In conversation: Joseph Cassara

As part of the College of Arts and Humanities blog series on new faces in the college, we will introduce you to three accomplished professors and authors who are joining the Department of English and the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing for academic year 2018-19.

Next up: Joseph Cassara, fiction, in conversation with MFA communication specialist Jefferson Beavers.

What are you most looking forward to, teaching at Fresno State?

I am really looking forward to meeting my students this semester and discussing the state of contemporary fiction. I’ve added quite a few short stories to my syllabus that have been published within the past year, so I’m excited to hear how my students respond to these new texts. It’s always refreshing to pair established and canonical works with new voices, and I want to show my students the types of conversations that are taking place in the world of literary fiction.

Your debut novel, The House of Impossible Beauties, was published in February 2018 by Ecco Press, an imprint of HarperCollins. What’s your book about, and what about the book makes you the most proud?

If I had to deliver a one-line elevator pitch for the book, I’d say it’s about a group of queer Latinx teens in the New York City ball scene of the 1980s and ’90s. It’s similar to the television show “Pose” that just recently aired. I wanted to write a book that fused the traditions of the American Family Novel with a queer and Nuyorican aesthetic sensibility.

I’m really happy when I see people engaging with the book, whether that be a book critic, a young queer person, or someone on Instagram. I’m most proud when individual readers send me messages on social media about their experience reading the book. I spent a couple of years of my life working on it alone, so now that it is out in the world, it’s always surreal and exciting to see people engaging with it.

What are your teaching specialties? How did you become involved with those areas?

I teach creative writing, and my specialty is fiction. While I do enjoy teaching short stories, my main specialty as a novelist is in long-form fiction. I’m interested in the ways that book-length projects are structured, whether it be a novel or a collection of stories that are joined by a shared set of characters or themes. I have also taught courses on contemporary LGBT novels and the literary output associated with the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.

How do you hope your background will elevate the English Department’s offerings at Fresno State?

I’m really interested in the ways that diverse voices are changing the landscape of contemporary American letters, and I hope that the texts I assign on my syllabi reflect that diversity. Fresno State is such a diverse campus in one of the most culturally rich regions of the entire country, and I hope that I can use my training as a fiction writer to help students become stronger writers so they can bring to life the stories they feel are vital and integral lenses into contemporary American life.

I’m also excited to join the department at the same time with Venita Blackburn, who is a fabulous short-fiction writer. I think that my focus on the long form and her focus on short stories will allow students to study the full range of possibilities in fiction.

What are you reading right now?

I usually read multiple books at once, so here are the three books on my nightstand right now: “How to Love a Jamaican” by Alexia Arthurs, “A Place For Us” by Fatima Farheen Mirza, and “There There” by Tommy Orange. All three of them are debuts that were published this summer, and they’re all fantastic.

What is a book you think everyone should read, and why?

“A Brief History of Seven Killings” by Marlon James. Don’t let the title mislead you: This Booker Prize-winning novel is anything but brief. It’s about 700 pages long, if I recall correctly, and it alternates between about 70 first-person narrators. It’s a page-turner that is also a master class in voice and narration. I couldn’t put it down when I first read it a couple of years ago.

What’s a fun fact people may not know about you?

I love to collect old records and I practice hot yoga—though it’s been so hot here this summer, I haven’t had a chance to visit the local studio yet!

What are your fall 2018 office hours?

I’ll be in my office on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., or by appointment. If any student can’t come to campus during those hours, I plan on holding video conferences via Zoom as well.

In this series:
Aug. 20—Brynn Saito
Aug. 27—Venita Blackburn
Sept. 4—Joseph Cassara
Joining us Fall 2019—Mai Der Vang


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