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Web Exclusive Interview: Daniel LoPilato

Daniel LoPilato What with baseball season now in full swing, May’s Web Exclusive Fiction is incredibly timely—and yet timeless. In “Your Father,” [1] a dad and son try to connect through a televised baseball game. At its heart is a dilemma that has always played itself out and will continue to do so for as long as we have to contend with our parents’ identities and our own, regardless of the technology involved. We talked with author Daniel LoPilato about the parent-child struggle, identity, and irony. Basically, America.

EM: I love how you handled the many layers of distance and connection—the son gamely trying to connect with his dad through the TV; his dad fundamentally unable to see his son, but demanding his son affirm he is being seen on the TV. It’s a terrific device. How did this come to you?

DL: I went to a lot of baseball games at Turner Field in Atlanta with my dad when I was growing up. Spectator sports were always a father-son affair for me, and I had a particular obsession with the Jumbotron, especially the idea of getting the attention of the Jumbotron camera. It was like the all-seeing God of the baseball game. I used to look at the screen at Turner and try to figure out which camera was live, and how best to get its attention.

The funny thing about those screens is, usually, the people on them have no idea they’re being broadcast until the feed is about to cut away. So you really end up with a portrait of ignorance punctuated by the last-second realization, on the subject’s behalf, that they’ve appeared in front of thousands and thousands of people. That was always my favorite part. The embarrassment mingled with delight.

I never actually got to be on the Jumbotron but I remember thinking that if I did get on it, I’d be prepared. Something about that disconnect was very potent to me. Wanting to be seen but never being seen, or vice versa, being seen without knowing it or even desiring to be seen. I think that feeling accounts for some of the father’s calculating tone. He’s quite determined to be seen and knows he’ll be seen and takes it so seriously.

EM: Wait til he discovers selfies.

DL: Selfies are about power! That’s why you see people (and I won’t pretend I’ve never taken one) grooming themselves for their own selfies. Something about our powerlessness in the face of the Jumbotron’s omniscience is really what drew me into it. The camera is in someone else’s hands.

EM: The dad says he’s going to actually sing the National Anthem, for a change, not just “stand up and mouth the words.” Why on this day, do you think?

DL: For one, he knows he’s being watched. It’s kind of like every other time he ever attempted the National Anthem, it was a dress rehearsal for this moment. And two, because it’s his best shot at showing his son that he is an engaged father. So much of his interaction with the narrator is his displacement of the fatherly onto the spectacle. It becomes a communal moment that’s destined to break down. But when it does connect, for that first instant, it becomes the emotional center of the story: it’s the only time the narrator and his father are really in harmony with one another, even though it’s taking place in this strange kind of ritualistic realm.

EM: It would seem tempting to write the son as having one of these “and that’s when I decided I’d never be like him” moments, but you do the opposite. He’s pretty sure he’s “destined for this same cycle of mediocrity.” Is that true of most sons of this age, even the ones that later exceed their fathers? 

DL: I wouldn’t necessarily say this is true of most young men of that age, but I do think it’s important, as people, that we resist the patterning that seems constantly to want to shape our lives. It’s an interesting question because it breaks so easily into notions of tribalism and, frankly, other less savory, much more Freudian analyses about the individual and the parent. But I don’t think there’s any way to avoid eventually discovering the flaws of your parents embedded in yourself, at least in some crystallized form, which is his fear and realization here. For this character, irony is a way to distance himself from actual alienation that he’s experiencing. In a way, he’s refusing the responsibility of compassion, or family, just as the father does, and even though he wants to feel above that, I think he feels very much a part of it. (On the topic of irony: I agree with Wallace, though I’m still good and seduced by it.)

EM: Wallace does say “Irony’s useful for debunking illusions” and so it’s used to good effect here. But the stepfather casually whistling the National Anthem while washing his car, it’s such an inverse to the father’s ostentatious neediness. This is a great example of how to debunk an illusion in a totally non-ironic, non-cynical way.

DL: If all of the effect of a story comes from irony, I think the reader becomes bored. It’s fine for the sake of a joke or a point of view, but narrative demands vulnerability and honesty when a character really needs to experience something. It can be hard to pull off, especially because we’ve become so immune to the effects of irony, but it’s important for the writer to dig into those moments of sadness or fear or confusion without masking them. Otherwise, the story ends up feeling guarded.

EM:  In addition to the estrangement between father and son, there’s an estrangement between the kid and America—where the country loves its sportsmen, he gets bullied by them; his dad chastises him for not knowing where the pitcher’s mound is. Is America our collective shitty dad?

DL: This question to me is really about where mass culture and national identity cross paths. You hear that thing all the time, about baseball being the national pastime. But this character is at odds with the image of how he’s supposed to be and what he’s supposed to be interested in. When you think about it, how can we possibly conflate the whole American identity with a single sport or activity, or with any one thing, really? It’s a ludicrous proposal. Our willingness to go along with it is maybe a sign of laziness, or maybe it’s a natural human thing to do, but, in any case, it’s part of the reason why the idea of America produces so many contrary notions.

You can kind of toe the lines of the culture war through professional sports. They represent so many positive things about country and leisure and joy to so many people, but, to others, they’re uncivilized, brutish exercises in dominance and subordination. I don’t want this story to discount the former perspective. I actually enjoy baseball. But you’re right, it’s also about how we build our identity when we’re at odds with other people, especially when so many people build their sense of identity on media and mass culture.

I saw Junot Diaz give a reading four or five years ago, and he talked a bit about how growing up as a person of color in the eighties, there was nothing in the media or mainstream culture that reflected his viewpoint. The question of how we form identities in the absence of easy identity-forming mechanisms is really interesting to me. What’s going on in this story is obviously different (white suburban middle class), but you do get the sense that the cultural identity the narrator is supposed to be buying into holds nothing for him. Once you get into this territory, then you have a picture of America and its differences: the person who subscribes to rigid understandings of normative culture and the person who eschews the norm intentionally. Generally, those two people will view each other as various manifestations of other monsters. I think that dissonance is all part of being American.

Daniel LoPilato is a fiction writer from Atlanta. He earned a BA from the University of Georgia and will begin pursuing an MFA in fiction this fall at Florida State University. He has worked as an editorial assistant, a development officer, and, most recently, a Popsicle vendor. This is his second published story.