Italian-American author Christopher Castellani has published five books over the past two decades, most famously his latest novel, Leading Men, which tells the story of Frank Merlo, the somewhat forgotten working-class Italian-American who was transformational in the life and work of famed American playwright and literary icon Tennessee Williams.
Originally published in 2019 by Viking Penguin, Leading Men is currently being adapted into a film by Luca Guadagnino, the director of Call Me By Your Name. The book is a compelling work of historical fiction, blending together the real and imagined lives of Merlo and Williams as they navigate the literary and film circles of 1950s Italy.
After meeting in 1948 at Atlantic House, a bar in Provincetown, Williams and Merlo’s relationship lasted 15 years until Merlo died of cancer in 1963.
Castellani will appear in Montreal for a July 13 (now rescheduled to August 9) event at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura Montreal (Italian Cultural Institute of Montreal) where he will be joined onstage by local author Christopher DiRaddo to discuss Leading Men, Merlo and Williams. The two will also discuss Castellani’s other work, as well as the generational tension that exists between immigrant and first-generation Italians and where it intersects with queer identity. I recently sat down with the award-winning Castellani for a candid Q&A.
Why were you compelled to write Leading Men?
I became rather obsessed with Frank Merlo as the partner of arguably the greatest American playwright of the 20th century. I came upon his story in a memoir, then I spent years reading about him and their relationship. I really wanted to explore what it was like for Merlo to play such an important role in the life of a great artist, and what kind of effect it had on him as a person. I also related to Merlo because he was a working-class Italian-American who grew up in a similar part of the United States as I did, who found himself in a world that his immigrant parents could never have imagined, just as I, as a child of immigrants, found myself in. I was also struck by the tragedy of his life, dying so young.
Also, I think people who are compelled to write novels about real people often do so out of a redemptive impulse to correct the historical record or try to redeem the person and give them the credit we feel they are due. So writing Leading Men for me was almost a personal mission like that.
Frank Merlo worked as an actor but was primarily Williams’ personal assistant.
I often don’t think that Italian-Americans are given the intellectual credit that many of us are due. I’m not saying I’m due that credit, but Frank was actually incredibly well read. He was essentially an opera scholar, incredibly smart, and yet he was often treated as simply Tennessee Williams’ secretary. While that was his official job, a lot of people thought he was no more than that. Many thought he was just a pretty face with a good body. I want him to be remembered as a queer man with a brain and dreams and ambitions of his own.
How transformational was Merlo in the life and work of Tennessee Williams?
He was essential to Williams being able to write all the great plays that he wrote after Glass Menagerie. So, you know, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, all those great plays of the 50s. He was a muse for the play The Rose Tattoo, but other than that, what Frank did was create space for Williams to create. He decluttered Williams’ life. He booked all the train tickets, kept track of Tennessee’s prescriptions, he played a traditionally wifely role. And I don’t think that role is given enough credit in artistic relationships.
Frank provided a stable emotional centre for Williams. Frank was someone he trusted, which was very rare for Williams because he tended to be a bit paranoid about the people in his life. There’s nothing more important to an artist than having trust, stability, security and emotional support because it allows you to be daring and experimental and take risks in your work.
Is it true that Leading Men took you nearly 20 years to complete?
I wrote three or four other books in the meantime while I was researching Leading Men and scribbling notes and writing scenes the whole time. I also sensed when I was barely into my thirties that I wasn’t ready to write it, that I didn’t fully understand their relationship dynamic yet. That certain kind of lived experience came later. Around 2016, when it came time to really focus on this book, I felt like I was at the right point in my life, where I understood their relationship better and understood Merlo better.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing about Williams and Merlo?
The biggest challenge was convincing myself that I had the permission to write it. That it wouldn’t somehow be a violation or disrespectful, that it wasn’t my right to tell the story. I realized at one point that I was writing out of a corrective or redemptive impulse, so my intentions were good, and I was doing it to honour Merlo.
What is the current status of the Leading Men movie adaptation?
Peter Spears – the Oscar-winning producer of Nomadland – and director Luca Guadagnino renewed their option for the third time a few months ago and are working on it.
What was your coming out like? What was it like for you growing up in an Italian-American family and coming of age in the 1980s?
It was incredibly difficult. It was scary. I went to an all-male Catholic high school, I was really steeped in Catholic traditions. And neither of my parents were able to read or write, so they weren’t really well educated in the contemporary culture and were somewhat isolated from contemporary culture. So I really felt like I had to hide who I really was from them. Because of all the prejudices and fears they had against gay people, such as AIDS in the 80s. I was convinced that if they ever found out that I was gay, they would reject me.
But they didn’t.
They struggled a lot. It took a good three to five years before they were able to really get more comfortable with me and with my partner. My father passed away the week Leading Men was published, and today my mother and my partner are best friends.
How did you meet your spouse Michael Boram?
We met at a party when I was in graduate school in 1997 and we we’ve been together since then. We got married in 2004, the first week that same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts.
Are you a gay writer or a writer who happens to be gay?
If you had asked me that 20 years ago, I would have said I’m a writer who happens to be gay. Now I think and say that I am a gay writer because I feel my gay identity – just like my Italian identity, and my male identity, and all the other identities that we wear – is part of my sensibility, no matter what I am writing about. I’m proud of all the various identities that I wear.
You divide your time between Boston and Provincetown where Frank and Tennessee met in 1948.
Provincetown is my happiest place on earth. It has always nurtured artists and writers and always been a refuge for people who are on the margins of culture. While the town has certainly changed dramatically over the years, it has retained that ethos. It really is paradise.
Christopher Castellani: Leading Men at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura Montreal (1200, Avenue. du Dr. Penfield) on August 9 at 7 pm. Free admission. The French translation of Leading Men is titled Les Diables Bleus. Books will available for purchase from Librairie Paragraphe Books.