RS: You've been reading a new autobiographical piece at Cafe Nine in New Haven once a month for over a year now. How have you been able to keep up that pace?
SF: I never wrote personal essays or narrative nonfiction until this New Haven writer Chris Arnott invited me to tell a story at his monthly storytelling event "Get to the Point" at Cafe Nine in October of 2013. I was trying to figure out what I should talk about and my brother asked if I wanted it to be like "The Moth" and I said absolutely yes. He said "Moth" stories are best when they are somewhat self-effacing. So I thought about all of the humiliations in my life that taught me something or were maybe just good stories. A history of my missteps. The list was pretty long, and I realized that each of these was a more involved story than I ever imagined, if I really covered the backstory and the aftermath and everything. And I found them to be very fun to write. I laughed to myself while writing for the first time in years. The first drafts of the first seven of these stories flowed out of me over the course of the first week, so I had a major head start.
You've been focusing on memoir and storytelling even recently though you also have worked as a screenwriter. Do you find that those two skill sets inform each other?
I probably ruined myself forever by spending so much writing time on screenwriting. I love the format, but it's all about giving the bare outline and using the fewest words possible. It's impressionistic. It's not a good training ground for writing prose, which is about thicker, richer description. But screenwriting did help me to become a better storyteller.
You often have a few good stories about the glory days of New York City. Please, tell us one here.
First of all, every generation comes to NYC and believes they got there too late. It's only later that one sees one's own time as the "glory days." So I came in having missed the Mudd Club and the Pyramid and King Tut's Wawa Hut and all that. I thought there would always be a Kim's Video and a CBGB. Now they're both gone. So of course my story concerns CBGB. I think this story takes place on December 26 of 1992. New York was cold and practically abandoned. I was walking by CBGB with my girlfriend and my friend who was visiting from Baltimore and we stopped to read a big sign that said "David Byrne and Friends -- SOLD OUT." Just then, this promoter guy comes out and tells us it's not really sold out; they just didn't want a mob. Now there's almost no one there. He'll let us in for five bucks each.
Minutes later, we were singing along to "Life During Wartime" inside the hallowed halls of CBGB as if we'd never missed late 1970's New York. 90% of Byrne's set was late '70's Talking Heads. It was this wonderful window on an earlier city. After his set, a band called Cakelike played strangely catchy singalong noise rock. We hung out with them after, and the singer/bassist Kerry said she was focusing most of her energies on her comedy troupe, called "The State."
What's your favorite holiday movie/song/food item?
My favorite holiday thing is a book. "A Child's Christmas in Wales." I love how Dylan Thomas was not afraid to risk the run-on sentence to let his thoughts be fully formed, and to get at the lyricism that was the natural quality of his writing voice. That really affected me: the challenge to try that, because I think I also gravitate toward the long sentence. But my song is "Fairytale of New York" by the Pogues. I was living in Dublin the summer IF I SHOULD FALL FROM GRACE WITH GOD came out. My girlfriend bought it in a Dublin shop. I had introduced her to the Pogues and it was something she felt we shared. She was excited to show me this new album, and I was a total dick about it for some reason. I said she could have just bought it in the States for cheaper. "But we're IN Ireland," she insisted.
The next day, she sat me down to hear what she had already correctly identified as a new Christmas classic. "You took my dreams from me, when I first found you," Kristy MacColl sings to Shane MacGowan. I loved the song instantly, and didn't even realize that this was the beginning of her breaking up with me, an event that would be drawn out over the next month and concluded on Independence Day outside her mom's house in Santa Barbara. After breaking up with me, she then took me to the local bowling alley in that strange land, where I spent my entire checking account paying for frames until I could beat her. She beat me every time. Then I got on a Greyhound bus and it drove all night up to Oakland, while I sat there wearing wayfarer shades to hide my tears. God, I love that song.