Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Louis Gallo’s fiction piece, Great Asses
Sommer: We did not elect a female president this past election. And I’d argue that a major reason is because of how our country still views women: they should be cute, sexual, agreeable and docile. Your story does an incredible job of showing how our society entraps women within the confines of their sexual physicality, and everyone suffers as a result. Is there a way out of this?
Louis: Not until testosterone can be somehow modified or eliminated, but then the problem becomes another. That famous rat experiment—scientists injected testosterone into a female rat and she abandoned her newborn babies; they injected estrogen into the male father, and he became motherly and tender and took care of the babies. That experiment opened my eyes wide. Education alone is too fragile to undo millennia of the status quo.
Oprah has famously said that if any woman says she has never been sexually abused, she is either lying or in denial. And Alice Munro writes in one of her short stories of an adult woman finally admitting to herself the harm her father caused her after he merely watched her getting out of the bath naked when she was a teen. Why did you choose to keep Michelle’s probable sexual abuse just out of the narrator’s range of insight? And what methods did you use to go about intimating this?
I do agree that all women are at some point sexually abused, objectified, or victimized by males. But I would add that the most barbarous cases of rape and abduction hardly cover that matter. I think many younger men have no idea that they are in fact objectifying women when they, say, “make a pass,” or come on too strong or attempt to initiate romance of some kind. Men at this point are in quite a quandary—they are fearful to relate to women at all lest they be deemed sexists. This is especially true for educated people. So, as for Michelle, I let that possibility remain vague and indistinct purposefully—so that she would seem mysterious and aloof and ever truly “attainable” in any relationship with any man. Our “hero,” as he often dimly realizes, is doomed. Michelle will prevail. I am afraid though that some readers will dismiss the story as sexist. I hope not.
Shadrack is such a fabulous secondary character. He acts as Stetch’s foil, it seems to me, highlighting Stech’s vulgarity and selfishness. When did Shadrack appear to you as you were writing this story, and did you know who he would be?
Ha ha. Most of the characters are composites of “real” people I know, much of the story is autobiographical—and I believe that ALL fiction is deep down autobiographical. But Shadrack is a happy invention. He simply came to me as I was writing the story. I never intended for Shadrack to exist. But he, on his own, insisted upon existing. Bravo, Shadrack.
I love how you use place in this story. Naming bars, neighborhoods, streets, thoroughly welcomes the reader into the story and narrator’s life. Are you ever worried that some readers won’t know where the story is, and how do you avoid the trap of explanation?
I never worry about readers not being able to identify specific places. Somehow, if a work of fiction is successful, specific, even actual places, transcend by alchemy their uniqueness and become ALL places that everyone knows. This story is set in my hometown of New Orleans and all of the streets, bars, et al., are real, though some of them, say, the bar, have gone extinct over the years. If one has to explain a place, one has lost the magic of place. I think of Faulkner’s Oxford and Walker Percy’s southern Louisiana—a reader in the former Yugoslavia could have sniffed out the specificities of place in those two writers so that Oxford and southern Louisiana would transmute into place settings in Yugoslavia. The odd thing about place—is that it is both specific and local while at the same time universal and transcendent.
What’s your advice to writers on handling rejection?
Wear a suit of armor. Believe in your work. If you let a rejection slip wound you, you will die a fairly quick death. What is the ratio? One acceptance to every nine rejections? I think the ratio is actually higher. I am arrogant enough to think that editors who reject my work simply don’t have the acumen to appreciate it. But don’t tell any editors I said that. Wasn’t Catcher in the Rye rejected countless times before someone took it on? Art is a perilous business. So to my writer friends, I counsel that they should just adorn that suit of armor but also wear a few raw nerves on their metal sleeves so as not to be desensitized. Just keep sending stuff out to editors and, if it’s any good, it will eventually be published. I once sent the same story out to six places. The first five, nada. The sixth, and a good venue too, far more prestigious than the precious five, loved the story. Go figure.
Your story is one of my favorites. Thank you so much for doing this interview with me.
Well thank you for the many compliments. That story simply flowed out of me, easily. If one struggles with a story or poem, it probably means that story or poem does not want to be written, not yet anyway.