Joe Benevento, a Truman State University creative writing professor, just came out with a new fiction book called “Kiss of the Moonflower.” It is the third installment of the Capelli Brothers series, but it can be read as a standalone novel if you have not read the other books in the series. “Kiss of the Moonflower” follows two brothers, Tony and Mike Capelli, as they venture to Missouri to find Tony’s love interest, Veronica, as Tony has lost contact with her during her sabbatical to Missouri. In the novel, Benevento brings to life the scenery of Kirksville and surrounding areas as his two New Yorker characters see it for the first time. It is a book packed with both mystery and humor. We sat down with Benevento to talk about his book and his writing process.
I know you’re from Queens and you graduated from NYU. Why did you choose a university in the Midwest as opposed to the Northeast (to teach)?
“My fiance at the time became my first wife. She wanted to study plant ecology. She is a scientist, and she didn’t think New York was the best place to do that. So that’s why we looked towards the Midwest. I personally didn’t know what I wanted to do after I graduated. I never planned to be a professor and didn’t didn’t think about going to graduate school … I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a singer, but obviously it wasn’t happening yet so I thought I’d go to graduate school … We wound up at Ohio State for our masters and Michigan State for our PhDs, but that was all her doing. Years later, when I got this job and later when we got divorced, I thought I was gonna get out of here, but I began to like it more and more. My present wife, we’ve been married almost 30 years now. It’s a lot of years ago. She’s from this area, so we stayed in the Midwest. I’ve been here at Truman now for 37 years.”
Does your children’s upbringing or your own inspire your work?
“The poetry is, and I’ve written lots of poems over the years about my kids. You can’t go a book of my poems without seeing three, four or five poems about one kid or another. They haven’t played much of a part in the fiction. This novel now, “Kiss of the Moonflower,” is the first time I’ve combined both aspects of my life. There’s some scenes set in Kirksville. I don’t call it Kirksville, but a town like Kirksville. Much of it takes place in the intentional communities or communes. There’s intentional communities in Missouri. Missouri has laxed laws on housing and homeschooling, so they’re able to raise their kids and have their homes the way they want to. There’s a place just outside of La Plata that was called the Possibility Alliance where they had a group of 20-30 people all living and working together. They didn’t use electricity. They didn’t use cars… regular flush toilets, but compost toilets. They have moved in the last year or two. Maria, my oldest, got really interested in these places. When she was an undergraduate in Creighton University, she actually got a summer grant to study them and to write a paper about them. She spent a week at the Possibility Alliance. I wound up spending a day with her at the Possibility Alliance when she was there. I just got really interested and somehow came up with the idea that this is a way I can get my two New York guys to where I’ve been living all these years. They come to try to find this woman who has been studying these intentional communities.”
I heard there’s mention of a messed up version of pizza that we (Kirksville) have…
“That’s funny too because John Wichmann is the fella who owns Pagliai’s Pizza and he’s a really good friend of mine. We’ve been neighbors twice, and for a long time. There is a scene that’s set there that you’ll recognize as Pagliai’s, although I named it Tornatore’s in the book to borrow Matt’s name, the spanish professor. I like Pagliai’s pizza. It’s not New York pizza but for Kirksville I think it’s not bad at all. I prefer it to Domino’s or any of the other places. What I did in the book was I pretended that the new manager was trying to push an Imo’s style pizza — thin crust — That’s what they really hate, but they do like the Ronza or Palonza. But when they first taste that Imo’s style pizza, the one brother is practically ready to fall on the floor. I actually emailed John [Wichmann] and his wife Shawn and said this book is coming out and there’s going to be a chapter in the pizzeria — don’t get offended. And he replied saying, ‘Don’t be silly…’ I found out he actually has the St. Louis style pizza on his menu, but nobody ever orders it.”
Why writing? Specifically, was there someone who encouraged your writing or was it something you just enjoyed doing?
B: “Well, I’ve enjoyed it for a long time. The first time I tried to write were songs. Then, in fourth grade, Mrs. Kiernan, she assigned us poems. I wrote one, and she really liked it. She didn’t believe I wrote it. She thought my parents helped, and I was like, ‘Have you met my parents?’ She really loved it. I still remember the poem. The funny thing about it is the poem’s in iambic pentameter for the most part. I’ve never heard of the word in fourth grade, but when she encouraged me I thought maybe I could be a writer. I loved Edgar Allen Poe, so I used to write scary stories. I would tell stories on the stoops of Queens at night to my friends … made a joke nickname of Edgar Allen Joe. After that, I wanted to be a writer.”
Has your writing technique changed throughout the years?
