato hoped to give the novel the subtitle “A New Jersey Gothic.” While he and his editors ultimately decided against that, he believes the tag would have been apt. The book is gothic, he says, in that it presents the past as “a source of malignant influence.” And the Finis’ dilapidated house is a variation on the haunted castle. “Also, I think that calling the book a ‘New Jersey Gothic’ allows readers to understand that there’s going to be a heightened kind of story, with big emotions.”

Lodato may have suspected from the start that the book would expand beyond straight-ahead realism, but he didn’t necessarily anticipate the word count going as high as it did. He was embarrassed, even a bit ashamed, both by the length of the manuscript and by the outsized emotions in the tale. Eventually, though, he decided to stick with his instinct to think big:

I started to think about this divide that seems to exist in literature and fiction in our culture. On one side, there’s commercial fiction, where big emotions seem to be permitted — these are the kind of books that we’re told ‘will make you laugh, will make you cry.’ And then there’s the more high-art literary world, in which I have lived and worked, and where there seems to be a greater chilliness sometimes, or at least a sense that one should be more reserved, less direct, even detached — which of course can be a marvelous strategy to produce great writing. But, ultimately, I knew that this kind of reserve wasn’t going to cut it for this book — and that to be true to this story and these characters, I had to dive into the water and go for the big opera of it.

The inspiration for the new book is largely autobiographical. Lodato, like Edgar, spent his formative years in a NJ town, in a house with multiple generations under one roof. (His maternal and paternal grandmothers both lived with the family.) The novel is, he said, “a sort of mirror-land of my childhood in Hoboken, NJ, and of my hot-blooded, working-class Italian-Polish family.“ There’s much invention in the book in terms of plot, but a good deal of the emotional dynamics of the story have their roots in Hoboken, especially Edgar’s relationship with Florence. “The character of Florence is basically my tiny Polish grandmother shoved inside the larger body of my Italian nonna.”

While he had a general idea about where the plot was headed, Lodato didn’t outline the story beforehand. He tends to write chronologically, scene by scene, so that he can reach heightened emotional states that are in sync with those of his characters. As he wrote Edgar and Lucy, he realized, about 300 pages in — when much of the action shifts to NJ’s Pine Barrens wilderness — that the book was becoming something of a thriller. He thought about revamping the structure, starting the book in the midst of the more urgent action, but he decided against it. He felt it would be exciting to have the “thriller” action begin after the reader has become deeply invested in the lives of the characters.

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The emotional states of the characters also helped shape the book’s language. Lodato doesn’t craft interesting metaphors merely for the sake of doing so. “If I write anything that’s lyrically successful, it’s never because I’m attempting to do so. It’s usually because I’m in a certain emotional state, based on what a particular character is experiencing in the story. The language arises from a need to expose or express what’s in the character’s heart.”

Edgar is a character that readers will gravitate toward. Lodato calls him “a place to hang your love hat.” But other characters — Lucy in particular — are not so readily sympathetic:

While I want the reader to care about the family in this book, I didn’t want to shy away from the way they can be small-minded sometimes, even cruel. I’ve seen it in my own family. In the book, there are some terrible things that happen — and I want to write about this not because I’m a sadist, but because I want to understand why things go wrong, why love breaks down so easily, why we’re cruel to each other, when kindness would be so simple.

His goal is always to fight through the wrongdoing to find some kind of dignity or grace for the characters. “Maybe the book is a little longer than other things I’ve written for that reason, because the fight for grace and dignity had to be a real one; it couldn’t be easy, because it’s not easy in life, and I wanted this book to feel like life — so any grace had to be earned.”

I asked Lodato why he’s been drawn to juvenile characters, something that occurs not just in this book, but also in Mathilda Savitch and The Bread of Winter.

“I find it liberating to write from the perspective of someone who is still learning the world and interpreting its complexities for the first time,” he explained. “As a writer in such situations, I don’t feel compelled to pretend that I have all the answers.” He cited Nobel-winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, who once declared, “Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’ ”

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If you look at the world through a Jungian lens, even the most innocent child may not be a complete blank slate. The collective unconscious will bubble up. Late in Edgar and Lucy, there’s a reference to a painting depicting the abduction of Ganymede. It’s a mythological allusion that seems to want to comment on the action in the novel, to give the story universality. How conscious is Lodato of using this sort of archetypal element to add a deeper dimension to his story?

Ultimately, I want to write stories that have transformative power — for the reader, for the characters, for myself. I guess I’m a romantic in that I want to read and write books that will change me, change my life. I like books that are grounded in emotional truth, with believable characters, but that can also feel mythic. Of course, I never think about myth at the front of my brain while writing. It’s more something I feel in my gut — a sort of physical sensation, a sense that this story is a matter of life and death.

Soon, Lodato will go on a multi-city tour to promote his novel. On March 13, six days after the publication of Edgar and Lucy, he’ll have another story in The New Yorker. He’s currently at work on a book of short stories, some of which have been published elsewhere previously. And there will be new longer works coming, no doubt. But Lodato believes he’ll never feel the need to write a novel quite like this one, ever again.

“This is a book that I feel like I’ve been trying to write for a long time, maybe since I starting writing. And now that I’ve got it out of me — an exorcism, basically! — I feel very free to write a skinny book.”