Your memoir Not for Nothingthrills me! The pieces read with what feels like such honesty and verisimilitude. The very essence of an Italian-American upbringing comes through in the smallest of details. Tell me about the process of writing this memoir and how you chose the format—small narratives rather than a continuous one.
First of all, thanks so much Michelle, for taking an interest in my work! I love what you’ve done with Ovunque Siamo. Reading the magazine prompts deeper thinking about my own identity and not just as an Italian American, but as a human being.
I’m glad the small details spoke to you because that is actually how the whole process of writing it began and then how the format evolved. I was in a writing workshop back in 2005 and the instructor, who is still one of my writing mentors, gave a prompt that was something like, Write your earliest memory.
In an instant, I had a handful of details swirling in my head: A Formica countertop at the family gas station. The song, “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head.” And my father’s sweat.
So, I tossed these remembered glimpses on the page and worked from there. A variation of this original piece, written from that prompt in that workshop thirteen years ago, is the first chapter of my book but at the time I was just following directions. I had no idea I was starting a book and wouldn’t consider it that until much later on.
From there, I just stayed in that zone of writing from the senses and from the place inside that seemed to house scattered memories that mattered enough to be superglued there. The whole thing was very visceral. At the time, I was wearing a few different hats in life and hadn’t written creatively for many years. So, once I stumbled back into this kind of writing something cracked open and spoke to me. I worked from there. And paid attention. And listened.
As for the small narratives rather than a continuous one, that evolved, too. I always felt most comfortable working with flashes and glimpses, because I only recall these. It took me many, many years (and several attempts at constructing a seamed, narrative line) before I scrapped it and chose to leave the stories alone and just let them be. I also have many teachers and writers to thank for helping guide me on this.
What kind of bravery did this entail? You lay bare family details, things others might work hard to hide. What has been the reaction of your family? Your friends?
I do think it’s brave and I tell this to my students so thanks for that reminder. Yes, it takes courage (and, on some nights, lots of caffeine) to write. But it’s more than that. I think it’s also an act of compassion and honor. I know, for those who have read the book, that might be confusing. There are scenes that are unpleasant and some of the details depicted don’t always illustrate the brighter sides of the people and places I love. Sometimes, it’s harsh. Sometimes, it’s grimy. But still, I see it as honorable to create something that has the potential to say, “This time in a life, these experiences that we all were part of, all of it mattered. They shaped me and guided my understanding of the world, good and bad.”
A few days after Bordighera Press contacted me to say they wanted to publish my collection, I sent the manuscript, along with a letter, to my sisters and my brother. (Our parents are both deceased.) It was my hope that they’d read it and then we’d have some time to digest any pieces that warranted more discussion. I do think that step has opened some doors that may have been closed a little too tight. Family dynamics are ever-changing and filled with lots of idiosyncrasies, aren’t they? And sometimes we’re all not ready at the same time for doors to open. But, at least for me, what matters is that we hold the door or carry the person we love through it or just stand on the other side when and if it closes again and wait for the knock when it comes. And sure, there’s always the option of kicking the door down.
Patience. Forgiveness. Acceptance. A nice trifecta but one that takes lots of hard work.
The language in the book is so familiar to me! At one point, I thought it was the possibility that we had the same mother! Walk us through the act of remembering those conversations, those words, those exhortations of your mother who seemed to both be loving and resilient while enduring so much in her marriage.
I want to talk to you about your mother now. Tell me a story!
Believe me, we’ll talk!
Again, the moments, days, events and conversations illustrated in the book were born once that first memory, the one at the gas station, was unearthed and transferred onto a page. That opened a lot up for me. I fell into a pattern of writing in the present tense and really never wavered from that except for when I pushed myself to play with other tenses, just as an exercise. I always came back to the present.
As for the dialogue and the language, that has been one of the most unexpected and nourishing parts of this process. Writing in the present tense offered a landscape ripe for bringing those expressions and those voices back into my life, front and center. My mother’s death was a sudden one and losing her in 1998 was a universe-changer for me. This work gave me the chance to go back, to hear them, to hear us-all of us-and then create something on the page with those memories.
As for my mother being loving and resilient? Oh, yes, she possessed those qualities quite naturally. And she also had her very own, special brand of grace.
The tone of the pieces are rather matter of fact—the narrator seemingly both up close and at a distance. How did you decide in which “voice” to write?
The decision was organic, honestly, and as I said earlier I think allowing the senses to guide me helped this process. I wanted to be totally present on the page and I wanted the reader to be there, too. I went back and forth for years about this and, in the end, I chose to tell the story in glimpses and have the voice change only with age and exposure to the world.
In terms of the tone, it was important to me for this to be scene driven and not a book that incorporated my adult voice analyzing these experiences through psychological or sociological lenses. I love those books and may write one someday! But I didn’t want this one to be that. I also think that kids do experience life’s great charms and life’s great traumas in deep yet quirky (and sometimes “matter of fact”) ways and that I can learn from that.
What was the most difficult part of writing this memoir?
To begin, I could not have completed this project without the support of my family, my teachers and my students. So, yes, at times it was hard, but I’m well aware of how much harder it would have been without people offering care and encouragement along the way.
I used to say the hardest part was getting the writing and revising done in the midst of all the practical realities in life. There is some truth to that but it’s not the whole answer.
The toughest part is actually still tough, but I think that is part of the package for anyone whose work (whether it’s a job, your life’s work or both) means digging for the misunderstood aspects of life and the living and then trying to make meaning from that. I hit tough patches these past twelve years or so staying afloat, maintaining the stamina and holding on tight to an idea that had no structure and felt all over the place at times. I guess, as Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us, the key is perseverance.
On the flip side, one of the book-related things that is bringing me lots of laughter and joy right now, is making a playlist to accompany it. This music is taking me back, big-time. Stay tuned for that!
Which is your favorite narrative in the memoir? Which was the hardest to write and why?
This is a hard one, but here goes. I still laugh when I think that I fell out of a moving car when I was about seven and, probably about an hour or so after the fall, my mother took me to get my ears pierced. I love to share this one because it makes me think about not only how we remember the standout events in our lives but also the way my mother thought to comfort me. Getting my ears pierced was something I had been begging for and so I guess it was her way of getting me to forget the accident, despite the cuts and bruises. My parents were separated from one another at the time and so she was a single mom. And struggling. Now when I think about that it’s not so crazy to imagine that it was her way of making me feel better.
How does your Italian-American culture inform your work? Would you say that it is a preoccupation?
Yes, it does inform my work. It absolutely does. I wouldn’t say it is a preoccupation but more a part of my identity that naturally flavors a lot of my work and my play. And I don’t mean just the writing.
I also don’t see the influence as dramatically different from the way other cultures and identities flavor the lives of people all over the world, in a variety of ways.
Which Italian-American writers have influenced your writing the most?
Joe Papaleo, Gina Barecca, Louise DiSalvo, Bruce Springsteen, Anthony Julian Tamburri, Mary Russo Demetrick, Teresa Fiore, Edvige Giunta, Fred Guardaphé, Mary Ann Mannino and Adriana Trigiani
(And now I am anxious because I’m sure I forgot someone!)
A great list!!!
What are you working on now?
I’m always working on staying in the day.
I’m teaching a full course load this term and look forward to seeing this book go out into the world and be what it will be.
I’m also scratching out some ideas about my next project so there are lots of Post-it Notes in my office that say things like: What does it mean to be blue-collar? How music shapes us. Who knew? My mother was a feminist that whole time!
Use five words to describe Not forNothing.
Spare, coming-of-age, textured, adventurous and immediate.
Most excellent! Good luck with your wonderful book!