Falling in the Abyss, Singing: An Interview with Poet and Novelist Joseph Fasano

Tiffany Troy, Translation Assistant Editor for Columbia Journal, spoke with poet and novelist, Joseph Fasano, to discuss world building, archetypes, and craft in A Dark Heart of Every Wild Thing (Platypus Press, 2020). His debut novel features a man’s obsessive journey into the wilderness to confront his childhood, fatherhood, love, and belonging in the mythos. Fasano is an award-winning poet and the founder of the Poem for You series, an open space where wordsmiths join to recite their favorite poems. Twitter/ Instagram. He teaches at Manhattanville College and Columbia University.

Let’s talk about world building. You previously wrote Vincent, which is also set in Canada, but it’s a vastly different landscape, so what drew you to the mountains of British Columbia?

Places that seem untouched by humanity are becoming fewer and fewer, harder and harder to find. There is certainly much to say about humanity’s influence on the natural world in a larger sense, but this character’s very individual experiences with nature remind us that we’re always part of a larger story, and that each of us is individually responsible for what he does or does not do.

As for the choice of landscape, I needed to make it as seemingly untouched as possible so that I could turn the volume down, as it were, and hear the effects of individual hands on such a place.

Why did you choose to set the flashbacks in the Dominican Republic?

Sometimes you write about things you know, and that’s a place where I’ve spent some time, so it was quite fresh in me, the music and the taste of it.

In what ways do the two geographies serve as foils to each other? Similarly, how do characters from the two geographies exhibit characteristics of or features drawn from where they came from?

You make a great point about the characters being shaped by their geography.  I think that’s quite true.  There’s something about the cold landscape that makes the protagonist speak with his son in a certain way.  Think about how you would draw your breath in a colder place—there’s a staccato rhythm to their speaking—and there’s something about those warmer landscapes that perhaps allows the reader’s mind to drift into the more liquid, aqueous places of memory and flashback.

Archetypes feature heavily in and give shape to the plot. Can you talk a little about how the protagonist fits into and yet breaks the male archetype?

Yes, I think that in large part I had come to think of the novel as one particular man’s reassessment of his own inherited ideas about masculinity.  Some readers might be tempted to look at a book like this and see this particular man’s failings as an endorsement of those failings, but I don’t think that’s what literature does. 

Certainly the narrator is struggling to reconcile these two different aspects of himself, this tenderness and this savagery.  There’s something very savage in him, no doubt, something very inclined toward vengeance, violence.  Yet there’s another part of him that is quite tender.  Both aspects, of course, can live in all of us, to varying degrees of manifestation.  Ultimately, he seems to accept that these two aspects may not find their reconciliation in him, but they may find a productive conversation. 

Can you talk about writing this novel in first person, and the limitations of the first-person narrative?

The only thing first-person and third-person novels have in common is that they’re both made of words.  Beyond that they’re different universes entirely.  In the third person we can drift in and out of a character’s voice, using a narrative voice that doesn’t have to be very plausibly related to the character’s lexicon or syntax.  In first-person narration, of course, we’re limited in some ways to the worldview and lexicon of a character.  Some writers have seen this as a problem to be solved, and I find even the failed solutions interesting.   I’m particularly interested in moments when a first-person narrator seems wiser than himself, as I think those are the moments of grace.

Another moment of grace comes from incorporating found texts, like the Dancer’s Notebook. How did you place the “found text” in the world of your novel in a way that wouldn’t be jarring?

In a sense, I wanted that abruptness. Imagine someone alone, or alone with his ghosts, in a snowy place, suddenly hearing voices that are not his own. Those, to me, are the moments that make a life, the moments of our hauntings.

What are the intended effects of the contrast between the scientific precision of guns that are carried or the price of the house versus the more lyrical language of the landscape and the journey?

I was interested in exploring a tension between this utter practicality and this metaphysical material, and I think that tension is a part of the protagonist’s world and his wife’s.  Both characters are obsessive.  She is deeply committed to her craft, and he is deeply committed to his—the particular angle of a hand as the music swells, the particular way the wind shifts a blade of grass in the mountains.  Everything depends on everything, for both of them.  Yet this attention to craft and detail is not at odds with a larger spiritual quest.  We hope for the moments when the spirit and the form are the same.

As a poet and novelist, how did you choose to approach retaining your deep interest in the way words sing on the page in your story?

Of course in some sense there’s a tension between these practices, but I find that tension interesting.  I would like to find that unreachable place where the story and the song are the same.

Let’s turn to flashbacks. How did you choose to structure the novel as one inter-sliced with a lot of flashbacks?

One way of viewing a first-person novel is that the narrator is telling his story not only to you but also to himself.  In telling this story, the narrator occasionally experiences mental blocks, repressions, hauntings.  His flashbacks allow him to reach back into the deeper past and touch something he needs to touch before he can move on. 

How does the Son, who appears only in flashbacks, lend new meaning to the hunt?

I won’t give this away in detail, but the lost son motivates an alchemy in the narrator’s relationship to what he’s pursuing, an alchemy he himself is not very aware of. 

I love the word “alchemy” because you bring aspects of many different faiths and mythologies into the novel. We have the Scriptures, which immediately evoke the Abrahamic God, and we have myths, like that of the pair of plumed serpents which created the mountain lion. How do you go about having the narrator make sense of this alchemy?

I think that he’s looking, like all of us, for some story, some mythos to make sense of his life.  One of the functions of narrative is to be a great bridge over the abyss of meaninglessness.  That abyss opens up in moments of trauma, and a great silence enters our lives.  What do we do with that silence?  Make it part of the song?  Narrative can take us over the abyss, but the wind is always coming up from that darkness, passing us by.  Sometimes what passes us is quite tempting, and we don’t want to be any story at all.  We just fall into the abyss, singing.

Yes, singing in the abyss! I love how the narrator tries so hard but does not see potential guideposts around him—like the stars.

Yes, I think that he has a deeply imperfect understanding of things like that.  However, there’s some ancient thing in us all that can remember how to guide us, if we can only listen. 

I see the imperfect understanding in his choice to confront the mountain lion face on in his hunt. 

Right, he hasn’t seen anything else clearly in his life, and he wants to see at least this.

Considering the ending, do you want to speak about how nature’s song exists parallel to the human dance or the human struggle?

That’s beautifully said.  Yes, there’s some song going on, and he is the dancer who doesn’t even know what he is dancing.  I didn’t know quite how the novel wanted to end.  I had a sense of it, but I was very happy to discover the way it was going, because there are some possibilities for redemption and light making their way into that dark forest.

I love that you created your characters who then have agency to carve their own fate! Is there anything else you want to add for your readers of the world?

I just hope that people find in a story like this something of their own that they can carry with them.

About the author

Tiffany Troy is the Translation Editor at Columbia Journal

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