The following interview with Tony Vigorito was derived from questions submitted by readers. If you have an interesting question you would like to be considered for inclusion here, you may send it via the contact form on this website.
What event in your life influenced you the most?
This is the second most influential event in my life:
On a perfect morning some years ago, exactly just a couple of days before my first novel, Just a Couple of Days, was to be released, I was preparing to ride my bicycle. On my way out the door—and as I had no consistent habit around wearing my helmet—I thought it might be nice to ride without it that fine day, to feel the wind in my hair, to whiz unencumbered through the atmosphere. I paused at my door for tangible seconds, considering, before deciding that I ought to wear my helmet. Minutes later I collided head first into a car at an intersection.
I had been going downhill, standing on the pedals, racing as fast as possible, and the car was traveling perpendicular to me, also speeding. I do not remember seeing the car. I do not remember the collision. The only thing I remember was a faraway thud. My 30-mile-an-hour body completely caved in his fender, so much so that he couldn’t drive away without pounding it out. My bike, on the other hand, didn’t have a scratch on it aside from a small tear on the seat. As it happened, my bike never even touched the car. Deducing from the bruise I would later alarm to discover across the insides of all eight of my fingers, I reckon I must have strangled my hand brakes so hard that I sent my body sailing over the handlebars, abandoning my bicycle to flip over and land on its seat in the process. In contrast to my bicycle, I had quite a few scratches.
The first thing I heard was some stranger’s panicked assessment that “He’s not okay!”Actually, when I regained consciousness after however long it took for a crowd of people to surround me, the first thing I heard was some stranger’s panicked assessment that “He’s not okay!” A quick inventory confirmed this diagnosis: Sunglasses smashed into side of face. Can’t move my shoulder. Asphalt grated the skin off my knees, my elbows, and the side of my hand. And christ jeezus, is that my kneecap? Obviously, I was greatly traumatized and totally in shock, and against the barking commands of several bystanders who were otherwise doing nothing whatsoever to assist me, I managed to get up and limp out of the street for no other reason than an instinct to lie down in the cool grass and die as a distant ambulance siren serenaded my passage.
This was not to be my death, of course, and except for my shoulder, which still bothers me, I recovered remarkably fast. I attribute this to the yoga I’d been doing just before getting on my bike. Three weeks later I was dancing at a music festival, albeit with beef jerky kneecaps.
What bothers me the most about all of this is not necessarily that I very nearly died just a couple of days before my first novel was released. To be certain, it unsettled me to experience firsthand how profoundly meaningless the narratives we impose upon our lives are, how inconsiderate life and its inevitable death can be to the schedules of our lives. More than that, however, what bothers me about all of this is that if I hadn’t hesitated at my door, waffling as I convinced myself to wear my helmet, I would have totally cleared that intersection by the time that car came speeding through. Naturally, I am aware that other variables may have come into play between my door and that intersection to conspire the collision anway. And yet, I can’t help but feel that there was a deeper lesson that day than bicycle safety, deeper even than a hard knock reminder of the ephemera of our Earthly existence. For me, the lesson was never to hesitate.
And always wear your bicycle helmet.
Your first novel, Just a Couple of Days while on the surface appearing to be a celebration of language, seems ultimately to be an indictment of language. Is that accurate?
Using language is as easy as banging on a guitar, but using it well is as difficult as mastering classical guitar.Indictment might be a strong word, but certainly I am double-minded on the potentials—and the pratfalls—of language. Using language is as easy as banging on a guitar, but using it well is as difficult as mastering classical guitar. The fundamental problem with language is that we confuse our words for the reality they are intended to represent, which is rather like mistaking a guitar for the music. Guitars, and words, are lifeless and inert. They are nothing but what is breathed into them.
In any event, absent something as unnerving as the Pied Piper virus, it’s not like language is vanishing anytime soon, so perhaps the best we can do is to not only learn how to master language, but to also learn how language masters us. (And if you are interested, Globalish conducted an in-depth interview with me exclusively about the ideas in Just a Couple of Days right here.)
What made you sit down and write your first book?
The most influential event of my life compelled me to sit down and write Just a Couple of Days. I stopped the novel I had been fooling with, never to return to it, and immediately began Just a Couple of Days, though I did not realize that was the title until I had almost finished it four years later. The title, by the way, was inspired by some actual graffiti painted on both sides of a highway overpass outside of Athens, Ohio. I regularly passed under the graffiti for two years while I was writing the story before it finally occurred to me that that the graffiti itself was the title: Just a Couple of Days. The meaning of the phrase shifted every time I saw it, which is why I found it so appealing. It highlights the interaction between subject and object in the creation of meaning. Edmund Wilson once said, “No two persons ever read the same book.” In this case, neither do they ever read the same five words.Edmund Wilson once said, “No two persons ever read the same book.” In this case, neither do they ever read the same five words.
Actually, Just a Couple of Days was the third book I started, not counting the handwritten novel I tried to write in second grade. As for what made me sit down and write The Adventures of Jed (the inspired title of my second-grade epic), it’s not a particularly propitious tale, but it’s the way my fortune cookie crumbled, so here it is:
Like most young boys of my generation, I was so enchanted by Star Wars as a child that when I found a novelization of one of the movies at the library, I determined that I wanted my own copy. Being a penniless second-grader, however, and mindful of the library’s conditions in lending the book to me in the first place, I proceeded to begin transcribing the story word-for-word into my notebook. By the time I had to return the book two weeks later, I had only succeeded in copying about 35 of the paperback’s pages. Dismayed and flabbergasted at just how many words were in the book, it ultimately occurred to me that books do not just exist of their own accord, but that they—and every other cultural product—are created by actual people no different than myself. Armed with this early realization, I resolved to write my own novel. I managed about 50 handwritten pages of The Adventures of Jed before I wrote myself into a time travel paradox and realized that I was in way over my head. And in retrospect, it occurs to me now that I probably only thought Jed was a cool name because it sounded like Jedi.
