A Conversation with Mark Binelli

A first-generation American, Mark Binelli grew up just outside of Detroit, where he worked in his father’s knife-sharpening shop. He graduated from the University of Michigan and received an MFA from Columbia University. Currently, he is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.

His novel,

Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!, is forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press this summer. Though his protagonists are named after a pair of infamous anarchists, they are, in this hilarious novel, silent film stars. And as they rise to fame and fall back into obscurity, slapstick becomes a stand-in for the reckless freedom of anarchy. This is Binelli’s first novel, and it marks the emergence of an important new voice in American fiction. 

THEODORE MCDERMOTT: The first section of your book is called “Biographical Notes.” It outlines the lives of the real Sacco and Vanzetti, but ends, “The following is not their story.” This is a book that begins in nonfiction and immediately (the next chapter is called “After the Pie Fight”) breaks out of it. Is this impulse both to use nonfiction and to abandon it influenced by your work in journalism?

MARK BINELLI: Probably, sure. I’ve always liked the boundaries of journalism. Meaning, with every assignment, your focus shifts to a new, relatively narrow topic. And even within that topic, your palette is limited even further. (To quotes, verifiable facts, and whatever you might have personally observed.) Whereas fiction, for me, can become maddeningly difficult, precisely because of its lack of fixed rules. So that all might have attracted me to the nonfiction elements of this novel. I’d certainly never tried to incorporate fairly heavy research into fiction before. I remember interviewing Michael Chabon around the time he won the Pulitzer, and he talked about how addictive research can become—how just walking into a library gave him an actual physical sense of pleasure. And I felt the same way, researching this book. It becomes really hard to stop. That said, I knew I didn’t want to write a historical novel, or feel beholden to all of these facts. So that line, “The following is not their story,” while most obviously a cue for the reader, might have also been a kind of “note to self.”

TM: Which were you interested in first—fiction or journalism?

MB: I’ve always been attracted to both. As an undergraduate, I was the arts editor of the school newspaper, but I also did a sub-concentration in creative writing. Eventually, though, journalism pretty much took over. I wasn’t able to finish any fiction projects, at least not to my satisfaction. And it’s tough to compete with the instant gratification of journalism, of seeing your name in print on a regular basis, especially when you’re in your twenties, just starting out. Plus all of the other perks: travel, meeting strange people you’d never otherwise meet, being allowed to fully immerse yourself in someone else’s world. If you’re an arts and culture reporter, you get free music, books, tickets to shows. And, of course, you’re actually getting paid—in my case, enough to live on. Which, sadly, tends not to be the case with fiction writing.

TM: You went to the University of Michigan, right? I did as well, and also did the undergraduate sub-concentration in creative writing. What was your impression of Ann Arbor, particularly as regards writing and literature? UM has something of a reputation for producing writers (Arthur Miller, Theodore Roethke, Edmund White, Robert Frost taught there, etc.). Do you think it had any particular effect on you?

MB: I love Ann Arbor. As for its past, I think the musical history captured my imagination more, at the time: Iggy Pop, the MC5, John Sinclair. (Madonna, not so much, though I lived in her old dorm and, later, her old apartment complex.) The writing culture of Ann Arbor got me excited about writing in a more general way. So many great readings, and bookstores like Shaman Drum and Borders, which was still a funky local store when I started school. Incidentally, UM’s Graduate Library has a fantastic collection of anarchist literature, the Labadie Collection, so I spent a week up there a couple of summers ago, researching this book.

TM: Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! makes a strong and surprising link between anarchism and slapstick. Did you, at the outset, know that you wanted to combine the two? Or, did you begin thinking about—and researching—one, then discover the other?

MB: The idea to write about a comedy team came first. I’d been thinking about the Coen Brothers, actually, and the way their films toy with genre. To that end, I decided to choose a film genre I might subvert myself, but in the form of a novel. The more obvious choices had either been done too well (film noir) or to death (the Western) . . . Then I hit upon the comedy team, and it seemed perfect. Abbott and Costello had been my favorites, as a kid; they used to show their movies every Sunday morning on one of the Detroit stations. Anyway, at some point, when I started thinking about Abbott and Costello again, the names Sacco and Vanzetti popped into my head. It was such a terrific name for a comedy team. And that got me thinking about how anarchic those early comedy films could be, how the comics tended to play working-class types, and how they would often end up foiling bosses, cops, and various authority figures and high-society types. The Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, all of them: how often would they end up at some ridiculously fancy party, trashing the place? It all fit so well. And once I committed to the conceit, and began doing more research, the connections just proved endless.

