A Leader of Men: Salesianum Alumnus Christopher Castellani’s Leading Men Becomes a Leading Best Seller

Anthony Barone, Reporting Journalist

Christopher Castellani is likely a name unknown by most. As a Salesiaum class of 1990 graduate, he’s achieved stardom as a writer, having his fifth novel, Leading Men, on the New York Times Bestseller list. This year, the novel celebrated its one year anniversary.   Such an occurrence only deserves the Salesian brotherhood’s remembrance.  

Virtuosos indeed are not born, but created, as in Castellani’s case. He had no idea he was destined to write, let alone become a bestselling author; he figured it out. In sixth grade, he started reading British author Agatha Christie’s mystery books, getting him into reading. “I was so amazed at how, you know, there was a murder or something, and then all these suspects, and you were reading; you had no idea who the murderer would be, and in the end you find out in this really clever way where it all fit together. And it was such an immersive experience…” After the first story, determined to read all her books, he listed them in a “pre-Amazon” manner, even giving them ratings. Eventually, he achieved his goal. “I just was so amazed that somebody could come up with that many, that [could] have such an imagination,” said Castellani. That was enough to ignite his perpetual passion for storytelling.  

It was also in sixth grade that a guest speaker visited his school, changing Castellani’s life as he knew it.  Not just any guest speaker, but a writer. He was amazed to see a writer in person because he previously thought “all writers were dead.” He talked about poems and how he could turn any topic into a poem. After Castellani saw for himself, he began to write his own poems, which soon enough progressed into stories. By seventh grade, classmates were passing his work around for others to see his acquired talent. “I swear, that’s the moment that I really became a writer, when I saw somebody take something I wrote and say ‘you should read it’ to someone else. Like, that’s like, you get addicted to that feeling,” Castellani enthusiastically reminisced.  

Further cementing his love for writing was his time at Sallies, which he credits as “absolutely crucial” to his writing career. In particular, a former English teacher, Mr. Chuck Salvaggio, encouraged him to pursue the writing field. He displayed Castellani’s work for his classes and mentored him with every work. Equally interested, Castellani took his creative writing classes with him and entered national contests. “It was totally transformative for me to have that kind of support from a teacher,” explained Castellani. He even brought his talent into college, and after some peer editing and publication processing, his career took off. 

In establishing his career, Castellani did what so many writers failed to do: develop a motif. His Italian ethnicity greatly shapes the style of his work. “If you drill down on that…that really comes from when I think about my Italianness, I think of how…. [his family is] so involved in each other’s lives.” Each of his original books revolves primarily around Italian characters and has “an Italian connection.”  From his creative works, he wants the audience to see the perspectives from different people and “imagine what their life is.” Throughout his career, however, Castellani incorporates “the intensity of personal relationships” and “lyrical language,” thus putting a unique stamp on his work. Additionally, he writes about the shifting culture of the 1950’s, the especially “things simmering under the surface” – the ever-changing social norms. 

Despite the recurring themes, Leading Men is somewhat of a departure from his previous works. For starters, it no longer revolves around just Italians.  It’s even the first time he primarily included characters of the LGBTQ+ community. He now appears confident to explore the theme of sexuality, even despite the fear of a smaller appeal.  “Frankly, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t think a book about, you know, where the center of the book is about two men in a relationship, whether that would be okay, you know, whether that would find a wide audience,” Castellani conceded.  It also revolves around the working class, composed of those who worked long hours at minimally rewarding jobs and had very little education. It’s no doubt that this fifth novel masterfully demonstrates a rare talent, even for writers: the ability to appeal to multiple groups simultaneously. 

Leading Men talks about real people, being neither fiction nor nonfiction but a biofiction. It specifically highlights Frank Merlo, a working class Italian-American who loved “probably the greatest playwright in the 20th century,” Tennessee Williams, from the “man behind the man” and “unsung hero” perspectives. In it, Castellani speculates what happened in the two weeks in which Williams uncharacteristically failed to write daily events in his personal journal. Naturally following, it delves into how Merlo played a role in Williams’ life during that time.  Regardless of the vagueness, it’s clear Merlo was a constant part of Williams’ existence. 

Being on the New York Times Bestseller’s List has made the already wise and grateful Castellani even more so. Despite not receiving wealth or fame, the experience connected him to more people because of the level of appreciation they displayed. As a matter of fact, some of them have become his most devout fans. Drawing from his experience, he also gave some wise words to young, aspiring writers. Writers, most importantly, shouldn’t be “taking themselves too seriously” but should “throw everything out there” and see what comes of it. They should stop censoring themselves in order to prevent “comically bad stuff.” Writing’s meant to be fun, not a task, and so they need to see it that way to be truly successful. “Do your work, get it out there, you know, be true to yourself, be true to your work,” explained Castellani. That was how he achieved success.   

Christopher Castellani is many things: a poet, an artist, a storyteller, a fiction novelist.   Most of all, though, he is a true Salesian Gentleman. He has taken hold of an opportunity – the ability to change the world through the art of the story – and not let go, nor will he ever. In that way, he lives up to Francis DeSales’ teachings by example.