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9th Interview: Joseph Freda
March 20, 2003

The following is an interview with Joseph Freda, author of two novels: Suburban Guerrillas, and The Patience of Rivers (2003-015, 5 stars). Freda lives in New York with his wife Elise. His website can be found at www.joefreda.com.


Dan:

Thank you Joe for taking some time out of your busy schedule to answer some questions.

Joe:

Thank you, Dan. My pleasure.

Dan:

The main thing I noticed while reading "The Patience of Rivers," was what an engaging storyteller you are. The writing was great, as well as the characters, etc., but the book is the type that you don't put down once you start and I think it comes from your ability to tell a story. Where do you think this ability comes from?

Joe:

I try to write the kind of novel that I like to read. I have always been partial to literary fiction that not only engages with its characters but also tells a story. From my earliest reading of American literature – say, Mark Twain and John Steinbeck – through college readings of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor and on to contemporary authors such as Russell Banks and Richard Russo and Anne Tyler, I've always been most drawn to those writers who can spin a good story as well as make you live it through the characters' internal sensibilities.

This comes, I suppose, from what draws us to reading in the first place: the pleasure of losing ourselves in a story that takes us into a bigger world. So when you ask where the storytelling ability comes from, I think it starts with a desire to tell a story, to spin a good yarn. I've spent a lot of time being entertained by good yarns – on construction sites, on railroad gangs, around a poker table. (For some reason, I've always heard better stories over a lunchbox and tools than around an office water cooler.)

Every writer wants to hear what you just said about not being able to put the book down once you've started, and that's a matter of finding the appropriate pace. For me, the final pacing comes only after much, much revision. But I'm always rewriting with the reader in mind: Is this moving well enough? Am I losing anybody here? You have to cut anything – even your best stuff – to serve the overall purpose of moving the story along.


Dan:

This particular story includes the coming of age of Nick Lauria, during the summer of 1969. Nick happens to live near the farm that would host Woodstock. Have you read many other fictions that have used the era of the late 60's/early 70's as a setting? If so, what do you think of them?

Joe:

I haven't read much fiction of that era in a long time, though I'm looking forward to reading T.C. Boyle's "Drop City." Back then, I read the books that were popular at the time: Tom Wolfe's "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," Ken Kesey's "Sometimes a Great Notion," the Beats, etc. The biggest influence on "The Patience of Rivers" was my experience of being an 18-year-old kid here in Sullivan County, New York, and having the mother of all rock concerts land on us that summer. Well, that's not quite true. Woodstock wasn't the biggest influence. Woodstock was one of many factors – the Vietnam war and its attendant anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the expansion of youth culture as Baby Boomers moved through the teen years and into early adulthood – that created an energy and poignancy about the time. I've always wanted to get that across in a work of fiction.

Dan:

Your novels concentrate on families – people trying to hold everything together and get the most out of their lives. Besides the big events going on around them – 1969 had Woodstock, Vietnam, the moon landing, we currently have Iraq, global economy and a wavering stock market – do you see things as being drastically different for families, and what your writing seems to focus on, between the two eras?

Joe:

Yow. As I answer this question, the bombing of Baghdad has begun. I have a cousin in the Marines over there, and I heard on CNN that the Marines have crossed the Kuwaiti border into Iraq. So yes, there are some real similarities between the two eras. We are faced with a war that has both supporters and opponents, with all the passion that supports those two poles. I can only hope there is a huge difference as well: That this conflict will be resolved quickly, with a minimum loss of life on both sides. It is too early to know, and with events unfolding as they are, it doesn't seem respectful to speculate farther.


Dan:

"The Patience of Rivers" reminds me in a good way of the television show "American Dreams." While you touched on every big thing going on during that summer, and how it affected the lives of your characters, it was still the lives of your characters and how they interacted that was most important. When you are not reading or writing, what other arts are you most fond of partaking in – movies, museums, television, music?

