A natural born storyteller and lifelong New Yorker, Mr. Vetere is a novelist, playwright, poet, screenwriter, TV writer and actor; his most recent work is The Writers Afterlife (Three Rooms Press, $16.95). He is a graduate of Columbia University’s Master program (1974) and has taught writing classes at NYU, CUNY, Montclair State University, and the New School. His earlier novel, The Third Miracle, was adapted for film—Vetere co-wrote the screenplay—and was produced by Frances Ford Coppola. His plays, which have been performed globally, include Rockaway Boulevard, Caravaggio, Gangster Apparel, The Marriage Fool, and the Pulitzer-Nominated One Shot, One Kill. Vetere is a member of the Writer’s Guild, the Author’s Guild, Dramatist Guild, Poets & Writers, and the NY Playwright’s Lab. He makes his home in New York City.
The Writers Afterlife was published earlier this month, and has been met with critical acclaim. Publishers Weekly praised, “In this utterly unique story, novelist Vetere unfolds a caper of inter-dimensional scope. The scenes taking place in the afterlife are written with classic magic-realist gusto; those taking place on earth will have readers rooting for Chillo's success.” Further, Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times noted, “Vetere demonstrates the ability to mix the poetic with the colloquial,” while The Village Voice’s Lewis Colka enthused, “In Mr. Vetere’s work, imagery and metaphor blend, imparting beautiful word pictures.”
From the publisher:
The Writers Afterlife is the story of Tom Chillo, a 44-year-old writer on the verge of fame, who suddenly dies of a stroke and finds himself transported to a place where all writers are sent after they die. After mingling with “The Eternals” — including Shakespeare, Wilde, Keats, and Tolstoy — he discovers that his true peers in this new world are all haunted by the same regret: they never achieved the fame they felt they deserved during their lifetime. There’s still a chance, though. Every writer has the opportunity to return to earth for exactly one week and convince someone to set the wheels in motion to give their life’s work widespread notoriety. The trick is to come up with the perfect plan the first time. Failure is not an option. The Writers Afterlife is brimming with warm humor, New York street sensibility, and an underlying commentary about the drive for fame in contemporary culture. With a deft hand, Vetere explores the deceptions that people employ to achieve at all costs. A string of eccentric New York characters fly off the page and make for a striking, memorable book that is a delight to read.
Now, Richard Vetere reflects on his own writer’s life …
1) What inspired you to write THE WRITERS AFTERLIFE – and how do you feel that the book is relatable to all artists, regardless of their medium?
I was inspired to write The Writers Afterlife for a few reasons. First off, I wanted to write about literary fame in a way that you never learn about in a university. The notion of why some writers became famous in their lifetimes and others not until after they died always perplexed me but hardly ever do you hear professors speak about it. I also wondered why some writers were famous in their lifetimes but after they die they’re forgotten. In my research on this I found a wonderful passage by Jacques Barzun in his marvelous book From Dawn to Decadence when he writes about fame stating, “Why is fame so capricious a goodness? In any country its favor depends on attention by one group of critics rather than another or again by the fanatical devotion that goes to the right man at the right time.” I remembered how when Stephen King was first published the reviews of his work were not very good but over a few decades the fanatical devotion by his readers has pushed the critics to now praise his writing. I also remember when studying for my master’s in comparative English Literature at Columbia a professor who did speak about this dilemma told us how Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was a commercial failure and during that same year a novelist named Michael Arlen had written a best seller that had sold a million copies and it was titled The Green Hat and it was about the same world of Gatsby but no one reads it today other than PhD scholars. I was also inspired by the story of Emily Dickerson who published six poems in her lifetime, and it was her sister who put all the unpublished poems together and sent them to publishers after Emily died.
2) How did your own experiences enhance Tom Chillo’s character – and what are your thoughts on the notion that writing fiction can be more revealing than writing memoir?
