By Jeremy Bronaugh of Hypertrophic Press
If you’ve never read a Christopher D. DiCicco story, we’ll forgive you. We hadn’t either a year ago when we were looking for content for the second issue of our start-up literary magazine, Hypertrophic. That’s when Lynsey, the better half of Hypertrophic, read “My Son,” on Flash Fiction Online.
“My Son,” if you can sum up any of DiCicco’s stories, is about being haunted by your dead son’s hamster. His writing was confident and emotional – just what we were looking for. And it’s weird as shit, which made us love it even more.
We emailed Chris and asked him to contribute a story and he responded with a full manuscript. What he sent us – 55 stories, all weird, all amazing, all something we couldn’t put down – was his collection, So My Mother, She Lives in the Clouds. We read four stories – only four – and we were ready to sign a contract. You know what they say: when you know you know, and we knew that was a book we had to publish.
To say we feel lucky to have had the opportunity to publish someone like Chris is an understatement. We consistently ask ourselves (and him) what the hell he was thinking.
“I’m a small, indie writer, so it made sense for me to hook up with a press that reflected my aesthetic and beliefs,” he says. “I grew up in the DIY movement where my friends cranked out zines and tediously recorded music with a focus on the sound, not publicity or marketing. I guess I still want that. There’s so much writing and [so many] magazines and people who bore me, who do the same old safe stuff, and I can’t get behind that. It’s not me. I believe in the independent way, that there is a style and quality to owning a project, and that, in the end, something small can be the most immense and substantial piece of your life.”
And he’s absolutely right because So My Mother was definitely a substantial piece of our lives. Agreeing on a cover design took forever, so many mock-ups shot down before they even saw the light of day. We also made the mistake of thinking edits would be easy since the majority of stories in the collection had already been published – and therefore edited – by other lit mags. Oh, were we ever wrong.
“What’s it like to have to let go of a piece? To send it off and not be able to edit it anymore?” we ask him.
“Terrible. How could you do this to me?” he jokes. But we know he’s really serious.
“It’s just a really difficult aspect of writing for me,” he says, “to let go of a piece of work and say it’s where I want it to be. If you gave me any one of my stories right now, ten years from now, I could make it better. I’m never finished. So letting go, it’s hard, but I know it’s not really done – not until I die.”
Chris changed wording, altered characters, and substituted whole stories right up until the very last possible second. The best edit came in the form of a text in the middle of a family dinner when, while reading through the proof copy, Chris asked Lynsey why she’d added the word “tits” to “What I Learned Beneath Your Shirt.” She nearly choked.
She responded “What are you talking about?!” with more punctuation marks than I care to include here.
After an agonizing pause in the conversation, Chris wrote back. “Oh, never mind. I sent you guys an old version of the story. Can we sub in the newer version?”
One perk of having a small press is that you get to work with authors so much more than you’d be able to at a larger house, and that’s exactly what we did. We wanted to know every single thing Chris hated, and we wanted to make sure he was as happy with the final product as we were. No time was off limits, no level of involvement too big. And after hand-cutting images for the cover and a final three-hour-long phone conversation about last-minute edits, we were all happy. Exhausted, but happy.
Ten months after our initial emails and we’re on a 14-hour road trip from Hypertrophic’s office in Huntsville, Alabama, to DiCicco’s house in Yardley, Pennsylvania. Chris is on the phone asking Lynsey for the 10th time what stories he should read at the launch party. His voice crackles over the car speakers. “I’m so excited to meet you guys!” And we’re excited too.
When we finally arrive, we have just enough time to shower at our hotel before we’re back in the car and headed to Chris’ house. He’s waiting for us at his back gate, and the first thing you notice about him is that he’s warm, welcoming. He’s the kind of guy who breaks the writer stereotype. Or maybe we’re just biased. But we were familiar the minute we met. Old friends.
Chris introduces us to his kids and his dog Pony Bear, gives us a tour of his house, the attic where he writes. The house is all wood and secret rooms. He tells us about the neighborhood, steeped in culture, as he navigates the impossibly narrow staircases at record speed while we take each step like arthritic seniors. His house, we find out, is older than Lynsey’s home country. It’s so colorful, so unique, and so suited to exactly who we imagined Chris to be.
“They did a study,” he says as we walk through his neighborhood in search of pizza, “and Philadelphia says ‘actually’ more than any other place in America. As in, ‘Oh, you actually came?’ We’re surprised when anyone actually shows up.”
