In-Depth Interview with Don Tassone

Don Tassone: Author of Get Back, Drive, and (soon) Small Bites

by Aura Martin

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Every time Don Tassone walks into a classroom, he sees the same thing: twenty-three students have their heads down, looking at their laptops and cellphones. “That gives me a sense of the pulse of things, and things are moving at lightning speed,” he said. Tassone is a professor at Xavier University where he teaches public relations, a fitting choice for someone with more than 30 years of experience in PR at Procter & Gamble, where he retired recently as a vice-president. These days, aside from teaching, Tassone is busy writing short stories and novels. In fact, his third book will be published in late spring.

One of the major themes he explores in this new collection, Small Bites, is getting away from technology. He reflects on the need to balance connecting to people and organizations online and finding meaningful relationships in the real, physical world. “We are separating ourselves from the earth, from the world, from each other, ironically, with all of our connections. And I think it’s an important theme to sound, an important thing for all of us to be mindful about.”

Tassone started writing short stories when he retired. Throughout his career at P&G, he mainly focused on business writing. He estimated that he had written more than ten million words. He had acquired discipline and rigor from all those years. “At the same time, it’s a double-edged sword because with the type of writing I was doing came a great deal of efficiency, and it squeezed out creativity,” he said. He wrote business-oriented news releases, with little room for words that give writing its color.

After retirement, he attended a writing workshop in New Harmony, Indiana. It was there that he learned how to get back to creative writing, to blossom as he experienced total immersion. “It was like starting over again for me. I began to look around and think about what I was going to write about and what kind of stories I wanted to tell. And those stories have been largely shaped by my own experiences,” Tassone said. He also started learning how to write with flair, create dialogue, and dig deeper with characters. One of the challenges he and all writers face is searching for the right words. He finds it exciting to sit and think over a sentence for a long time because he wants to ensure that he is conveying the right idea. The discipline he acquired over the years has served him well. For his writing, he has and continues to draw inspiration from his career, family, friends, and his life.

Small Bites, his latest work, primarily features flash fiction and short stories. He has learned how to balance writing tiny-twist plots with more substantial pieces, drawing out the story and developing the characters. “There is a rhythm to writing, like a drum beat,” he explained. Sometimes he might write multiple stories one morning or he might stretch out a story and work on it for weeks. In his writing, he likes variety. “If I had to do one thing all the time, I would go crazy. So I look for diversity and variety, in my life and in what I write. I get energy from that,” he said. 

In Small Bites, Tassone says he had the most fun writing “The Beauty Inside,”  a sequel to “The Beauty in Things” from his earlier collection, Get Back; he enjoyed expanding on a gentle romance between an artist and his unlikely muse. The most difficult was “Who I found in Angle Inlet” for three reasons. First, he had to research Angle Inlet, a tiny bit of Minnesota accessible to cars only via Canada. Second, he had to determine what a one hundred-fifty-nine year old character, born in 1858, would say about his life and what the world is like today. Third, it took a long time for him to “get the ending right.”

His favorite story in Small Bites was “The Moon and the Birds” because, he says, it’s ethereal, rhythmic, and beautiful. “I like the cadence.  It's a story about both loss and reunion.  Every time I read it, it touches my heart.”  Besides technology, the themes of Tassone’s writing include love, generosity, and loss. In Small Bites, "The Beauty Inside," "Hello," "Home," and "Stay" are stories about love. "The Bill Collector," "Welcome," and "Presence" feature generosity. "The Moon and the Birds" combines love and loss. "Walk in the Grass," "On the Other Foot," "Spring," "Where Are You," "Unburdened," and "Sparkle" deal with loss. These are themes that will most likely reappear in future works.

His writing is largely fictional, but the characters in his stories are composites of people he’s known. For example, the protagonist in his novel, Drive, is an amalgam of men he knew in his career. Nick Reynolds also includes some of his own traits. “The novel is not autobiographical per se, but I think so much of writing is, and my life is no exception,” Tassone said. In the novel, Nick Reynolds is a bully, an alcoholic, a workaholic, and a “once and future” idealist. Tassone is similar to Nick because he too had to realize that his higher purpose at work was to develop people, and not just build the business. “And like Nick, I didn't take good care of myself when I was working full-time.  Now I do,” Tassone said.