B: “The interesting thing was I thought I was a good writer in high school. Most of my poems had lots of rhyme. Then, I went to college and entered some contests and didn’t win them … couldn’t even get into a creative writing class, back then you had to give them a sample of your writing before they let you in. So I thought, ‘Gosh, I guess I’m not actually a good writer.’ I had to reassess and think it through. Only through graduate school and reading good writers and understanding what good writing was, it wasn’t all bombastic diction, and rhyme, I got a little better. By the time I was about ready to graduate with my PhD, I got a few poems published. After my first year here, I got my first story published. I came here not as a creative writer. I came here to teach composition and literature mostly. I made myself into a creative writing professor by getting a lot of publications. I teach a mystery course. I teach a Latinx literature course, and I teach American literature sometimes. I teach the more advanced courses in creative writing.”
Do you have any rituals or things you do before sitting down to write or as you write?
B: “No. Before I had children, I wrote a lot at night and when I was younger I would stay up late. Once I started having kids and gotten older, I don’t stay up late. Now, I mostly write fiction right here in my office on the computer. I still write poems longhand at first, but for fiction I mostly write from this computer, so I gotta be in here. I put in like 3-4 hours a day at most. This, “Kiss of the Moonflower,” is my 14th book, but it never feels like I’m totally dedicated to writing like some people are. When I come here, I gotta have a plan, like, ‘Okay, today I’m working on chapter six and I gotta get from here to here.’ If it doesn’t quite work, I do it next time.”
Do you have a journal to keep ideas and thoughts in?
B: “These mystery novels are purely fiction. My first couple of novels were based on life experiences. My first novel “Plumbing in Harlem” was based on me working as a plumber’s helper in Harlem while I was home because my mother had liver cancer and I thought that was the last summer I could spend with her. That’s the story of how she actually beat liver cancer and lived for another thirty years more … it’s fiction, but a lot of the stuff is stuff that actually happened. But the three mystery novels, none of that actually happened … I have to make up murders, I have to make up suspects and all that stuff. So, the last three novels have been totally made up, but they have some truth. I see myself in the main character, and I’m pretty comfortable with how New Yorkers would perceive small-town Missouri. The first two [Capelli Brothers novels] are very involved with church stuff so I did a lot of research.”
How was the majority of your time spent, writing the premise and plot or editing?
B: “Majority of it was spent writing the plot. I did a lot of research for this one too. Moonflower is the name for flowers that bloom at night. Particularly, the moonflower I’m writing about is Datura, which is the kind of plant that has several species. Datura is a highly hallucinogenic and dangerous substance if any part of that plant is taken — seeds, stem, etcetera. Datura has been used for hundreds of years. Native American’s use it in their spirit walk ceremonies … part of the witches brew. This is poisonous but also can send you on some real trips. These are all things that I researched and came up with the idea [in the book] that in one of these intentional communities, somebody has been growing a bunch of this Datura with the idea in mind to try to make it less lethal but still give you the trip without endangering your life. The thing about Datura is … you can’t separate dreams from reality. You absolutely feel like what is happening while you are tripping is actually happening.”
Though Benevento is known for his works of prose and poetry, he is more than a writer. He is also a professor, advisor and father.
Claire Benevento, one of his children, mentioned that her father sometimes shares novel ideas to their family before they surface. For his latest novel, Benevento discussed his brainstorming process with them for input.
“He talked about it with us a lot, because … in some ways it’s based on my older sister’s experience in communities like this,” Claire Benevento said. “Before he started writing, he talked about the idea of setting his next novel in that area.”
Claire Benevento is also a senior creative writing major at Truman. She explained that her own upbringing in a house of books and writing has influenced her own path in life, as she plans on getting an MFA in creative writing.
Those who have had Benevento in class or as an advisor also commended his impact on their academic and professional endeavors. Senior Arik Holmes said Benevento’s analytical perspective has changed the way he approaches literature.
“He’s really attentive,” Holmes said. “He’s really good at finding similarities in how authors approach their work — things I would never really think of. It’s been really interesting to be a student of his because I have a different lens that I look at literature with.”
Benevento has also helped many find their own style of writing through his method of instruction. Because he has experience in the craft, Benevento is able to provide vision for aspiring writers.
Holmes expressed that he often incorporates his writing strategies into class time and coursework.
“He’s a very technical writer,” Holmes explained. “ I think that’s definitely an attribute that affects his teaching style, in a good way. When it comes to thinking about literature and kind of getting a lot of these complex concepts kind of mapped for his students, he’s helped me as a writer myself.”
“Kiss of the Moonflower” is available on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Those interested in learning more about Benevento and his work can visit authorjoebenevento.com/bio.