Joseph Fasano is an American poet, novelist, and songwriter. His books of poetry include The Crossing (Cider Press Review, 2018), Vincent (2015), Inheritance (2014), and Fugue for Other Hands (2013). His novels include The Swallows of Lunetto (Maudlin House, 2022) and The Dark Heart of Every Wild Thing (Platypus Press, 2020). His honors include the Cider Press Review Book Award, the Rattle Poetry Prize, and a nomination for the Poets’ Prize, “awarded annually for the best book of verse published by a living American poet two years prior to the award year.” His first album of original songs, The Wind that Knows the Way, was released in 2022. His work has been widely translated and anthologized, and he has taught at Columbia University, Manhattanville College, and The State University of New York.
As I read The Swallows of Lunetto, I couldn’t help but think of Faulkner’s often-quoted phrase, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” For Leonardo Gemetti, one of the novel’s central characters, his past as a Fascist participant is never forgotten by Lunetto’s residents, and when his return is revealed publicly, physical and emotional consequences ensue. The narrative that follows between Leonardo and the woman he falls in love with, Alexandra, leads to questions with no easy answers: to what extent can love be given in exile; should a person be responsible for their actions in their youth; are people inherently evil, or is evil fostered by authoritarianism and that ancient and unending appetite for power? I had the privilege of speaking with Joseph via email to answer these questions and more.
Esteban Rodríguez: It’s a pleasure talking to you again, Joseph. Since the last time we spoke, you were writing a “living poem” for your son, sections of which are continuously posted on Twitter. For readers who might not be familiar with this project, can you explain the origin behind it and what the process has been like thus far?
Joseph Fasano: When I first held my child, I felt ghosts abandon my branches. He has changed me entirely, or maybe helped me step into the life in which I was already, long ago, changed. I’ve felt such a need to speak to him, to write to him, to leave a testament that he can have long after I’m gone. In sharing this on social media, line by line, my hope is that the words can be there for anyone who might need them, anyone wishing to connect to the child and the wildness within.
ER: The Swallows of Lunetto is your second novel, after The Dark Heart of Every Wild Thing. What have you learned about yourself and about writing prose from your first novel to your second?
JF: You’re dead on arrival if you ever stop learning. My first novel was a survival story, dealing with a very small cast of characters, their destinies playing out in the brutally inhuman snows of wild northern mountains. In the years since I wrote that book, I’ve been deeply changed—by marriage, by fatherhood, by healing. My life has become more open, more able to listen to a rich chorus of voices. You might say I’ve come down out of those mountains into the valley of the living. This new novel seems to embody that richness, with its cast of characters, its warmer setting, its particular kind of love.
ER: There will no doubt be readers who will start with The Swallows of Lunetto as an introduction to your work, but you started your writing career as a poet. Can you speak more about your poetry and what the transition to becoming a novelist was like? Did you always consider yourself a writer in both genres?
JF: Although I scribbled fiction in my earliest years, I stepped away from it almost entirely for a very long time. If you’d asked me at twenty-five if I was going to write a novel, I would have said something about how I experience the world as fragmented, broken, without narrative. Poems seem able to embody that way of seeing, that way of being. Then one day I woke and started—a complete surprise—to write that most ancient of things: a story. Perhaps we reach a point in life when we have to risk putting the pieces together, risk being unbroken, risk being a story instead of a song.
ER: The Swallows for Lunetto is at its core a love story, and the mixture of political strife and social uncertainty in Italy during and after World War II complicates Alexandra and Leonardo’s relationship. Where did the idea for this book come from? What did the writing process look like for this novel?
JF: After my first novel, I wrote two complete novels, but I knew in my heart that they weren’t working; they had plots, characters, sentences, but they were not true. A book should feel inevitable, like a truth that has to exist in exactly its form. Most of all it should have a clear voice.
I set these manuscripts aside and kept working on poems, until something happened that astonished me. In a flash, I had a vision of a book, a voice, a world, and I set everything aside and began working on this project feverishly. I couldn’t have known it then, but all the work I’d done on those other manuscripts was only preparation for this other thing, which on its surface has absolutely nothing in common with those earlier attempts. The truth ripens in secret.
