James Gianetti, author of CALVIN KLEIN published by ELJ Editions, 2024

An Interview with Author James Gianetti

By Anna Babineau | April 25, 2024

We sat down with James Gianetti, author of Calvin Klein (ELJ Editions, 2024) and Fatal Flaw contributor, to discuss his new novelette, the craft of writing an unconventional narrative, and his portrayal of vulnerability in a long-term friendship.

Anna Babineau: For me, reading Calvin Klein evoked early memories of turning out the lights and leaping into my bed to avoid the monsters lurking beneath. But your novelette gives new meaning to the childhood fear of the monster in the closet. What inspired your story?

James Gianetti: I always wanted to write a character that occupies that ambiguous area between good and evil. On top of that, I wanted to explore a character that is misunderstood in terms of how we perceive them. The story lands on something familiar with the whole “monster in the closet” trope and the recurring themes and ideas affiliated with it. However, I wanted to challenge our understanding and feelings toward these imaginary beings that typically take on this persona of a villainous or antagonistic type by giving them a moral compass. To turn those themes upside down was a really interesting place to be. To offer a new scenario, where they are using their ability to induce fear as a tactic for good, offered stakes and levity.

Anna Babineau: This may sound like a silly question, but of all the clothing brands, why Calvin Klein?

James Gianetti: Funny enough, I was back and forth on that and Ralph Lauren. Since our monster occupies the space in the closet filled with jackets and clothes, I came up with a playful way for him to have an identity for the first time in his existence. There is a scene where our human protagonist grants him his name based on his favorite Calvin Klein jacket that the monster hides behind in their first interaction. It’s also a juxtaposition of this unbecoming, scaly, slimy monster taking the name of a brand synonymous with style and elegance.

Anna Babineau: Both characters, though they’ve been “roommates” for twenty years, are keeping secrets from one another. It seems that the only way they are able to communicate the truth is through writing letters. Can you speak to this?

James Gianetti: Off-kilter communication is such a driving force in this story, especially since our human protagonist has never seen Calvin. I just think there are certain communication channels in which people like me can express themselves more purely. For me, I definitely express myself with more authenticity and candor when writing. Not just fiction. I can write a knockout wedding speech or birthday card haha. It can make you feel like a fraud. You know, something you hide behind. But that feeling and notion are the bones and foundation of this story.

Anna Babineau: Calvin, as we discover, is an unreliable narrator–we don’t know the truth of what’s going on with Sam until Calvin does. What traditions, authors, and works influenced your writing?

James Gianetti: I like to steer clear of traditional storytelling when possible. Experimentation with typography is something I love doing as long as it isn’t gratuitous and serves a purpose for the story. If there's an opportunity to instill an unconventional sequence that can get the point across in a way beyond typical sentence structure, I will reach for it. Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club was a loose inspiration for the dynamic between the protagonists in the story. Then there are the bonds humans have with their dogs, cats, etc. Those connections are as strong as those among humans. Sometimes stronger. That too served as inspiration for the theme of connecting to the spirit of a being rather than the flesh and bone.

Anna Babineau: Calvin is not an adorable Disney-Pixar monster, to say the least. Why juxtapose Calvin’s “gross out monster body horror” with the loving and complicated relationship between him and Sam?

James Gianetti: The rawness of Calvin symbolizes any long-term friendship–or relationship, for that matter. All long-term relationships have dirt in their nails and grease in their pores. Their friendship represents a lot of dysfunction and vulnerability that is inevitable in a long-lasting bond. In this story, they both hold secrets that aren’t easily divulged, and it creates friction.

Anna Babineau: There are so many great references to rock and roll music throughout your piece. “Space Oddity,” in particular, is referenced twice. How does music play a role in your writing and creative process?

James Gianetti: Most of my inspiration comes from music. I love bands that can tell a story in their songs. A lot of my fresh ideas or a story or story beat come after listening to music. I have been listening to a lot of The National, Sam Fender, Airborne Toxic Event. Springsteen. Rock and Roll has been rooted in my DNA since I was a boy. My dad supplied a musical education on Bowie, The Stones, Bob Dylan, Zeppelin, etc. I read something recently where David Bowie stated it [“Space Oddity”] was actually a song about isolation. Being isolated in this little capsule but seeing the universe from your window. That’s exactly where we find Calvin, who is confined to this tight physical space but has a clear view of what his “universe” is. In so many ways, it’s where we find Sam as well, even though he has the entire world at his disposal.

Anna Babineau: Calvin Klein is, in many ways, a coming-of-age tale. How, if at all, does your work as a middle school teacher influence your take on what it means to grow up?

James Gianetti: The age group I work with are all at an inflection point in their lives. On the cusp of making the transition into high school, which we can all agree is a rite of passage of growing up. I have seen how much happens as far as change and growth in a finite amount of time. The storyteller in me always likens their progression from September to June to a character arc.

Anna Babineau: Short story, novelette, novella… A work of short fiction can fall into many categories. How did you decide on a novelette for Calvin Klein?

James Gianetti: It evolved over time, starting as a very short story that did not work or land well at all. It became clear pretty quickly that this story was meant to have a bigger scope. I was lucky to learn from Rebecca Van Laer, whose feedback throughout was invaluable. Every time I showed her a new draft it kept expanding, but I was okay with that! I think there was a point where I could have kept going with it, but it would have felt too padded out. It would have taken the air out of it. I'm always trying to do better with getting my point across in fewer pages.

Anna Babineau: What are you working on now?

James Gianetti: I have a couple short stories in the works. One is already in the can. My compulsive nature is to always have something in the works. Always have to be plotting the next thing. There's been this unintentional cohesiveness with my stories as of late, so my goal is to form a collection of maybe eight stories.  

Anna Babineau: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

James Gianetti: Write a story you yourself would read. Read as much as you can. Find stories you wish you wrote. I tend to take liberties when it comes to the “write what you know” mantra. It works for many writers, but I am at my best when I abandon that.

You can purchase Calvin Klein here

About the author

James Gianetti’s stories and work have been published in places like SmokeLong Quarterly, Fatal Flaw, Hobart, Crow Name, and Hearth & Coffin, where he received an editor’s choice award. His short story “The Stray” was a quarterfinalist in the Driftwood Press In-House Short Story Contest. Beyond writing, James holds an M.A. in special education and teaches middle school special education in New Jersey. You can find him on twitter @Jamesgianetti or at JamesGianetti.com

Anna Babineau is a writer and editor based in Massachusetts. She loves writing that explores the heartbreak and complexity of coming-of-age, especially when it comes with lyrical sentences that beg to be savored. Some of her favorite books of the moment include My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher, and, for her YA fix, Looking for Alaska by John Green. 

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