Lee Foust is a fiction writer and performer from Oakland, California who has lived in Florence, Italy since the mid-1990s. He teaches literature and creative writing for various US universities abroad and is the father of one. He is the author of Sojourner (Infinity, 2012), a collection of short stories and poems about the mystery of place, and the forthcoming Poison and Antidote, nine Bohemian tales of San Francisco during the Reagan era. Foust’s fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in various journals, magazines, and newspapers in Europe, Australia, and the U.S.A. www.leefoust.com
Geosi Gyasi: Could we start with your short story, “Testament of Faith” published in Issue One of One Throne Magazine. At what point in your life did you write it?
Lee Foust: “Testement of Faith,” published in the first number of One Throne Magazine, is the concluding story from a collection of 9 stories of the San Francisco art scene of the early 1980s called Poison and Antidote. All but one of the stories were written when I was member of the SF art scene in the period that the stories describe, from about 1982-6. In those years I was attending San Francisco State University as a creative writing student and found myself writing mostly about the music scene of that era (I was, at the time, also writing lyrics, singing, and drumming in a band), and the performance artists, musicians, and painters that I knew—the drug addicts and wannabe film makers. It was an exciting era in San Francisco. The music scene was exploding with the influence of Punk Rock, but also open to electronics and artsy experimentation, and the Bohemian community was defining and mobilizing itself in opposition to the establishment of the era—the Reagan presidency and Wall Street. By the end of the 1980s, I’d put the stories together into the collection (which will be published in the next couple of months—by June, 2015, I think). Over the years I have returned to the stories many times, revising and editing as I worked on other projects—two novels, other stories, poems… During the 1990s I cut one story altogether and replaced it with a different narrative, keeping some of the ideas and the title of the original piece. My concept was to recreate Henri Murgere’s Scènes de la vie de bohème, the trials and tribulations of the starving artist class, for the place and time of my early adulthood.
Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to write “Testament of Faith”?
Lee Foust: The time of composition is actually a part of the narrative itself. After dealing with musicians, a performance artist, and a filmmaker in the previous tales on Poison and Antidote, I conceived of the final story, “Testament of Faith,” as a love affair between a painter and a writer—the characters are therefore also, for me, symbolic of those two art forms. The narrator—the writer—begins telling us about a propitious meeting with a painter that he knew back in college at a nightclub and the night that they spend together and the love that blossoms between them. As he re-tells the events of the 24 hours that the lovers spend together, he intrudes more and more into the narrative himself to tell you that he’s been left behind in San Francisco, that’s the woman has gone to Europe to study painting, and that he, himself, plans to go to Europe as soon as he saves up enough money… So the story tells of the events of the lover’s 24 hours and also the week or two of the author struggling with coming to terms with the separation and living in the faith of keeping the love alive until he and the woman can be together again. Most of the stories in the collection are like that, written quickly in the wake of events in my own life that inspired them: house hunting, a party that went wrong, a band rehearsal, a friend freaking out on speed and ending up first in the hospital and then jail, etc. Then, over the years, the tales were made more and more symbolic and fictionalized with each re-writing.
Geosi Gyasi: In writing short fiction, do you often aim at a specific target of words or you stop when you feel the story has ended?
Lee Foust: If I know how something I’m writing is going to end I find it impossible to go on with it; I get bored, I guess. This includes both length and plot. The stories in Poison and Antidote are of greatly varying lengths—however many words it took to tell that character’s tale and I stumbled upon each ending completely by chance.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you write for a specific audience?
Lee Foust: I really don’t think about that much, or aim at any specific audience. But, one thing I’ve discovered as a literature prof., writers write to the audience of which they, themselves, would be a part. I do very much hope that the Poison and Antidote stories will be both appreciated by those of us old enough to have lived through the horrendous Reagan years and to remember the art and music of the 1980s—but I also hope that the struggles with art, love, addiction, ambition, failure, and fame of my 20-something characters will resonate with children of all ages as the saying goes. I, myself, am an odd case—a Punk Rock intellectual, a working class University prof.—so I hope my writing has the power to please a pretty diverse group of people.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you see yourself as a writer?
Lee Foust: Pretty much always, although I didn’t think about writing as the primary purpose of my existence until about the time of the genesis of the Poison and Antidote stories. I was a very precocious reader, devouring horror, science fiction, and classic novels all through my adolescence. I starting writing a science fiction novel inspired by English cult writer James Herbert when I was maybe 10 or 11. I was rather more fixated on acting, though, through my High School years and entered university as a Theatre Arts major. One year into the program, however, disillusioned with the amount of commercial acting one must do to survive in the that world, I switched over to creative writing and I’ve considered myself a writer ever since—even if it’s teaching that pays the bills.
