Interview with Anthony Dragonetti
February 12, 2020
MM) There’s an ironic dimension to the title Confidence Man. It feels like something of a wink or put-on, a provocation of sorts that invites a wry interpretation. Something postmodern or deconstructive about it. The narrator in many of these stories seems to be conducting an autopsy on trauma while simultaneously living with the inveterate spoils. He’s possessed of a sterling, sociopathic charisma and masculine character, yet something’s fundamentally askew, a pathology to his method of functioning in modernity. What is the Confidence Man? Where did the title come from, and did it precede the concept for the book? Describe the process of writing it, from conception through development.
AD) CONFIDENCE MAN was the phrase that came to mind when I was coming up with the concept for the book. I wanted to write about a…I don’t want to say bad guy…but someone who you might have a hard time rooting for and feeling conflicted about it. I don’t mean in the TV anti-hero way, either. The narrator(s) aren’t nearly as compelling or even fleshed out as a Tony Soprano type and that’s by design. I keep you at arm’s length. He’s charming in a disturbing way, but you can also see he’s the product of traumatizing events. Does that absolve him for his behavior? I’m not answering my own rhetorical question. Also, I liked the idea of swiping a title from another book. The Confidence-Man was Melville’s final book. I’ve never read it, but I don’t need to. It was like The Replacements naming their breakthrough album Let It Be. Sometimes you just want to be a brat.
Writing fiction is deception. You have to be a con man on some level to pull it off. You’re emotionally manipulating people. Bringing them up and then bringing them down. So, I wanted to address the nature of storytelling directly and why we do it with this book. I hope it makes people feel uncomfortable.
MM) While a series of short stories, the book can also be read as a novel. There’s a thematic commonality binding these stories. I’m reminded of Kosiński’s Steps, Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, and also Raymond Carver. Do you consider there being a fluidity between the forms? You wrote Confidence Man piece by piece knowing it would eventually comprise a book. Did you have any breakthroughs in the process while writing it that informed the final structure of it?
AD) Steps is what I modeled this book after. Few books have captured my imagination the way that one has. I knew from the start this would be short stories that could double as one connected whole. Barth is a little too academic for my tastes, but I can see the Funhouse link. Other than Steps, the book that gave me the form for CONFIDENCE MAN was I Pass Like Night by Jonathan Ames which is another collection of short stories that double as a novel following this guy around the city as he gets STDs from hookers and whatever. Not as good as Steps, but I liked the concept.
What can I say about old Ray? I’m like a lot of guys who decided to write. We were sucked in by Carver and his mysterious little stories about the horribly mundane. I would say this book confronts Carver more than it’s inspired by him. I’m a pretty direct writer. Curt, even. But, I didn’t want to write too many stories that were just like “And then he lit his cigarette” as the punchline. I wanted these stories to have blood pumping through their veins. Things happen here. There’s action, even if it’s presented in this kind of detached way. People die. There’s violence and sex. I wanted to see if I could take that minimalist style and breathe some more life into it.
MM) Your style is, shall we say, famously economical? Confidence Man goes down like a shot of liquor and hits with the clarity-shattering mind-altering potency of a hard drug. I read it in one sitting. Its tone is dark, gritty, sober, its prose lean and muscular. No word is wasted. Would you agree, and what do you have to say about brevity?
AD) I really can’t stand bullshit. That’s what it comes down to. My time on this earth is limited, so that’s how I write. I like reading and watching stuff that’ll have a bunch of digressions and stylistic pyrotechnics but that’s not for me as an artist. What I’m trying to do isn’t effective when fluff enters the equation. I can’t hurt you that way. Too much lightens the blow.
I find brevity is much more effective when you’re trying to stop someone in their tracks. It’s like a well-timed jab. I have no interest in lulling people. I’m moving in quick and this isn’t going the full 10 rounds. You use words like “masculine” and “muscular” to describe the book and I think that’s exactly right. I’m a man and I’m writing from that perspective. I actually think the book says quite a bit about masculinity, certainly when it comes to sexuality. I wonder if that will come through.
MM) How deliberate of a writer would you say you are? Are you laboring under the delusion that anyone buys your thinly-veiled memoir? Confidence Man has the tortured feel of a book written to expiate or exorcise demons, as it were. Excavation of raw materials that can only be achieved through severe introspection, who do you think you’re fooling? A Diagnosis. Clinical. Stoic. Free associate with me. Mental illness. Family…
AD) I’m very deliberate. The editing kind of happens while I’m writing. I can see a bunch of writers poo-pooing that idea already but that’s too bad. I don’t blaze through a draft and then go back to rewrite. I hold the scalpel in one hand and the pen in the other while I’m working. It’s how I get that economical style.
CONFIDENCE MAN was tortured. I’d say the seeds for it were planted when I was about 25 and then I finished it at 31. And it’s a short book, so that tells you something. I was writing poetry before this and my first little chapbook I put out at 25 (which I hate now and no one will ever see) actually has poems that are kind of dry runs for some of the stories in here. I needed to figure out I’m not a poet first. Then the rest followed.
