Taking Inspiration from James Dean
An Interview with Antonietta Trapani
“I watched all of James Dean’s movies when I was a teenager. Grace Kelly movies too. But I was just naturally attracted to Dean’s energy in his movies. It always struck me that no matter what character he was playing, there was always something simmering underneath, some potential for the unexpected to happen.”
What about James Dean inspired you— rather than, say, Grace Kelly or Princess Diana? Why him specifically?
I watched all of James Dean’s movies when I was a teenager. Grace Kelly movies too. But I was just naturally attracted to Dean’s energy in his movies. It always struck me that no matter what character he was playing, there was always something simmering underneath, some potential for the unexpected to happen. I saw “Looking for Jimmy” as a story about someone – a young person – at a precipice in life, and James Dean just seemed like the fit I was looking for in a parallel.
What were the steps of writing this story? What came first?
I began the story with the idea of visiting James Dean’s grave. I wanted the central action of the story to take place around this journey to the cemetery but wanted there to be some ambiguity in the sense of where they were going and why. When I did a little background research into the death of James Dean, I saw the photo of his wrecked Porsche that had been published in some magazines not long after his death and that gave me the idea for the first line and opening scene of the story. The rest of the story seemed to come rather organically after that – with many rounds of editing, of course!
The way you write about adolescence was beautiful. What drew you to writing about that stage of life? Did you pull all the details from personal experience, or did you do research?
Thank you! I was drawn to the stage of life because it is a stage where so much is about to happen. I wanted to capture that feeling of being on a precipice. I did pull the central action of visiting James Dean’s grave from my personal life. Many years ago, my older brother and I drove to see James Dean’s grave, and that experience has stayed in my head as a potential for a short story. When I finally sat down to write “Looking for Jimmy,” I thought about what my own adolescence felt like to me. While B’s story is definitely not my own, I did center it in that same sense of restlessness and longing.
There is a bittersweet nostalgia that runs through your story. Was that intentional? How did you go about creating that atmosphere?
I didn’t begin writing this story with the intention of grounding it in any kind of nostalgia, but I realized after some rounds of editing that I was leaning into it organically. The first drafts of the story were more atmospheric and vague, written in the second person with a distant voice. B’s connection to Danny and the mom were also less realized. In the end, those drafts were not as grounded as I wanted them to be. I added more scenes and layers to the journey B takes with Danny, focusing on the memories and feelings the journey evokes in her. Then, the nostalgia aspect started coming through.
Throughout this story, desire and love are the strongest themes. Why did you decide to describe grief through this lens?
The balance of desire, love, and grief were the elements I had in mind as tying B and her mom together. Even though the mom is tangential to the action, her presence is throughout, especially for B. In that sense I saw them as sort of distant mirror images. I saw B as coming to the recognition that she carries a lot of desire in herself in a way that her mom also did, but her mom was unable to balance it all. Through the grief of her mother leaving, I saw B as having more understanding of the potential of her love and desire, both positive and negative. In that sense, I also wanted some hope to shine through the grief.
The last sentences bring everything together so succinctly. Do you write to bring order into chaos?
This is such a good question! I do think there is an element of that sense of ordering chaos when I wrote this story, and it’s something I have done in other stories as well. However, I am not sure it is a constant intention in all my writing.
Do you have a writing routine or writing rituals?
I wish I was better about routine but, for now, writing routine is about finding time between work and kids, etc. I began working toward my MFA last year in an effort, in some part, to make writing a part of my daily life. When I am being “good” I wake up very early, have coffee, read a bit for inspiration, and write for a couple of hours before going to work. In the evenings after work, dinner, kids to bed, etc. I will read and edit the day’s writing. I love to use music as inspiration. When I was writing this story, I listened to a lot of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and I had “Tea for the Tillerman” on near constant loop (nostalgia!). Music is really my one constant writing ritual.
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