Joe:

I'm a designer in my day job, so any kind of design is important. My wife is a painter and she runs an art gallery, so we see a lot of art, both here and in New York. And we're fortunate to live in an area that has a lot of indigenous culture: a lot of New York writers, artists, musicians, etc. have second homes out here in the Catskills, so we're able to partake of jazz and blues concerts, live theater, dance, readings, art exhibits, and so forth. And an interesting development in the last few years is that the original Woodstock concert site is making the transition to a major performing arts center, with the New York Philharmonic scheduled to perform a series of summer concerts. That will help provide a very large anchor for cultural activity here.


Dan:

In "The Patience of Rivers," the Lauria family is part owner of a campground. Do you see much room for small to mid-sized family owned businesses these days?

Joe:

Absolutely. Since the boom years of the 1980s, we've seen the trend toward mega-marketing and we've lived with the results: generic products, know-nothing clerks, a corporate mentality toward the customer. How much better is it to walk into your local hardware store and have the owner help you find the exact fitting you need to repair your sink and tell you how to do it? We've grown accustomed to generic mall culture by now, and it's the first place many of us think of when we need products, but look around at who provides our services: the plumber, the carpenter, the copy shop, the deli, etc. The small, personal businesses are the hearts of most of our communities. The relationship between family and business is complex and rich – the business becomes the biggest member of the family – so this makes for good fictional material.


Dan:

You are a principal in a creative graphics firm. Does your work there stimulate, or detract, your fiction efforts?

Joe:

My design work is the perfect counterweight to my fiction writing. It uses a completely different set of muscles – visual, rather than verbal – so it keeps me in balance. (Well, as balanced as a fiction writer can be!)


Dan:

I know that your company has put together at least a couple of author sites (which are very clean and easy to navigate, by the way). Do you get a little more satisfaction out of putting one of those together, as opposed to a business?

Joe:

We design websites for a range of clients, from big corporations and ad agencies to individual artists, musicians and writers. I do like the personal touch of working one-on-one with another writer or artist, of course. But I also like learning what larger clients' businesses are all about and stepping outside my own world into someone else's. For a fiction writer, all new experience is fodder for the mill. The real satisfaction comes from being able to create good design, to know that your work is helping someone else achieve their goals, and to wind up with a mutually happy relationship.

Since this subject has come up, I'll give my URLs here because I know people will be curious... or maybe it's just a shameless plug!

Author site: www.joefreda.com
Business site: www.ffcreative.com


Dan:

With what sounds like a more formal nine to five job than say teaching, how do you set up your writing schedule?

Joe:

Well, as anybody who's in business for him/herself will attest, a 9-5 day would feel like a vacation. But an advantage of being in business for yourself is flexibility. I always write first thing in the morning, from 8:00 to 10:00 if I'm lucky, and then I switch over to design work. I have separate writing and design studios, to minimize the business intrusion on the writing. After my day's work and dinner, I usually come back up to one or other of the studios to work on whatever is more pressing. I have to compartmentalize my writing time and be strict about it, because as we all know, so many other things can intrude.


Dan:

You have also had a couple of short stories published, as well as some essays. Do you prefer the novel over these other forms, and why (or why not)?

Joe:

Hoo boy... I can't say that I prefer working in one form over another, because the writing process is the same no matter what. I'm writing stories now. "The Patience of Rivers" took seven years to write, and I'm happy to be working in a form that can be measured in weeks or months rather than years. I like the clarity and succinctness of stories, but I also like the breadth and space of a novel. And though seven years is just too damn long for any project, I do like the immersion into the fictional world of the novel for the duration of the writing period. You get to know your characters well, and the world they inhabit, so you can hang out with them for a good long time.


Dan:

Getting back to the new novel, it is set up chronologically except for a short prologue. Why did you feel it was a good idea to put a brief portion of what was to happen at the end of the summer, in the beginning of the book?

Joe:

As you mentioned earlier, "The Patience of Rivers" is set during the summer of 1969. Structurally, it's broken into four main sections: June, July, August, September. The prologue is a dramatic scene from September that presages what is to come. I don't know that this was a conscious decision so much as an intuitive one. After the first two sentences came to me – "The business was always there. It grew over their family like a big tree, casting a shadow over everything they did." – I knew that that's how the book needed to open (this is after several drafts of the manuscript) and that an allusion to the climactic scene would kick-start the narrative.


