With a Difference, a joint book of stories by Nick Gregorio and poems by Francis Daulerio, is a collaborative effort forged from a long friendship and a desire to do what musicians have always done but few writers have attempted: cover each other’s work. With Gregorio writing stories to Daulerio’s poems, and Daulerio penning poems based on Gregorio’s stories, this Trident Press release is as unique a book as you’ll pick up in 2020. And what a joy to pick up it is. Readers literally have to flip it over to read both halves, like a record.
This was my first chance to read work by either writer and I found both prose and poetry to be delightful. Gregorio and Daulerio tackle themes of loss and wonder and delusion from odd angles and close distances. Gregorio’s stories swing from speculative and dystopic to moody and thoughtful all while remaining deeply affecting. And Daulerio’s poems are at once evocative and ruminative. The result is a cohesive book by two distinctly different voices that encourages the reader to trace each piece back to its inception: Gregorio’s This Distance and Daulerio’s If & When We Wake and Please Plant This Book.
And I did just that before interviewing the authors, more for my own pleasure and enjoyment than anything else. I’m a nerd for this kind of thing, always seeking out demo versions of songs or the alternate versions of stories that comprise published collections. It was by pure happenstance Gregorio reached out to me about looking at the book, but fate nonetheless.
We linked up via email right when the Corona virus was starting to make its mark. And I think all three of us were glad to have this project to briefly take our minds off things.
Kevin Sterne: This is as unique an idea for a book I’ve come across. How did you two come up with this idea? How did this project come together?
Nick Gregorio: True story. Fran and I went to the same high school. His high school band was way, way better than my high school band. As such, an extremely one-sided rivalry was born. Around the same time, NoFX and Rancid put out an album together in which they covered each other’s songs. I loved that. Fast forward fifteen-some-odd years and Fran and I are working on our MFAs at the same university. Seeing as I can’t let a single thing go, I wanted to 1.) End that one-sided rivalry, and 2.) Rip off that NoFX/Rancid cover split in book form. Jokes aside though, I love Fran’s poetry and couldn’t see myself working on anything like this with anyone but him. That’s about when my wife Lizz encouraged me to ask Fran about it. Thankfully he agreed. Otherwise the rivalry would have continued until the sun burns itself out.
Francis Daulerio: Well I won’t take credit for most of it, really. Nick brought the project idea to me pretty much fully developed, and while we played around with aesthetics and form, the heart of it belongs to him. I’d never seen a book like this, so it was a quick “yes” from me. We both started out as musicians in high school bands, where everybody is constantly covering songs to fill sets. I guess that doesn’t happen as much, or at least in the same way, in the writing community, which is why this feels so unique.
KS: Is responding to another writer’s work something either of you had done before?
NG: I suppose the closest I’ve ever gotten to adapting someone else’s work was when one of the punk bands I play in covered Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” We wanted to make it our own–speed it up, make it meaner–but the whole reason to do a thing like that would be so people could at least recognize the original work’s DNA. But adapting poetry, making it mine while maintaining that DNA in my fiction; I hadn’t done it quite like that.
FD: Not technically, no. My last book was a reimagining of a Richard Brautigan poetry collection from the late sixties. I wasn’t so much covering his work as I was extending the conversation he started, but the process of trying to climb into someone else’s head was definitely there.
KS: What was the process like for both of you when responding to each other’s work? I’d imagine you could take a piece in one of many directions. Do you focus on a particular image, character, emotion?
NG: So, Fran’s poetry is so beautiful and evocative that I would usually start with an image his words would drum up. From there it was about either maintaining the mood and emotions or turning everything on its head–like making a poem’s dark double or prose doppelganger. However each piece turned out, though–no matter how wildly out in left field I took the poems–my primary goal was to make sure, that if the story and poem were juxtaposed, a reader could feel that, yes, they can feel the tether between the two.
FD: This was quite difficult, to be honest! I’m shite with fiction, so all my poetry is just first-person narratives about things I’ve experienced. Go ahead, call it self-centered. You wouldn’t be wrong. So when I sat down to try and rewrite Nick’s stories, the first order of business was to find myself in them. A lot of them are packed deep with sci-fi, but Nick does a brilliant job of burying the humanity in there, the twinkling of existence that lets folks connect to it. Once I was able to get to the heart of each story, the essential bits he wanted us to hang onto, I was able to rewrite them in my own voice. I guess it gave me the opportunity to reexamine parts of my life, but through a different lens.
KS: So I got the opportunity to read the poems that inspired the stories and the stories that inspired the poems. In the case of some of these, you both take the existing material and imagine worlds outside of or adjacent to the stories. (I’m thinking specifically of “We’ll Definitely Feel Different”) That must have been a lot of fun…
NG: Writing these stories was some of the best fun I’ve had writing just about anything. All I felt I needed was Fran’s stamp of approval on the drafts. Everything I did–whether it was keeping Fran’s naturalistic vibe, or literally launching his ideas into space–was always to get Fran’s thumbs up. And, truthfully enough, with every draft I finished I would try to push the next one a bit further to see the limits of what Fran would put up with. That was sort of fun, too.
FD: It was an absolute pleasure to get out of my own head for a while. 2018/19 were really challenging years for me, and while some of that life stuff still managed to stow away inside these poems, the writing process was so different for me. It was such a nice reset. Fun might night be the right word. Relief works better. Like you’ve been holding your breath for a long time, and then you finally let it out. It was a welcomed invitation into a different headspace.
KS: And then at the same time, the story that responded to “Hunter” and “Gatherer” was more representative of the original material. I thought that was interesting, especially because those pieces are so emotional.
