In 2018, Serena Danna at Vanity Fair Italia asked me to interview Giancarlo DiTrapano about the reasons why someone with such incredible literary street cred would choose to leave New York to start from scratch in an abandoned 1700s castelletto in Sezze, in the province of Latina, miles and miles from any real cultural center in Italy.
I had visited the castle early on. There were still old computers from the 1990s in the bedrooms, Italian rock music posters belonging to unknown teen tenants, graffiti from the days in which locals had squatted the place, unmade beds, frozen in time, waiting for their owners to return under the covers. It was a place where many different people, some of them Giancarlo’s relatives, some of them strangers, had lived. At some point they had woken up and walked out, leaving behind pillows and flung towels never to return again.
It reminded me of those vacant Sicilian limestone houses from the Aeolian Islands, abandoned during the immigration diaspora in the early 20th century. The castle felt haunted, every room had layers of former lives, but Giancarlo and his husband Giuseppe were not threatened by ghosts. They knew how to please them and free them. And that’s what they did when they started the Mors Tua Vita Mea workshops.
Then, during the first phase of the pandemic, I received the most inspired phone calls from Giancarlo. He was locked down in Sezze with Giuseppe and instead of feeling trapped, he developed an unexpected source of inspiration about how to improve the place. He was planting olive trees and was full of ideas about how to improve Tyrant Books, but also how to evolve the writing workshops he’d been running, how to turn the whole project into a bilingual experience for both Italian and American writers.
This past Sunday, five years after I first set foot in the castle, the DiTrapano Foundation for Literature and the Arts was inaugurated on the day of Gian’s birthday (he was an Aquarian, of course, completely devoted to his visions, completely uninterested in costs or petty bureaucratic formalities.) Giancarlo’s place in Sezze continues to be a home where writers and thinkers can go for peace of mind, inspiration, and ongoing conversations about art and books. I thought it would be interesting to pull up this interview about how it all began.
The Vanity Fair piece from 2018 (issue 25, June 27) featured beautiful photos from the Roman photographer Francesca Tecardi, but, as a kind of B-side project at the time, I had taken Gian’s portrait in his apartment in Rome as well. That was the city where he landed and where we had consolidated our friendship. Plus his apartment looked really cool and we always said we should shoot there before him and Giuseppe decided to move out.
Rome was the first place where Giancarlo went when he decided to revolutionize his life. His house in Via Flavia was a haven for many people who, like me, needed to find a safe place to bypass the city’s old moralistic marble stones. We did this interview in his living room, sprawled on a velvet baldachin bed, dreaming about our future, just days before he embarked upon his last, courageous literary journey.
THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN VANITY FAIR ITALIA.
My first encounter with Giancarlo DiTrapano occurred several years ago through the images of a flaming car. I had read the short stories of Tao Lin in the literary journal NY Tyrant, and I immediately fell in love with the magazine. An online search had taken me to a photo of that burning car published on a rarely visited Facebook profile: posts half in Italian, half in English, and a series of pictures of an enormous teddy bear sat on the steps of the New York Public Library. It was all rather frenzied, but, from what I had begun to understand, it was perfectly in line with the personality of Giancarlo DiTrapano.
At the time, Giancarlo was known in New York as an editor of the avant-garde, anarchical and authentic. He collaborated with the most experimental magazines, but he didn’t want to work in their offices. He drank whiskey on the rocks with the editors of The Paris Review and he wrote the most brazen articles for VICE about his evenings spent sharing uncomfortable secrets with Edmund White. On Twitter he always protected the most vulnerable and for a long time already he had been publishing some of the most interesting emerging writers from America: Megan Boyle, Kim Chinquee, Sheila Heti (who is Canadian), Clancy Martin, Annie DeWitt, and Atticus Lish.
The books and literary journals of his publishing house Tyrant Books often had a low-fi but stylish design, sometimes with references to a 70s porn aesthetic—reimagined of course. From the bookshelves of the Strand on Broadway, you took the copies of the NY Tyrant in your hands and you immediately imagined adult theaters in Times Square from the golden age, full of clientele reading Proust. They said to me that Giancarlo was half-Italian, temperamental, a lone wolf.
