Philip Cioffari is the author of the short stories collection, A HISTORY OF THINGS LOST OR BROKEN, as well as the novel CATHOLIC BOYS. He is the winner of the Tartt Fiction Prize, the D,H. Lawrence Prize, and the New Voices award. Cioffari grew up in the Bronx and received his B.A. from St. John’s University and his Ph.D. in English from New York University. He is also a well-known playwright and filmmaker, along with teaching in the writing program at William Paterson University. Cioffari will be attending Killer Nashville 2010, and shares what he enjoys about the conference, as well as what he looks for in a good story and who most influences his writing.
PC: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Cioffari: I wanted to be a writer since I was eight or nine. I would write three kinds of stories back then: westerns, mysteries, and baseball stories. So I guess I wanted to be those things, too. A cowboy, a detective, and a third baseman.
PC: You are an accomplished novelist, film maker and playwright. Do you define yourself as being more of one than the other?
Cioffari: I consider myself primarily a novelist now, though if an opportunity to make another film presented itself I would gladly take it. I think working in one genre helps you when working in another. You become a better writer, overall.
PC: What do you think makes a good story? (What elements must be there – in order to draw you inside the pages?)
Cioffari : For me, I’m as much interested in the way something is written as I am in the subject matter. I like writers who care about words, their sounds, the pictures they evoke, the way they combine to make visual, indelible images in the reader’s mind. I’m big on atmosphere and mood. I like to be drawn so completely into the world of the novel, or story, that the “real” world disappears for a while. And I’ve come to expect a sense of urgency in the plot. I like characters who think deeply and have insights into human nature, and who have some sense of moral purpose, of helping others.
PC: Are your characters real to you?
Cioffari: Very much so. Not so much, perhaps, as external beings but as something inside me that I can feel on some instinctual level. They’re real to me because of what they think and feel.
PC: What do you look for in a great mystery/thriller/suspense novel?
Cioffari: All of the things I mentioned above. A good story is a good story. I make no distinction between mystery or sci-fi or literary. I want to be brought into a world that holds me tight in its grip.
PC: What do you see as the influences on your writing?
Cioffari: I’ve always considered Graham Greene and Tennessee Williams and Faulkner as my biggest individual influences, but I would have to include a lot of other Southern fiction writers, such as Carson McCullers and the early Truman Capote and William Styron, as well. Filmmakers that have influenced my fiction would include Elia Kazan, Fellini, Antonioni, Bob Rafaelson, Da Sica, Visconti.
PC: How do you develop your plots and characters? Do you use any set formula? (Are you a punster or a plotter?)
Cioffari: My plots evolve from my characters. What they want and need drives my stories, so there’s no set formula. I try to feel what they’re feeling and have them act accordingly and, lo and behold, a plot emerges.
PC: You’ve won a number of awards and prestigious accolades. What dreams have been realized as a result of your writing?
Cioffari: I’ve always wanted to live as a writer, and react to life as a writer. Which means I want to be open to learning as much as I can about everything, I want to see as many places as I can get to, I want to always be open to understanding human motivation, I want to indulge an insatiable curiosity. So, to the extent I’ve been able to do those things, my most important literary dreams have been realized. My only dream now is that I can keep doing that till I die.
PC: Where do you hope to take your writing in the future?
Cioffari: A hard question to answer. As you can probably tell, I’m pretty much an instinctual person. I follow what seems intriguing to me and see where it takes me. I never know where I’ll end up.
PC: What advice would you share for aspiring writers? What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?
Cioffari: Keep writing, keep reading, keep open to the people and the world around you. The basic tools, in addition to the above, are developing sensitivity to language, and finding ways to keep generating ideas. All of which, I think, is fairly obvious.
PC: What cautionary advice do you have for writers? (Any definite don’ts of the business.)
Cioffari: I think everyone has to make his/her own mistakes. Making mistakes is part of the learning process. It’s what life is about.
PC: What are you reading now?
Cioffari: I just finished re-reading “Rebecca” by Daphne Du Maurier. This summer I’ve re-read Newton Thornburg’s work, and Kem Nunn’s. I’m starting to re-read Maughm and Evelyn Waugh.
PC: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in any of your books or stories?
Cioffari: Not so far. When they’re finished, I let them be.
PC: You’re attending Killer Nashville this year, what do you believe sets it apart from other conferences?
Cioffari: It’s friendly, well-run and well-organized. It has a great energy. It’s a completely comfortable way to meet other writers and listen to their ideas. I always come back from it with a renewed enthusiasm for writing
PC: What aspect of the conference are you most looking forward to attending?
Cioffari: I must say I look forward to all parts of the conference. I’m a big fan.
Visit Philip Cioffari at: http://philipcioffari.com/