NG: Those poems hit home for me. I’ve had similar experiences as Fran when it comes to outdoorsy, man-type stuff. Experiences that, depending on the day and the way in which I look back at them, can be more bitter than sweet more often than the other way around. I wanted to capture my own feelings about those experiences while portraying Fran’s fictional real-life experiences. Keeping the story as close to the original poems was important to me on “Hunter/Gatherer.” And, hopefully, people will understand why once they read it.
FD: Geez, reading Nick’s “Hunter/Gatherer” was such a gut punch for me. It’s really strange to write your life into something that strangers will read, but there’s still a level of control that exists during that process. I can filter and distill and cover myself as I go. Nick’s covers, though, sort of walked past the barriers I’d set. “Hunter/Gatherer” took two tiny, nostalgic poems and stretched them out, which was weird to read. My grandfather wasn’t the bastard we see in this story, and it was my cousin who got to go hunting with him, not me, but there were still tears when I read it. I felt like I was ten again, or watching ten-year-old me from above. It made me uncomfortable and I loved it.
KS: Nick, describe your reaction when you saw how Francis responded to your stories with his poems.
NG: Mostly all-caps with more exclamation points than I’m willing to admit. Seriously, any time Fran sent me a draft I screen-capped it and sent it to my wife. This whole experience has been a true honor.
KS: Francis, describe your reaction when you saw how Nick responded to your poems.
FD: Nick is an excitable dude, and he’s up for anything. So in working with him, you get the feeling like you can be as out there as you want, and there’s nothing but support. Still, it’s a little intimidating to send someone a remake of something they poured themselves into. Luckily, Nick was really into the drafts as I [slowly] finished them. I sort of learned his language of approval or disapproval. All caps texts meant keeper, but if he said “hey you’re the poet, you know this stuff better than me,” I knew it wasn’t done yet. Ultimately it was a really genuine back-and-forth conversation throughout the whole process. No knock-down-drag-outs or anything.
KS: New parenthood is a topic that comes up a few times in these stories and poems. I’m wondering if you both could speak to that topic and how it bears influence in the book.
NG: I don’t have kids. But I disagree wholeheartedly with the idea of “write what you know.” I feel like it’s my job to write what I don’t know to the best of my ability and make sure I ask people who know better to tell me exactly where I’d gone wrong so I can get it right. I’ve been very, very lucky to become friends with some very talented people who will so accurately tell me how to get it right. And, like I said, when it came to these stories, all I was looking for was Fran’s thumbs up.
FD: My wife and I have two young kids, so a lot of the writing I’ve done in the last four years has been about that. Like I said, I’m bad at telling other people’s stories, so when I’m living something, that’s what I have to work with. I’m also a big worrier. A real hand-wringer. So when the kids go to sleep, my brain starts running wild, which is why so many of my poems, even the happy ones, have this anxious undertone, a dread that holds down the low end of the mix. Having children is amazing, but they make you realize how dangerous the world is. That realization has had a big influence on me and my writing.
KS: How’d y’all get hooked up with Nate over at Trident? How’d that come together?
NG: I met Nate at The Next Lit Fest out in Denver a few summers back. I believe the reason we got to talking was because I was complaining about the heat. Anyway, we went out drinking after the event, swapped books, and kept in touch periodically. When Fran and I were searching for a home for With a Difference, I DMed Nate one afternoon, asked if it’d be cool if I sent him the project. He got back to me maybe an hour later, two at most, and said, “Let’s fucking do this.” That’s when I sent Fran more all-caps texts with even more exclamation points.
FD: That’s all Nick. He’s the social one. He knew Nate and was able to set the whole thing up. I was just happily along for the ride at that point. It’s been great, though. Nate is a pleasure to work with.
KS: Talk to me about the artwork and the layout for the book.
NG: Fran masterminded the whole idea of making the book a literary vinyl record. He also had the guts to reach out to Adde Russell about collaborating with us. I still have a hard time believing I’m a part of this gorgeous, idiosyncratic, wonderfully out-of-the-box book, if I’m telling the truth.
FD: Oh man, I am obsessed with the art! The book is set up like a record in that you have to flip it over to read each “side.” Sort of like those IKEA manuals with English on one side and other languages on the other. Get it? It was all done by Adde Russel, a fantastic artist who is responsible for the covers for some incredible albums, particularly Death Cab For Cutie’s Transatlanticism (one of my absolute favorites). She took a few weeks to get acquainted with the book and then started launching ideas at us. I’m thrilled with the results, and working with her was wonderful.
Finding appropriate cover art was difficult for this. My first two books were illustrated by Scott Hutchison, an absolutely brilliant musician and artist from Scotland. Scott passed two years ago this May, right after our second book came out, and the idea of working with another artist was (still is) really hard to stomach. Adde’s work, along with being wonderful, is a big departure from Scott’s, which was important to me, not to feel like we tried to replace him. He’s still all over the book if you know what to look for. He’s coming through a lot of my writing lately. I hope that will continue.
KS: What’s next for both of you?
NG: I’m finishing up another draft of my second novel at the moment. I’d love to see that in the world sometime soon, but there’s no guarantee on such things.
FD: I’m pretty close to finishing a new full-length book of poetry, which will hopefully see daylight in the next year or two. I’m maybe five or ten poems away, but finding time to write is difficult these days. This is a proper follow up to my first collection, which I’ve been slowly working on between projects since 2015. It’s got a title and some fun surprises, but I’m keeping them in my pocket for now.