FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Marcello Di Cintio
September 24, 2019
I offer a change of pace for readers today, not a Calgarian from the corridors of business, but from the arts – someone I met and interviewed because I had my curiosity aroused. I was rewarded by meeting someone generous of spirit and just brimming with talent.
I belong to the Writers Guild of Alberta. I get notices to attend lots of events, and I attend some – the choices are random and ‘if they don’t conflict with my calendar,’ which makes me a fan of convenience. This summer, one such event that was convenient to attend, a ‘reading’ event at Shelf Life Books. That evening about a dozen nominated writers presented from their books contending for various awards this year. One stood out proudly from those other very worthy folk – nominated for the W.O. Mitchell Prize this year (he won) was Marcello Di Cintio for his book: Pay No Heed to the Rockets. I was wowed – first by his back-story talk to set the stage for his reading, and then hearing his prose. It was like taking the journey with him. He went on to win the W.O. Mitchell Prize, the second time he’s won it (he also won it in 2012 for Walls: Travels Along the Barricades). It struck me that I couldn’t tell whether I was stunned by the skillful talk, the richness of the story, or the quality of the writing ~ they seemed effortlessly interwoven, and as a writer I know how hard that it is. I reached out to him for this interview and caught up with one of Calgary’s busiest and most travelled writers for this interview….
Born in Calgary, Marcello’s parents were both immigrants from Italy who met and married in Calgary. Marcello is eldest of three, with two younger sisters. Mom is a retired accountant. Dad was a meat cutter. His parents divorced with Marcello was in his early 20s. He remains close to his mother. Dad is out of the picture.
K-12 days for him were characterized by honors academically and by sport – and his strong desire to be on a team. Wresting became his passion – where he excelled in city and provincial competitions while in high school at St. Francis High – and he then went on to wrestle for the University of Calgary where his focus was Biology. His desire to be in a lab he’d had since age six faded fast – but the very determined star wrestler soldiered on, earning dual degrees – a B.A. and B.Sc. but he left school not knowing what to do. He thought about writing. Through university, and still, he’s waited tables in some of Calgary’s finest restaurants – so that has always been reliable, but his itch for travel beckoned.
His travelling in 1996 – 363 days, eight countries, visiting his sister in Morocco and a stretch of volunteering and teaching high school in Ghana – and a return to Calgary. He started writing stories, submitting to magazines and journals. His first paid gig was a piece for City Palate. He is modest in telling about this part of his early writing career; he won some contests, followed the advice of his mentor Wayson Choy in terms of getting an agent. In terms of timeline, but not because of 9/11, and from his travel experiences in Africa, he got interested in Islam, he wrote a book Harmattan, published in 2003. He recalls getting 29 rejections!
He began getting grants – and has been writing full time ever since. And, “I got hooked on cheap travel.” In 1999, three months in Israel, Palestine, and Egypt. In 2001, through friends in Calgary, he met his wife, Moonira. She is an occupational therapist. They have 10-yr. old son.
His Africa book was published in 2002. The travel bug persisted – he went to Iran in 2003 and 2004 – the first time he ever travelled specifically with a book idea in mind, resulting in a book on poetry, Tombs of the Poets.
His current project, a suggestion by his publisher, for which he’s been travelling all over Canada is a taxi driver book, about their life – ‘the untold lives of Canadian taxi drivers.’ His eyes light up, telling of his adventures in communities large and small across the country.
He’s never written a novel. Creative non-fiction is his genre, weaving story and scene.
Why are you successful? “To define success as a writer is ‘finished work,’ book sales and awards won. The work I’ve found most successful, most rewarding, has come from being curious – being nosy. That fuels the work. I get very excited learning about peoples lives. I have a sense, a need really, to be obsessive about what is on the page – to tell a compelling story, and to tell it in a compelling way. Aside from the work, and more than the work, it is fatherhood of which I am most proud.”
What has held you back? “my work ethic; I could and should work harder than I do. The internet rabbit-hole!”
Do you want to write fiction, write a novel? “I would love to have the desire to have the desire.” I guess that’s a no.
… procrastination opportunities are vast when you work from home! I love to travel, but it’s work.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… lack of a steady paycheque. Politics, Trump’s America, Jason Kenny. The daily lives of my Palestinian friends. Wanting to be a good dad to my son. What is going on in society today.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… five significant ones; travelling to Africa and getting exposed to the culture, the people and where my fascination with Islam began; wrestling taught me independence; my mentor Wayson Choy – for believing in me, and for being harsh when he needed to be; in grades 5/6, Joan Schuarte, my language arts teacher who taught me the rules of writing, taught me technique; my friend Garbriella, my main cheerleader – the kind of support when, in their eyes, I could never fail – for believing in me.
… dining out, pubs and bars with friends. Cooking and cookbooks – and things my 10-yr. old likes to do. We do a lot of Lego.
What do you read?
… I read more non-fiction than fiction, for interest and professionally. A lot of it is project-related research. I prefer books over digital formats.
… we’re a one-car family. My wife drives it – a Honda Fit. I work from home, and I use Car To Go when I need one.
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