5 questions with Joseph Cassara

5 Questions with Joseph Cassara

In Author Conversations by Sarah Sung

5 questions with Joseph Cassara

We love any opportunity to get to know our favorite authors better. So a lightning round of questions sounds like a good place to start. Here, we ask five quick questions (with one wildcard) about books, genres, reading preferences, writing style, and their secret to success. 

Pride month and every month, it’s always an honor for Joseph Casarra to spend a moment answering a few questions for us. No stranger to critical acclaim, his debut novel The House of the Impossible Beauties, about drag culture in New York City in the 1980s, won the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, two International Latino Book Awards, the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for Best Fiction Book, and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction. Needless to say it’s in our Ultimate Pride Month Reading List.

Here, Cassara shares everything from his biggest audiobook listening hack to blueberry scones and Michelle Obama. Yes, it’s well worth the read.

1. What are your all-time favorite books?

Joseph Cassara: I think my all-time favorites are also tied to some strong memory or experience that I had at the time I came across the book. For example, I remember listening to Calypso by David Sedaris while driving alone from Iowa to California, his voice and my laughter filling the car as I drove through long stretches of corn fields, mountain ranges, and deserts. I read Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin for the first time when I lived in Barcelona and was involved with a closeted Italian man. Me reading that book at that time was purely coincidence—one of those moments where life’s synchronicities come together in a way that gives us pause.

Another example: The Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson. I still remember the woman — I did not know her and still don’t — who insisted I take her copy. She was sitting next to me at the counter of a French cafe in the NoLiTa area of Manhattan. I was 18 or 19 and had a crush on a guy who worked behind the counter. He had this beautiful tattoo on his forearm. I think it was a peacock feather. This woman was visiting from San Francisco and was writing postcards to herself. She would drop them, she told me, in one of the blue mailboxes across the city each day so that when she arrived home, the story of her trip awaited her. Next to the stack of postcards was her copy of The Autobiography of Red. I asked her what book she was reading and she was shocked that I had never heard of it. We bonded and I told her about my crush. She looked at me, then turned to look at the man with the tattoo, and insisted that I take her copy of the book. Said it was perfect for me. And oh boy. If only I had known the heartbreak that awaited me. I’m writing an entire essay about that experience for an essay collection.

Sometimes the perfect book finds us at the moment we need it most. In a way, it can feel like divine intervention. The Autobiography of Red is the one book — along with Bluets by Maggie Nelson — that I find myself buying and gifting to people. They strike me as books that should be received, almost like a deck of tarot cards, which people say you should never buy for yourself.

2. What’s your favorite genre to read?

Joseph Cassara: I usually stick to literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, but I’ll read anything with a captivating voice. I know a lot of people who enjoy science fiction and fantasy elements, but I usually reserve that part of my brain for movies and TV series. In books, I prefer quiet domestic stories. I want to see complicated characters grappling with their humanity. I read because I want to learn something about the human experience and our present moment. 

3. Which do you prefer: ebook or audiobook?

Joseph Cassara: I prefer audiobooks because I can listen to them while I’m driving or working out. I usually set the playback speed to 2x, which horrifies some of my friends, but most audiobook narrators read too slowly for my taste. I know they need to enunciate, but when a story gets good and some dramatic stuff happens, I’m like, “Hurry up! Tell me what’s about to go down!” David Sedaris is the one exception. I listen to him at regular speed because his sense of comic timing is impeccable. 

4. What’s your writing routine or process? 

Joseph Cassara: I tend to sketch out ideas and plot lines by hand. When I overhear a great line of dialogue out in public, I jot it down to use later. Sometimes an entire scene can come out of one initial line of dialogue or phrase. This part of the process is incredibly tactile, which I love. I will use a Palamino pencil with soft lead on a lined Rhodia legal pad. The lead glides on that paper like butter; I love how it feels. I had never really thought about the tactile experience of writing until an artist friend of mine talked about how different pastels feel on various forms of paper. Before that, the process just felt like I was sitting down at the laptop, typing away, not thinking anything special about the movement of the hands and fingers in the writing process. There is something oddly hypnotic about the sound of fingers pressing into keyboard keys, especially if I’m writing at night with soft lighting and a scented candle on my desk. 

Then when I move on to drafting, I type while listening to wordless movie scores. Give me a beautiful cello or a crescendo of wind instruments and it stirs something in me. When I revise, I will print out a manuscript, mark notes with a blue pen, and then use that paratextual marginalia to guide me as I type up the next draft. At the end, I re-type the entire manuscript while reading it aloud, and I will make minor changes as I go.

5. How much of your writing success is due to hard work, talent, or luck?

Joseph Cassara: Some combination of all three. Hard work is the only one that we have control over. Talent and luck are fixed variables in the equation. I do think, though, that the harder we work at anything, the more chances we allow for luck to strike. 

Wildcard: If you could have coffee/tea with anyone alive or dead, who would it be and why?

Joseph Cassara: Michelle Obama. We would have coffee at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, overlooking the bay. She is wearing that pair of gold glitter Balenciaga thigh-high boots that she wore while on her book tour. I’m wearing a leather bomber jacket. In this fantasy, I also order a blueberry scone to pair with the coffee. It’s a whole mood. 


About the Author: Sarah Sung

Sarah is the Editorial Director at Scribd who obsesses over content strategy and brand building, and has written lifestyle content for AFAR, San Francisco Chronicle, and Under Armour. In her spare time she teaches indoor cycling and consumes podcasts, audiobooks, and ebooks at all times of the day and night. Traveling and dining out are always high on her to-do list