Geosi Gyasi: You come from the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay Area. Do you have any fond memories about growing up there?
Lee Foust: I grew up in a suburb of Oakland/San Francisco called Walnut Creek that was kind of a paradise for a young boy in the 1970s—lots of open space, an unthreatening, small-town atmosphere, and also close enough to a city to have a place run to when one grew bored with it. It was a lot like the small town childhood described by Ray Bradbury in his novels and stories, except no snowy winters. Oakland got a baseball team in 1968 when I was 6 years old and we won the world series three times by the time I was 12—what more can a boy ask for? The place is a bastion of snobbery now, filled with annoying rich people. Almost no one I knew there growing up could afford to live there now—we are all in exile somewhere.
Geosi Gyasi: What took you to Florence, Italy?
Lee Foust: Rome, Italy. In 1986, just after finishing college (or so I thought), for 9 long months I worked two jobs—day and night shifts—then sold everything I owned, packed a bag and $3000 in travelers checks, and flew to Europe to write a novel. I ran out of money 9 months later and was rescued from sleeping on the streets in Amsterdam by my mother. During that trip I fell in love with Rome, lived there for 4 months, and vowed that I would one day return to learn Italian. When I got back to San Francisco, I began taking evening courses at the university and jumped when I discovered that the Cal State system has a study-abroad program in Florence. I was a student in the program and then remained in Florence for a second year, attending the Florentine University. Later, when I was finishing graduate school at New York University, I received a grant to come back to Florence to work on my dissertation on Dante’s Commedia. I married, started raising a child, and just never went back to the States—now I teach the Dante course at the Cal. State program here!
Geosi Gyasi: You write a literary column for the monthly newspaper “Florence News and Events”. Could you tell us more about this newspaper?
Lee Foust: “Florence News and Events” is one of three English-language papers published here in Florence. Being in English, it caters to the many American students who study here and the informed tourist. It’s a monthly paper with lots of events and the kind of cultural articles that would appeal to students and travelers—I try to write interesting tidbits about Italian literature, expat writers who traveled or lived in Florence or Italy, and the pretty vibrant expat artistic scene here—there are many well-written blogs by expats and artists in Florence. (https://issuu.com/florencenews/docs/april_2015_web/3?e=0 See pg. 8 for a couple of my articles)
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your book, Sojourner?
Lee Foust: Sojourner is an anthology of songs, poems, prose poems, and short stories that I wrote between 1981-2013 centered around the theme of place. Since I moved from a suburb to a city to attend university, abandoned that city to travel in Europe, returned to America, returned to Europe to study, relocated to New York City for graduate school, and then returned, permanently, to Europe as an expat, place has been a theme in both my life and my writing. Also, since I am a performer, I wanted my first book to be an anthology that would include my most performable texts, something that I could sell at readings. In fact, there is a CD component to Sojourner which is available as a free download from the Soundcloud website, that features readings of many of the texts from Sojourner some a cappella, others with drumming, and some with music. (https://soundcloud.com/lee-foust/sets/sojourner-previously-entitled )
Geosi Gyasi: What was the greatest challenge in writing Sojourner?
Lee Foust: Well, since it’s an anthology, all of the challenge was in choosing, arranging, and finalizing the texts. Such a beast is a bit like juggling: you don’t want to disturb the chronological order too much, but you certainly want the texts to flow and not clash with those around it—hard to do when dealing with four different forms—verse, prose poems, narrative and non-narrative prose. It fell into place pretty well for me and there is a numerological format. The collection is circular, with two long sections surrounding a brief middle section. The texts of the first part (9 poems, 3 short stories, 3 prose poems, and 3 non-narrative prose pieces) represents home and traveling, while the third section (also 9 poems, 3 short stories, 3 prose poems, and 3 non-narrative prose pieces) focuses on characters who live far away from their points of origin for various reasons. In the center section there is a long three-part poem, a non-narrative piece of prose (the title text, at the book’s center), and a short story, each presenting characters suspended between two cultures, places, and times.
Geosi Gyasi: How much of your works do you perform?
Lee Foust: Effectively all of them. Of course it’s easier to chant, drum, or add music to verse—but I enjoying doing dramatic readings of my stories as well! Right now I’m working on the audio book version of Poison and Antidote and it’s a blast! Really enjoying it!
