Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Showcase: The Whale Chaser: A Novel by Tony Ardizzone

About the author: 
Set in the turbulent decades of the Vietnam War and the drug and hippie counterculture, The Whale Chaser is a powerful story about Vincent Sansone, the eldest child and only son in a large Italian American family, who comes of age in 1960s Chicago. A constant disappointment to his embittered father—a fishmonger who shows his displeasure with his fists—Vince abruptly flees Chicago. He ends up in Tofino, a picturesque fishing town on the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. First he works gutting fish, then is hired by Tofino’s most colorful dealer, Mr. Zig-Zag, and joins the thriving marijuana trade. Ultimately, through his friendship with Ignatius George, an Ahousaht native, he finds his calling as a whale guide. Vince must come to terms with the consequences of his actions as well as his family’s version of la storia segreta, the unspoken story of how his grandfather, like thousands of other Italians and Italian Americans, was interned in a prison camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. 

Tony Ardizzone was born and raised on the North Side of Chicago and is the author of seven books of fiction, most recently the novel The Whale Chaser, which was published in fall 2010 by Academy Chicago Publishers. He is also the editor of the anthology The Habit of Art: Best Stories from the Indiana University Fiction Workshop, which Indiana University Press published in 2005, as well as the novel In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, published by Picador USA/St. Martin's Press in 1999 and released in paperback in 2000. His creative writing has received the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, the Milkweed Editions National Fiction Prize, the Chicago Foundation for Literature Award for Fiction sponsored by the Friends of Literature, the Pushcart Prize, the Virginia Prize for Fiction, the Lawrence Foundation Award, the Bruno Arcudi Literature Prize, the Prairie Schooner Readers' Choice Award, the Black Warrior Review Literary Award in Fiction, the Cream City Review Editors' Award in Nonfiction, as well as two individual artist fellowships in fiction from the National Endowment for the Arts.

In 2005 Ardizzone was the recipient of the Tracy M. Sonneborn Award, given annually by Indiana University, Bloomington, to a faculty member for outstanding teaching and research. At Indiana University he offers courses in creative writing and the craft of fiction, ethnic American literature, 20th century American fiction, teaching creative writing, and literary interpretation. He has served two terms as Director of the Creative Writing Program, as well as a pair of terms on the Board of Directors of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. In 2006 Indiana University named him Chancellor's Professor of English, a title given to faculty members who have achieved local, national and international distinction in teaching and research, and the interaction between teaching and research. Prior to coming to Indiana, he taught for nine years at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, where he founded its creative writing program and served as its program director. He has also taught in the low-residency M.F.A. Program at Vermont College in Montpelier.

Q. What inspires your writing?

A. My family aunts, uncles, and my Italian grandmother included. My favorite times as a boy were family get-togethers at Nonna’s house and the hour after we cleared the plates when the adults would sit around the table sipping cups of coffee and talking, telling jokes and stories. Over time I came to realize that if stories aren’t told, either orally or on paper, they’ll disappear, and so I took up a pen and bought an old typewriter and picked up where they left off.

Q. What is your favorite thing about being a writer?

A. The moment when things on the page that previously were lying there, dead as stones, suddenly connect and snap together in a lively, surprising, inevitable way. I'm not the sort of writer who plots everything ahead. I don’t outline. I tend to begin with an interesting situation that boxes my characters into a corner, and then I hope that if I’m patient enough with them they’ll find a way to work things out.

Q. What is the toughest part of being a writer?

A. Everyone who’s ever accomplished anything – be it yoga or exercising or learning another language or how to knit – knows that the task at hand takes time and regular practice. Fiction writers, particularly novelists, need to work for at least a few hours every day. This is often in conjunction with their real (paying) jobs. For me, the most difficult aspect of the writing life is the commitment to the daily writing schedule, to work even when I’d rather stay in bed and sleep for another hour.

Q.  If you could not be writer, what would you do/be?

A.  I would have to work somehow with words, I think. Perhaps I'd be a lawyer, doing my best to say the right things to the judge and jury to get my client off.

Q. What would the story of your life be entitled?

A. Something simple, I think, something working-class, maybe something to do with the streets, with Chicago’s North Side, which is where I grew up. I’ve always thought of myself as just a kid from the neighborhood. So maybe my story would be titled “Chicago Boy.”

Q. What is your favorite book of all time?

A. An impossible question, but a book that deeply influenced me and that I still very much admire is Richard Llewellyn's novel How Green Was My Valley. I read it when I was a sophomore in high school the book was assigned and I was absolutely transported by the author's ability to take me to a place I'd never been, in this case a poor mining community in Wales. The novel centers around conflicts within a working-class family, a major theme in my own writing.

Q. Which character from ANY book are you most like?

A. Since I was a kid who often found his way into trouble but still good at heart I'd have to say Huckleberry Finn.

Q.  What character from all of your books are you most like?

A. Probably Vince Sansone, the central character in The Whale Chaser. Though his story is quite different from mine I put a good deal of autobiographical material into the book. He makes mistakes that I came close to making, and so he’s touched me in ways that few other characters have.

Q.  Which book would you love to take a weekend vacation inside of?

A. Since The Whale Chaser is a novel about a man who ultimately finds personal redemption through his job as a guide on a whale-watching boat, I'd love to have a glimpse of the sea back in the days when whales were plentiful. As long as no whales were injured or killed, I'd happily spend my weekend as a deckhand aboard the Pequod in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.

Q. What do you want to be remembered for 100 years from now?

A. To have been a writer who used language well and carefully, and who created warm, memorable characters.

Q. What is your favorite season?

A.  Autumn. The falling leaves and the increasingly cool breeze off Lake Michigan, when I could open my closet door and take out my leather jacket.

Q.  What inspired your book cover(s)?  Or what is your favorite book cover and why?

A.  My favorite book cover is on the paperback edition of The Whale Chaser. Since the novels setting alternates between chapters in Chicago and later chapters in Tofino, a village on the coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, the designer split images of a whale and put them on colored cards which are mentioned in the book as a tool used in the group therapy sessions the books main character attends. The cards are scattered, as are the major events in his life. His challenge is to put the various pieces together and make sense of them.

Q. Tell me something funny that happened while on a book tour or while promoting your book.

A. After my first novel was published my parents and I stopped by a downtown Chicago bookstore to check if there were copies in stock. We searched for a while and finally found five or six copies, spine out, on a shelf near the back of the store. My father immediately took out his camera to take pictures, which drew the attention of the manager. After we introduced ourselves my mother asked why my book was way back here where few people would see it and not in a big stack near the front of the store. The manager said that the front of the store was reserved for their best-sellers. Without missing a beat my mother said Well, how can you expect my son's book to be a best-seller if you don't put it out where people will see it? The manager smiled, then took the half dozen or so copies he had and set them, cover up, on a table near the front door and, just as you might imagine, as we stood there talking three or four copies sold.

Q. Are you working on something new?

A. Yes, I'm working on an interconnected collection of stories set in Rome during the last days of Pope John Paul II. The stories begin with the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in December 2004, so a pair of tragedies frame the book. In between is a variety of characters – both North American and native Italian -- struggling with issues of love and faith.

Q. Anything you want to say to followers of this blog or those that are just stopping by?

A.  Allow me to thank them for their interest in me and my work. And if they do decide to read The Whale Chaser please know that I’d be more than happy to talk with any book club big or small that adopts the book and reads it. I love hearing from readers since they’re the ones, truly, who complete the book’s creative act. The writer only begins the process, the reader is the one who completes 

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