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Philly's Phinest profiles Big In Japan author M. Thomas Gammarino

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This Philly's Phinest profile features M. Thomas Gammarino, a native of Delaware County who is recently celebrating the release of his first M.Thomas Gammarinopublished novel. A 1996 graduate of Cardinal O'Hara High School and 2000 graduate of Saint Joseph's University, Gammarino is the author of Big in Japan, the bawdy (consider yourself warned) and hilarious tale of a virgin progressive rocker who tours Japan, loses his virginity and his band in quick succession, then has to struggle with the consequences. Upon graduation from St. Joe's, Gammarino received a Fulbright Fellowship which gave him a year at Doshisha University  in Kyoto to study Japanese and undertake a creative project. He is currently finishing his PhD at the University of Hawaii and is looking for a steady teaching gig. Though he has not lived in Philly for quite some time, it remains close to his heart.

"I've been hopping around the planet for the past decade or so, but I make a point of getting to Philly at least once a year," says Gammarino. "My family's there, many of my friends are there, certainly all of my most formative memories are there. I grew up in Springfield, Delaware County, loved it as a kid, got stricken with wanderlust in my late teens. When I go back now, I'm appreciative of all the good stuff that area has to offer. It’s like around Philly you've got to make an effort not to find a park. Also, the museums are pretty incredible. When you're living there you take that for granted. I'll tell you straight-up that I'm perfectly happy living without cheesesteaks. On the other hand, I'm not always thrilled about living without decent soft pretzels and water ice.”

Philly2Philly sat down with Gammarino to ask him some questions about Big in Japan. Big In Japan by M.Thomas Gammarino

Philly2Philly: So you got the Fulbright award when you graduated St. Joe's and you immediately moved to Japan following graduation?

M. Thomas Gammarino: Yep. I went to Doshisha University in Kyoto for a year. Then I spent a year living in the Tokyo area.

P2P: Was the award what turned into Big in Japan? As far as it being the book they wanted you to write?

MTG: Well, to get the grant in the first place I had to sort of pretend I knew exactly what my novel would be about, but the fact is my process doesn't really work that way. I typically need to grope through the dark and discover my way as I go—which is what I ended up doing after all.

P2P: Were any of the ideas formulated during the last few years? Or had everything happened previously?

MTG: All in all the book took me six or seven years. Most of it I wrote while living in New York. I more or less discovered the story as I went along, so there was always a good deal of anxiety involved—which was good since the character I was writing about, Brain Tedesco, is so riddled with anxiety himself. I couldn't possibly have planned to go to all the places this book eventually took me, but once I realized that Brain was a kind of hungry ghost (denizen of one of the Buddhist hell realms) I began to be able to see to the end. That was sort of the key that unlocked the whole story for me.

P2P: Being a musician myself, I think I know what "Big in Japan" means, but could you explain that to readers who may not know?

MTG: "Big in Japan" is a pun of sorts. It means many different things in the course of the novel, but as you suggest it's also a phrase with some currency among rock bands. Basically, if you're in a band and you're not going anywhere at home, it's some comfort if you can tell yourself—and others—that you're doing better in Japan. Which reminds me, you should check out the Anvil  documentary if you haven't yet—you'll understand why once you have. And of course Alphaville and Tom Waits both have songs called "Big in Japan."

P2P: Are any of the characters in the book modeled after friends of yours?

MTG: Hmm. That's a tricky one. I mean, the novel's fiction through and through, but I did play in bands and live in Japan and inevitably you end up borrowing an article of clothing here, a character trait there. You can't invent in a vacuum. On the other hand, no character in this novel has a one-to-one relationship with any real person. It's way more complex than that. They're all composites—of real people, of other characters in literature, of me—and finally, unlike any of my friends, they're made exclusively of language.

P2P: Where can the book be found?

MTG: You can get Big in Japan direct from the publisher at http://www.chinmusicpress.com/biginjapan.html  or you should be able to find it wherever you usually buy books (Amazon, Borders, Barnes and Noble, etc.). If you find a store that doesn’t have it, kindly take the proprietor by the lapels and find out what is wrong with him/her.

P2P: How has the response been so far?

MTG: It’s been pretty good all in all. A few people have been shocked by some of the more graphic sex stuff—it's a risky novel in that way—but most readers and reviewers have understood what I'm trying to do in the book. And people seem to be finding it quite funny too, which is great. I wouldn't want anyone taking me too seriously. Or rather, I'd like them to take my unseriousness seriously. Something like that.

P2P: What is your next project?

MTG: I like to think my next book is nearly finished. I hesitate to say much for fear of jinxing it, but suffice it to say it's a collection of short stories embedded in a novel and deals with, among other things, big business, robots, and the space inside our skulls.

Contact M. Thomas Gammarino at gammarino@hotmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/gammarino

Contact Joe Vallee at jvallee@philly2philly.com