I met Debra Di Blasi through Facebook. I don’t remember who friended whom first, but we shared many mutual friends and soon it was apparent that we also shared many aesthetic, literary, and political interests and leanings. She has since departed that poisonous place, and while I envy her, I’ve missed her voice and views. Another enviable aspect of her life is that Di Blasi is an expatriate who has lived in Portugal for the last seven years. She was drawn to the general progressiveness of the country, its respect for the arts, and its freedom from gun violence and the high cost of living in the U.S.
Another thing to envy is her career. An account of Di Blasi’s career and body of work is an impressive sight to behold. Di Blasi has published eleven books and contributed creative work in the forms of poetry, prose, and hybridity across a wide range of publications. Her writing has been adapted for radio, theater, and film, and she has worked as an educator, art writer, and book publisher. In 2019, her lyrical memoir Selling the Farm: Descendants from a Recollected Past (2020) won the C&R Press Nonfiction Award.
Since I have missed interacting with Di Blasi on social media over the last few years, I was excited last autumn over news of her new novel, The Birth of Eros (Kernpunkt). As the first in a projected tetralogy, The Birth of Eros introduces us to the character Lucy from her birth, the parental lives leading up to her birth, and into her early adolescence. Di Blasi gives us place, setting, time period, characterizations, and intriguing action through the use of language that is rolling, playful, and punny, ignited with flashes of fleshy humanity. This is a tale of mid-century America focused around some of its most salient touchstones: the automobile, car dealerships, Los Angeles, pornography, feminism, and the advertising world. For all its depth, it’s also just a lot of fun to read.
Jordan A. Rothacker: What power does literature have? Or any art form? Is there anything that makes writing/literature special in regard to other mediums?
Debra Di Blasi: If you had asked me thirty years ago, I would have said, “Yes! Literature and other arts can change the world, motivate people to be kind, generous, peaceable!” Alas, I have lived long enough to see that human nature hasn’t really evolved since The Epic of Gilgamesh, and probably not since the first cave paintings 70,000 years ago or before; therefore, the comic tragedy that is the human condition persists. We are generally a selfish, truculent species that also loves deeply and exhibits moments of profound magnanimity—much like apes and elephants, whales and dolphins, cats and dogs, lest we show bias toward our species. Most people have a sense of fairness and know the difference between right and wrong, and yet we lie, steal, betray, deceive, kill, destroy our planet because, well, that’s who we are, who’ve we been, and sadly who we will likely be until there is no more we.
Or, rather, that’s who enough of us are to prevent a significant [r]evolution.
Research suggests that reading literature improves theory of mind because it provides a complex look into the lives of people whose circumstances, experiences, and histories are different from our own. Does an improved theory of mind result in selfless behavior? No. If it did, we wouldn’t have literary writers, professors, and readers who are assholes, but we do. Although 50 years of writing and reading literature has given me sufficient self-awareness to recognize my cognitive dissonance and my ludicrous behaviors and thoughts, I am at times still a selfish, self-righteous asshole. That is, I am Homo but not so sapiens.
And, of course, there is the obvious dilemma: very few people read books and even fewer read literature. The depth of majority ignorance knows no bounds.
JAR: Your most recent novel, The Birth of Eros, is very much a novel, but it operates from such an intimate, personal, first-person place that it might make an unassuming reader look back and double-check that it’s a novel and not a memoir. How strategic or intentional was this, this feeling that this is “you” before we really get to know Lucy?
DD: I’m glad to hear that it initially reads as a memoir because, in effect, Birth of Eros is the first of a projected four-part memoir told by Lucy. For me, writing is similar to method acting. I take on the role of a character or characters so intensely that I become them while writing. My personality adapts to theirs, to their backstory. Lucy’s backstory (post-WWII through Iraq War) is filled with so much brutality, violence, and tragedy that I become an angrier, sadder, and wilder person while writing it. I assume that it doesn’t take the reader long to figure out it’s fiction, because of the surreal elements.
JAR: The epigraph for the novel is from Chris Hedges’s book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, and there’s a Freudian thematic component of Eros and Thanatos running through this whole tetralogy, beginning with this book. Do you see this project as an allegory, an expression through story and narrative of socio-psychological principles? And is your intention didactic or merely illustrative?
