by Susan Tepper
Richard Fulco received an MFA in Playwriting from Brooklyn College. His plays have been either presented or developed at The New York International Fringe Festival, The Playwrights’ Center, The Flea, Here Arts Center, Chicago Dramatists and the Dramatists Guild. His stories, reviews and interviews have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Failbetter, Front Porch, Bound Off, The Rusty Toque, Full of Crow, Nth Position, the Daily Vault and American Songwriter. He is the founder of the online music magazine Riffraf. There Is No End to This Slope is his first novel. Learn more about Richard at the following: www.riffraf.net, www.wampus.com, and www.richardfulco.com.
Susan Tepper: You’ve titled your debut novel There Is No End To This Slope. It’s a compelling title that could be interpreted in many ways. Does it imply optimism or the other direction for you?
Richard Fulco: Well, the novel shifts back and forth between Staten Island and Park Slope. Hence, “slope.” While I was working on the novel, the image of John Lenza lugging a suitcase filled with textbooks up and down the slopes of Park Slope, Brooklyn was a powerful one. For the most part, I envision John going uphill, never quite reaching the top.
>The Myth of Sisyphus played an instrumental role in the development of the novel. Whereas Sisyphus eventually rolls the boulder up the hill, only to have it roll back down, I don’t think John ever makes it to the top of the precipice. He doesn’t allow himself the opportunity to embrace the journey. Perhaps he’s so fixated on the destination, but for him there is no destination either. One must have a task before venturing out. John doesn’t know what his task is.
Some might interpret the slope as John’s descent, but he’d have to arrive somewhere first before having a drop off and I don’t think he reaches the pinnacle of anything other than his own misery.
ST: Your protagonist, John Lenza, I see as a decent guy wearing two little females on his shoulders: the angel-female (Stephanie) and the devil-female (Emma). He is man in the middle of a conundrum when the book opens. It’s cool, and grabbed me right away. It forces the reader to take a side and become involved.
RF: Thank you, but it wasn’t my intention to coerce the reader into taking a side. John idealizes his long lost friend, Stephanie. After she died, he harbors guilt for more than twenty years. When he and Emma break-up, he even idealizes her. This is what John does. It’s his modus operandi.
John is an emotionally unstable individual who is unhappy with the present, so what does he do? He delves into the past where it’s dependable, unchanging and glorified. This is the way he operates. Stephanie’s death consoles him. Therefore, as a middle-aged man he writes letters to her. His finds solace in his divorce, so while he’s in Seattle, thinking about leaving Brooklyn behind, he writes poems about Emma.
ST: In a scene between the unhappily married John and Emma, he does a silly dance in his underwear and tries to convince her to have sex with him. Emma blows him off. Internally he is thinking: Even though I was approaching middle age, the need to be needed was as intense as ever.
I found this interesting in the sense that it seems to be the driving force behind John and the life choices he makes. I don’t sense this emotional quality in Emma at all.
RF: John is not unique in his desire to be loved and needed and adored and celebrated. All of us crave these things. We all want to be superheroes. The only problem with the desire to be a superhero is that most of us are just ordinary, average blobs of flesh (and I mean that in the kindest way possible).
Ordinary folks rarely do extraordinary things, and in John’s case he focuses on external things, things that are out of his control rather than stuff that he can get a handle on such as his job, writing and addiction problems.
John needs help. He’s not willing to ask for it. He’s not willing to accept it. But he is more than willing to live in this imaginary world that he’s built in his mind. Fantasy sustains him whereas reality disables him.
ST: Despite the protagonists ‘angst’ over his dead love, and his difficult wife, Emma, there is a lot of humor in this novel. To me, there’s a Woody Allen aspect to John, in that he’s a tad neurotic about, well, a lot of things. The scene in the doctor’s office when John is getting a rectal exam threw me into spasmodic laughter. Your delivery was so deadpan, which made the scene work so well.
RF: Thank you, Susan.
I hope that readers sympathize with John Lenza and laugh with him (or at him). He’s a fool. He’s Yorick not Prince Hamlet. He’s not even J. Alfred Prufrock or Woody Allen.
He is deeply neurotic, insecure and nebbish and I can see that he is Woody Allen-esque. However, I’m not sure that John shares Allen’s intellect. Woody Allen’s character, in say the earlier films – Annie Hall and Manhattan – might be somewhat sympathetic, but by his later films – Whatever Works and Midnight in Paris – you just want to string the guy up. He’s detestable, infantile and idealistic. The same could be said, I guess, about my protagonist. By the end of the novel, I suspect most readers will be fed up with John’s shenanigans.
ST: It’s interesting to hear an author take a strong stance ‘against’ a character who is, after all, their creation. I have always felt rather close to my most vile characters. Personally, I’m not remotely fed up with what you call ‘John’s shenanigans’.
Over the course of the winter I began reading James Baldwin’s Another Country. It’s filled with pretty vile characters, but they are ‘human in their frailties’ and I believe it is their weaknesses that draws the reader. I found the same with your characters, even the most annoying such as Emma. I think you write your characters from the empathy section of your brain and that’s what makes this book so good.
RF: The truth is, I’m not the most sympathetic person in the world, so in early drafts Emma Rue and Dawn Bello don’t come across as sympathetic characters.
As I continued to hone both characters, I found more compassion for both of them. I was careful not to demonize them or John (for that matter). Frailties, flaws and shortcomings are what makes us human. All three of them do vile things, but that’s the way life works. Good people do vile things. Good people either rectify those vile things, forgive themselves and others and move on. Or in John’s case, they struggle to move on.
I hope that Emma, Dawn and John’s weaknesses are what makes them captivating characters. In the drafting process, it was extremely gratifying to watch them develop.
ST: I’m glad you seemed to like them all by the book’s end. I feel it’s a good thing to like our characters, despite how they might strike the readers
Susan Tepper has authored 5 published books. The latest is a novel in stories called The Merrill Diaries, from Pure Slush Books. She is a named finalist in storySouth Million Writers Award for 2014, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction (2010), and nine times for the Pushcart Prize. Tepper is a staff editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles where she conducts the interview series UNCOV/rd. www.susantepper.com