“Survival itself becomes a miracle when you’re living at the end of the world”: A Conversation with on Last Acts” – curated by Wendy Chen

Alexander Sammartino’s debut novel, Last Acts, has been described by George Saunders as “[h]onest, highwire, virtuosic writing that summons up the world with all its charms and hazards.”  Published this January by Scribner, the novel was named a New York Times Editors’ Choice pick for 2024.  Last Acts is an unflinching examination of the firearms industry in America at a time of widespread shootings. The two main characters in the novel, Rizzo and his son Nick, attempt to revitalize a struggling firearms store. However, their rising fortune abruptly comes to an end when Rizzo unknowingly sells a gun to an underage school shooter. I had the privilege of asking Sammartino about the process of writing this tour de force.

Alexander Sammartino was born in Rhode Island, grew up in Arizona, and now lives in Brooklyn. He received his MFA from Syracuse University. His debut novel, Last Acts, was published by Scribner in January and was selected as a New York Times’ Editors Choice.

Wendy Chen: What was it like putting together this novel during a time when we hear of shootings day after day on the news? Did this add particular difficulties or urgencies to the work?

Alexander Sammartino: It was just sad. Nothing intelligent nor helpful to say but that. Looking back at the shootings, at the victims, at the shooters, the coverage of the shootings, the political and cultural responses—it was all just incredibly sad. In theory I think good art should go toward the ineffable, but, in practice, in reality, I have no process for that. Like, for instance—and this is just an example, but there are no shortage of others—when I think of Sandy Hook, I just shut down. So evil, so horrible, all of which is compounded by the fact that this happened over a decade ago, and things have only gotten worse; it feels hopeless. Every time I read about another mass shooting, it just felt more hopeless.

I tried to convince or delude myself into thinking, though, that, if I wanted to capture what it felt like to be alive in the 21st century, it would be dishonest to not include a mass shooting, especially given the world of the characters. So the primary difficulty was maintaining that mindset, the faith that this should be written about. There is something inherently hopeful about making art, about refusing to stop living through tragedy, but I felt conflicted about the project, that a fidelity to honesty justified trying to examine this specific type of tragedy. What am I saying? I guess just that the frequency and reality of mass shootings kept making me question why I should write about this at all, and about these characters at all, and that conflict motivated me to pursue the idea, to feel like this was something true and consequential.

WC: I was certainly captivated by the quality of raw honesty in the novel–a feeling of something laid bare to the reader. And you weave a rich tapestry of characters in Last Acts–firearms store owners Rizzo and Nick, their gun control activist neighbor Felicia, local entrepreneur Buford Bellum, to name a few. All your characters are deeply flawed and driven by oftentimes opposing motives. Some commit horrible and cruel acts, yet all have moments of sympathy. How do you maintain that line when writing such flawed characters without crossing over into caricature?

AS: This is very important to me. Going back to this idea that art should engage with these difficult ideas, these ineffable things—one of these for me is that people are complicated. We do good, we do bad, we’re always somewhere in between where we want to be. Or at least I am. Our teacher, Dana Spiotta, talks about this quite a bit, and it has always felt true to me.

In terms of caricature, I’m often contending with that because of my interest in comedy. If I feel a section is off, it’s usually because I’ve drifted into a sort of cartoony plane, a one-dimensional view, and I need to dial things up in a different direction. For me, character is something I value over plot. So, in the same way we might think of a plot being surprising, of taking a turn, I try to apply that same method to the construction of character.

WC:  Last Acts is also deeply intertwined with social media and exploring the ways we connect with one in the age of what writer and academic Nick Srnicek has termed “platform capitalism.” Social media marketing, metrics, and tweets smatter the world of this novel, offering–at times–glimpses into the emotional states of the characters. For example, Nick begins to raise money online for the Mass Survival Foundation–“a nonprofit dedicated to helping survivors of mass shootings”–while continuing to run a firearms store. These themes, which highlight the differences between our public versus private identities, are pressingly relevant to how we think of ourselves and each other. Why did you decide to incorporate the language of social media–tweets, online news reports–into your novel? What was it like moving between these various forms?

AS: Oh, man, it was fun. Very fun. And I wanted the reader to feel that energy in the language.

Logically, Nick’s work in marketing justified including the different forms, but, personally, I’m interested in ways to make the language feel alive, and one way I find myself able to do that is through incorporating many linguistic genres. I don’t think this is inherently the case. Tweets, for instance, seem conventional to appear in a novel now, but I found that applying the form to something like guns, to have marketing copy about guns, made the form feel strange, made me more aware of how aggressive and absurd marketing methods can be.

I’m interested in the way that, in a culture valuing technology over people, we see different forms of technology, like social media, like guns, all contribute to our dehumanization. 

WC: There are so many “miracles” that occur throughout the novel–the miracle of Nick’s resurrection after a drug overdose, the miracle of no one dying during a school shooting, the miracle of encounters and close calls. As a reader, I’m particularly struck by these ideas of miracles and hope amidst the grim landscape of modern-day America. Where drives your interest in the miraculous? What can literature say about the miraculous?

