Tom Mendicino’s C’76 debut novel, Probation, centers on a man who is arrested for solicitation in a public restroom and what happens to him as a result. Kicked out by his wife, Andy Nocera is forced to move in with his mother and to attend court-mandated counseling sessions in order to expunge his record. The book has been described as “part coming-out story and part family chronicle,” and Time Out New York called it “thoughtful, textured and poignant.” Mendicino carved some time out of his busy appearance schedule (look for him in North Carolina, New Orleans, Atlanta and San Francisco in the coming weeks) to answer a few questions.
How would you describe Probation’s main character, Andy Nocera?
As the book begins, Andy is angry with the world, needing someone to blame for the choices he has made. He has a tendency to be passive, the type of man whose natural inclination is to allow the women in his life—his mother, his wife, his sister—to take charge and make decisions for him. He’s not only coming out as a gay man, but coming into his own as an adult who is capable of taking responsibility for himself and the people he loves.
Probation opens with a [music] playlist. How important is music in your life and, by extension, your writing?
Popular music is a soundtrack for all of our lives. I used to be an avid record collector, tried to strum an acoustic guitar, and have been known to practice the art of head-bobbing and shoe-gazing at indie band gigs. But, alas, I have no musical talent and pour all my frustrations into my fiction.
You’ve been compared to [Election author] Tom Perrotta—do you consider him one of your influences? Who else do you count among your inspirations?
My undergraduate work was on Faulkner, but he was a genius and I’m a yeoman writer. I am deeply flattered by the comparisons to Tom Perrotta—and not just because he’s paisan. I admire his unsentimental eye and his ability to write about contemporary life without the gloom that pervades most literary fiction. I tend to love individual books rather than writers and I’m a sucker for coming-of-age novels. I’ve read The Last Picture Show many times and it pains me that Richard Bradford’s Red Sky at Morning is sadly forgotten. I also have a special place in my heart for Mark Harris, who was very kind to me a young writer, and his Henry Wiggen books.
In a previous life, you worked in the sales department of several New York publishing houses. What did that experience teach you about the publishing world, and how did it influence your approach to fiction writing?
My prior experience in publishing was critical in the path to publication. I have a “guardian angel” I worked with as young kid at one of the university presses who has gone on to enormous and well-deserved success and who guided me every step along the way.
Is Andy’s disdain for sales anything like your own experience in that field?
No. I loved being a book salesman. We were called book travelers in those days and it was a six-year adventure stomping around the far-flung corners of the country. Unfortunately, there came a time I couldn’t survive on the kingly sum of fourteen grand a year and the law beckoned.
Did you do any fiction writing at Penn?
Yes. Two faculty members in particular had a significant impact on my development as a writer. The late Jerre Mangione took me under his wing and encouraged me to keep pen to paper. He was thrilled to have discovered another Italian who was more interested in the written word than in the visual arts. And Elaine Scarry was one of the most influential individuals in my life. Without her guiding hand and encouragement, I’d be working in a meatpacking plant today.
What are you working on now?
I’m calling it my Philadelphia project. It’s the tale of two brothers from South Philly, sons of an immigrant barber, one of whom is a hair stylist doing cuts and colors in the shop that had been their boyhood home, the other who went on to Princeton and Penn Law and has taken refuge on the Main Line, and it’s all set against the cacophony of the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primary.