Giano Cromley


An Interview by Matthew Krajniak

Cromley Bio Photo.jpg

We all get here in our own way. That is, for those of us who write, we settle into the practice after, and often because of, the provocative experiences we have with our birth families, our non-birth families, our jobs, our relationships, and everything else that’s set before us or thrown at us. For Giano Cromley, who just released his debut collection of shorts, What We Build Upon the Ruins (Tortoise Books), this path to practice meant studying literature and creative writing at Dartmouth, working as a press secretary in DC, and teaching GED and ESL classes in Chicago. And this collection reflects this broad background as it has a band of diverse characters. I caught up with Giano recently to talk to him about these fictional people and places—here’s what he had to say.

ORIGINS

You were born and raised in Billings, Montana—a place known for its open spaces and rugged beauty. What was it like growing up there and how do you think your childhood influenced your writing or your wanting to be a writer?

CROMLEY

I've thought about this question a lot in my adult life. I'm convinced that geography shapes a person. And I'm working on a theory that I like to call the Western Gothic ethos. Growing up in the West, the open spaces, they inculcate a deep and sustained level of isolation in a person. You may live in a city, you may be surrounded by people, but you don't have to go far before you find yourself in a place with no one around. I like to tell people I've got mountains in my blood. What that really means is that everyone I knew growing up, at some point, found themselves miles away from anyone in a situation that posed some peril. That causes a particular set of qualities to emerge in a person—self-reliance and resourcefulness, to be sure, but also a general sense of being at the mercy of the places you call home. You get used to that kind of isolation; it's practically a birthright. It just so happens that isolation is one of the key ingredients to being a writer, so I like to think it's helped me out a great deal in this life. 

ORIGINS

You worked as a speech writer and deputy press secretary in DC, but this collection doesn’t seem much concerned with any political ideas or influence: Was this a conscious decision?

CROMLEY

That's an interesting observation, since a couple of these stories were originally germinated back when I was still pretty involved in the political world. Looking back over it, I'm pretty surprised by how assiduously these stories seem to avoid politics. I guess you could say it was not a conscious decision. The first book I wrote many years ago—but never published—was a political novel, so it's not as if I feel like I can't write about that world. Though I guess at this point, I'm not sure why anyone would write about that world. At least not in the form of fiction. Fiction, to me, seems more and more like a means of resistance against the prevailing political forces; it's a quiet act of defiance in the face of overwhelming madness and dissolution. One of the reasons I chose the image I have on my cover (a child throwing a rock) is that to me this represents one of the most primal acts of rebellion we have as humans; it’s almost primordial. So even though this isn't a "political" book, I believe its mere existence is a political statement.

ORIGINS

Most of the stories in this collection have at their center some unnamed or unknown thing that causes a problem for a character or relationship. Are there any narrative or thematic reasons why you’ve made the intangible so problematic for these characters?

CROMLEY

I think it’s a truism about life that the thing that’s unknown is infinitely scarier than the thing that’s known. We're great at addressing known problems—whether through therapy or pharmaceuticals or support groups. But when we can't quite put our finger on the problem, that's when we’re truly helpless. I find myself only assigning labels to my characters’ problems if it’s absolutely necessary to understanding the story. Otherwise, I like to embrace the mystery.

ORIGINS

You also use objects as metaphors for a character’s situation or experience, for example, a canoe, or a bottle of wine, or a vacuum cleaner, or a student’s backpack to name but a few. Do you see the objects we have in our lives as representations of something larger about ourselves and/or our experiences?

CROMLEY

Absolutely. The objects we choose to surround ourselves with are defined by us and, in turn, come to define us. Take an object like Ellis Jackson’s work gloves in "Coyote in the City." He used those for years when he worked as a roofer. Over time, they took on the shape of his own hands, came to reflect whether he was right-handed, or left-handed, developed a worn spot where he tended to lean on his knuckles. They absorbed his sweat and oils, to the point that they became an extension of his own body. Those gloves are as much a part of him as his hand or arm. If you want to know his story, start by looking at his gloves. I see it happen in my own life. I write all my fiction longhand with a fountain pen for the first draft. Whenever I embark on a new project, I have a habit of treating myself to a new pen. If you've ever used fountain pens for very long, you realize each one has its own personality, how they write, how they feel in the hand, how much they tax you with their weight. I like to think that each new project takes on the personality of the pen I use when I write it. 

ORIGINS

As an extension of that last question, what role do you see stories and literature as having in our everyday lives?

CROMLEY

Good stories, good literature, to me, are instruction manuals for life. I've got a list of stories and books that I use almost like a religious person would use the Bible. Something you read, re-read, pore over, reflect on, seek meaning from, draw life lessons from. Whenever I need a spiritual restoration, I head for the bookshelf.

ORIGINS

You’re a former speech writer, you’ve taught GED and ESL classes, and you’ve published widely in both fiction and nonfiction. What’s your next project and is it somehow unrelated to any of these previous experiences?  

CROMLEY

My next project is to put the finishing revisions on the sequel to my first novel. With any luck, that book will come out late 2018. After that, I've got nothing left in the pipeline. Which is a feeling I'm quite looking forward to. I've got a notion for a new novel that I’m billing as a story about Bigfoot and friendship. Right now, it's only in the most embryonic form, but it's kind of the book I've been wanting to write all my life. As for the first part of your question, whether any of my work experience is related to the next project I would have to say no and yes. No, in the sense that none of the characters have followed in any of those particular footsteps. But yes, in the fact that everything I do informs everything I write. Maybe it was a look in a student's eyes as he fought to stay awake in class after pulling a graveyard shift in as a security guard. Maybe it was someone using a variation on a familiar phrase that just so happened to tickle my brain the right way. All those things are fuel for the writing engine. 


Giano Cromley is the author of the novel The Last Good Halloween, which was a finalist for the High Plains Book Award. He is the chair of the Communications Department at Kennedy-King College, and he lives on the South Side of Chicago with his wife and two dogs.

Posted on December 13, 2017 .

Tanaya Winder

I try my best to always write with intention, asking myself the questions: What am I writing? Why am I writing this? Who am I writing this for? Sometimes it can be writing just for me initially, but then the bigger picture always comes into focus. I’m writing for my ancestors who made it possible for me to get to where I am today. I’m writing for my family, friends, the Native youth I work with, my community, and all of those who could benefit from this gift I’ve been given, and I write for those who will follow. I hope they’ll be encouraged to use their gifts as well. 

Posted on May 31, 2016 .

Jennifer Givhan

As a Latina poet from a small desert community on the California/Mexico border, I strive to speak for and with the women with whom I grew up: the mothers, daughters, childless women, tías, and nanas. My writing is concerned with the complex relationships many women of color have with family and tradition, which are so rife with ambiguities. They’re often liberating and subjugating forces, both strengthening and repressive, with mythical dimensions and at the same time utterly real.

Posted on October 12, 2015 .