Friday, February 14, 2020

The Past's Second Life as Fiction: a guest post by Philip Cioffari

Today I'm welcoming Philip Cioffari, who has contributed an essay on writing and researching historical fiction set during an era he lived through himself. His newest novel If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues is published today by Livingston Press of the University of West Alabama. For more information, please visit the publisher's site or


The Past's Second Life as Fiction
Philip Cioffari

It’s sobering—and in the right light, amusing—to regard an earlier period of one’s life as historical. Yet that is the reality if what one is writing is set more than fifty years ago. So then (he asks, tongue-in-cheek) does that make the writer himself an historic figure?


At least not in my case: an ordinary guy who grew up in a middle-class housing project in the East Bronx in the 1950s and '60s, and who writes about those days in my new novel, If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues. In summary, it is the story of an eighteen-year-old boy’s serio-comic, twenty-four hour journey into manhood.

When I take a more objective look at things, I can acknowledge that those days are clearly of another period in history. I realize that with absolute clarity when I talk to my students or, for that matter, my nieces and nephews. How little they know of what life was like in that time. How different it is from the world they live in.

Here’s an irony: a writer like me lives as much in the past as he does in the present. So for me those days are less a part of history as they are living things, as alive and real on some level—and this will sound odd—as if they were happening to me now. At least that became true once I began writing this book. One memory led to another. A door opened to reveal another door. And so on. I was given the gift of time-travel.

Which is not to say I didn’t do my research. There are things one forgets—details of people and places and of the culture at large. And although the book is fiction, I want it to read as if it were true—every word of it. I want it to be, in its way, a document of history, particularly with regard to the feelings of the characters, the pulse of that time and place. As the country singer, Patsy Cline, once said: “I want every song I sing to be like an entry in my diary. I want the listener to know what I did and felt, exactly what it was like.”

author Philip Cioffari
(credit: Ken Haas)
To achieve that end, I began with my memories which, as I’ve said, there are many. Then I did my field research which consisted, first of all, of re-visiting the places of my youth. Though the demographics of the Bronx may have changed—different people, different cultures now—the streets and buildings and parks and playgrounds have not. They still throb with feeling, echoes of what lives inside me. Because my novel takes place on my main character’s birthday, which also happens to be his prom night, I made it a point to re-visit the church where dances were held in the basement, the places I went to post-dance, the beach where I worked one summer, and of course the housing project with its playgrounds and handball courts and ball field, and its uniform 7 to 12 story red-brick buildings. Some things, though, have been lost: the corner candy stores, for example, replaced now by bodegas; the newsstands, where the neighborhood men would wait after dinner for the evening edition of the Daily News; the Italian Pork stores with skinned rabbits hanging in the window; the German deli’s with their pretzels and barrels of dill pickles; the Irish pubs with the sour reek of beer that would greet us from their open doors in the morning on our way to school.

For the vanished past, I did another kind of research: old photos, newspaper clippings, school yearbooks, shared stories with friends and family members whose memories, for certain things, were even sharper than mine. And, most assuredly, one last tool I should mention: my collection of old 45’s, scratched and dusty, which I replayed often. Like the places I re-visited, those songs, those oldies but goodies, each and every one of them, was a reliquary of memories.

And each memory was another door that opened.

Philip Cioffari grew up in the Bronx. He is the author of the novels: Catholic Boys; Dark Road, Dead End; Jesusville: The Bronx Kill; and the story collection, A History of Things Lost or Broken, which won the Tartt First Fiction Prize, and the D.H. Lawrence Award. His stories have appeared widely in anthologies, literary journals and commercial magazines. He wrote and directed the independent feature film, Love in the Age of Dion, which won a number of film festival awards, including Best Picture at the Long Island International Film Expo, and Best Director at the NY Film & Video Festival. He is professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey. Find him online at


  1. Songs are often a gateway to the past as they make you think of events, people, places!

    I love the idea of the past having a second life.

    1. Yes, music can do that for me too. It's interesting how well I can remember songs from decades ago, and they remind me of other things in my life from that time.