An Interview With Gail Reitano author of Italian Love Cake, Bordighera Press.
How did the writing of this book come about?
I’ve always wanted to write about Italian-Americans. It wasn’t until I read Elena Ferrante that I thought seriously about it. Ferrante’s Neapolitans and the Italian-Americans I grew up with in my New Jersey hometown were so similar, it shocked me. Reading Ferrante I realized I lived with this split within me. I’d always felt like an Italian in America and an American in Italy. I was once at a dinner party in Tuscany with a group of Romans. When I described myself as an Italian, they burst out laughing. No, you’re not. You’re a Yank! they said, practically in unison. Ferrante gave me a kind of permission to show our Italian side, our struggles, our preoccupations, so similar to her Neapolitans. Our genetics might be stronger even than we believe.
How did the actual idea for Italian Love Cake come about?
The idea from Italian Love Cake grew from a story I was told years ago. A friend of my mother’s witnessed a fascist meeting in which one hundred men in my hometown were asked to sign a book swearing allegiance to Mussolini. The event took place in the 30s during Mussolini’s push to spread propaganda in America, specifically among Italian-Americans, that would dissuade them from joining with the allies against Germany. This story dovetailed with two strong visual images – a photo I’d taken in San Gimignano, of a woman in an upstairs window smoking a cigarette. All that was visible was her forearm, elbow resting on the windowsill, and her hand held a cigarette with a stream of smoke curling upwards. The other image was of a woman in my New Jersey town who owned the hardware store on the main street—my mother told me how, in the 1940s, she used to sit in the window in the evenings and smoke. For all the smoking in these initial images, my main character, Marie, doesn’t smoke!
How did you make the decision to set it in the 1930’s and did you find it a challenge to keep details authentic?
I wanted to recreate my grandmother’s experience. I believe that feminism exists in all women, no matter their generation. I wanted to reinvigorate the feminism that lived in my grandmother, that dovetailed with her hopes and dreams, her wish for a prosperous life in America.
I spent a lot of time trying to get the 1930s details right, like the cost of things, the proliferation of automobiles, the politics, Roosevelt’s vision for America’s role in the war, what people ate, the sights and sounds of street life in a small town in southern New Jersey at that time. And, the birth control, such as it was, what was acceptable for women to think, the constraints, that straightjacket that as women we wear and try not to complain about, until it becomes too much. In that sense this book could be set in any decade. That’s the effect I wanted.
Marie Genovese has many feminist aspects of her personality, but is also a “woman of her time.” Was she based on anyone in particular?
As I’ve said, Marie is based loosely on my maternal grandmother, Anna Renzi. Though Marie doesn’t have as many skills as my grandmother, who was not only a skilled seamstress, but could refinish furniture, kill a poisonous snake on her farm, ride a horse, repair appliances – Marie does what she has to in order to progress in her life. My grandmother was a feminist by virtue of her supreme confidence in her abilities—I wanted to give Marie that quality, that same strength. Women have enormous responsibilities. They have to run the family, provide sustenance. It’s a duty, a pleasure, and a strain, and that’s no less true for Italian-American women. Women understand that the bringing of food to the table is both act of both love, and control.
Ada is almost a ghost-like figure in the book. How did you develop her character?
I love that you noticed this. Ada seems to come and go as if by magic. Marie is curious about her family’s past but resents the family’s secrets, what happened in Italy that she remains ignorant about: her mother’s relationship to Mr. E, and Ada, an aunt from Italy, a sister that her mother failed to mention. I wanted there to be a character in the book from Italy. When I first wrote Ada, she represented Italy itself, full of that mystery, of a place Americans don’t and can’t really know, not completely. And like Italy, she had to be learned, understood. Marie is embarrassed by the old world that Ada represents, and her first reaction is to push her aunt away, which contributes to the feeling that Ada isn’t quite real. Right from the beginning of writing that character, she felt like pure mystery. I liked that effect, and so I worked to keep that feeling throughout the book.
How long did it take you to write this book and what was your process?
The novel took about 3.5 years in the actual writing. I began writing the book in the middle of the night. The story woke me up and it just started coming out. Of course I was working as a consultant to nonprofits during the day, so I couldn’t write then. The first draft was written in those somnolent hours.
How much research was involved in the writing of this book?
I probably read at least twenty books, including a history of Italy, historical records of the Depression and commerce during the pre-war period, about fascism, even about the Italian resistance. I kept having to check things, and I wondered sometimes, why I was doing that, but it seemed important to recreate it very faithfully.
What projects are you currently working on and will they have an Italian-American theme?
I’m working on two essays and a novel. The essays have an Italian-American theme because they are memoir and involve farming. When I say I’m working on these projects, I mean they’re currently in files awaiting a clear space for getting back into creative work. Italian Love Cake was accepted by Bordighera Press in August 2019, then the pandemic hit. Since this is my first book, I don’t know whether it’s normal to feel so derailed by the publication process. But that, together with the pandemic, have put my projects on hold. I don’t know whether I’ll go back to the novel I’d been working on for two years. I will continue the essays, but the next book might be something entirely different.
What does being an Italian-American writer mean to you?
My heritage definitely spurred the writing of this book. Our backgrounds and our genders inform what we write. My wish for Italian-American literature is that it take its rightful place among all the literatures this country produces.
As a writer, I have a stronger identification with being female and a feminist. I may or may not write another Italian-American book, but the themes of justice and sexual agency and equality will always be present in my work. I’d always written about my family in memoir, but it was only during the last however many years, with large migrations coming from central America and Mexico, that I began to see the story of Italian-Americans as the story of all immigrants. My main character, Marie Genovese, is undoubtedly a first generation Italian-American, but her story is universal.
And yet – I keep using the hashtag #AllThingsItalian in my social media!
Gail, thank you so much. I loved Italian Love Cake, which will quickly take its place among other fine Italian American literature!