I knew that he lived in a small apartment in Hell’s Kitchen and that from there, with the help of an intern, he directed his operations. The books were printed all over America, one lot was sent to independent bookshops through a small distributor, another was mailed directly from the post office below Giancarlo’s home. He was the first, with What Purpose Did I Serve In Your Life, to believe in the erotic adventures of the writer Marie Calloway and publish her controversial posts and correspondence. He was also famous for his total disdain for the figure of the literary agent, who according to him, only had the function of blocking and limiting the freedom of the relationship between editor and writer. In all of his works, he was always searching for a personal connection.Seduce with that first line and never allow the seduction to wilt. Capture your audience and keep them clinging on.
And so it was that his small publishing house gained the trust of Atticus Lish, who with his Preparation for the Next Life, won a PEN Award in 2015. In a few years this book, and many more published by Tyrant, were optioned by HBO and other Hollywood producers. The most impressive case, other than Lish, was Nico Walker, an ex-veteran of the war in Iraq who in reaction to PTSD became a serial bank robber. Giancarlo fell in love with his incredible story, and together with the musical producer Matthew Johnson from the label Fat Possum, without any agents or contracts in the way, steered Walker towards the writing of his autobiographical novel.
In 2016, after a big auction and a race for the film rights, the finished novel was sold to Knopf with the title Cherry. But despite the American successes, the unhealthy lifestyle of Hell’s Kitchen and the increasingly complicated relationship with the post office downstairs were wearing him out, and as often happens to Americans of Italian origin, Giancarlo decided to rediscover his roots in Sezze, in the province of Latina, and take charge of a small semi-dilapidated castle from the 18th century that belonged to his family.
Since 2016 Giancarlo has transformed the historical family abode into a residence for writers. “I was fed up with New York. I thought, instead of staying behind for the writers there, that I would make them come here.” His intuition paid off. For two years now Giancarlo has been directing creative-writing workshops in the English language, and soon they will also be in Italian. His courses at the little castle have a compelling name, “Mors Tua Vita Mea,” and they are always sold out. He acts as editor together with an American guest writer of the moment. For the last two sessions, there was the irresistible Chelsea Hodson, who had made Miranda July fall in love with her last collection of essays Tonight I’m Someone Else.
Giancarlo’s husband, Giuseppe Avallone, is the second half of the reason for him choosing to come to Italy. Cinema and theatre costume designer, set designer, and art historian, he is capable of talking to you for hours about the lace hemming on the crown’s veil of a Neapolitan Madonna from the 16th century; he is an avid collector of sacred icons, crowns, and images. At the little castle he took charge of the re-styling; he also cooks for the students and helps them discover the hidden artworks at the Circeo.
There is an informal, but absolutely professional atmosphere. Becoming a writer doesn’t have to necessarily mean isolation and suffering, it can also mean beaches, nymph gardens, white wine, and abandoned castles. Plus it’s nice to stay with people who can talk to you about LSD with the same intensity that they talk to you about Kafka.
Chiara Barzini: At the first reading that I went to of your magazine NY Tyrant, there were literary stars like Tao Lin who read informal pieces on their relationships with drugs, next to unknown debut writers who read stories of rural life in the forgotten states of America. Your capacity to blend the sacred and the profane has always fascinated me. When did you discover your calling as an editor?
Giancarlo DiTrapano: I’ve always been a passionate reader, but to work (getting myself immediately sacked) as an intern at Farrar, Straus and Giroux in New York in 2003, made me understand that if I wanted to publish the books that I liked I would have to strike out on my own. And so I founded the literary journal New York Tyrant, which then evolved into Tyrant Books. It was a very natural process.The pros of being the only homosexuals are that there are no gay bars in the area, the cons of being the only homosexuals are that there are no gay bars in the area.
I began publishing what I used to love reading; the people liked what I liked, and there, done. As for my passion for writing, Thomas Morton, who I always considered a genius, is to blame. He asked me to start publishing my essays on VICE, where he’d been working as editor and reporter since the very beginning. The sacred and profane, however, have always been one and the same for me. I’m paraphrasing a writer who I greatly admire, Dan Fante, but basically, I believe that man can resist anything: he can kill, be twisted, broken, desperate and deranged, fuck farm animals, wear the clothes of a woman, hate and destroy everything that is beautiful in the world, desire death for himself and for others, and can continue, however, to be seen as the perfect son of God. Everyone is messed up, we all are. Even all of these self-righteous people on Twitter in the constant pursuit of people to ruin with their posts of found-again purity.
