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BOOKS Talking with Joseph Cassara, author The House of Impossible Beauties
by Owen Keehnen

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The House of Impossible Beauties is the fictionalized telling of the formation of the House of Xtravaganza, the Latinx house captured in the documentary film Paris is Burning. This beautifully written novel is equal parts grit and glamour, the story of the club kids and young trans people who came together to form a house and become a family. This powerful literary debut is set against a backdrop of 1980s New York City and the AIDS epidemic.

Born in 1989, author Joseph Cassara is too young to remember the era, yet does a miraculous job capturing the period. Recently I had the chance to chat with Cassara about his inspiration for the book, his tricks for literary time travel, his writing process and more.

Windy City Times: Joseph, tell me how your new novel, The House of Impossible Beauties, came about. What was your spark of inspiration for writing it?

Joseph Cassara: It's easier to see in retrospect, but in the beginning, I didn't have a sense that this was going to be a novel. I actually resisted the idea for a while. I was in graduate school and needed to submit a short story for workshop. When I started grad school, I only wanted to write stories because I thought novels were too long, too daunting. So I wrote a story called "Xtravaganza" but the consensus in class was that it wasn't a story. The scope was too large. It wanted to be a novel. I knew my peers were right, so I had a little cry over it, acknowledged that I'm a novelist and not a short story writer, and spent the next couple of years writing the novel.

As far as inspiration is concerned, I always loved the documentary Paris is Burning, so the early sketches were scenes that fused fictional characters with the actual people who were in the House of Xtravaganza. I immersed myself in everything I could—music, photos, the documentary itself, oral and written records of people from the time—in an effort to continually spark my imagination. Now when I look back on it, I can try to articulate my thoughts on why this inspired me and why it felt so urgent. But at the time, it was an obsession that was all-consuming in a way that I didn't quite understand. I just gave into it because I had the time and support to do so, thanks to the funding at my writing program.

So much of queer history has been lost—either because it's been erased or because it was never documented in the first place. When I went back into this archive, I found gaps where there shouldn't have been holes. With this novel, I tried to do the work of deeply imagining a world that I feel the historical record hasn't dealt with as deeply as I wished. I'm trying to do the work of resurrecting these lives, empathizing with them and humanizing them so that I can turn it all into a linear narrative for readers to experience.

WCT: Did the images from Paris is Burning haunt you during the writing?

JC: Oh totally! Who can forget that moment when Pepper LaBeija enters the ballroom wearing that huge gold lamÃï© dress with detachable shoulder pads that are larger than sofa cushions? And then she slowly glides the shoulder pads down her arms and throws them to the side. That moment is burned into my mind, for better or worse!

So there are two boys in the beginning of the film, during the intro montage. Coro's "Silent Morning" is playing in the background—if I recall correctly—and one boy has his arm around the other's shoulder. One has a purple spot on his neck, probably a hickey. I've always wondered if they were just friends, or maybe lovers. They never reappear as the movie continues. When I first watched the movie about a decade ago, their youth didn't startle me as much as it does now. They were just so young. I always imagined their faces when I was writing Juanito and Daniel.

There are also some other images that haunted me while I was writing. The part when we see Venus alone at the piers, next to a boombox and looking off into the distance. Or the part where she says to the camera, "I'm hungry." It's such a loaded phrase.

WCT: House of Xtravaganza was founded in 1982, before your were even born. What about era, the 1980s world in New York, intrigued you?

JC: I grew up in New Jersey in the 1990s, and both of my parents grew up in the Bronx and Brooklyn, where my extended family members still live today. So I felt like I grew up immersed in the sounds and sights of New York during a particularly gritty time. I wanted to tap into that and capture the linguistic cadences and the unintentional beauty of spoken dialect. That is what intrigued me as a student of language. As a student of history, I find it fascinating that in our collective consciousness, the way we conceptualize the 1980s now feels simultaneously familiar and distant. Enough time has passed for us to make sense of the historical, social, and political implications of the era, but it still feels close enough to the present for it to feel familiar in a way that the 1890s or 1930s don't.

I'm interested in the stories that we, as a society, tell ourselves about the past in order to understand ourselves in the present. I was also interested in tapping into this specific historical moment because I think that there has been a dearth of narratives about the way queer and Latin people have lived and struggled. So many of the stories about this era are told from the lens of the middle class, white, gay male experience, and I wanted to do my part to add another angle to the story.

WCT: I see your book as not only a great piece of fiction, but as also important for shining a spotlight on an important piece of trans and Latino history. Did you have any special tricks for getting into the 1980s headspace?

JC: To get into the 1980s head space, I would listen to a lot of house music. I was reading a lot of first person accounts of club experiences, and this led me down a rabbit hole online of finding remixes of house and Latin freestyle and hip hop. It was a lot of fun to sit down at my laptop, put on my headphones, and kind of jam out while I was writing.