TM: In my case at least, the fictional Nic Sacco and Bart Vanzetti had, within a few pages of reading your novel, entirely supplanted their historical namesakes, had become the “real” Sacco and Vanzetti. It’s pulled off pretty remarkably. But, I wonder, did you ever feel that you pulled it off too well? That you were trivializing the real Sacco and Vanzetti, who are, for some people, sort of martyrs to liberalism, and, for others, symbols of the destructive potential of that same liberalism, by making them pie-throwing comedians? I ask not because I personally think it’s a problem, but because you have, unlike a lot of fiction writers, entered non-neutral territory.

MB: Well, sure, that juxtaposition had an immediate appeal for me—the idea of reimagining these beloved martyr figures in a way that’s wholly inappropriate. I like the tension between my version of Sacco and Vanzetti and whatever notion of the real-life Sacco and Vanzetti you might bring to the book. It never struck me as blasphemous, though. I don’t think I’m mocking the real-life Sacco and Vanzetti. If anything, I’m tweaking their historical image, which has become—for people who’ve even heard of them; and many haven’t, these days—so one-dimensional. From the start, even their supporters turned them into caricatures: symbols of grace in the death house, of martyrdom. People overlook the violence of their cause, and romanticize their otherness, turning them into these noble savages. Upton Sinclair wrote an eight-hundred-page novel about the trial called Boston, in which the Vanzetti character speaks in a phonetic broken English, literally stuff like, “I younga man, I washa da deesh.” And this is supposed to be a sympathetic portrait! It’s like Amos ‘n’ Andy. Or whatever the Italian equivalent would be. So, no, I don’t feel bad messing with the iconography. They had become such caricatures, this book was an easy step. They’ve already been plenty sanctified.

TM: I think the book is very, very good—and funny—in the way it treats the Italian-American stereotype and the idea of ethnicity in general. In the first few pages, in the interview with Motion Picture Monthly, Vanzetti comes out and says, “The studio, incidentally, initially pressured us to speak in an ethnic dialect.” Sacco replies, “Some kind of Chico Marx shit, ‘Atsa good, Doc!’ ” So, on the one hand you’re directly pointing out how silly those kinds of stereotypes are. At the same time, though, you use those stereotypes—one of Sacco and Vanzetti’s movies is called “A Couple of Wops in a Jam,” after all. These days, ethnicity looms large over a lot of literature and, especially, over a lot of criticism. Was your treatment of it at all a response to the way other writers and critics have done so?

MB: Flann O’Brien was a big influence, in that regard—the cheeky, hyper-Irishness of his books, especially At Swim-Two-Birds. Also, transforming Sacco and Vanzetti into comedians may have inspired me to take more of a comic’s approach to ethnicity, following in the classic tradition of Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Ali G.—take your pick. They all traffic in and subvert stereotypes. Being first generation myself, I grew up feeling slightly out of step with American culture, and also very aware of my ethnicity. Great aunts and uncles were always sitting around my mother’s kitchen table, yelling at each other in Northern Italian dialect. But Italian-Americans, in general, have done such a thorough job of assimilating, much of that feeling of otherness has been lost. And it ends up leaving Italians in a weird spot, culturally, in this country. I can’t tell you how many times extremely liberal friends or acquaintances have used the term “Guidos” around me—meaning, New Jersey/outer-borough Italian-Americans of a certain type. I’m not especially touchy or PC when it comes to this kind of stuff, as the book probably makes clear. But those people would never, ever use the name “Pedro,” say, to refer generically to Mexicans. It’s strange. But I think that the erasure of ethnic identity amongst Italian-Americans makes this seem okay. So, yes, to answer your question more directly, my embrace of uncomfortable cultural stereotypes was very deliberate.

(In a weird side note, while writing this book I discovered that the Chico Marx character in Room Service, one of the lesser-known Marx Brothers movies, is named “Harry Binelli.” He says things like, “I’ll hock-a da typewriter!’)

