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Novel Number Two

Novel Number TwoAs the follow-up to his debut novel hits the bookshelves, Tufts graduate Christopher Castellani continues to immerse himself in the writing life.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [09.12.05] Before novelist Christopher Castellani (G '96) entered Tufts as a graduate student, he had never lived outside of the Philadelphia area, and he fully intended to return there after completing the one-year master's of literature program at Tufts. But it didn't take Castellani long after coming to campus to put down roots close to the Hill.

"I fell in love with Boston and the people in my program at Tufts-we had a really tight-knit group, and I ended up staying through the PhD program," recalls the congenial Castellani, whose debut novel A Kiss From Maddalena won rave reviews-as well as the 2004 Massachusetts Book Award.

Castellani talks about turning his parents' experiences into a novel
Castellani discusses the responses he has received to his work


Now, Castellani is a proud Boston resident and the head instructor at Grub Street, Inc., an independent writing center. And on September 30, his second novel, The Saint of Lost Things, will be released by Algonquin Books.

Like its predecessor, the book explores the relationship between a couple who came of age in Italy during World War II. Also like its predecessor, the book hits close to home for Castellani, upon whose parents the novels' central characters are loosely based. "[My parents] used to tell lots of stories about growing up in Italy during World War II," he says. "That was the basis for my first novel."

His second novel picks up close to where the first leaves off. "It takes two of the characters from the first book and follows their experiences in the United States in the 1950s," Castellani explains. "The first book ends in 1946 in Italy, and the second book picks up in 1953 in the U.S." Saint is not a straightforward sequel, however: "There are other storylines going on that have no connection to the first book at all," the author says.

Translating his parents' story into novel form came naturally to Castellani. "I was in this novella class, and I literally just sat down at the computer, and the first thing that came out wasn't my story, but my parents'," remembers Castellani, who until that point had written primarily short stories.

"It felt bigger; it felt suited to a novel," he continues. "And then, as I started writing it, I realized that my own style is more suited to a novel, too. I like to tell bigger, broader stories, even though I try to focus in on the small details that make living interesting. I feel more at home, more comfortable, writing in the novel form."

He's become even more comfortable within the realm of the novel since the success of Maddalena. "The writing process for the first book was..." He pauses. "Well, it's always trial and error, but it felt more like trial and error-a constant process of cutting and adding. [But] then for the second book, I had more of a sense of the scope of the story, and a better sense of what I wanted to happen."

He also has a sense of the reaction he hopes Saint will elicit from its readers. "I want people to feel that these characters are real; that they can connect with them," Castellani says. And judging by reader response to his first novel, he's no novice at achieving that goal: "The best response I got from a reader was someone emailing me saying, ‘My mother was from Italy, and she died five years ago. Reading your book made me feel like I was with her again,'" he says.

Castellani first realized the impact his writing could have on other people when he was still in grade school. "Sixth grade was a pivotal year," he grins. "I was writing these very melodramatic short stories. One of my friends read one of the stories and was really into it, and I remember watching from across the lunchroom as she passed it to her friend, saying, ‘You have to read this!'"

"Looking back," he goes on, "that's the moment I was hooked. I got the sense of that power of someone being excited about something you've created, and wanting to share it with other people."

As head instructor at Grub Street, Castellani helps to foster and channel that sense of excitement in other aspiring pen-wielders. "We teach workshops in writing across the genres-poetry, fiction, non-fiction, screenwriting, mystery-writing," he explains. "It's a great job because it puts me in touch with a lot of writers."

Castellani brings an abundance of teaching experience to the job: Before coming to Tufts, he taught English at a high school near Philadelphia. And while a graduate student on the Hill, he taught several undergraduate English courses.

He's also an old hand at establishing communities of writers. He founded an informal writing group for graduate students and faculty members while at Tufts. "We started a once-a-year reading showcase for both faculty and students in English who did work ‘in the closet,' writing fiction or poetry," he says.

Castellani feels just as strongly about reading as he does about writing. "Despite our culture that's so turned on by the instant gratification or the spectacle of reality TV and things like that-the kind of ‘Doritos' of pop culture-I think people are really hungry for the steak dinner of a novel," he muses. (Though he doesn't agree with all of Oprah's selections, Castellani cites the popularity of the talk show host's book club as an indication that "people are hungry for something more meaningful.")

"Even if you look at a lot of literary best-sellers, it's amazing how complex they are," he marvels. "I'm just shocked at how many people have read things like [Ian McEwan's] Atonement or [Jeffrey Eugenides'] Middlesex. These are really difficult books, and yet they're bestsellers-and again, I think that speaks to a kind of hunger."

It's a hunger Castellani hopes Saint will help to satisfy.

-- Patrice Taddonio

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