Don De Grazia knows his readers.
By Zak Mucha
On a spring morning in 1995, though Don De Grazia didn't exactly feel like it, he was told to take the manuscript of his novel, American Skin, to the annual booksellers convention at McCormick Place.
"Go make something happen." The directive came from his writing teacher, John Schultz, who thought De Grazia might be able to collar an editor to read his novel.
"It was actually the morning after this big thing," De Grazia groans, recalling a drunken fight in a Lincoln Avenue bar that had left him in poor shape to be meeting publishers. "I thought there was a warrant out for my arrest. I had a black eye. I was more hungover than I had ever been in my life. I was sore from the fight. And Schultz calls..."
De Grazia's girlfriend, Virginia Johnson, now a TV journalist in Lafayette, Indiana, was willing to go along with a makeshift plan. "She wrote up a bogus press release with glowing reviews of the book saying 'The long-awaited novel is finally finished.'" De Grazia laughs. "And for a while we went around to the different booths and people were like, 'Get out of my fucking face.' They didn't actually say that, but they might as well have. At one place the people literally turned their backs on us. I realized I wasn't making the best presentation." So Johnson approached a few booths on her own, taking along some chapters already published in Hair Trigger, the magazine of the fiction writing department at Columbia College. Eventually she called De Grazia over to the booth for Grove Press, where an editor had expressed interest in looking at the novel. Johnson, acting as De Grazia's agent, later delivered the manuscript to the editor's hotel. When she learned the editor hadn't returned from his previous night out, she convinced a hotel employee to set the manuscript square on the editor's bed.
The next year brought encouraging phone calls from Grove. Then a new editor assigned to De Grazia's manuscript called every once in a while just to tell him that he hadn't been forgotten. "It was a miserable time," De Grazia says. Nearly a year passed before he found out that his editor had left Grove and his novel had been dropped. No one had bothered to tell him.
De Grazia resumed sending out copies of his manuscript, sometimes several at once. Even though it bothered him a bit to describe his novel as a "skinhead book," he understood it was the quickest way to catch the attention of an editor or agent. The work is about skinheads in the same way that Oliver Twist is about pickpockets.
American Skin is a coming-of-age story rooted to the corner of Belmont and Sheffield. Alex Verdi, the narrator, is a young man searching for a home and anything resembling a family. He is taken in by skinheads after a fight on the el. Differences between nonracist skinheads, neo-Nazi skins, and the outside world are blurred as Verdi moves from nightclubs to the army to the Northwestern campus to Stateville. When he commits a murder that has nothing to do with skinheads, Verdi is forced, as a matter of survival, to become part of a group he never wanted to join.
With its Holden Caulfield-like narrator, American Skin illustrates the dangers of tribalism while showing its allure: "At first it seemed unexplainable, and then I remembered the boots and the bomber and my fresh-shaved skull. That's why those Vietnamese had left so readily too. I was intimidating. Not as Alex Verdi, but as some anonymous Gorgon skin. I immediately inherited the collective scummy ass-kicking reputation the minute I'd donned that costume. Eventually the unearned nature of this rep would come to secretly bother me in an almost pathological way, but at that particular moment, and for some time afterwards, I must admit, I had no complaints."
De Grazia was born in Chicago in 1968. A few years later his family moved near the Wisconsin border. He returned to the city when he was 17 and earned a GED before serving a stint in the army at Fort Benning, Georgia. Over the years he kept a journal and wanted to do something with the stories that accumulated. Upon his discharge, he heard about the fiction writing program at Columbia College, though he was "dubious" about learning to write in a classroom. "But they were into whatever you had to offer," De Grazia says. He paid his way through school by taking jobs in factories and working as a bouncer at Metro. After graduating with a bachelor's degree, he began teaching writing classes while completing his MFA.
For a time his audience consisted of one person, John Schultz, the former head of the department. Schultz's input was invaluable from the very beginning, when American Skin was just a handful of short stories, a few character sketches, and bits of plotted scenes. "He was basically my editor," says De Grazia. "Without him, I don't know what kind of shape the book would have been in." After a couple years, it began to come together. Schultz was the first person to tell De Grazia that his novel was publishable.
De Grazia says he now understands why his initial readers told him to tone down the violence and the racist attitudes of some characters. He knew the subject was ugly when he started, but it was a story he wanted to tell. "I had, I guess, this naive feeling that if I wrote this, not to sound corny, but wrote this from my heart, that someone would pick it up," he says. "For a while I was thinking that maybe I should have made changes. I mean, these people were right." Some of them were looking at the book from a marketing standpoint; others just couldn't understand what he was trying to say. After sitting on the book for a year, a small publishing house replied that it had trouble selling "working-class material." An editor at a different publisher wanted to know why the main character would join the skinheads rather than attend junior college and learn about computers. Yet another editor, after reading a quote from a minor character, felt compelled to remind De Grazia that "Mexicans don't actually work for a quarter an hour."
"People couldn't hide the looks on their faces," De Grazia says. "Regarding these people as human beings worthy of a book seemed kind of odious to them."