Geosi Gyasi: What do you regard as your greatest achievement as a writer?
Lee Foust: Actually probably the fact that, at 52, I’m more committed than ever to the craft and business of writing. I’ve been distracted by work, by school, by raising a family, and then a career in teaching, but, through it all, my enthusiasm and the worth I place on what I have written and what I’m working on now, is greater than ever. The world can be very hostile to creative artists and writers. I spend a lot of my time cajoling people into reading because I think it’s important. In the end most are thankful and appreciate what art and writing can do for them—still, they have to be convinced to go there. This is the most tiring part of writing: working so hard to create something that so few people seem to want. It takes perseverance to create and then to sell what one has created.
Geosi Gyasi: Is there any relationship between music and literature?
Lee Foust: Absolutely. The first writing in every vernacular language that I can think of is verse. It’s always verse before prose; metered, rhythmic, musical language written down before communicative or narrative language. How else do you explain that other than that music and words are deeply intertwined in the literary imagination? First we sing and chant: later we learn to explain.
Geosi Gyasi: I read from your website that you recite your own works – with and without banging a drum – to anyone who’ll listen. Could you explain this better to us?
Lee Foust: Certainly. With my earlier acting training and the years I spent writing lyrics and performing them with my band, Nominal State, I have grown to love performing. Songwriting was, along with my years at university spent studying writing and literature, the laboratory in which I experimented and came to have the discipline to write regularly—when you have musicians always coming up with new tunes and chord progressions you have to constantly give them words—and the need there was a great gift, considering what I said above about how hard it is, at times, to get anyone to read what one has written.
I learned my craft by writing lyrics for the band. My method of composition—beating out the words to a drumbeat, since that was my instrument, the drums—has never quite left me, so my verse is often chantable along with a beat. Since I now spend my summers in the SF Bay Area I’ve crashed and been welcomed enthusiastically into the Bay Area spoken word scene, which is quite vibrant. I perform whatever I have at hand with whatever I have with me, a drum, taped recordings as backdrops, or just a cappella. It’s a great scene both in Oakland, San Francisco, and Sacramento where Frank Andrick and Bill Gainer both host spoken word showcases.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you working on anything new?
Lee Foust: Always. My current project is a novel-in-frames inspired by the medieval collections of novellas like Boccaccio’s Decameron or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Mine is called The Three Living Meet the Three Dead. I retell a medieval story in which three wealthy hunters come across three speaking corpses at the crossroads: in my version, the troupe decides to camp out and they tell stories to each other in front of a campfire for 7 nights. The project, as outlined, will have 42 stories connected by a frame-narrative. I’ve written the introduction and 17 of the stories so far. One of its completed tales, “Ash Wednesday,” is included in Sojourner.
Geosi Gyasi: What is so special about you, your music and writing that sets you apart from other writers?
Lee Foust: That’s quite difficult to say from the inside looking out. And, of course, everyone has influences and emulates other writers as well. Maybe my most unique quality is that I work in different forms, verse, long and short prose, and performance. Also, I’m a restless experimenter. Although I’ve worked in traditional narrative forms, I’m often trying to make prose more musical and verse-like (with prose poems) and also experimenting with non-narrative prose forms as in some of the stories in the Three Living… or a kind of philosophical dictionary I wrote called the Hieroglyphica, or a text I’m also revising now, the inner monologue of a mental patient called San Salvi (Florence’s former asylum).
Geosi Gyasi: Do you come from a family of writers or musicians?
Lee Foust: Nope. I come from a very working class family (farmers, soldiers, and wage slaves) and was the first to attend university and graduate, the first, as far as I know, with any kind of serious artistic ambitions of any kind.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you earn a living from writing?
Lee Foust: Not yet. My first novel is complete and I’m looking for an agent and/or publisher. I would be nice to teach a little less as I descend into my dotage. Wish me luck.
Geosi Gyasi: How would you like to be remembered?
Lee Foust: Funny you should ask this. A friend of mine here in Florence lives in the gatehouse of an ancient Jewish cemetery. Yesterday evening we were drinking wine on the patio overlooking the crumbling monuments and I asked if anyone visits the tombs anymore. Since no one has been buried there since the late 19th century, the answer was no—none of the people there exist in anyone’s living memory any longer.
So, yes. That is to say, since 99.999% of humanity is forgotten after a single generation, I would love to be remembered and read in, say, 100 years time. Whatever of me I’d like to have remembered in there my texts, the rest is anecdotal.