TM: Where did you grow up? Did you speak Italian at home?

MB: I grew up on the east side of Detroit: Macomb County, best known, at one point, as the blue-collar inspiration for the term “Reagan Democrats”; now, though, better known as the former home of the rapper Eminem. (For anyone who has seen the movie, I grew up between Eight Mile and Nine Mile.)

We did speak Italian at home. Or rather, my parents and relatives did. My brother and I always responded in English, not wanting to be remotely different from anyone at school. Which is why, today, my spoken Italian remains abysmal.

TM: Was writing something you were interested in and encouraged to do growing up?

MB: I always loved to read, and was encouraged to do so by my mother, who had been a high-school English teacher. As far as writing goes, though, I never had any special encouragement. I grew up in a pretty working-class suburb, so there were no role models for that sort of career option. The knife grinding stuff in the book all comes from my family. Pinzolo, the little town in Italy where my father grew up, for some reason has produced an inordinate number of knife grinders. It became the regional specialty of the valley. I’ve never gotten a satisfactory answer as to why. Possibly because it’s so mountainous, around there, which would preclude much in the way of farming. Anyway, my father was a knife sharpener, until he retired a few years ago. My maternal grandfather, my mom’s brother, my great-uncle Dave, a number of more distant cousins—all grinders. I’m probably related, in some way, to every knife sharpener in the Detroit area. So writing novels did not seem like a viable option, early on. Probably not until college. I never attempted a novel before, but wrote a number of bad short stories. I was living in Atlanta at the time, freelancing, primarily for the daily newspaper: theater reviews, book reviews, music features. Finally, I decided to apply to MFA programs, figuring strict deadlines would be the only way I’d ever actually finish anything. And it worked. I ended up going to Columbia, and started this novel my final semester, in a workshop with Ben Marcus.

TM: What about knife sharpening?

MB: As bad as my early stories were, I was much worse at knife sharpening. My father will happily attest to this. But I did work in his shop from a very young age, all the way through high school, and even a bit in college. My memory of the early days are very Dickensian. I feel like he started having me work Saturdays when I was six or seven. But I’ve probably exaggerated all of this in my head. As soon as I was old enough to drive, I much preferred making deliveries for him than working in the shop. That was the best part of the job: the shop was in a pretty blighted section of Detroit, and I got to know the city fairly well, driving around in a knife van.

TM: There’s a cliché—promulgated by Hemingway, I guess—that journalism has a very particular (and beneficial) effect on a fiction writer’s prose. Namely, it “tightens” the syntax, makes the diction “spare” and “direct.” That kind of thing. Despite your background, your prose does not exactly hew to this conception of the journalist-turned-novelist’s style. That you studied with Marcus makes sense, since you share with him a felicity for writing about the unusual with a kind of deadpan that makes the subject first appear perfectly normal, then much stranger. What other authors were important to the development of your style?

MB: Yes, my fiction is definitely reactive to my nonfiction, which (I think) tends to be “tighter” and all of the other adjectives you mentioned, while the fiction is none of those things, is probably the opposite of those things. DeLillo was a big influence, as far as the deadpan goes. Also, perhaps weirdly, WG Sebald: his deadpan, and his blending of nonfiction and fiction. I’ve mentioned Flann O’Brien. In that vein (surrealistic humor) also Robert Coover, Padgett Powell, David Foster Wallace, Barthelme. As far as structure, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red was definitely on my mind, and Michael Ondaatje’s early, more collage-like novels: The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Coming Through Slaughter, Running in the Family. Then, more generally—if we’re listing writers I’ve read obsessively and probably stolen from—I’d include Borges, Calvino, Lydia Davis, Tom Stoppard, James Ellroy, David Gates, Ian Frazier, Joseph Mitchell, Ben Katchor, Beckett.

TM: One of the most interesting things about the style in this book is the way you handle writing about what is distinctly visual—about the movies. (Ekphrasis is, I suppose, the fancy term for this.) How did you approach doing this? I mean, you clearly aren’t trying to recreate the movie scenes in realistic terms, nor are you providing something so postmodern as a film script. Instead, you opt for something else, something I can’t quite describe.

MB: I had ekphrasis once, actually. Used this over-the-counter aloe balm, cleared right up.