Dan:

One of the characters has a habit of bellowing "Jesus Aitch Christ." I believe this is the first time I've ever encountered the H spelled out. Any particular reason for that?

Joe:

Ha! Spoken English versus written English, I guess. Same reason another character says "fifty-five thousand dollars" rather than "$55,000" -- we can write numbers or letters, but we speak words. George Bernard Shaw was always going on about the British dropping their aitches – and it's a big deal in "Pygmalion" and its musical adaptation "My Fair Lady," where Professor Henry Higgins tries to teach Eliza Doolittle to speak properly: "You see the flame? Every time you say your aitch properly, the flame will waver. Every time you drop your aitch, the flame will remain stationary..."


Dan:

When Nick and best friend Charlie go to register for the draft, one of the small details noted was Richard Nixon frowning down at them from the wall. Do you think it is possible for an author to write about this period of time without at least a small shot at RMN?

Joe:

I suppose it's possible, and my shot was indeed small. Of Nixon's many photos, the one I remember most is the one the boys see in the draft board. Nixon's expression is a stern leer, and it seemed a kind of taunt, an exhibition of power in a place where two 18-year-old guys felt pretty powerless.


Dan:

Nick and Charlie are also quite proficient as canoe racers. Based on the great detail you go into during their practice sessions and the big race itself, I have to assume that you partake in the sport/hobby? What makes it so enjoyable?

Joe:

Yes, I raced canoes back then and continue to race them today. I also paddle quietly for contemplation and peace. My family has lived on the Delaware River for generations, and I have an almost genetic need to be on or in the river. A canoe is my most natural way of doing that. A canoe lets me slip along so quietly that I can come within arm's length of deer and herons, which I couldn't do any other way. Or when I feel the need for speed, a light racing canoe will take me across the surface as efficiently as a rowing shell and give a great workout.

The champion canoe racer in the novel, Al Camp, is the one real-life character in the book. He has won every major canoe title in the country, and now in his seventies, still does. (He won the U.S. Nationals in the Senior Division last year.) He designed and built my cedar racing canoe, which is a work of art. One of the great things about canoe racing is that you can do it all your life, and when you're out there on the river and a gray-haired 60- or 70-year-old paddler blows by you, all you can do is smile and wish them well. And try to catch them, which I can never do.


Dan:

What is the one question you expect to be asked by an interview this time around, and how would you answer it?

Joe:

Heh... The "Jesus Aitch Christ" question, of course! No – I do get asked, as I suppose most literary fiction writers do, about how much of the book is autobiographical. In my last novel, "Suburban Guerrillas," there's a chapter called "The Summer of Driving Naked" and I got – and still get – asked about that a lot. (Have never answered it...) As anyone who writes fiction based on aspects of her or his life knows, you use bits of real life as a springboard into the imaginary life of the story. Alice Munro, I believe, calls real life the "starter dough" for her stories. I think of it as a "seed crop," which in the fiction writer's compulsive storytelling imagination grows into the larger-than-life landscape of the novel. I try to extract the essential human truth from the experiences of real life and then use the devices of fiction to represent them.

Dan:

How does being married help and/or hinder your writing?

Joe:

Dan, my wife's gonna read this. It only helps, man! It only helps! Seriously, Elise and I were married young – I was 22 and she was 19 – and our marriage is the stabilizing force in my life. I know that if I didn't have the marriage I have, I couldn't write about love, or with love for my characters. Hell, I might not be writing novels at all.


Dan:

If you were a character in "Fahrenheit 451," what work(s) would you memorize for posterity?

Joe:

"One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Its breadth and depth, its wonderful characters – in love and at war and dying and living, doing grand and small things – and its rich storytelling let us know all that it takes to be human. And it's got one of the best first lines in literature: "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." Who couldn't read on?

Dan:

Joe, thanks again for the time. I loved the novel and look forward to future readings of your work.

Joe:

Thank you, Dan. And thanks for all you do to bring writers and readers together.

© 2002 – 2015 Joseph Freda. Website design by Freda + Flaherty Creative.