DD: The project definitely began as an allegorical re-examination of the Freudian instincts Eros (love & sex: creation) and Thanatos (violence & aggression: destruction). Lucy (and her lover-cousin, Mike) are loose personifications of Eros and Thanatos. I say loose because the instincts overlap or, in some cases, switch places. The project keeps mutating, however, the more I research the project’s subtopics of consumerism, war, religion, sexuality, physical appearance, history of music, and the concept of allegory itself, as in the “hero’s journey.” Whenever I find myself wandering too far from “a condensed history of the United States since WWII,” I just remind myself that it’s a mythology I’m creating, not a conventional novel based on empirical evidence.
JAR: What were the direct influences on this text and style? It is hard not to feel a little Notes from Underground by Dostoevsky or even Walker Percy’s Lancelot in the way Lucy addresses the reader.
DD: At this point in my life and “career,” it’s difficult to pinpoint influences. I haven’t read Notes from Underground for decades, and I’ve never read Percy’s Lancelot, only The Moviegoer. I’ve read hundreds of novels and novellas by now; add poetry, creative nonfiction, and nonfiction books and articles, and the soup gets very thick. These days, I read primarily poetry (for concision and the beautiful twists and rhythms) and the sciences (for pleasure).
Almost all my writing begins with a sentence or phrase that nags at me: “All right I will.” That’s the sentence that wouldn’t go away, the one that lurked in the background of everything I was doing and thinking at the time. The time was over 13 years ago, now. I was reading Jung and Freud for pleasure, comparing the two, and listening to Patti Smith’s Land double album. The sentence, as the beginning of a novel, intrigued me because of its implications that a conversation between two people had already occurred, and “All right I will” was the between point. If you’ve ever read some of my other writings and interviews, you’ll recall that I am obsessed with interstices, the point when one thing becomes something else (I added “Tell me” long after I’d begun writing Birth of Eros, for reasons that should become apparent in later books of the tetralogy, if I finish them).
The style of writing probably had its source in performance art, a visual art discipline that combines the performer’s body (and/or speaking voice) in time and space with the complexity of poetry and the oral tradition. I studied performance art while getting my visual art degree, years ago, under the tutelage of brilliant performance artist and writer Michael K. Meyers. I learned to manipulate language in the same way as I would visual art mediums. It’s a simply a matter of transferring creative processes.
And then there’s Patti’s voice in the beginning of her version of “Gloria.”
JAR: Genre for some writers is a matter of identity—“I am a novelist,” “I am a memoirist”—and so I am wondering what connections you see with genre and identity, and more specifically with genre-defiance/hybridity and intersectionality?
DD: I usually just tell people who ask what I do: “I’m a writer.” And if they annoyingly persist, I say, “Prose and poetry.” My visual art education—and teaching writing & literature to visual artists—gave me the advantage of shamelessly ignoring categories. For one, the edict in visual art is new new new! & different different different! No one complains if you bust boundaries, and to be called “derivative” is quite an insult. The more avant the garde, the better. Also, I was encouraged to cross-pollinate, so to speak, creating within and overlapping multiple mediums. Tremendously freeing.
By contrast, in literary art, BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) is God. God needs categories to function because the publishing industry is fundamentally about commodification: “We can’t sell your book if we don’t know how to classify it.” Every book with an ISBN needs a BISAC code for retailers to know where to shelve it.
I began to break free of that yoke in 1995 when I created a class called “art+writing” for summer students at Kansas City Art Institute. The studio requirement was to include the written and/or spoken word in every visual or performance piece they created. They worked in two-dimensional media, video, performance, and sculpture. I gave them assignments and had a blast thinking about the repercussions and implications of collision. Eventually, I asked myself why I couldn’t reverse the process, and so began playing around with the visual space of the page. That led to exploring all facets of the written word, the nuances of rhythm, alliteration, puns, etc.
Every piece of writing demands its own shape. If you’re working intuitively and organically—and intentionally ignoring BISAC—you will find the right shape for the narrative because it will find you.
JAR: Who are your favorite contemporary/living writers, musicians, and visual artists?
DD: My “favorites” lists are very long, and they change from year to year, with some falling out of or back in favor. Listing them would read like an Academy Award acceptance speech where the producer plays music to get the winner off the stage.
