Excerpts from an Interview conducted by Dominick Miserandino, The Celebrity Café, August 2000, on BANJO GREASE

Some books are a bit fictional, some are a bit autobiographical. When Dennis writes it might come across as fiction, but with a little prying we learn it’s more true to life then we thought.

DOM — The book says that the stories are fictional, however some aspects seem to parallel your own life. What is real and what is fiction in the book?

DENNIS — In “Poetry Is A Kind Of Lying,” a poem by Jack Gilbert, the last stanza reads: “Degas said he didn’t paint/ what he saw, but what/ would enable them to see/ the thing he had.“Writing is a process of discovery for me and I hope for my reader. I explore certain events I’ve experienced in an effort to cause them to reveal what I wasn’t able to understand or articulate when they unfolded. Truman Capote believed an experience must gestate in the writer’s consciousness at least twenty years before he or she can sufficiently capture its truth. I agree. Yet, when close family members read the stories in BANJO GREASE, a not unusual response is ’That’s not the way I remember what happened!’ Camus’ The Stranger speaks to the subject ’What is real? What is fiction?’ convincingly, I believe. Suffice it to say that I do write close to my autobiographical bon

To your question “What is real and what is fiction in the book?’ I initially wanted to answer “Yes,” because often I’m unable to distinguish between t
he two. Most writers of literary fiction, I believe, would agree.
Scene Study
Artist: John Hawkins

DOM — It sounds as if recalling the past, for you as with most people can be a bit sad. Do you feel that this is part of the reason that you labeled the book as fiction, to create some healthy distance?

DENNIS — Vladimir Nabokov wrote: “We think not in words but in the shadow of words.” I couldn’t have called this collection anything other than fictional. But, as you suggest, the label does afford the author a serious “out” if called to task for gritty realism.

DOM — Having also written a few plays that have been performed off-Broadway, do you think any
of these stories might turn into a play?

DENNIS — My last produced play, “Nightmoths,” was performed at the Westbeth Theatre in Greenwich Village, New York, 1974. A growing family and financial matters caused me to cease playwriting and seek more substantial employment. I didn’t write for nearly two decades until the opportunity again presented itself in the mid-nineties. But then I had no access to either a theatre or actors like were available to me in NYC, so I turned to the short story.

DOM — If the finances allow it, would you consider focusing on playwriting?

DENNIS — I’d welcome the opportunity to be involved in the theatre again, but not to the detriment of writing fiction. Stories are created and read in solitude, whereas theatre is a public experience both for the playwright and the audience. The crafts are very different instruments and each, I believe, fulfills a creative need that the other is unable to meet. Buddy Hart in my story “Say Hello To Stanley” is hooked on the funky sound of a Hammond B3 but turns to the piano to round out his life.

DOM — What was the process in writing this book? Did you just decide to put the short stories together after having written them, or did you have the sequence of short stories in mind the whole time?

DENNIS — The BANJO GREASE collection was written over a two-year span, 1996-98. Perhaps because I hadn’t written for so long, the tales were waiting to be released. All I recall is that they came forward in a flurry . . . as if they were backed up on the tracks. It was my urge to explore the rite of initiation that causes them to be interlocking and, I hope, have a cumulative force.

DOM — What do you mean by, “It was my urge to explore the rite of initiation that causes them to be interlocking and, I hope, have a cumulative force.”

DENNIS— Coming of age is often referred to as if it occurs at a singular event, frequently around sex, in a young person’s life. In actuality the rites of initiation take place in one’s life not unlike a ship moving through the locks of a canal to higher water. The primary difference being each event must be satisfied by a ration of innocence. Take the story “The Pruner” where the boy narrator watches his inebriated grandfather climb about in an ancient apple tree in their backyard while pruning it with a dull handsaw. ’It will give a better harvest,’ he insists. The boy marvels at the elderly man’s dexterity and how the tree no longer looked ’arthritic.’ When his father returns home from work that night he explodes: “Is he coming back tomorrow to trim the f...ing doors?” And the following spring when the tree remains fallow and has to be cut down, a piece of the boy dies, too.

Most of the stories in BANJO GREASE focus on the various locks of initiation from childhood to early adulthood which its narrators experience. They chronicle in an often serio-comic manner how one exchanges naivete for worldliness and suggests what price has been paid in the process.

DOM — What did you learn about yourself from writing the book?

DENNIS— I’m still working on this; however, looking back upon the work, it’s a kind of mirror in which I see myself and that of the reader over my right shoulder. The tales in BANJO GREASE would be nothing more than amusing, sometimes painful, anecdotes about life and death exchanged over a tavern table outside a factory’s entrance in small town America. No worker having a few beers or a boiler maker following a workday with his or her friends would call the stories ’provocative.’ Yet, this label is often used in characterizing the book. I’ve become more sensitized to the influence of class and circumstance on the manner in which we view experience in this culture, and how starkly dissimilar our readings often are.

Audio from National Public Radio: Banjo Grease
Interviewed by John Aielli, Eklectikos, January 2001
KUT-FM, Austin, TX.

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