AS: It is hippy dippy and romantic of me, but, similar to my interest in these terribly evil things, like mass shootings, I am fascinated by what I feel to be these irrationally good things. Also, the more cynical I become, the lower my standards are for miracles, so I start to see them in these tiny acts of continuation.

What can literature say? I’m not sure. It depends. For me, in Last Acts, I wanted to consider how survival itself becomes a miracle when you’re living at the end of the world.

WC: One of the most moving sections of this novel–and there are so many!–is written in a script form. Within this section, readers see Nick try to film an advertisement for the firearms shop by capitalizing on the story of his overdose and subsequent resurrection. Why did you make that stylistic choice to shift forms in that section?

AS: Well, initially, I wanted to show Nick in the act of performing. You mentioned that public vs. private dichotomy, and I feel like people are revealed in that act of performing. Nick, after his overdose, is trying to figure out who he is, who he wants to be, which are abstract ideas. Changing the form into a script, and having Nick repeatedly fail to deliver his lines, felt like a way to make how he feels more concrete and real, to have the form reflect the content. I also wanted to show how ridiculous it can be to monetize suffering, and I felt like the script, with all the repetition, allowed me to play with the language, to combine the infomercial register with something morbid, and call attention to the absurdity. 

WC: The novel is divided into two parts with part I set in 2014 during what has been called the third wave of the opioid epidemic and part II set in 2017 in a post-Trump landscape. How did you decide upon this structure and setting in time? Was the novel structured in other ways in earlier iterations of the manuscript?

AS: So these were always the years. I knew early on that I wanted to start the clock of the novel pre-Trump because I did not want to seem like the ideas I was interested in could be reduced or explained away by Trump’s presidency.

The world has seemed to be ending for quite some time. Sandy Hook happened in 2012, right. With the title, Last Acts, I knew I was interested in this sense of the end dragging on, and one way I felt I could represent that in the world of the book was by setting the events during two nominally different political moments that, in actuality, were more similar than might seem immediately obvious.

WC: How would you define satire as a genre or form? Who are some of your favorite satirists/what are your favorite works of satire? How do you think satire can function in the world? 

AS: This is tough. I feel like “satire” is now used to refer to anything that is funny in literary fiction, while, in reality, there is range to comedy, ways to be funny in a book that are slapstick or ironic and have nothing to do with “satire.”

But I don’t know that I can give a precise definition. I’m skeptical of precise definitions. In some sense it’s a know it when I see it sort of thing. There’s a mode of political comedy that feels like satire, right. As in comedy that shows the absurd logical consequences of political convictions or institutions. I think of Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah as the, like, premier satirist working right now. He is funny in other ways, too, but I feel like his comedy in Chain-Gang All-Stars engages with things that are necessarily political. I guess any definition of satire has to be able to define the political, too, though, and I don’t think I’m able to do that, which is why I’m having so much trouble with this question.

I guess I’d say that my interest is primarily in the absurd. And the absurd can be satirical, like it can have something political as its referent, but not necessarily. I think of the absurd as being a morbid comedy, in some cases literally about death, but primarily about the comedic futility of living. The legendary absurdist, for me, is Beckett. Krapp’s Last Tape changed my life. On a more contemporary note, I think of DeLillo as the great American absurdist.

In terms of function, I guess it’s consoling in the way all comedy is. Laughter is a way to keep living.

WC: As I’ve gotten older, I feel that is more and more true. What was the revision process like for this novel?

AS: Once I had the timeline, the general arc, it became about the movement between the two sections. That’s where the majority of the revision took place. I try to work bottom to top rather than top to bottom. By which I mean, I look at the smallest units first, the language, the syllables, then take a step back and look at things on a larger narrative scale, and that resulted in me replacing entire middle chapters, moving chapters around, adding new chapters, all that good stuff. 

WC: What writers or texts were you reading while writing this novel? How did their influences shape your work?

AS: Oh, man, I feel like I’m too far removed to answer this truthfully, but there are at least 3 books always on my mind: White Noise, by Don DeLillo, Florida by Christine Schutt, and Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta.

White Noise is, for me, the funniest novel I’ve ever read and is also this wonderful freeze-frame of a certain type of capitalism descending on the family. Florida, for the sentences, but also for the representation of the parent-child dynamic; Schutt made me feel like this was something worth writing about, something “literary” enough. And Innocents and Others because, like Dana’s work in general, it brings everything together formally and emotionally, the head and the heart.

WC: What has been one piece of advice you’ve held dear to your heart while writing this novel? What advice would you give to aspiring novelists?

AS: Give up! Get out early! No, I’m kidding. My advice is: the language, it is all about the language.

WC:  What projects are you working on next?

AS: So my next novel, Gallo, will also be coming out with Scribner. It’s about the eleventh best bodybuilder in the world coming to terms with the end of his career. I’ve been working on it for eight years or so, and I feel like it’s the best thing I’ve done, generally speaking, in my entire life. 

Wendy Chen is the author of the novel Their Divine Fires (out May 7, 2024 from Algonquin Books) and the poetry collection Unearthings (Tavern Books). Her translations of Song-dynasty woman writer Li Qingzhao are forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2025 in a collection titled The Magpie at Night.