JAR: Who are your all-time favorites?
DD: All-time favorites also change, and depend on what I’m working on, my mood, the events in my life.
JAR: Who are the greatest artistic influences on your work and sense of aesthetics?
DD: Again, difficult to answer. In addition to poetry and performance art, I can tell you that I read a lot of science, particularly the natural sciences, anthropology, and primatology. I also listen to a lot of music: classical (Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Mendelsohn, Gorecki. . .), blues (I never tire of Robert Johnson), bebop & jazz (Miles Davis and John Coltrane), and so many other genres, including metal, hip hop, rock. . . These past couple of years, I’ve been listening to a lot of Little Walter, Paul Butterfield, and Sonny Boy Williamson because they’re some of the greatest blues harmonica players in the world, which will eventually influence Lucy’s music career. And I can’t leave out Patti Smith, who was one of the main sources of the Lucy story.
JAR: Which of your works or projects are you most proud of?
DD: Maybe pride is not exactly the word, but I am fond of my time writing and researching Drought, Birth of Eros, and What the Body Requires. The latter novel took five years of writing and intense research into classical music. Such a memorable pleasure!
JAR: What is next? Are there any new projects on the horizon as of yet unannounced? Will we be seeing the next novel in this tetralogy, Thanatos Ascending, any time soon?
DD: My reality is that this past year has been extremely trying, to say the least. My husband almost died three times within six months, from different complications, first arising from viral pneumonia, then septicemia that led to organs failing, then perilously low hemoglobin, twice. He spent a total of 34 days in the hospital, most of that time in isolation, during which time he caught Covid. Also, one of my best long-time friends had major surgery for cancer. My mother turned 89, across the ocean (I live in Portugal). So, the past year has been creatively unproductive, except to consider and reconsider the “meanings” of life: what matters, what’s really important, why do we create, should we create, what and why is love?
JAR: I hate to be indelicate or morbid—and I hope you live fifty more years—but I’ve experienced a lot of loss recently and think about this a lot: what do you hope the legacy of your work to be?
DD: We seem to have experienced similar concerns. I’ve talked with my last publisher, Jesi Bender of intrepid Kernpunkt Press, about the future of my Eros & Thanatos tetralogy, questioning the value of anything I do creatively, asking “Is this really worth the diminishing time I have left on this planet, when there are so many other extraordinary experiences right outside my door, down the street, along the ocean?”
When my friend, the award-winning poet Leslie McGrath, died a few years ago at age 63, I seriously began questioning literary and visual art’s roles in society. Much of what we do seems to be ego-driven, and/or driven toward sales, which should be blamed on both the publishing and academic industries, which emphasize product over process, the development of career over human.
The frenetic, sickening world of social media aggravates and exacerbates the problem. When Leslie died after seven months of painful illness, no one but me in my circle of writer-colleagues seemed to notice. She seemed to just disappear, even though she had spent years teaching literature, writing & publishing poetry, contributing frequently to AWP’s The Writers Chronicle, and being a good “literary citizen.” I can say the same silence seemed to follow the death of writer and friend Mark Spitzer, who died in January 2023 at age 57. Ad infinitum.
We all will die. Some of us will die sooner than later. Dead, we will not give a shit about our legacy. Writers who do not publish with the Big Four houses (and even the majority of those who do) will likely be forgotten by history because they and their writing were never remembered in their own lifetime, except by a handful of serious readers. All this scrambling for notoriety detracts, in real lost time, from living in the real world: long lunches and dinners with friends and relatives; visiting (or, in my case, living in) faraway places; meeting diverse and fascinating people; being in nature, oceans, symphony halls; stargazing and whale watching. . . Who, on their proverbial deathbed, will fondly remember email conversations and Tweets and Likes more than face-to-face conversations: listening to a shifting voice, laughter, weeping, welling or glinting eyes, hugging, kissing. . . time well spent.
Foolishly, optimistically, I used to embrace the digital world. Now I loathe it. I left all social media when, last fall, I abandoned my Instagram account with the sentence: “It’s okay to disappear.” If I keep writing—whether I will is still up in the air—I will do so only for my private pleasure, to think my way through nagging existential questions. Time is passing.