Interview With Ralph Uttaro
Rappahannock Review Fiction Editors: In your story “Me and Paulie,” there is an immense theme of family and the complicated feelings that come along with that. What was your process in building such complex characters?
Ralph Uttaro: The characters in many of my stories are drawn from remembrances of the people I encountered while growing up in a working-class, Italian-American neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Industrious, proud, loyal, incredibly warm, vocal, opinionated, stubborn, petty, they proved to be a rich source of material for my fiction.
Paulie, at least the pre-war Paulie, was modeled after an older boy who lived on my street. He, like Paulie, was the star quarterback for the local high school team, possessed dark good looks, a brash but charming self-confidence. He didn’t serve in Vietnam, but his older brother did. I recall hearing rumors of his desire to re-enlist for another tour of duty, debates over whether that would be an act of courage and patriotism or a sign of foolishness, recklessness.
RR: Within this piece, Sal goes through many different types of relationships from family, to friends, to romantic. Do you believe that having these familial connections within a piece is important?
RU: Yes, particularly in a first-person narrative where the author’s field of vision is necessarily limited to that of the protagonist. While the aspirations, fears, motivations and desires of the protagonist can be effectively conveyed through his internal dialogue, it is only through these interactive scenes with family and friends that we learn more objectively how he relates to and is perceived by others. For instance, the fire escape scene informs us of Paulie’s perception of Sal as a “mama’s boy” with a clarity and vehemence that could not be accomplished merely with exposition or internal dialogue.
RR: We understand that you’re a retired lawyer; were there any instances where your work in law made it into your writing?
RU: Funny you should ask. I have recently completed my first novel, the story of a young attorney vying for partnership at an elite Manhattan law firm. Like Sal, the product of working class background, he still feels like an outsider after eight years in the clubby, Patrician halls of Foster and Marbury. His friends and family back in Brooklyn can’t comprehend his obsession with making partner, his wife chafes at the endless hours he spends at the office, his mother chastises him for neglecting his two children. The duplicity and questionable ethics of the firm’s partners and their clients trouble him but he is reluctant to question them. As decision day draws near, an ill-fated affair jeopardizes his marriage, he suspects that his most important client might be implicated in a bribery scheme. He begins to wonder whether the partnership he covets is worth the cost.
RR: Your story is relatable and realistic–how Sal’s family never truly forgave him, Paulie lashing out at the dinner table. With such a strong sense of realism, do you see yourself writing in different genres?
RU: I think not. My tastes in literature have always gravitated toward realism and my writing style is, I think, a better fit in that genre. I feel comfortable there. I have always been a keen observer of people, the way they look, how they dress, their mannerisms, their patterns of speech, their idiosyncrasies. I enjoy speculating about the people I meet, those I pass on the street or ride with on the subway, especially those with lives so different from my own. In my stories, I try to imagine what their lives might be like, how those lives may have been shaped by their circumstances, influenced by the people they have encountered. My previously published stories feature a diverse cast of everyday people, including an immigrant cabdriver, a reluctant graffiti artist, a “Miss Subways, 1957,” a compulsive gambler, a homeless intellectual, a grieving widower.
RR: Sal visits a memorial in Washington D.C. with his family at the end of your piece. Have you personally been there before?
RU: Yes, I first visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial many years ago, shortly after it opened to the public. As described in the piece, the physical attributes of the memorial, the sheer weight of the thousands of names etched into stone was powerful, the expressions and reactions of the visitors even more so. I jotted down my impressions in a notebook at the time of that first visit. Years later, that journal entry became the spark that inspired “Me and Paulie.”
Ralph Uttaro’s work appears in Issue 10.1 here.