CB: I’m always interested in the themes of language and identity. From the first time that I met you I wasn’t able to decipher all the layers of your personality. American, but Italian; from Sezze, and the state of West Virginia; independent editor, and entrepreneur; generous reader, and demanding editor. Who are you really and what, in your life, brought about the rediscovery of your Italian roots?
GDT: I’ve always felt like a great imposter, a fake, a charlatan. When I started out, I knew fuck all of how you went about editing and publishing a book. I simply started doing it and it came to me naturally.
Learning Italian was very useful for deepening my understanding of English. You can’t really know your mother tongue if you don’t have the chance to look at it from a foreign language. I was very fortunate to have fantastic parents who loved me and allowed me to be open. The things that I didn’t like I didn’t do, but those that I liked became obsessions.
CB: What is your first memory of the little castle in Sezze, and when is it that you understood that you could do the Mors Tua Vita Mea series workshops?
GDT: The first time that I came to Sezze I was nine years old. The little castle had been totally ruined for ninety years. A couple of years ago I thought the right moment had come to return to Italy and restore that incredible building, to create a sort of cultural center. We launched the workshop and now we will add other activities too. I would like to be able to offer residencies for writers, sculptors, painters, and musicians, and give them the option of staying for even a month at a time to work.These workshops were some of the best experiences that I’ve ever had.
As a sort of compensation, I would request that they leave one of their works at the castle. We are working to make this place a wonderful spot, to which artists can come from far away to be a part of. We are seeking other funds, asking for help from the European community and the Belle Arti to continue the restorations. We are in full research mode, but we hope to obtain the economic support of those who see it as we do.
CB: I love all the options that are available for the writers who come to do their writing workshops in Sezze: manuscript editing, cultural tours, homemade food, horror stories about the building’s ghosts, and meetings with authors and fantastic artists. Basically, in a short amount of time, you have invented a community of writers and artists with all your own rules.
GDT: The author Chelsea Hodson and I had this idea of starting a workshop for writers. We began sharing our ideas on Twitter and many writers from all over the world started to send us their applications.
These workshops were some of the best experiences that I’ve ever had. The day before the beginning of our first course, Chelsea and I realized that it would all be very intimate, like a sort of literary edition of the TV show, Big Brother. But straight after picking up the students from the airport, we knew that it would be fine. We decided to work with a limited group of writers, five or six at a time, as a way of maintaining a certain rigor with the work. We’re together from eight in the morning to around midnight, for seven days in succession. I thought we were lucky and that was it, but in reality, I believe that the people who chose to study with Chelsea and I already knew our style. Applications arrived from a certain type of writer and not others.
CB: Where do you see your little castle in five years? I know that you want to appoint more Italian writers to teach the courses.
GDT: The little castle in five years will surely be full of life. A place where artists and intellectuals can get together. I would like to do projections of arthouse films on the outside wall and involve the people of the village even more. The property has something very meditative that I would like not to lose. It’s quiet and inspires a lot of creativity; I hear it from all the people that come to stay here. And yes, we’re on the lookout for Italians to come and teach here. We have Elena Ferrante on the list for next year, but I had to promise her that she can wear a burka for the whole week. She’s so demanding!
CB: As you will probably know, you live in an area that in the past was a stronghold for fascism. If I’m not mistaken, all over Latina today they sell small busts of Mussolini at the little markets, without batting an eyelid. Pros and cons for being a gay couple in an Italian village?
GDT: The pros of being the only homosexuals are that there are no gay bars in the area, the cons of being the only homosexuals are that there are no gay bars in the area.
CB: What are your resources for encouraging creativity in writers?
GDT: The most important thing that I say to the writers is to write a first sentence that makes you immediately want to read the next. To use interesting language, to use the body. To try and write a sentence that has never been written before. Seduce with that first line and never allow the seduction to wilt. Capture your audience and keep them clinging on. Develop your style as a recognizable imprinting. I would like for my students to have a style so personal that if you had to see one of their sentences written on a board, you would know exactly who had written it.
Translated by Sean McDonagh