The fiction editors, Rappahannock Review: Your story, The Over-Thirty League, deals with the very sensitive issue of an interracial relationship being ended by disapproving parents. When you were writing this story, were there any points where you were hesitant about dealing with such an issue? Were there any particular choices that you made during the process that helped advance your deft handling of the topic?
Lou Gaglia: I wasn’t too hesitant because I knew the parents loved their daughter, and they were good people. They were new to the country and were scared of this Tommy person. What did he want and why? They didn’t know his language, which made it twice as difficult. So before I even started, I had to remember that her parents were upset and scared, and that Tommy—as frustrated as he was—knew that too. The romance could not have turned out any other way for a man like Tommy, who was ingrained in his own neighborhood, and for a woman like her, so recent to the country. Tommy may eventually win over her parents, but it wasn’t happening yet. So it was only after I was able to get into her parents’ heads and see what they saw—a strange man (from a place they’d never known) wanting their beloved daughter—that I was able write the story without sparing Tommy pain, and with all sides equal.
RR: What first compelled you to write this story?
LG: Tommy had been in other stories of mine (“Bridges”—Eclectica; “Showing Them”—Compose; and “Sore Losers”—Pithead Chapel) where he had just met this girl. I felt that he needed to be tripped up, though, because it isn’t so easy for a man like him, from his ingrained neighborhood, to cross The Brooklyn Bridge, and be part of another world where he wouldn’t be so quickly welcomed. So I thought about using baseball, a sport that is all about failure and dealing with failure, to mirror his situation. Then there was Jesse, who represented resignation for me, and Cal, who represented ignorance, and The Super, who represented hope. So Tommy’s love for baseball, his love for the girl, and his impatience, stubbornness, and good heart all became a match for a story.
RR: The social settings of your story are tightly knit ethnic/racial neighborhoods and were portrayed very realistically. How do you create such realistic portrayals of real-world settings?
LG: I lived in both neighborhoods in New York City, and I loved them. I still love them the way a person loves old friends. The Lower East Side and that section of Brooklyn will always be a part of who I am, especially the Lower East Side. There are so many people, and there is so much movement, and one’s senses are bombarded. I love the sounds, all those voices, and I love the many different languages, the store fronts, and the hand trucks, and the many faces, and the old buildings. It is very hard to brood there. And contrary to what some people say, there are always people to talk to, at least for me. When I run into a person I know there, among hundreds on the street, and we stop to talk, with so many others walking casually around us—well, that’s kind of neat. And there can be conversation with many strangers, too. Once, at the end of a day, I listed all of my encounters with strangers and friends, and I was impressed by the number of them, especially since most of the encounters were pleasant and memorable. It made me appreciate that area even more. It is far from perfect there, but I love it anyway. It’s part of me.
RR: Are there any particular authors or stories that have had a significant influence on your writing style and the issues you choose to write about?
LG: I love Steinbeck and Chekhov and Lardner and Faulkner best. Throw in Tolstoy and Dostoyevski and Boll and Virginia Woolf too. Early Joyce too, and Scott Fitzgerald (“Babylon Revisited”). I read them for pleasure and try to learn from them. There’s Chekhov, first of all, who doesn’t spare his characters, and whose one line descriptions of how a sky looks, for instance, are enough to set a whole scene emotionally. His “Gooseberries” is a great story, and so is “The Lady with the Little Dog”, which ends with two lovers frustrated by how difficult it was for them to be together. I thought of that story when I wrote “The Over-Thirty League” and I remembered not to spare the couple, as hard as that was to do.
Steinbeck didn’t spare his characters either. I’ve come to like him best of all. He slows down and remembers the details. He remembers the setting, and his dialogue is spot-on, and his characters are strong and present, and he had great compassion for people. East of Eden is such a great book, and his stories—“The Chrysanthemums”, for instance—are special, so I try to learn from him. I love Ring Lardner too, and the way he uses language. I wish I could be as funny as he was. His account of the 1919 World Series is hilarious. He refused to take it seriously since he knew that it was fixed.
RR: With each baseball game, Tommy lashes out more and gets injured. What are his injuries, to which he seems to refuse to tend, meant to reflect about him as a person?
LG: Tommy hates to lose, and he’s so angry and misses the girl, but he would never lash out at her or her parents. He feels safer expressing all of his frustration and anger on the baseball field, among people who know him and put up with him. His injuries are caused by others (being wacked by a catcher’s mask, stepped on by a runner, hit by a batted ball), but he brings the injuries on himself with his attitude too, punishing himself for not being good enough to win the girl. She had told him he was a good man, yes, and maybe it was the first time anyone had ever said that to him. But after he lost her, all of that was out the window for him. Good man, hell. Where did it ever get him to be good?
So his injuries were self-inflicted in a way. The teams were lopsided, just as real-life odds were stacked against him, and at the end Jesse stood behind him outside the field where real life was played, wanting Tommy to resign himself to “ordinary” life. Tommy, though, preferred to suffer. He didn’t want his neighborhood’s ordinary, limited world anymore. He recognized the contrast in the attitudes of The Super and Cal, and he wanted to break out and become part of that place where he didn’t feel welcome. The more he clung to his hope, the more his injuries escalated.
He wasn’t ready for her or a different kind of life. It showed on the field where he was his own worst enemy. But to me, his refusal to give up means that there is always a good chance he’ll go over that bridge someday and stay there.
Lou Gaglia’s work in Issue 2.2: