TCR Talks with Billy Lombardo

By Collin Mitchell

I call writer Billy Lombardo at his home in Chicago to talk about his novel, Morning Will Come. “How’s the summer been?” I ask him.

“I’ve been doing some weird work,” he says, going outside to talk. His dad recently moved in due to COVID-19 and it’s a full house.  He pauses and I can hear his dog barking from inside. “Stuff I didn’t expect to do.”

Lombardo’s voice is distinctive, like listening to David Sedaris on audiobook. We talk about teaching, especially teaching fiction to teenagers online. “They’re high energy kids, self-directed and brilliant and all of a sudden whatever plans they had are cancelled,” he says about student life during a pandemic. After twenty-five years, Lombardo recently retired from his career at The Latin School of Chicago so he could put more time into Polyphony Lit, a literary magazine he founded, as well as focus on his own work. To date he’s published two novels, Morning Will Come and The Man With Two Arms, and a short story collection, The Logic of a Rose.

When I ask him about his writing process, he answers without hesitation: “Absolute discovery. I love that. I started writing something the other day and I never got to the thing I wanted to write. I had a couple thousand words before I was even coming close to this thing I sat down to do.”

“Which wasn’t even the thing you were thinking,” I say.

He laughs. “Yeah, it almost never happens that way.” The pattern of discovery is echoed by the publication history of Lombardo’s haunting novel, Morning Will Come. The book began as a loose collection of short stories before his editor, Gina Frangello, encouraged him to combine them into a single story. Personal experience, a friend’s estranged marriage, and grindstone imagination gathered the disparate threads into something self-contained. “How was that?” I ask. “Stringing them together?”

“There was a lot of styling that I had to do with the stories to get them all together. I knew what it was to raise boys and I knew what it was to raise them in a difficult marriage and that thread was my own grief that I spoke about in this other way.”

Grief in Morning Will Come pivots around the disappearance of Isabel, the teenage daughter of Alan and Audrey, the novel’s protagonists. With busy careers and two young boys to raise, their unrecognized pain turns into a weight that’s left to hang in their marriage. Lombardo’s world lingers in the strange uncertainty of living with someone you thought you knew. “We never talked,” Lombardo says about his relationship with his ex-wife. Their former marriage is the inspiration for many of the novel’s scenes. “There were weeks on end after our son was born that my wife was suffering from something that she couldn’t talk about.” It was frustrating, he tells me, not being able to help. “So, I started to imagine a narrative around it.”

Lombardo depicts the fallout between Audrey and Alan with a curiously light touch, exploring the distressing shapes resentment can take in a marriage. So much of the novel is about trying to be seen and failing, not finding the voice to make yourself heard. Lombardo excels in bittersweet reflection.

“That’s what I feel like we do as humans,” Lombardo says. “If we’re lying with every breath and we’re not able to tell the truth for whatever reason because we don’t have the capacity to do it or we don’t know it or we bought the lie about it. If my wife isn’t talking to me I have to figure it out. If she’s yelling at me because I left the door open again, what’s behind that? Or is it some other thing? And you have to imagine what it is. So that’s what these characters are doing too and I just gave them the ability to talk.”

As a teenager, Lombardo wrote poetry. Later, in his late twenties, he started reading at the Green Mill, a jazz club in Chicago. “It was highly narrative and unschooled for the way poetry goes,” he says about his work at the time. “But when you did something right on stage, the place just kind of shut down. You could hear the cigarette ash drop and it was amazing and I just wanted that to happen every minute of my life.” Later, he met Chicago writer Stuart Dybek at a literary festival. They shared many of the same memories of Bridgeport, the Chicago neighborhood where Lombardo grew up. “He said, ‘Where did you live?’ And I told him I lived in an apartment above Dressel’s Bakery,” Lombardo recalls. Dybek knew it well. “I just felt that it gave me a kind of permission to write and because my work was so highly narrative it lent itself to short stories.”

Lombardo’s poetry spoke to a memorable yet “squandered” boyhood in Bridgeport. “I was just figuring out the language to put to my life,” he says about writing and what led to his embrace of fiction. A lot of this personalization is evident in Morning Will Come, which is as much an homage to the day-to-day in Chicago as it is a love story. There’s a moment of self-discovery on the bus, twilight walks for ice cream, and the lyrical interplay between a family and their city. Many of the novel’s specific incidents—a man’s fall from a high-rise, a stolen backpack—were told to Lombardo by a friend. “I realized that I wasn’t tethered by real occasions in my life,” Lombardo says about the process of writing Morning Will Come. “I could stray from the facts, and then I started figuring out something about truth and fiction, like these are just real truths, and they wouldn’t even be things that happened to me, and I would be weeping as I was writing them because of this truth that I had gotten at somehow.”

So much of the novel is about recognition and the biting realization that a lot of it, especially for women, hinges on appearance. Lombardo tells me he challenged himself to write physicality in a way that never describes the body. I ask him about writing female characters. “It’s hard, right?” I say. “Especially when you’re writing about relationships, to avoid describing something physical.” Lombardo agrees.

“Part of me feels like I nailed it, that I got at something that’s sort of universal in everyone and then someone else will read it and say that girls don’t think that way. And I don’t know if I buy that. I just feel like if you can’t get into someone’s head that’s not you, you have no business writing fiction. So, I don’t know if I ever feel like I have to apologize for it. I do feel like I can take credit for it if it works, but I’m also okay with coming up short.”

We go back to talking about the discovery process, the strange things that come up when a writer is in the middle of it. “I think that’s why I started the magazine, to give people [the opportunity]. There’s nothing like it once you’re able to sit down and write,” he says about getting a thought on the page. “You’ve helped someone name something and I just feel like one of the greatest joys of my life is just nailing something that you feel is perfectly languaged somehow. If someone else feels it and you move them in some way, that to me is like, wow. But I’m not thinking about that when I’m sitting down. I’m my first reader right? I want to move myself.”

Lombardo has another call coming in that he needs to take. I thank him for writing the book. “It’s beautiful,” I tell him, and we hang up.

Collin Mitchell is a student in the UC Riverside Low Residency MFA program and the author of The Faithful, a historical biography of the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi. He lives in Palm Desert with his wife and son.