No, I know what you mean. In part, I think whatever kineticism my fiction writing might possess is a natural response, or counterpoint, to my nonfiction—which, as I said earlier, I quite enjoy, but which also, necessarily, has a built-in straitjacket of sorts. Simply meaning, you cannot do whatever you want. So the fiction might contain a natural exuberance. To be more specific, though, I never thought of the various scenes as being literally “scenes” from a movie, as transcriptions, somehow, of a Sacco and Vanzetti movie playing in my head. (Those sub-headings, “A scene from . . .” were added in later drafts.) I wanted to write about a film comedy team as if they were real—that is, two men, traveling from one town to the next, getting into fixes, changing jobs, having an insane, seemingly pointless array of experiences, all of which would mirror the filmography of, say, an Abbott and Costello, whose on-screen characters go on safari, join the Army, meet Frankenstein, etc. Does this make sense? More succinctly put, I took cartoonish movie characters and tried to make them somewhat “real,” but neglected to remove them from their cartoonish movie scenarios.

TM: Are you familiar with Robert Coover’s A Night at the Movies?

MB: It’s funny, I know I listed Coover as an influence, but I distinctly remember not liking that book when I read it as an undergrad. Pricksongs and Descants was the one, for me—specifically “The Babysitter,” which was probably the first short story I ever read that really got me excited about the possibility of writing fiction myself. But I’ve been meaning to revisit A Night at the Movies. I feel like, at the time, I thought Coover leaned too heavily on the movies and genres he was parodying. But I was young, and often wrong. (And wearing a black Greek fisherman’s cap, in emulation of “Working Class Hero”-era John Lennon. To give one example of the latter.)

TM: I asked because in that book he’s doing something similar to what you do. In the story about a silent comedy, for example (“Charlie in the House of Rue”), the Chaplinesque protagonist is the only one who doesn’t know it’s a movie. He ends up, you know, in pain from all the slapstick and crying because everyone’s laughing at him. But Sacco and Vanzetti know they’re actors, though it’s not clear where the line between the film set and real life is. The reader knows they’re actors right off the bat, but then we’re thrown off: there’s dialogue in what’s supposed to be a silent film.

MB: Right. Although I always thought of the “movie scene” sections of the book as distinct from the “actor scenes.” Again, this might be a distinction that exists (in any kind of clarity) solely in my head. But, for instance, in all of the “Transcript” sections, where Sacco and Vanzetti are being interviewed, I thought of them as movie actors, looking back on their careers. Same with Vanzetti’s journals, and the scenes involving their former neighbor, the knife grinder. Whereas the “scene from . . .” sections were written as described in the prior answer—as if they were real characters. It strikes me, now, that maybe seeing and reviewing so many plays had an influence on this book as well. It’s a metafiction—to use a term I hate—that’s rooted more in theater than prose, with characters winking at the audience, playing different roles, switching scenes on a dime. So many different levels (the character, the actor, the stage, the audience) can allow for an interesting fluidity, when you’re telling a story.

TM: Do you still write a lot of reviews for Rolling Stone?

MB: Not reviews, but features and profiles, yes. Most recently, I did a cover story on Paul McCartney and a long feature on this group of teenagers who were smuggling millions of dollars worth of pot from British Columbia into Idaho. It’s a nice range. I’m generally writing about people I’m a fan of, or at least curious to meet: Bruce Springsteen, Michael Moore, Bright Eyes, 50 Cent, the graphic novelist Joe Sacco, the surviving members of the Clash. And I’ve had lots of memorable experiences. My profile of Hank Williams III prompted his family to stage an intervention and put him in rehab. I went bowling with Outkast. Britney Spears hates me. There are few better day jobs.

TM: Why does Britney hate you?

MB: Unflattering interview. In my defense, I simply quoted her at length. But she didn’t come off well, and subsequently told MTV I sucked, and was rude, and ended by saying she was giving me too much energy. A friend pointed out my good fortune, noting that celebrity energy is probably much higher wattage than regular-people energy.

Is this the most lowbrow turn a Center for Book Culture interview has ever taken? I’m imagining the Britney questions accidentally being sent to Nicholas Mosley.

TM: Mosley and Britney go way back.

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