Another activity Tassone has picked up since retirement was running. He discovered that running not only helped him get into shape and improve his mood, but also helped with his writing. “There’s this great need for balance in my life between the physical and the mental,” he said. He finds running therapeutic, and helpful with his writing. It is easy to be stuck in his head while writing, and running helps him sift through writing problems, work through the development of a character, or just take a break. “The most important thing about running is strengthening myself, both physically and mentally. That way I can do things better in my mind, and one of those things is writing. So one feeds the other,” Tassone said.

In his first collection of short stories, Get Back, Tassone often focused on renewal.  He says he had the most fun writing “Forbidden Fruit,” which was quasi-autobiographical, and the closest to nonfiction writing in the book.  Set in his first childhood home in Dayton, Ohio, “It was just fun to write that story because it was such an old memory, such a distant memory, one that I’d never written about, so writing it was a joy,” he said. The story he had the most difficulty writing was “Who was Peter Caruso?” Though this story’s protagonist also needed to “get back” his creative spirit, it was a much longer, more layered story than “Forbidden Fruit” because the plot stretched across time, generations, and cultures. He also had to contend with a complex character, one whose creation drew him in. He realized that Peter Caruso’s conflicts would be a nice jumping off point for Drive. “It was difficult, yes, but I loved it; it was challenging yet exciting in a stretching sort of way.”

Tassone always wanted to write a novel, but when he retired, he wasn’t sure exactly how to go about it. After several stuttering starts, he realized he wasn’t ready to tackle a novel. He watched a YouTube video of Ray Bradbury at UCLA, advising students how to write novels. Bradbury suggested that writers focus on writing short stories first and “earn their way” to writing novels.  Tassone took that advice and began writing short stories. During the eighteen months he spent writing Drive, he also kept writing short stories as well. “I find writing short and writing long takes two different skill sets, like sprinting and marathon running; one seems to improve the other,” he said.

The renewal theme which underlies Peter Caruso and Nick Reynolds, and which Tassone recognizes in his own life, will be important in his second novel, the one he is currently writing. “It’s about abiding friendship and I think that no friendship can endure without some degree of renewal. So friendships ebb and flow, and the good ones endure,” he said. At some point in the future, Tassone would also like to write a play.  Since he began getting published, he says, he has experienced live performances differently.  He would like to try his hand at script-writing, possibly starting with a workshop at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. 

Don Tassone has a good social network to help promote his work. He has contacts collected during his years of public relations work for a mega-corporation. He continues expanding his network at Xavier University. He also has a good following on LinkedIn.

One of the things that he has found interesting, are writing blogs and Goodreads, since those communities are full of active and avid readers. Despite his reservations about technology, he also knows that reaching out online is the way of the world now. “I haven’t fully tapped into it just yet, but everything I’ve done, everything we’ve tried from a social media standpoint, has really worked beautifully,” Tassone said. Writers need to be aware of the power of technology.  For example, submissions these days are almost all exclusively done online. Podcasting has emerged as an important medium, especially for writers, as a way to promote work and talk about themselves. “I’m only scratching the surface of what writers are doing these days with social media,” he said, “but I think it’s all good.”  The key is finding a balance between the virtual world and the natural world. 

Tassone has specific, practical advice for writers who are hoping to get published for the first time.  “Understand that getting published is detail-oriented, which can be boring, even mind-numbing, especially when you’re keeping track of work sent to magazines and journals. It requires patience to get familiar with Excel spreadsheets, follow individual guidelines for every magazine, and record all your submissions.”  An aspiring writer becomes more efficient with practice, he says, though organized outreach is always a difficult (and often unspoken) part of writing. “I once thought writers wore smoking jackets, put their feet up all day, and just created. Promoting our work is the not-so-creative side of writing, but I think it is equally important,” Tassone said.


Don Tassone’s latest book, Small Bites, will be published by Golden Antelope this coming spring.