Novelist William Giraldi found writing his memoir The Hero's Body at once arduous and simple.
The book entwines his experiences as a teenage bodybuilder, the story of his ultra-macho working-class family and his father's untimely death in a motorcycle crash when he was in his 40s, the author in his 20s.
"I really started writing it when my father died 16 years ago," he says. "The writing was periodic. I struggled to put all of the material down. Memoir is such a wily genre. I didn't want to be a part of it, but if a book wants to be written, sooner or later it gets written."
In the meantime, Giraldi published two very different novels, the comedic Busy Monsters and the savagely intense Hold the Dark. But writer friends Sven Birkerts and Steve Almond enthusiastically responded to Giraldi's testosterone engorged tales of growing up in the aptly named Manville, New Jersey, and urged him to get them down on paper. His editor at Norton agreed.
Each of Giraldi's three books is a different breed, but telling his own story was a new kind of excavation. "The writing of a memoir is considerably easier because I didn't have to make everything up," he says. "I don't mean it was easy to write; it wasn't. But the problem when you can invent anything at all is you might invent the wrong things."
The memoir instead drills into two generations of Giraldis, men who reveled in action, watched Clint Eastwood movies, drove motorcycles at blazing speeds and revised their bodies before a sacrificial weight bench.
"We considered ourselves the models of machismo," Giraldi says. "We considered ourselves the epitomy of manhood. We weren't. There was an ever-trembling vulnerability beneath it: my father's wish and need for camaraderie. My own need for communion."
The catholic rituals of Giraldi's youth serve as poetic underpinning to the story.
"I look back on these (bodybuilding) years as a search for essence," he says. "There's a degree to which it was cultish. We were working on our muscles, but really searching for something else. We were this band of disillusioned Catholics who had been raised in the church but no longer believed. Essentially we formed our own church, the church of sacrifice and pain, of self-torture. There's a riff in the book that every bodybuilder becomes a Christlike figure. It's a self-crucifixion. We seek to rise as something greater. At 18 years old I just got caught up in the ethos of this environment."
His father sliced through backroads at dangerous speeds on his motorcycle, while Giraldi injected illegal steroids and obsessively chiseled his frame. "It was that illegality that was the proof of strength,” Giraldi says.
Lurking behind the surface of all the machismo is Giraldi's mother, who abandoned the family when he was still a boy. He purposely left her story on the sidelines, concerned that it would send the book off in the wrong direction. “The truth is that nothing in the book would have happened without her,” he says. “Her decision—her flight—put everything in motion.”
Along with its insight into manhood, The Hero's Body reveals the author's lifelong love affair with literature. His childhood obsession with forming the perfect body has transformed for him into an ache to create the perfect sentence.
"The word is everything," he says. "The liturgy capitalizes the word Word. It's part of the reason a book is so hard for me to write. It's why a 2,000-word essay takes me two weeks to write. The words! Fighting for the right ones. Without them, the book doesn't live. Every book lives or dies by its language. The language has got to be both surprising and precise."
For Giraldi, the British romance poets are a greater influence than prose writers. "You see with poets that style is inextricably wed to substance," he says. "Without the right language, nothing else matters."
Giraldi hopes in the end that the memoir treats his family with honor and respect. Looming large is his grandfather, Pop, who the author sees as a gentler version of the father figure and title character in Pat Conroy's The Great Santini.
"He loomed over our family like some kind of demigod—large, muscled, commanding, imperious," Giraldi says. "He wasn't was abusive emotionally or physically, but there are some connections. Like the Great Santini, he believed the way men love one another is equal to the way men hate each other. Affection and destruction become two sides of the same coin. It was something I was obsessively aware of growing up. Love meant prodding and pushing instead of embracing or comforting. Doesn't mean it wasn't love. It was a twisted mask put on love."
Joe M. O’Connell, author of Evacuation Plan: A Novel from the Hospice, is based in Austin.