Giardina as Creator of Plays, Novels, and Short Stories
We're sitting at a small table downstairs at the Haymarket Cafe
in Northampton, and Anthony Giardina is nursing a pot of tea and
pondering the literary life.
"You worry, you worry," he replies to a question about the outlook
for him and his work. "Where's it going, if the novel doesn't do
well ... are they going to do this new play or will it take another
10 years. The non-fiction ... editors change and move on ... I'm
terribly worried all the time."
This brief moment of self-doubt surprises me because for as many
years as I've known Tony Giardina, a long-time neighbor on North
Main Street in Florence, he has projected a spirit of optimism and
self-confidence bred of hard work.
Yet, for most of our conversation, Giardina talks good naturedly
and with humor about his writing career, its ups and downs, and
what for the moment seems to be a sustained high point.
Random House has published his third novel "Recent History" and
is sending him on a six-city book tour in April, which pleases him
as did the favorable review in a recent New York Times Sunday Book
Last Spring, the renowned Long Wharf Theater in New Haven mounted
a well-received month-long production of Giardina's "The Black Forest,"
a play filled with substance and humor about stupidity, lax morality
and poor choices by faculty, spouses and students on a elite college
As a consequence of the success of that production, the theater's
director asked Giardina to write a play about the Catholic Church,
which he has done and is now in the process of rewriting and revising.
Finally, he and wife Eileen and youngest daughter spent the fall
semester in Austin, Texas, where Giardina taught writing at the
University of Texas, the second such teaching stint for him at that
"I had a wonderful time there, I was teaching graduate students,
the Michener Center pays graduate students $15,000 a year to go
there," he said. "They are a relaxed and interesting group."
While he is between large projects at the moment, he says he wants
to begin work on a new novel by the summer.
For Giardina, who was born in 1950 to Italian immigrant parents,
the writing life took root in Waltham, Mass., where his father was
an insurance salesman and his mother a homemaker.
"I was just one of those literary kids, I would sit in the living
room and read," he recalled. "I also loved the feel of books, to
hold them in my hand."
By the 1960s, his father was doing well, had bought a rooming house
and laundromat, and everyone (there are two other children) pitched
in at the family businesses.
By 1964, the family moved from its tiny house to a more spacious
home in a upper middle class development, a dramatic change in his
life to which Giardina says he keeps returning in his work.
He attended Fordham University where he was involved in the theater,
mainly acting. After graduating in 1973, he stayed in New York,
living on the upper West Side, and tried to make it as an actor,
but also began writing plays.
By 1977 his first play "Living at Home" was produced, not only in
New York, but at the Arena Stage in Washington and in Provincetown.
Writing for the theater in those days "was not so hard, there was
lots of money around, lots of experimental plays, New York was a
cheaper, looser place, it cost $3 to see a play."
Working at odd jobs, including some teaching at City College and
work in a bookstore, he was getting by on $10,000 a year, "quite
happily in the late 70s."
Married and with a new daughter, "the living in New York really
changed," he explained. In 1983 a friend who was living in Belchertown
invited the Giardinas to come stay while Tony worked on his first
novel. "When I was younger, I believed in the romantic gesture,
coming to the country and being a novelist."
He and Eileen liked what they saw of Northampton, there was a Chinese
restaurant, Sze's, and a movie theater or two: "This is cool," he
In 1984 his first novel "Men With Debts," a book about an insurance
salesman, was published to "good reviews" and "sold okay."
"Then I had to write another novel, and I learned the first one
was a fluke," he acknowledged. "The voice had come to me, but I
hadn't done my apprenticeship. I hadn't learned how to write a novel."
"You are out here, you' re starting a life thinking you can be a
fiction writer,'' he told himself. "You haven't the foggiest idea
how to write a novel. This was very discouraging."
But forge ahead, he did. "You don't have a choice." In 1988 his
second novel "A Boy's Pretensions" was rejected by his publisher,
although his agent finally did find a publisher for it. "It did
terribly, I was not happy."
