Carl Napolitano, a queer fiction writer from Little Rock, has only a handful of stories out in the world so far, but his premises are shockingly memorable. They treat the mystical and strange with the utmost frankness and acceptance. Magic materializes and characters just carry on and make do.
In “One of Them Dies,” featured in The Rumpus, there’s a boy who’s visited by alluring male ghosts in his closet of a locker room, and a girl who can get snapshots into the future of people, places and things if she takes a picture of them with a disposable camera. “River Bandit,” available at CRAFT Literary, follows through on its title’s promise and includes a character who steals and consumes rivers because she’s half-human and half-ocean, the love child of a mortal man and the Gulf of Mexico. Napolitano’s story in the Oxford American, titled “A Way to Become a Way to Be,” takes a magnifying glass to the greenroom at the House of Glamour, where several performers are mourning the death of their drag mother. “The Little Men,” his most recently published story in McSweeney’s, is perhaps the oddest: When the narrator’s semen touches the bare ground, it magically transforms into six pocket-sized men who share his exact likeness and need to be taken care of.
Napolitano grew up in Arkansas and attended Central High School, then Hendrix College. After graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a year of working as an adjunct professor, he returned to Little Rock. In addition to his luminous fiction, he is a drag performer and visual artist. With the sound of the World Cup whispering in the background, I sat down with him over margaritas and baleadas at El Sur to talk about the subjectivity of interpretation, his new novel and why a fantastical approach to storytelling is so appealing.
I’ve read four stories by you. Three are marked by an exploration of the fantastical and one — the piece featured in the Oxford American — is significantly more realistic. What draws you to writing outside the realm of real world possibility? How do you feel about strict realism?
In a very broad sense, part of my draw to the fantastic is that it’s fun. If writing fiction gives me the choice to do anything I want, why would I limit myself to what is quote-unquote realistic? I’ve also found that using speculative conceits allows you to explore ideas and problems in a way that you can’t with realism. You can make some things more literal through metaphor. [laughs] Also, even realism can have a sense or feeling of magic to it. Whether it’s through the point of view, or abstraction, or whether it’s through a structure that resembles a fairytale.
What you’re saying about point of view resonates with me. While your story in the Oxford American is more plausible, I was surprised by how the perspective moves. It’s a very close third-person narration style, but it roams from character to character every few paragraphs, which is uncommon.
I wrote that story for a workshop at Iowa with Ethan Canin, who leans towards a very particular kind of character-driven realism. He feels that a story should only have one point of view. He said that when you shift points of view, it takes the reader out and therefore ruptures our empathy. He used the royal “we” [laughs] and I was like, “Who are you talking for?” To me, narrators exist on a spectrum from character to storyteller, and that’s a story that leans towards the storyteller, which is an intelligence outside of a character’s brain. And you see that kind of narrator in fairy tales, speculative fiction, fantasy and sci-fi. I did think about what Ethan said, but ultimately I just wanted to convince the reader. If this could be perceived or experienced as a problem for them, how can I make it more apparently deliberate?
When you write fantastically, do you have a specific interpretation of the far-fetched elements in mind or are you more interested in just presenting readers with evocative materials that they can do whatever they want with?
I think it’s a little bit of both. You have to have an idea of what a speculative conceit is doing so you’re actually in control of the meaning to some degree. But it’s not a one-to-one metaphor, of course. There are always resonances outside of what you intended or were aware of while writing. For the McSweeney’s story, I was thinking about fatherhood, and father/son relationships, and daddy/boy relationships, and the body and sex, which to me are very much exemplified by the little men in the story. But when I read part of that story at the Argenta Reading Series in October, someone asked whether I’d been thinking about the overturning of Roe v. Wade. I’d written it far before that happened, so no, it’s not supposed to be about abortion and reproductive rights, but I could see why it’d make you think about that because it deals with reproduction through a strictly male lens.
Despite a leaning toward the supernatural, your work feels stylistically varied to me. Would you argue that there’s something that binds all of your writing together?
The project of my writing is trying to understand better the romantic and familial relationships queer people have, and the relationships they have with themselves and their own bodies. More broadly, I’m interested in desire and death and the various ways it haunts us in our lives, whether through grief or loss, or the threat of it, or the abstraction of it. I also think a lot about what it means to love someone and how loving someone affects your understanding of yourself. I think about what’s pleasurable about love but what’s difficult about it, too.
Does having grown up in Little Rock influence your writing? Would you ever write something that was overtly set in Arkansas?
I think place always inspires and influences you as a writer. My novel is based in Little Rock and if it’s ever published, anyone who lives here will be able to recognize it. Pinnacle Mountain is there. The Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts makes an appearance. My character goes to a high school that was famous for desegregation in the ’50s. The suburbish nature of West Little Rock is highly featured in the book, too. You could imagine any of my stories taking place in Arkansas. At least I did when I was writing them. That said, I’m not one to specifically name it because in fairytales there’s a vagueness of place. But it’s important to me, as the writer, to know where it’s supposed to be set.
Speaking of your novel, what can you tell us about it? How far along are you and when will you know you’re finished with it?
The novel is called “Every Wound Will Disappear.” It’s about a 16-year-old boy who, on the night of his first kiss, hits a fox with his car and discovers that he suddenly has the magical ability that anything he kills comes back to life. So he has to reckon with this new, mysterious power while also navigating his first romantic and sexual relationship with another boy as well as a shifting relationship with his twin sister. My agent, Rachel Kim, is currently sending it out to editors. Since it’s out on submission, I’m not touching it. I worked on it for two years on my own and then I worked with her pretty closely for another two years. I feel confident and proud of it as it is. I’m not working on it again until someone’s going to pay me to do it. [laughs] I’ve done as much as I can without the intervention of an editor.
The older I get, the more I struggle with the question of whether or not I find writing to be a pleasurable pursuit. Do you enjoy it?
I find the drafting process to be pleasurable. That’s what drew me to writing, even when I was a teenager. Creating something out of nothing. Revision is such a different process and I don’t think it’s very fun. At a certain point when you look at something for so long and you’re trying to figure out what’s working and not working, you see it more for the object that it is. These are just words on a page. It becomes impersonal. You don’t feel the immediacy of character emotions or what’s happening. It does sometimes become pleasurable again in the technical aspects, when you’ve figured out a problem. It’s a give and take. But writing is unlike other art forms, where you can move by feeling. If I’m working on a painting or a piece of pottery, I’m not thinking about what these colors and lines mean. It just looks or feels nice. With visual art, the intellectualizing comes after the making. With writing, every sentence has to mean something.
What’s the dream trajectory for your writing career?
Right now, I would like for my novel to be published. Period. [laughs] I don’t have super grand ambitions. I hope that I can write books and that people will want to publish them and that people will want to read them. I don’t think my work has a wide appeal and so I have no expectation of financial success or awards. I just hope that the people who need to read my work and who it’ll impact most or mean the most to will get the chance to read it. I definitely want to make a career out of it, but I’m modest or cautious. Having gone to Iowa, I have a lot of friends and classmates who have gotten big book deals or have been finalists for big awards like the Booker or the National Book Award, which is so exciting. And it would be cool to have that kind of success. But I don’t think that’s actually what’s most important. The work itself is the most important. I think that’s ultimately what matters to most writers.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.