A Family Project: Interview with Dennis Billuni
Of all the writers I’ve worked with, none has made me so proud as my dad, Dennis Billuni, who just published his first novel, Journey To Marseilles (Hellgate, 2017). “I kept getting bogged down, until I started to work with you back in 2011. I think one of the first things I remember you saying to me was, ‘You know how it ends, don't you?’ When I said yes, you said, ‘Well, go write the ending.’ And that's how we started.”
That’s not how we started, actually. Several decades before I became a writing teacher, he and my mom (Terrie Billuni) taught me to love books. That’s how we started. His novel reimagines the story of how my grandparents survived the war and found love, bringing his intergenerational family project full circle. In this interview, we discuss his influences, his process, and what it means to publish a book about Nazi resistance in 2017.
Kristy Lin Billuni: Congratulations on publishing your first novel. How does it feel?
Dennis Billuni: It is an amazing experience, especially since I am getting to share it with your mom and you.
KLB: It has really been a family project. You’ve always wanted to write this novel, and you’ve always loved the novel form. I remember you had paperback novels stashed everywhere when I was a kid! How has reading influenced the book?
DB: It's very interesting you bring up that question in light of a conversation I recently had with a New York Times bestselling author. He told me he doesn't read other novels for fear of "plagiarizing" a line from someone else's work. I've always felt that to grow as a writer you have to read, read, read anything that interests you. I think most writers agree. I once asked at LJWC (La Jolla Writer Conference) whether I should be afraid of sounding too much like my favorite writers—Ray Bradbury, for example. The answer I got was I should take it as a compliment if someone said my writing reminded them of another writer, like Ray Bradbury.
KLB: Yes, it's wonderful to stand on the shoulders of the writers we've read. So Ray Bradbury is an influence? Anyone else?
DB: I think one of my strengths as a writer is my dialogue. My dialogue hero is Elmore Leonard. I'll be ecstatic if anyone ever says my dialogue reminds them of Elmore Leonard. Other authors who are big influences for me are the old pulp fiction author Robert E. Howard; the dean of SciFi writers, Robert Heinlein; John Irving, Philip Roth, and last but certainly not least, Ernest Hemingway.
KLB: And the inspiration for the book, my oma (Dutch for grandma) and nano (Italian forgrandpa), your parents?
DB: For years before we began seriously working on Journey to Marseilles, I had been remembering and writing about the stories I remembered your oma telling [my brother] Rick and me about their experiences during World War II. I had taken some creative writing classes at both Grossmont College and San Diego State, where I would write short pieces about my memories.
KLB: And those short pieces led you to the novel?
DB: I had several false starts trying to write a full length novel. I would get started with one chapter and get bogged down. I think the first one I tried to write was when your nano met Bob January at the candy store in Detroit. He was taking bottles back for their deposits and some other boys wanted to take his bottles. Your nano was prepared to do battle with several boys when Bob January showed up and rescued him.
KLB: Remind me, did that story make it into the final, published version?
DB: It generated a couple of different scenes. I used pieces of it in three different flashbacks, I believe.
KLB: You were also editing novels before you started writing this one. How did your experience as an editor contribute to your process?
DB: All those years of editing made me even more aware of grammar and structure, and the owner of the editing company I worked for sent me to my first writer's conference, the La Jolla Writer's Conference (LJWC), which I atttended from an editor's viewpoint for the first few years. After a few years, being exposed to the creative thinking at LJWC, I started to think I could write at least as well as most of the manuscripts I had been editing, so I began again and attended the conference from a writer's perspective, which helped a lot.
KLB: So you recommend writers conferences for beginning writers?
DB: They are invaluable, not only for beginning writers but for all writers. It's not only about the information and writing techniques presented at the different workshops and lectures but also about the inspiration you get from other writers.
KLB: I had a front row seat to your process, and one of the things that struck me was how collaborative you are. Can you talk a little about working with your wife, my mom, on this book?
DB: Your mom is always the first one to hear or read what I have written. Usually, I read it aloud to her first, and then she will take the printed pages and read them over. Her first reactions will tell me a lot if I'm on the mark or missing it. Discussions always ensue about how the writing sounds.
KLB: I think most people see writing as a solitary activity, but it hasn't been for you. Or are some parts still solitary?
DB: When I'm doing the actual writing I like to shut myself away with no distractions, not even music.
KLB: Did it take you a long time to figure out that was what you needed or did it just seem like the natural way to write for you?
DB: Yes, it seemed like the way to go for me. But as soon as I'm finished with the piece I'm working on, I go to your mom. She's not the kind to say, "Oh, that's so wonderful!" She always gives me objective reactions to what I've written. Then I go back and start again if I miss the mark. I think your mom described my first version of the final chapter as "cheesy." I thought it was so romantic and sentimental that I had tears running down my face when I tried to read it aloud. [Laughs] The final version is very different from that first effort to write the ending.
KLB: Both of the characters in your book are Americans dedicated to fighting Nazis. What was it like to publish this book about American resistance in the same month that American Nazis raised their flags publicly and shocked a lot of people?
DB: I was pretty damned shocked too. Your oma and nano both felt personally threatened by the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. In my view, your nano felt like he didn't have any choice but to join the army and do something about it. It may have been a little naive on his part to think he could personally stop Hitler, but I don't think he would have hesitated if he'd had Hitler in his sights. Your oma was caught up in it and also did what she had to. I don't think we can just go along and think this will pass. If my book can point out the evil contained in that hateful thinking, that's great.
I love to talk to writers like my dad about the process of writing. Follow Dennis Billuni on GoodReads and Facebook and buy Journey To Marseilles. To meet more writers in social media, follow me, The Sexy Grammarian, on Twitter and check out my novelists and publishers Twitter list. Or share books with me on GoodReads. Yearning to jump into the writer’s life yourself? My free ebook, Arouse Your Writer Self, will get you going. Want more? Private sessions with me are more affordable than you think, and the first one’s free.