Nico Cassanetti (Issue 8) writes about loss and place in “Upper West Side,” an excerpt from a larger collection of essays. In the following interview, Cassanetti discusses music, New York, and the phrase her grandmother has taped to the refrigerator.
Nico Cassanetti graduated from The New School with a BA in creative writing, and is currently pursuing her MFA at Florida Atlantic University in the same. Her writing has appeared in Life|Style Magazine, The Faster Times, and A3 Review. Her favorite punctuation mark is the em dash. Nico lives and works in South Florida, but asks that you do not judge her by this unfortunate circumstance.
What inspired you to create this piece? This piece had been marinating inside my head since my uncle died. Because of the circumstances of it I didn’t really have time to grieve, or perhaps I just didn’t feel like I deserved to. It’s strange because I feel like I so often hear people say that the day someone they loved died was “a blur,” but I remember that day so well. I remember the route the cab took to get to the hospital—that the driver told me we had to take 2nd avenue because the FDR was blocked off; I remember the lay out of the waiting rooms outside the morgue. I remember the look on my father’s face when he came into John’s apartment—I remember feeling like I had let him down somehow by telling him he didn’t need to come up sooner.
However I think John’s death is only a part of it—because ultimately this piece was inspired by New York. This was probably one of the first pieces (if not the first) that I wrote for the These Things Happen Every Day series I’m working on (a series of “concrete-style” poems, flash fiction, lyrics essays, etc. that are confined to the shapes of the neighborhoods in which each piece takes place). When Maggie (my Proximity editor) asked me for a brief explanation of the larger project this work stemmed from I likened it to “a postcard sent to an old friend,” and even that might be too reductive—but the sentiment is there. The half-decade I spent in New York was lifetime on its own. I worked hard, I went broke; I met people I hope will always be in my life, and lost people I never imagined my life without. I loved and I lost and I don’t regret any of it. I did love New York (I still do), and I know it has changed me as a writer, and as a person. So maybe I should have said this was my ode…or better yet an epigraph for a life I left behind.
How would you characterize your creative process as you worked on this piece? (ex: fast and furious, slow brew, fits and starts). It’s funny because (again) I remember exactly how this piece was born—I promise I don’t have photographic memory or total recall or anything, I can barely remember what I had for dinner last night and can never remember where I put my car keys.
It was Valentine’s Day 2014. Some friends of mine were having an anti-Valentine’s Day party, and I couldn’t bring myself to go—because I was desperately in love with my best friend who was hopelessly aloof and non-committal (Spoiler Alert: We got engaged last August). So I stayed home, listening to Bon Iver’s “Holocene” on repeat, crying and avoiding all phone calls and text messages. It was one of those moments where you get so deep into crying that you start crying about everything (this is something everyone does, not just me, right?). Anyway, I sat down at my makeshift desk—which was, at the time, John’s dining room set that he had willed to me and, despite it’s wobbly legs and broken chair backs, I had lugged to Florida when I moved back from New York. I couldn’t bear to part with it. I still have it, and I’ve had to glue the chairs back together at least ten times now.
I wrote the piece in a single sitting, probably crying the entire time. It was cathartic—it was the grieving I had held in for almost a year and I when it was done I re-read it a couple times and then went to bed. It’s been through edits since then, of course, but it’s stayed pretty true to the original draft.
What writing or other artistic expression has had a profound impact on your writing? Why? Definitely music. Everyone in my family is a musician except me, which I resented for most of my life because I always wished I could sing or play an instrument but I never had the patience or the dexterity for it. I remember when I sent this piece to my brother he told me the last time about the toothbrush on the sink was so matter-of-fact and sad and it reminded him of a Magnetic Fields song…that was basically the best compliment I’ve ever received. I would put Stephin Merritt (Magentic Fields mastermind) up there as one of my favorite writers of all time. The way he can turn a phrase in a song is so amazing—he can be funny and smart and sad and poetic all at once, and I always wish I could ask him how he does it.
Who has been influential in your writing/creative work? Why? My grandmother has this amazing ability to make her way into almost all of my work, even when I don’t mean for her to. This might be a product of her being the muse of the book manuscript I’m working on…but I don’t think so. I think it’s because she is so well read and insightful and full of life and stories and drama. She also will tell me when something is bad, and I trust her. My mom is the same way. I’m lucky to come from a line of such amazing women.
As far as teachers, I was fortunate enough to take a summer workshop with Alexander Chee last summer. He pushed me out of my comfort zone and gave me purpose and motivation that I had been lacking. I printed out a copy of his workshop comments and hung them on my way so I can look at them whenever I get too complacent.
What living writer would you recommend other nonfiction writers read? What titles in particular? Why? Definitely Maxine Hong Kingston. Alexander Chee gave me the first fifty pages of Chinamen and it changed my whole perspective on memoir writing. She has this agility on the page that I had never really seen before—she switches in and out of perspectives, changing POV or tenses. It’s amazing. Mary Carr is another one (who has a whole chapter on Kingston in her new book Art of the Memoir which made me feel like I was on the right track), her interview in The Paris Review “Art of Nonfiction” is a game changer.