Writing fiction is writing about you, the author, either in ways you see yourself, how you would like to see yourself or the need for some kind of catharsis you can’t realize in your day to day life. By writing about your past you make it real not only for other people but for yourself again. I learned that from people who know me and see plays of mine and say, “Oh, this is so clearly about you” and I never see it! Now I am well aware of it. Sometimes for me a single character in my story is more me than anyone or other characters have aspects of me in them. For instance, in my novel Baroque I am not Caravaggio but I am his roommate Mario Minniti, a painter who found fame only later in life when back in Sicily he was known as the painter who knew Caravaggio. In my stage play Caravaggio I am Caravaggio. So it’s an odd thing that happens in the subconscious for writers. In The Writers Afterlife I am pretty much Tom Chillo mainly when I write about his fascination for great writers, his love affairs, his questions about love, passion, rejection, adulation, some actual details of his life and the struggles he goes through. A memoir to me is more about facts like an academic paper. I went here and did this. You write a memoir to share with other people the facts of your existence. I saw this person and they said this. Fiction is an adventure not only for the reader but for the novelist as well. As he writes the novel he learns about himself and the world around him just like Tom Chillo does. However, I have experience and age on Chillo. I actually am learning in life what he learns only after he dies.
3) The book also pays homage to famous (and not so famous) writers throughout history. How does this particular element of the story enhance your message – and why might it inspire writers/artists to reassess their own merits?
Yes, I was as fascinated with the fate of writers who were famous in their lifetimes but are forgotten today. Tom Chillo meets some of them in The Valley Of Those On The Verge where they move through that particular limbo in the Writers Afterlife. Something like Dante’s Inferno which was also an inspiration for me. Even Shakespeare’s path to immortality fascinated me since it was Samuel Johnson fifty or more years after Shakespeare died who told the world “this is a great playwright.”
I hope The Writers Afterlife touches all artists including actors, directors, poets etc. All famous people have stories including those we believe they woke up one day and they’re famous! It never happens that way. Not for Meryl Streep or Marlon Brando, no one. They all have stories. And yes, luck has a lot to do with it, great mentors help and yes, for some the path is a little “easier.” There are those who never make it but the opportunity is always there. Tom Chillo is an extreme example. He has dedicated his life to writing in hopes of recognition but he dies at the age of 44, the exact age Shakespeare started writing his great plays. But don’t forget that one of the greatest poets in the English language, John Keats, died at the age of 25.
4) Why do you believe that writing has remained a frustrating-yet-necessary vocation throughout time – and how have you seen technology change the literary landscape, both for better and for worse?
As human beings there are two truths that have yet to change since we speak of ourselves as human. Human nature is the same and that is why a playwright living five hundred years ago speaks to us still and also our need to tell and share stories is still with us. Despite technology and the good and bad effect on storytelling, as people we need to share experiences and emotions and fiction does this for us. Fiction pretends to be the genuine history of real people and real places, and we need that to huddle together to keep out the dark and comfort our own loneliness. A smart phone can’t do that. Has technology changed story telling? Oddly enough I believe it has enhanced it. In other words, more people now have access to books so more people can read. More books are published each year, and because of Cable TV and film there is more story telling going on than ever before. Is it all good? Of course not. I also believe there are too many universities teaching students how to write when they should be teaching those who aren’t true writers how to read and enjoy reading. But that is another issue entirely. I do believe that true writers are born like any other artists. If you don’t have an ear for dialogue you can’t teach it. If you don’t see scenes in your mind how do you teach someone to do that? You can’t. Also, you can tell a young writer what stories to write. They won’t listen.
5) In your opinion, why might writers be the true heroes of our time – and what should be the true measure of artistic success?
Writers are the true heroes of your time because they use imagination to create worlds for us to learn from. No matter the genre, even the most shallow entertainment will bump into an insight that stays with you. The true measure of success is twofold – dedication and accomplishment. They are essential for one big reason – if you truly believe in your gift someone, somewhere will also believe, and you will be published and produced. But you need to believe. It took me ten years to get my first novel The Third Miracle published. I wrote many other things within those ten years but I never gave up on that mess of a book. Eventually I sold the movie rights and wrote the screenplay and went back to the novel and rewrote it with a better structure, and it was published by Simon & Schuster. It was then quickly made into a movie produced by Francis Ford Coppola, directed by Agnieszka Holland, starring Ed Harris and the novel itself became a Book of the Month in several countries. It was a long journey but like Tom Chillo I persevered. All artists should judge his or her own journeys through dedication and accomplishment.
With thanks to Richard Vetere for his generosity of time and thought and to Rachel Tarlow Gul of Over the River Public Relations for facilitating this interview.