Allen Callaci is a singer & songwriter in the band Refrigerator, but his love predating singing was writing. I know this because he was about ten years old and I was six when we started making comic books out of lined notebook paper and staples together. His last book Louder Than Good-bye just won an eLit Book Award. That book featured a thumbnail sketch of his new Bamboo Dart Press book 17 & Life. It is a mediation on the life of a girl he went to Upland Junior High School with whose life was extinguished when she was seventeen but whose soul and thoughtfulness in her short life has remained alive for so many that knew her, even if ever fleetingly. Her relationship with Callaci was the fleeting kind. A brand of decency and sweetness that is seldom seen in junior high home rooms nor public school hallways. The book underlines the possibility and loss that are not just taken away from so many of us in one fell swoop, but continue to call, widening out like them slow circles around stones throw in a river.
I may be biased, you know, about what a watermark this book is, so let me say in my defense that he and I have scratched and thrown away so much of each others work in our thousands of collaborations together that I can argue the point that when he presented the finished manuscript of “17 & Life” to me it was a note perfect piece of writing. He has deepened his initial sketch of the story which was expanded in part by Buzzsaw sending Allen some photographs he took that were an echo of Callaci’s writing and appear in the book. Slow circles, thrown stones, lined notebook paper, staples, wishes. “17 & Life” is out today.
17 & Life began life as a much shorter blog piece that you wrote. What made you return to it and expand upon your original piece?
The piece began as the bookend to an ebook collection of blogs I had written over a three year period on the passing of pop culture icons such as David Foster Wallace, Tom Petty and Mary Tyler Moore called “Louder Than Good-Bye” through Pelekinesis. The remembrances I wrote were not standard obituaries but the personal connections I felt to these artists.
Pelekinesis publisher Mark Givens suggested this collection of blogs should begin with a reflection on the first time that I had to confront grief and loss. Mark’s suggestion paved the way to a string of late nights spent writing and rewriting and being frozen at the keys as I thought back and processed the tragic murder of Anna.
That introduction was later finetuned again into a blog for Kevin Powell’s BK Nation that was published shortly after the release of “Louder Than Good-Bye”.
The final phase of this evolution was put into motion when you reached out to me right after the original piece appeared and said “this is one of the best things you’ve written. You really need to expand this.”
Being 4 years younger than you and only vaguely remember these events and how they affected our household originally, but do recall it shook you when our folks moved a few years after the events in the book just a block from where Anna & her car were found.
In the late 80s/early 90s we moved with our mom and stepdad to a recently developed planned community in Northern Upland. I was out walking with my friend Pat Jankiewicz, who attended Upland High School with Anna, and he pointed to the lot across the street where a housing tract was currently under construction and paused before saying “It’s still gives me chills whenever I walk by,” he said, “That’s where they buried Anna Marie.” I looked towards where he was pointing and felt It all come crashing back.
A few blocks west from where Pat and I stood was the Lucky’s grocery store whose parking lot where police had located Anna’s mother’s station wagon a few days after her murder.
I only knew Anna for two brief years via a shared homeroom in Junior High. Yet I feel like I never came completely to terms with her sudden and tragic loss until just now. They say writing is therapeutic, This felt like a cross between a confession and an exorcism.
The sanctity of life is honored by not mentioning the killer’s name in the book, not really touching upon him. Where the few details of interactions you had with Anna are used to platform her spirit. It reminds me of friends of Dad’s or Mom’s that want to speak to one of us of their memory when we are in their company. Have you been in touch with her family?
The one concrete rule I gave myself from the very beginning of writing this was not to waste a single drop of ink on the murderer. I’m not really a fan of the true crime drama genre save for a few exceptions such as Capote’s In Cold Blood. I think it’s a genre that at its worst sensationalizes and glamorizes murderers or at best unintentionally immortalizes them as it pushes the victims and their families to the background. I wanted the book to be a meditation and requiem of Anna.
Anna and I shared a home room for two years at the ruthless and unforgiving purgatory that went by the name of Upland Jr. High. We were from different worlds. She was one of the most beautiful and popular girls at UJH. And I was a retainer-fitted, Marvel comic book loving, KISS T-shirt wearing misfit. But everyday in homeroom she never failed to seek me out, make small talk and maybe occasionally jibe me about not being a more devoted Catholic (she volunteered at her church every weekend). These seem like small, simple gestures on the surface but to a 12 year old outcast they were like a ray of light breaking through the clouds across a brutal landscape.
About 6 months ago I heard from Anna’s niece who had come across the original blog online and reached out to me via social media telling me she was really moved by the piece and had shared it with her family who said it really captured Anna. I was so elated to hear that my message in a bottle had reached them and more importantly that they warmly embraced it. I really can’t convey how much that blessing meant to me.
The photographs in the book by Buzzsaw are an integral piece of the narrative. The two of you have known each other for over thirty five years and have in fact collaborated before on his projects. What was it like for him to collaborate on your lead?
Yes, we have known each other since way back in Junior college. The interesting thing about this collaboration was how unplanned and organic it was. Buzzsaw read the original piece and sent me some photos that he said were inspired by it. I was blown away by the haunting images he sent. The way they enrich the text is incredible. I was disappointed that his pics came after the piece was initially published but I filed the images away for a year or more thinking maybe someday the text and his images would connect somehow, some way.
A few years later you and Mark approached me about possibly putting something together for Bamboo Press and it felt like this was the place it was always destined to be. My philosophy towards the arts has always been things will surface when and where they’re meant to surface (or never surface at all in some cases).
You have written two books about harrowingly personal experiences, one that happened to you in your first book Heart Like a Starfish, and one that marked you as a teenager. Do you have plans to write a third novel of non-fiction?
After two non-fiction works that were pretty intense and draining to write my plan is to venture out into the daylight for the next piece I write which is tentatively titled “Silver Maria” and will be a warmly, comic piece of fiction based on our unruly Sicilian grandmother. She was so completely outrageous, abrasive and full of life that I find myself having to dial her down a bit rather than embellish her. I have to say its been pretty refreshing to be grinning madly as I tap into the keyboard and a most welcome change.