He briefly spoke to a movie producer from Los Angeles who had read the manuscript. "I don't know if he was a wacko or what," De Grazia says. "His voice was kind of shaking. He was obviously upset. He kept talking about how violent the book was. Certainly there's some violent things in there, but I've read some books that are just nonstop violence. What it got down to was, he said he was bothered by the subject matter, the dealings with racists. He said it was passe."
While De Grazia was looking for a new publisher, one of his teachers, Andrew Allegretti, gave him an article from the New York Times Magazine. "The Beats of Edinburgh" was a profile of Scottish writers like Duncan McLean, Irvine Welsh, Gordon Legge, and Kevin Williamson, publisher of Rebel Ink, the literary journal that had given most of them their start. "All are young and fiercely working class," the article said. "They write about people on the margins of society: the young, the poor, the dispossessed, junkies." Several of them had also been picked up by one of Britain's most prestigious publishing houses, Jonathan Cape.
In his desperation, De Grazia began to look to London. "At one point my plan was to fill suitcases with copies of the book, get some sort of courier's deal, and just hand deliver the book to every publisher over there. It would take me a day. I wouldn't have to stay in a hotel." Instead, he decided to send a copy of American Skin to Jonathan Cape from a Mail Boxes Etc. "It cost 75 bucks. I walked out of there basically thinking I was going to continue making a fool of myself for the rest of my life. Then I tried to forget about it. Literally. I just didn't give it any hope."
Soon after that, in the summer of 1996, De Grazia found a literary agent in New York. Louise Quayle of the Ellen Levine Agency had some suggestions for the book. Changes were made and sent back and forth, and eventually Quayle said she was ready to start sending out the new manuscript. De Grazia was prepared to begin the long waiting process again when he heard from Sophie Martin, an editor at Jonathan Cape.
"I got a phone call at seven in the morning." He imitates the British accent on the line: "'Hello? Is Don Gennaro De Grazia there?' I was completely freaked-out. She was really complimenting the book. At every pause in the conversation she would giggle. I think she was kind of excited, I don't know. But at the time I considered the possibility that someone was doing a fake accent and calling to make fun of me. Nobody I know would really do that. I don't know--it was early. I was still waking up." Martin told him she was certain the book had already been sold, but she was calling just in case. De Grazia casually informed her that no one had purchased the manuscript yet. The next day an offer was faxed to De Grazia, who then faxed it to Quayle.
American Skin is scheduled to be on the shelves in England on January 15. Quayle wants to try to sell the U.S. rights once the actual book is produced. So far, she's already sold a movie option. But what matters most to De Grazia is that the book will be published, even though he may have to wait to see it in Chicago bookstores.
"This criteria for what is considered art in writing" is a bone of contention for De Grazia. "I think you have a publishing world made up largely of upper-middle-class to upper-class east coasters who have an upper-middle- or upper-class view of things, and as a result there's a sort of sameness of opinion as to what's interesting, what's good literature. I think that's one of the things that's killing literary fiction. It doesn't speak to other people outside of that loop.
"Unfortunately, in a lot of what's out there now, story is subordinate to other things. One thing I've been noticing lately is this almost embarrassingly overwritten, flowery stuff. Just these attempts to show you how clever and artistic they can be, and that's the stuff that's getting lauded. All these real self-congratulatory voices, this constant sense that 'I'm swooning as I write this and I'm sure you're swooning as you read it.' And it's a description of the weather. There is a certain readership that buys into that because they have the sense, 'Hey, I'm experiencing something really profound here.' It's kind of a mutual conspiracy." De Grazia complains that the craft of telling a story is being lost to literary bells and whistles. "Story is what's important, that's what will last."
To De Grazia, it's obvious that if people aren't reading fiction, it's because the stuff that's getting pushed doesn't interest them. He points again to the "Beats of Edinburgh" article and a quote from Alan Taylor, a Booker Prize judge, who marveled that these Scottish writers are appealing "to a readership that is not a literary readership. The most that most of these people had read before was football programs, and suddenly now they're reading books." De Grazia says, "That guy was making an astute observation and being an asshole at the same time."
If De Grazia wants to broaden the audience for literary fiction, he's now in a position to do something about it. His mentor, John Schultz, is the publisher of F Magazine, a literary journal started in 1967, and Schultz has just appointed De Grazia as its new editor. The next issue, now slated for spring, will include short stories and novel excerpts from Andrew Vachss, the Mekons, Maggie Estep, and Shawn Shiflett, as well as excerpts from a roundtable discussion with Schultz, Ana Castillo, Jane Hamilton, and National Book Award winner Charles Johnson. De Grazia also plans to include work by a few unknown local writers.
One type of story he doesn't expect to publish is that of the tenured English professor suffering a midlife crisis. "Not to say that I wouldn't publish a story on that subject," he says, "but I don't need to read another. That's almost a genre by itself.
"The most important thing in writing is a sense of audience," says De Grazia. "You could work years and years on a novel and never get any input. F Magazine's main purpose is to give novelists an opportunity to get published and reach an audience."
De Grazia says he'd like to erase the common misconception that literary fiction is different than popular fiction. He sees no reason why literature can't speak to, and even entertain, a larger audience. From the first cave paintings, he says, art has been about communication. The work is unfinished without an audience, and it will never be complete if the writer is never given, or never takes, a shot.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo of De Grazia.