Meanwhile, "luckily or unluckily," Giardina had gotten hired to
teach writing at Mount Holyoke College, which, before long, turned
into almost a 10-year gig. That work in combination with his wife's
earnings as a nurse at Bay State Medical Center kept the family
He got the Mount Holyoke job, he says "all because I had written
a first novel, but I felt a little at sea. Here I was being paid
to be an expert. That's the terrible wrong of writing programs.
When I look back, what the hell was I saying in those classes?"
Today, he says, he can teach writing "with much more authority."
By 1995, Mount Holyoke was reevaluating its writing program and
Giardina was deciding "it was time for me to stop that life and
to cut out on my own."
His short stories were beginning to sell, he tried his hand at journalism
and cobbled together pieces for Harper's, and got assignments from
GQ. There were occasional grants, and he sold a book of stories
to Random House.
As a result of his experiences at Mount Holyoke he had started in
1989 writing his play about the soft underbelly of the world of
academia - "The Black Forest " He did a number of drafts and rewrote
it until it was put on at a workshop by the Seattle Repertory Theater
in 1994 and then finally had its major production at Long Wharf
last spring, 11 years after he began work on it.
Its successful run in New Haven has not yielded other productions.
"There's been zero interest, it's a low-grade, sore spot for me,"
The play based on the inappropriate relationship of a "beloved"
teacher and a student focuses on how the institution handled the
delicate issue - basically "they never talked about it. Little did
they know I was taking notes."
The current play about the Catholic Church, of which Giardina is
a practicing member, is about "the function and role of the priest
right now. The challenge for me is to write from within the faith."
His previous book, published in 1997, was a book of stories titled
"In the Country of Marriage," which earned a solid review in the
New York Times, but some critics found the characters "detached
His new novel, "Recent History," is about a 12-year-old boy whose
Italian-American father moves out of the family's middle-class home
in 1962 and goes across town to live with another man. The second
half of the novel finds the son going off to find the father he
has not seen for 30 years. Much of what the novel is about, says
Giardina "is the shift in men's lives, which used to be defined
by material success, but now men have to define what intimacy is."
Increasingly, in his imagined works, Giardina says that "what really
interests me is sexuality and intimacy, what people find hard to
The New York Times critic described "Recent History" as "graceful",
and said Giardina "manages to handle an enormous amount of emotional
material with a light touch .... Giardina makes us care, in the
end, what happens to our hero."
As he prepares to start a new novel, he is reminded of the five
years he worked on "Recent History." "It was painful all of the
way. It was like pulling teeth, but I'm getting a really good response
So Mr. Literary Man, which is it that animates him most - plays,
journalism, short stories, or the novel?
He pauses, he ponders the question.
"If I could only do one thing for the rest of my life, I would only
write short stories.
"I can do the best work, I can do the most beautiful things."
What Did They Know and When Did They Know It?
by Edward Shanahan
Ambling downstreet these days, I'm struck by the contrast of the
busy, seemingly robust retail activity and the empty bank building
looming on the corner of Gothic Street across from the courthouse.
Until snapped up at auction by real estate wheeler-dealer Eric Suher,
the former Northampton Institution for Savings, Heritage Bank, and
finally Fleet Bank office had gone begging for many months.
The bank building - no architectural treasure - but a good looking
structure inside and out - stands as a reminder of the holes left
in Northampton by the collapse of the Heritage Bank in the wake
of pell-mell bank deregulation in the 1980s.
Surely, the investors in the bank who lost money when they invested
in their hometown bank, the employees who lost jobs when the bank
failed, the suppliers to businesses which had borrowed money from
the bank, and the taxpayers who helped with the bailout have moved
on in their lives. Nearly 10 years after Heritage failed, Richard
Covell, former bank president and architect of its explosive growth
and eventual self destruction, can be seen tooling around town in
his very large Cadillac.
And his allies in the bank debacle are all but forgotten, if any
of us ever knew who they were - members of the bank's board of directors
who failed in their fiduciary responsibility to the bank's stockholders,
employees, depositors, and the taxpayers. For the record, let's
summon up again those thrilling days of yesteryear.