We pull out some cash, but he buys the pizza; we’re used to him winning arguments by this point. When we get back he breaks out the Champagne while his children wrestle with Pony Bear, who loses the fight despite being at least three times their size. We cheers to So My Mother, She Lives in the Clouds, Chris’ first published collection and the thing that brought us all together. Then Chris pulls out the whiskey and the rest of the night is hard to recall.
When we pull up to Arcadia University the next day, we’re blown away. The launch party is in Grey Towers Castle, a place so magnificent you immediately feel underdressed. We take pictures like the tourists we are and, seeing our mouths agape, Chris tells us that there are dorm rooms in there too, that some students actually get to live in that castle.
“By the way,” he says, “I fell down the stairs in the middle of the night.” His wife laughs and shakes her head as he says, “I guess I had too much whiskey.”
The launch is perfect. Chris reads three stories to a packed room, his adoring wife Anna watching from the front row with the biggest smile on her face. The applause is deafening. We sell out of books, and the line to have them signed curves around the edges of the room. Everyone is tipsy off boxed wine and the guys from Chris’ writers’ group, Matthew L. Kabik, Daniel DiFranco, and Zachary Woodard, all crowd around a piano in the next room singing “Space Oddity” and it’s the perfect send-off.
Afterward, Chris invites us to a local bar with his wife and the guys. We order beer and bourbon and Coke as we talk about the book, about the way Chris breaks up his lines and plays with form.
“It’s just damn fun to play with words and phrasing until it sounds – no, feels – like you want it, like it should,” he says. “It’s like finding the right stone to build the wall. Wait, have you ever built a stone wall? Honestly, you’ve got to do things like that.”
“I can’t say I’ve built a stone wall,” Lynsey replies, “but I have built a very poor representation of an igloo when I was like 7 and still living in Canada. Does that count?”
He laughs. “Of course it does! You need to live human experiences to write. It’s one of the requirements. And it doesn’t hurt to live interesting ones. You don’t have to suffer…but hell, that doesn’t hurt either. Wait, weren’t we talking about form?”
Speaking of suffering, that brings us into a conversation about the cutting room floor and which stories he stills regrets allowing us to leave out.
He doesn’t even hesitate. “‘Falling Indians’ hands down,” a story inspired by a dream he had one night. “And maybe the ending of ‘I Think I’m Going to Make It.’ People don’t even know – THEY DON’T EVEN KNOW about it. But seriously, you broke my heart a little with ‘Falling Indians.’”
Laughing about his obsessive and never-ending editing process, we ask if there are any stories in the collection he wishes he could still make changes to.
“Yes. ‘The Worst Thing About Hell is You Have to Climb Down to It’ and ‘A New Religion for Fatherless Sons.’ Those two stories drive me crazy. I’ve stripped them down and built them back up a few times now, but I’d like to do it one more time. I think there’s something else I could do – not necessarily should do, but could do to make them even better. Is that terrible? Oh man, I could revise my stories for the rest of my life. You know this! These are unfair discussion topics. You’re making me second guess everything. You should be ashamed of yourselves.”
Lynsey’s eyes open wide and I see her half-Italian side come out. “Both of those stories are in my top five EASILY! What’s wrong with you?!?!”
“There’s nothing wrong with me! It’s just those pieces were close to being something better. They’ve got cool ideas behind them, and cool ideas deserve the best – which is why I’m having Neil Gaiman, Amy Hempel, and Richard Brautigan team up and write them again for me. Possibly Hemingway.”
On the drive back to our hotel we follow behind Chris. At the point where we split and go our separate ways, we pull off on the side of the highway to say goodbye and return the EZ Pass he lent us. We all hug and thank each other and promise to visit again, and the moment is so bittersweet.
Ultimately, there couldn’t have been a better person to work with for the past year. Chris is the kind of guy who offers to let total strangers (his publishers, yes, but still total strangers) stay in his guest house, who invites us over for pizza and Champagne with his family. Who hangs the framed image we gave him, the original cut and glued craft we photographed for the book’s cover, the minute he receives it. He’s the nicest, most sarcastic person ever, and one of the best writers we’ve ever known.
So if you still haven’t read a Christopher D. DiCicco story, we’ve decided we can’t forgive you. Go do it. Here’s his story “Pieces of My Junkyard Father” in Issue 12 of SR.