Joseph Cassara reflects on his debut ‘The House of Impossible Beauties’

In addition to celebrating debut authors and their books in 2019, we will look back at some of our favorite recent debuts in a series of short interviews all about the debut experience.

A lot of people might pick up Joseph Cassara‘s The House of Impossible Beauties because they’re fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race. They might expect an insider story of backstabbing queens throwing shade and spilling the tea. Once you open to the first page, you’ll realize this is a touching portrait of the Harlem’s Latinx and black queer community in the late 1980s.

While there is drag, Cassara focuses more on the familial ties these young people feel for one another through life, love, and death. Inspired by the House of Xtravaganza, the author uses their spirit and characteristics to tell a new can’t miss story.

Cassara’s debut came out a year ago on February 6, 2018. He now teaches at Fresno State University and is at work on another novel that may or may not explore another historically queer figure.

What is one thing (piece of advice, writing tip, life hack) you know now that you wish you knew when you first started your debut?

Oh gosh, the importance of balancing a writing life with exercise is super important. I know, I know—we are supposed to exercise because it’s good for our health, yadda yadda. But I’m prone to snacking (sweet tooth), so I like to munch while I’m writing. I like to reward myself with chocolate when I hit my writing quota for the day. It took me a while to realize that intense writing sessions can and should be balanced out with visits to the gym. And not just because it’s healthy! It actually helps me think, calm down, and feel energized to tackle the next writing session.

Don’t just take it from me. I read somewhere—though I don’t remember where—that Vonnegut used to swim every day. Murakami is the same way, except I think he alternates between swimming and running.

After all the interviews you participated in since your debut was released, what is one thing you still want readers to know that may or may not have ever been asked?

Sigh. No one has ever asked me who my favorite Golden Girl is. Answer: Dorothy. When Bea Arthur died, she bequeathed a large sum of money to The Ali Forney Center, a group in NYC that helps LGBT homeless youth. Isn’t that fantastic?

A debut is a beautiful thing, but from conversations with authors, the publicity and touring cycle really takes a toll on writing habits. Are you back into yours now? What’s that look like?

Last spring was pretty difficult because I was navigating book events while also doing interviews for academic teaching jobs. I was zig-zagging my way across the country, running on caffeine and adrenaline. I had no time to write, like zero-point-zero-zero minutes. I’ve only just started re-orienting my life towards this second book, which requires a ton of research. So to answer your question: yes, I’ve finally gotten back into the groove. What that looks like: right now, I have a stack of ten library books on my table to get through. A mix of novels, theory, and history. I really take pleasure in this first phase, when I can read and let all of this information wash over me. Hopefully I can absorb some of it. I do keep a notebook and pen handy so that I can jot down ideas for scenes. Then I write those scenes on to index cards, which I spread on a table or the floor, so I can visualize how the book might take shape, how the plot will unfold. Once I feel like the basic structure of the story is mapped out, I start to write the actual meat of the book. Ideally, when I’m in the thick of it, I will aim for 1-2k words per day.

Debuts are also stressful. What are some things you do outside of the literary world that help you destress or focus?

My big three are: hot yoga, lift weights, go to art museums. I love looking at visual art because it requires no language. I can just look at something and think wow. To decompress, I listen to Rachel Maddow every night while I cook, though this current new reality raises my blood pressure. I take out my anger while chopping veggies. Also, every now and then I like to get stoned (it’s legal in California) and listen to music or podcasts while soaking in the bathtub. I’m really into Radiolab right now, especially the science episodes. I don’t have any training in the sciences, so when their experts talk about the new frontiers in science, I find it marvelous. It helps me look at the world in a new way, and it’s always refreshing to find new things about the world that are beautiful.

Is there a debut in 2019 you’re excited for? What made it stand out?

I’m excited for so many debuts this year, but the two that are at the top of my list are In West Mills by De’Shawn Winslow and The Travelers by Regina Porter. Not only do they both play with language in amazing ways, but they also tell damn good stories.

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