Let's go back to the 1998 sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court
in Springfield of Michael Smith, former Northampton golden boy,
who got in over his head as a top lending officer of the Heritage
Bank. Caught up in the avarice of the go-go 1980s, Smith accepted
bribes and committed fraud, activities to which he pleaded guilty.
Out of curiosity, I sat in on the sentencing hearing that day when
federal Judge Michael A. Ponsor ordered Smith to serve 18 months
at a federal prison camp for his crimes.
I recall revealing statements made during that hearing - I took
notes - including those by Smith's lawyer, George Kelly, who while
not denying that Smith acted illegally, said his client at the time
of his crimes was inexperienced and lacked supervision. There was
pressure on the bank after its public stock offering of $55 million
"to put money on the street." Those loans, Kelly said, "would have
been made anyway if Mr. Smith had been on another planet." Yet,
others associated with the bank "have essentially walked away from
From the bench, Ponsor agreed: An argument can be made, he said,
that Smith was inexperienced; it is hard to imagine the bank placing
so much responsibility in such a young man. Smith's aggressive lending
practices, the judge said, probably reflected the bank's own goals.
"Where he crossed the line," the judge said pointedly, "was when
he pocketed the cash, when he put the envelope in his pocket."
And I recall Judge Ponsor, a man with a reputation for integrity
and fairness, sharply admonished the bank, saying while it did much
good by contributing to the community, it "had no business" going
public because it lacked the "worldliness, sophistication and competence"
to handle the ocean of money that flooded into its coffers. "In
that sense, the bank itself betrayed the community."
Then addressing the defendant, the judge said: "Mr. Smith you are
not solely responsible."
Thus, at the tailend of a long-running legal ordeal, Ponsor had
raised anew the nagging question who else had responsibility for
the collapse of what was once a well-respected $2 billion financial
Depositors and investors are entitled to have an unshakable trust
in their bank, its employees, and its paid directors, the ultimate
management . According to one respected former banker I talked to
at the time, a bank director's job "is to ask a lot of questions."
The paid directors were not just any old volunteers dragged in off
the street for the monthly board meetings. The board was composed
of doctors, lawyers, CEOs of large companies, top college officials
and administrators - in other words so-called pillars of the community.
Yet they all seem to be missing in action when the going got tough
and everything turned rancid.
For the record, between December, 1986, and Dec. 31., 1991, shortly
before the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. takeover, the number
of Heritage directors fluctuated between 18 and 25; the cast changed
as mergers expanded the geography of the area served by the bank.
The information comes from reports from the state Office of the
Commissioner of Banks.
Besides Covell, the bank president, some directors - movers and
shakers all - were on the board for the entire six-year period prior
to the collapse: Peter R. Elliott, Charles F. Watters Jr., Donald
J. Southwick, Allen Torrey of Amherst, Dr. Joseph Tarantino and
Lawrence A. Fink of Northampton, and Robert F. Mahar of Florence.
Others who served for several years were Atty. David Fogel and Joseph
J. Whalen of Northampton, Nancy B. Eddy, Douglas C. Elder and Kurt
Hertzfeld of Amherst, and David M. Bartley and Robert K. Steiger
of Holyoke. Other local figures of note on the board for two years
were Charles Bisbee of Chesterfield and Atty. Kenneth B. Bowen of
Some directors who were on board and left were R.C. Peck, J.C. Nettleton,
James D. Watt, J.T. Conlon, L. Nims, and J.C. Manning. They were
replaced by John W. Fridlington, David M. Blair, Atty. Robert A.
Gelinas, Robert S. Carroll, Roy A. Scott, R. Feinstein, Atty. Maurice
J. Ferriter, Jeannette T. Wright and Frederic E. Schluter.
At the conclusion of the sentencing hearing, as the elevator took
us down from Judge Ponsor's courtroom, an official of the FDIC volunteered:
"You can put a C (as in closed) next to the Heritage case."
Maybe we can, even though we still don't know the whole story.