ER: Your novel is quite timely, given that Italy recently held elections. Giorgia Meloni claimed victory in late September, and her Brothers of Italy party has its roots in the post-war movement of Benito Mussolini’s fascists. Were current Italian politics a part of the writing process for The Swallows for Lunetto? Do you believe your novel can provide a caution for the far-right movements currently resurging across Europe?
JF: This is, on one level, a book about how we get caught up in dangerous ideas. I’m interested in how political movements can hijack our own personal pain. Without us knowing what’s happening, demagogues hijack our private pain for their own interests, and we buy their stories because they make us believe their stories are our own.
Part of my work in this book was to show how this happens. In my opinion, the work of the novelist is to depict the complications of the human spirit. It is better to show how a character gets caught up in reprehensible ideas than to launder every character so that they do or say nothing objectionable. There is no way to understand evil except to step into the shadows. It’s madness to conflate the depiction of reprehensible acts with an endorsement of them. In fact, the risk is precisely the inverse: an age that is afraid to depict evil will understand nothing and become the evil it fears.
You can get the quick high of silencing someone who wishes to atone, but it’s just a way to cut yourself off from a part of yourself you’re afraid of. The cost—maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but sooner or later—will be your life. You’ll open your mouth to speak, and there will be no words, no words to call your own.
ER: To go beyond the far-right movements in Europe, your novel speaks to larger discussions of totalitarianism across the globe. I was particularly struck by the following description of why people are drawn toward this form of government and social structures, as told by the old man Alexandra meets when her and Leonardo escape Lunetto:
We think we begin to speak the language of tyrants, he told her, but really those tyrants come from the language we have spoken. In our own hearts. In the darkness. He said we worship such men because they keep our darkness for us. And they tell us it is light. And in that way they can do no wrong. Until they can. He said we see in such a life only what we wish to see in ourselves, and so we see anything that is not him as a betrayal. Of him. Of ourselves. But in truth we have already betrayed ourselves in our own hearts. For turning our back on our shadows. An act that can only destroy and not create a world. For if you deny your shadow it becomes your tyrant. And the heart, he said, the heart is the worst tyrant of all.
The old man is speaking of Il Duce, or Benito Mussolini, but at the same time he is stating that a tyrant doesn’t arrive at his position of power without the tyrannical hearts of others. Do you find, through your writing and lived experience, that the heart can betray us to such an extent that we believe every “darkness” to be “light”?
JF: We can hand our lives over to the will of others, often without knowing what we’re doing. And often the ones to whom we surrender are the ghosts within us. We sometimes have names for them—father, mother, lover—but we often do not.
And when those ghosts show up in our lives, waving a flag or offering bread or stroking our wounds, how do we know when to stay? How do we know when to go?
ER: What role should writers play in calling out and bringing attention to authoritarianism across the world?
JF: A writer’s greatest hope is to wake himself as much as possible to the fullness of his being, and in so doing to wake the reader to the fullness of her own. A person who is alive to her complexities is less likely to be an unknowing pawn in some tyrant’s game.
ER: While there is always a wall between author and characters, as there is in poetry between poet and speaker, did you find that you were writing at least some of yourself in these characters? Did any real-life events/experiences influence some of the narrative?
JF: Absolutely. For many years I had not embraced my Italian-American roots. I felt there was something shadowy, something even shameful in them. But in this book, I put those roots down into the darkness and let them drink. And what rose up was a living thing that has changed me with its blossoming.
As Czesław Miłosz once wrote, “What has no shadow has no strength to live.”
ER: Leonardo Gemetti was a boy when he was inspired by fascism to serve his country, but it resulted in the eventual deaths of many of Lunetto’s sons. Leonardo comes back as a way to not only reassure his mother that is not who he was in the past, but to atone for his misguidance. How do you define atonement? Is it ever truly achievable?
JF: I believe being forgiven is the state of being so wholly awake to what you have done that anyone who touches your life must be woken to her own. That is the gift our having sinned can give. That is how we know we have atoned.
ER: The Swallows of Lunetto revolves around love, atonement, the consequences of fascism, and the often-unforgiving nature of the past, while The Dark Heart of Every Wild Thing centers on memory, redemption, love, and our relationship with the natural world. What other themes are you exploring, or do you think you’ll be exploring in your work? Is there another novel or poetry collection in the works?
JF: Writing novels has allowed me to return to the short lyric poem and celebrate its silences, its fragmentation, its singing. The more I become a story, the more something else in me becomes a song.