I wouldn’t call it a thinly-veiled memoir. Maybe it is on an expressionist level, but I didn’t live any of the stories in this book. I definitely worked through some pain writing it, though. The dead father hangs over the whole collection. I lost my dad when I was 18 years old. My cousin and dad both died suddenly within the same month. My family pretty much got destroyed within a span of 3 weeks and that’s the most pivotal event of my life. It’s impossible for it not to be. Not too long after that, a couple of my friends died very young. Suicide, war. The big stuff. My mortality hangs over me. I think about it every day. CONFIDENCE MAN deals with loss, but also how some people refuse to move on with their lives. I couldn’t write the book until I lived long enough to move on. I’m done with this stuff now. I have a good life.
MM) I wanna talk about the story, “The Birthday Party.” It’s something of a showpiece, a look at mundane domesticity through the eyes of an imaginative, frightened child. “Bring the Kid” alludes to childhood as well. Tell me about where you grew up.
AD) I grew up in Brooklyn in an Italian family that sent me to Catholic school. I feel like that sentence is enough to explain a lot of things. That kind of environment reinforces a lot of personal traits. Toughness, stoicism (to a degree, of course. We’re an emotional people, but there is an acceptable way to express that. Rage, mostly) and a kind of mysticism when it comes to God. You know, that direct relationship with God where he sees everything and you can communicate with the saints and on and on. It’s a narcissistic worldview. You mix all that together and you get something like The Birthday Party. This bastardization of the divine and what it means to even die. I had a great time writing that story. I laughed to myself quite a bit. I don’t think readers will laugh much, though. Maybe that’s my gallows humor. I don’t miss being a kid. It’s a weird and uncomfortable time. I don’t understand people who do. I’m not a nostalgic person.
MM) The subject of medicated functioning, maintaining romantic relationships, jobs, money, hygiene, diet, labor/exertion/practice and other accoutrements/accessories of normalcy are hacked at. What does Confidence Man say about being spiritually salubrious and well-adjusted in a modern society?
AD) Modern society, at least a lot of it, is pretty rough on mental health. This isn’t a pining for tradition or the glorious past or whatever, either. I think that kind of mindset is defeatist, but more importantly, super lame. We are in a time, though, where any job that pays enough for you to live essentially wants to own you. We have to schedule out our days around things as basically necessary as exercise because we’re expected to sit on our asses all the time to “produce.” Many of our relationships are transactional. It’s no wonder the use of psychiatric medication is at an all time high. I mean, I take my medicine. I don’t feel like a slave or anything to it. It helps me function, though.
If CONFIDENCE MAN addresses any of that, I think it’s in the implied selfishness of a lot of the stories. The current system encourages selfishness. Glorifies it even. Marketing materials may promote some bullshit about making the world a better place or whatever, but we all know that’s just focus grouped crap designed to make you consume more and feel good about it. I think the narrator of each story, in his own way, embodies different aspects of the difficulty of forming and maintaining intimate bonds in the world we live in.
MM) Talk about rock and roll. There’s a story here called “The Passenger.” You’ve described the style and aesthetic as no wave, or post punk. Is that because of fast cars, sophisticated drugs and computers, or something else?
AD) I’ve always loved music. I thought I’d be a musician when I was younger. For a hot second I wanted to go to Berklee. But, I was never disciplined or talented enough for that. I messed around in punk bands when I was younger. It’s always been about rock and roll for me. It informs a lot of my aesthetic and my interests. When I write, I listen to music to get my mind where it needs to be. I wanted that kind of remote, alienated, distant feeling for this book and No Wave embodies that perfectly. Plus, it’s a New York sound, which is a bonus. The city is a big part of my identity. So, I listened to a lot of like Contortions, Liquid Liquid, stuff like that while writing this, plus delta blues and murder ballads for that creepy atmosphere. I used to play slide guitar. I love Americana. That Harry Smith anthology, Anthology of American Folk Music, was a big deal for me when I was a teenager.
MM) You live in New York City. Why? You’ve lived there all your life, and I’m curious whether that influenced the book.
AD) New York is the best city in the world in my opinion. Even as it becomes more of a Disneyworld for the rich, you can’t take the history of it away. No other city feeds me the kind of energy I need. I lived in Philly for a few years, but I got over it quickly. It didn’t have the magic. This city’s in my blood. I love being able to just get anywhere I want to be. When I hang out downtown, Alphabet City or LES, whatever, I can feel the ghosts.
MM) The book has sex stuff in it, or frank depictions of carnal acts, shall we say, in succinct, exacting detail. What say you of this lubricious content?
AD) It was important to have at least some sex stuff in the book. One, because people eat that shit up. Two, it’s important to the intimacy and identity issues I explore. I was adamant I didn’t want to write out any actual sex scenes. When the action takes place, the camera cuts away and it’s addressed in a very matter of fact kind of way. I wanted to remain that remoteness to kind of remove the mystique about sex. I probably won’t do that in the next book.