How do you think New York specifically changed you as a writer? I grew up in Connecticut and both of my parents grew up in the city, and worked there for a lot of my childhood–so it wasn’t this big, scary place or this Oz-like dream…it was the city closest to my heart.
I think what people say about New York–that there is an energy there unlike anywhere else–is true. And that is because there are just so many people there hustling and trying to survive, trying to own their New York-ness. For the first few months I never felt like New York was mine. Then one day I was climbing up the stairs from the C train at West 4th Street during morning rush hour, merging into sidewalk traffic on 6th Avenue that headed north. I remember looking up and admiring how perfectly the light was hitting the Empire State Building that day. In that moment I realized how lucky I was to be able notice the difference between that day and any other, and how fast it moves. It’s like a hotbed of inspiration: Settings and characters and overheard dialog, and you spend so much time in solitude–walking or riding the subway or waiting for a G train that never comes–you can write a hundred stories in your head before you even get to a piece of paper.
As a writer in New York there is a huge literary community with readings and book signings and panel discussions. I was lucky enough to get a job at an amazing independent bookstore in Brooklyn called Bookcourt. It is still, to this day, one of my favorite jobs i’ve ever had. I got to talk about books and writing all day, and I meet–and even work with–so many amazing, influential authors. But what that taught me is just how many writers–emerging, mid career, established, famous–there are in New York, and if you think you have something to say you have to be willing to do the work, shout it out, and challenge yourself.
Since I left I’ve had many people tell me they want to move to New York. They ask me, “what it was like, what neighborhood should I live in, what tips do you have?” and I tell all of them the same thing: Unless you have your living situation sorted out, unless you are going there for school or a job that is going to pay you at least $40,000 dollars a year, unless you like cold winters, and hot summers, and spending too much money on drinks, and paying too much for rent or parking or cigarettes—don’t do it. I tell them it’s hard and exhausting and lonely, and if they get there and don’t make it not to feel bad. I don’t say this because I hate New York; I say it because it’s true. New York is a cruel mistress, and I miss her every day.
Why do you think you prevented yourself from fully grieving for almost a year? I don’t know if I prevented myself so much as put it off. I remember being sad–so sad I wanted to move to Florida to be closer to my family. I also remember how broken hearted my father was and that I felt like I wanted to be strong for him like he had for my for almost thirty years. I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday and he called me “a fixer,” because I always want to make sure everyone else is ok and fix everyone’s problems–often times before my own. But grief is like anything else, it doesn’t go away if you ignore it, you have to acknowledge it and get through it before you can get passed it. And because I didn’t do that back in New York after John died I had piled on other losses–leaving New York, failing relationships, watching other members of my family deal with their own mortality, trying to rebuild my life again and wondering if that was even possible (which I’m beginning to believe it always is if you care enough to try).
I’m also incapable of feeling anything on a small scale. I’m at a 10 or a 1. So when there was nothing left to fix but myself, and nothing left to feel but sadness, I went full speed ahead in the most maudlin, morose and cliche way possible: Listening to incredibly sad music and writing about death.
It’s almost embarrassing to talk about now, but I’m still really proud of this piece, because it’s honest and vulnerable because of it.
We asked Nico to dip into the “Proust Questionnaire” and select a few fun (less writing-related) questions to answer. This probing set of questions originated as a 19th-century parlor game popularized by contemporaries of Marcel Proust, the French essayist and novelist, who believed that an individual’s answers reveal his or her true nature.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? Phrase: “What is the Truth of the matter?”— My grandmother has this written on a piece of paper that’s taped on her refrigerator. If the stars every align and my book gets published (slash I finish it) you can get the whole story of this sentence, but I’ve written about it outside of the book in guest blogs or personal essays at least half a dozen times. In fact, my poet friend and I have appropriated it as the question we ask each other when we are trying to identify the heart of whatever it is we are trying to write.
Words: Perhaps, dwindle, memory, recollections, excavating has become increasingly popular recently. And because I’m still in an MFA program probably “intentions.”
Which talent would you most like to have? I wish I could sing…or speed read. Actually I just wish I could be a person who sit down and actually finish writing a book.
Who is your hero of fiction? Alma from Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love. She is stubborn and smart and unwavering in her curiosity…and she doesn’t take no for an answer. I think I’m like that but if I ever have a daughter I hope she is like Alma.
What is your current state of mind? I’m in the last few months of an MFA so my current state is best summed up by “frantic.” It’s mostly a happy frantic, but sometimes it’s just an overwhelmed stress ball of frantic. Thinking about the question of what talent I wish I could have, I wish I could stop time so I could get everything done—I think the fact that I’m doing this interview in the 11th hour of the deadline is pretty solid evidence that I’m frantic, right?
What is your motto? Besides “What is the Truth of the Matter?”…I guess it would be silly if my motto is a question. Probably “Courage, babe.” Which is something my grandfather always used to say. Or my old standby—which has endured throughout my writing career—Samuel Beckett’s “Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.” I think writing can be a thankless, lonely and arduous job…and it requires perseverance and being able to accept that success is elusive, especially if you aren’t willing to fail.
This interview was curated by Erika Williams, Proximity‘s Interview Series Coordinator and a creative writing student at Ohio University.