When it comes to history, I think that the novelist and historian are after different types of truth. As a novelist, I'm concerned with narrative and poetic truth. I don't think that we owe a reader the same kind of accuracy that an accountant does, for example. While I did do a lot of research to understand what the subway looked like, what the clothing looked like, what the slang sounded like, where the characters would have gone to hang out, there were obviously things that I could not research. That is where I had to project my imagination on to the narrative, and I knew I had to do this in a way that felt consistent with the rest of the world I was creating on the page. I knew that one false note would cause the reader to step back and out of the dream. The goal of the fiction writer is for the reader to suspend disbelief and to continue doing so until the last page. Part of that is by accurately researched details from historical research, and the other part is just narrative consistency.

WCT: Was it difficult to write about AIDS during the 1980s, when so much regarding the virus was about panic and uncertainty. Were you concerned about making the perspective authentic?

JC: I was initially daunted about writing about AIDS during the 80s. My first thought was: does the world really need another AIDS novel? I didn't think that I, as someone who did not live through the stress of the time, could do justice to the subject as well as all the books that came before me. But I knew I wanted to write about this specific house during this specific time, and there was no way to work around the effects of AIDS. If I had not tackled the effects of AIDS, the story would have been emotionally false, even fraudulent.

I tried to view this book as a family novel about runaways who come together to form a proxi-family. My approach wasn't to focus on the socio-political stuff that was happening in the background as much as I wanted to focus on their day-to-day lives. I wanted to explore their hopes, dreams, loves. I wanted to watch them laugh and eat ice cream and cry together. And then when AIDS comes into the picture, I couldn't avoid writing about it, just like they couldn't avoid its effect.

I think that the novelist is always grappling with questions of authenticity because we are constantly trying to sell readers a world that is purely imaginative. Then there are writers, like myself, who are digging into history and it becomes even trickier because readers feel like we owe ourselves a strict representation of history. As if history is automatically billed as Truth. What I find fascinating is how many gaps there are in history, or how history itself is a rather nebulous and unreliable concept because the people who document history had their own biases, preoccupations, and goals. As with any moment in the book, I wanted to make sure that it felt as authentic and emotionally true as possible. I did this by slowing down, trying to fully inhabit the inner lives of my characters, and writing with as much precision as possible. I didn't want to write an AIDS novel that felt exploitative or voyeuristic. I simply wanted to follow these characters' lives, as they laugh, fall in love, struggle, etc. That feels authentic to me.

WCT: Angel, Venus, Hector... Your characters are exceptionally vivid. As a writer, how does a character come to life for you — from the way they look, the way they speak, or their back story?

JC: A character first comes to life in my mind through an especially compelling line of dialogue. Like they're bursting through a door and screaming for my attention. Then I try to imagine what they're wearing, what their face and body look like. Finally, I develop their inner life by understanding where it is they came from, what they went through, and what they desire in the present moment and for the future. At that point, they're fully formed in my mind and I put them in scenes, where I see them interact with each other and the world I've created. What's especially fascinating is how much you still learn about your characters when they're navigating the fictional world. I could find myself hundreds of pages in, and then a character will do something that surprises me and I have to figure out why. Like when you're friends with someone for years and you think you know them so well, then they do something that completely surprises you. Or you learn something about them that throws into question the idea of them that you had spent years constructing in your mind. I think that's a true sign of our own humanity, and characters can also be like this on the page, which is really exciting for a writer.

WCT: What did you want to say about house culture and family with The House of Impossible Beauties?

JC: I don't think I entered the writing process with any specific goals about what I wanted to say or points I wanted to make. For example, I didn't want the narrative to be didactic in any sense. My goal was to create characters who felt real and complex, then follow the moments of their life on the page. I wanted to represent a fictionalized version of their consciousness with as much truth and precision as possible. If I could do that, then it would feel emotionally resonant to readers.

I think that there is a preoccupation in contemporary American letters to explore the meaning of the family structure. We can call this, maybe, The American Family Novel. But when I look out at the literary landscape, I don't really see queer people included in this literary tradition. By exploring House culture and family in this novel, I wanted to use the tropes of The American Family Novel to explore the inner workings of queer proxi-families, and thus, bring them into this literary tradition.

WCT: What's next for you?

JC: I'm working on a novel about an early 20th-century American painter who was closeted. I'm also planning on teaching online creative writing courses this spring and summer through the Fine Arts Work Center and Catapult.

Joseph Cassara will be discussing and signing copies of The House of Impossible Beauties at Unabridged Bookstore, 3251 N. Broadway, on Tuesday, March 6, at 7 p.m. For further information call 773-883-9119.

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