MM) You have called this book an anti memoir. Could you elaborate on what you mean by that? There are some perspectival shifts whereby the reader appears to be directly addressed, or tenses that play with the nature of past and present, intersperse them seamlessly in hallucinatory fashion, there’s a poetry to the …there’s a noise in the walls. There’s dialogue and diegetic television and interior lives.
AD) This is another style thing. I take craft seriously. It’s why I write so slowly. While I have an economical style, I don’t want to come across as simple either. I’m pushing back against Carver again and this is where my more avant garde interests start to get added into the mix. My mind is a near constant cacophony, so I’m operating under the assumption that many people feel the same way. If not, well, then this book will give you a glimpse of something. I wanted the reader to feel a bit queasy and confused. Also, I think that hopping around and running of dialogue into the action with no demarcation is a good way to simulate the narrator’s feeling of desperation and derangement that I want you to also feel. Sometimes that means turning the camera at you.
CONFIDENCE MAN is an anti-memoir in the sense in that I styled it as this confessional. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s about me. This is where the book’s mean streak comes in. I personally hate memoirs as a genre. I think the modern “content” model incentivizes people to embarrass themselves and constantly relitigate their own trauma for attention and book deals. Publishers love personal tales of woe that are “real.” I think the popularity of the personal essay speaks to this. So, I wrote the book with this false intimacy in mind to lure you in and then crush you. That’s really the purpose of the final story in the collection, the title story.
MM) What kind of writer does being a book critic/blogger/editor of two lit mags make you? A special one?
AD) I don’t know if I’m special, but I’m pretty fucking good. You can disagree, but you’d be wrong. I review books and write about them and run Surfaces and Sludge because I love this more than anything. It’s my life’s work. It’s my passion. I think when you’re so consumed by something, you have no choice but to get good otherwise you’ll just hate yourself. I also like spotlighting other people. That’s the joy I get from the sites I edit. We’ve published quite a few people who have never published before that are so good, but they’d get shut out of other places. Forget that. As far as I’m concerned, the best writers in the world are in the Surfaces orbit. I’m a big believer in making the scene that you want to see and be a part of.
MM) You have an affinity for B-movies, horror, wrestling, video games, and other niche pursuits. Do you think this is humanizing? Romantic? Tell me about them.
AD) I think it’s impossible to have good taste without a genuine love and appreciation for both low and high culture. It’s not just about capital A art, it’s also about having fun. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. I also get a kick out of loving something as stereotypically “dumb” as wrestling and then running intellectual circles around people who would call it dumb. Kind of like how I’m an egghead who enjoys training intensely in the gym most days of the week to beat the shit out of somebody for fun. Life is about experiencing as much as you can.
MM) Which writers/artists most deeply inspire your work?
AD) There are far too many to list, but I’ll say the biggest is Lou Reed. Everything I do begins and ends with him. He opened my eyes to what a person could do with their life. Creatively and personally. He just didn’t give a fuck. He also kind of helped me navigate my sexuality at a young age, like here is this guy who is into everything and everybody, but he’s street tough and uncompromising. You got a problem with who I’m dating? Too fucking bad, man. What are you gonna do about it? That was really inspiring to me.
MM) What various projects are you currently working on?
AD) I’m always kicking around a few things. I thought I was going to jump right back in to another “serious” book this year, but I can’t get back into that headspace. I need to do my schlocky B-movie project and just let my hair down. Have fun. So, I’m writing a new book called Turbopervert that’s going to be like this noir psychedelic porno with buckets of blood. It’s going to be a shock after CONFIDENCE MAN. A total 180. But, I have no interest in going back to the same well. There won’t be a CONFIDENCE MAN 2. I also really want to try my hand at writing for performance. Plays or a short film or something. We’ll see.
MM) How so far have you found your experience being peripheral to and directly involved in online literary circles?
AD) I’ve met some of the coolest people I’ve ever met. People say online isn’t real or whatever, but I consider a lot of them my friends now. Even if we never meet in person. I’ll be honest with you. There’s a lot of online lit that’s boring and not for me. When people talk about the toxicity, I think it’s because they’re trying to do too much and appeal to too many people. I’m never going to be in the New England Apple Orchard Review or whatever the fuck. And that’s fine, because I don’t care about those types of places. I don’t think there is a writing community. There are a lot of smaller scenes that really don’t have anything to do with one another. I stick with my people and we have a good time. I couldn’t ask for more.
MM) In light of rumblings of disgruntlement circulating, unfounded and untrue allegations operating unchecked in the realms of controversy and hearsay with respect to how we treat our writers, how so far have you found your experience working with Expat Press?
AD) Ask me again when you cut me my first check.
MM) Is there a moral indictment or interrogation in Confidence Man? If so, who are its targets?
AD) If you’re reading CONFIDENCE MAN, you’re the target. It damns you and me. We all have blood on our hands. We all hide behind our pasts and use our misfortunes to be cruel to others. But, we have a choice to not do that. I hope people get something from the book and choose to not do that. I hope it inspires courage to love intensely.