It is probably for the best that I abandoned that project.
In your novels, the plots sometime seem incidental or secondary to the beauty of the language and to the central ideas being expressed. Do you begin with a message and design the characters and events around it, or do your major ideas evolve naturally out of the plot? I suspect it’s the former, if only because your plots are so whimsical and the thematic elements work together so neatly.
I discover the story as I write it nearly as much as the reader does.I can’t really say that I have a solid technique that I apply to writing a novel. In fact, it rather feels as if I’m figuring it out all over again with each new one that I begin. Mostly, however, I discover the story as I write it nearly as much as the reader does.
This was especially the case with my second novel, Nine Kinds of Naked, which began with a vague notion to write a novel exploring the concept of synchronicity. I literally started with the title itself, not knowing what it meant but liking the sound, the look, and the feel of the words. I then proceeded to invent a story that would eventually justify such a title. This was stressful at times, but it was also remarkable to witness the story take shape. For example, the character Billy Pronto only entered the story at all because I needed a random character to unlock Diablo’s jail cell. If you’ve read the story, then you know that Billy Pronto went on to command a central role, with the symbolism of him releasing Diablo from a cage only occurring to me—or to my conscious mind—in retrospect. That sort of thing happened countless times.
On the other hand, I knew the apocalyptic plot twist of Just a Couple of Days the evening I started it. I invented the story to get to that twist, and the themes, ideas, and even the writing style itself existed to deepen the reader’s appreciation of the apocalyptic plot twist. Even here, however, there were numerous elements to the story that astonished me with their emergence.
Unexpectedly, my third novel, Love and Other Pranks, has ended up being the most solidly plot-driven novel I’ve yet written. I began with a core idea of how the story would be structured, and while I didn’t sketch the story out in advance and had no idea how it would end up, the geometry of the story lent itself to a driving plot, though even here, the plot yielded numerous unexpected twists for me and was ultimately in service to a deeper symbolism.
Is Tony Vigorito your real name?
I have a Libran tendency to hold tact and not make others feel stupid, even when they are interrogating me about my face.I have actually been asked this question several times, typically paired with some curiosity as to what heritage my face implies. Indeed, a couple of friends of mine once confessed that they used to refer to me as “Mesoamerican Man” behind my back and before we met. I’ve never taken the time to research exactly what Mesoamerican features look like, but their nickname didn’t surprise me, as total strangers have frequently asked me what tribe or nation I am from – especially when I wore my hair long. Since, to my knowledge, I possess no Native American heritage, I never know exactly how to respond to this question. The people asking seem so earnest in their inquiry, and I have a Libran tendency to hold tact and not make others feel stupid, even when they are interrogating me about my face. The best I can offer them is Viking, which, while not Native American, is exotic enough to satisfy their suspicions of my physiognomy. For the genealogically curious, the Vigor clan was a renegade band of Vikings who migrated to Italy in the third century BCE, Vigorito being an Italianization of the name.
Proper names, and what they reflect about that individual, seem to play a significant role in your novels. What is your process for naming your characters?
When I first began naming my characters, I didn’t fully fathom how permanent those names would become. Like naming a pet, you can’t simply change their name after a year and not expect to create a host of confusion and resistance. So, for example, in Just a Couple of Days, I initially named one of the main characters Blip as a sort of placeholder, expecting to change it once I came up with a better name. But I was surprised to discover that Blip had indeed become his name, and moreover, that it actually made some kind of strange sense. As a consequence, I’ve learned to give careful consideration to the process of naming my characters. The astute will surely identify mythological, cultural, and/or anagrammatic references, but who among us can say for certain whether or not any of that is intentional?
What happened to the Led Zeppelin epigraph from the original edition of Just a Couple of Days?
I was ultimately unable to gain permission to reprint the excerpt from the lyrics to Stairway to Heaven for the Harcourt edition. That was unfortunate, especially since I discovered the lyrics when I was mostly done with the book, and long after I had named the virus in the story the Pied Piper virus. I don’t take it personally, however. After all, Robert Plant also declined to allow the use of the Zeppelin song Dazed and Confused in the Richard Linklater film also titled Dazed and Confused. In any event, I was—and I remain—flabbergasted at the synchronicity between the themes of Just a Couple of Days and what was captured in those six lines from Stairway to Heaven:
And it’s whispered that soon,
If we all call the tune,
Then the piper will lead us to reason.
And a new day will dawn,
For those who stand long,
And the forests will echo with laughter.
And let’s not forget the remaining epigraph, from Fyodor Dostoyevsky:
Life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we refuse to see it.
If we would, we should have heaven on Earth the very next day.
You can listen to the entire short story from which it was derived right here: The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Is it true that all of your novels take place within the same fictional universe?
Each novel stands entirely on its own, but yes, occasionally a primary character from a another of my novels appears in an unnamed cameo role. There are Easter eggs hidden within each novel linking them together into a larger narrative I’ve come to call the Argue Naked trilogy. But as I said in an earlier response, I pretty much make this up as I go along, so I have no way of knowing if this will persist beyond my third novel. In any event, I hope it deepens your enjoyment of my books.
The preceding interview with Tony Vigorito was derived from questions submitted by readers. If you have an interesting question you would like to be considered for inclusion here, you may send it via the contact form on this website.