Interview with Adriana Trigiani
Recipient of the Appalachian Heritage WriterÕs Award, October 1, 2008, Presented by The Shepherd University Foundation, The West Virginia Humanities Council, and The West Virginia Center for the Book,
By David Owen Hoffman and Sylvia Bailey Shurbutt
D&S: Your wonderful books make us set aside our stereotypes of the Appalachia and of the people of the region, of Italians and other groups and types. Did you purposefully set out to have this effect on your readers or is this one of the happy by-products of good writing?
Trigiani: Thank you for your compliment. I donÕt really set out with a goal, but soon find, when entering the world of my characters, that they tell me what I need to know about themselves and their world. I know this sounds a little nutty, and perhaps it is, but the subconscious really rules the process of writing. I consider myself a conduit, a wire between the lives of the characters and my beloved audience, the readers. I set out to entertain you, to engage you and, hopefully, to move you emotionally to think about things (whatever those things happen to be!). As for stereotypes, I believe they are a by product of elitism. I was taught that every person is valuable—and that includes their point of view. I would never condescend to anyoneÕs experience—that includes rich people by the way—after all, there are even rampant stereotypes of them in literature and the dramatic arts. Having said that, I come from working people, and thatÕs where IÕm comfortable writing my stories, itÕs what I know.
D&S: Your signature humor is part of the appeal of your stories. The laughter is certainly part of your own personality and general outlook, but do you find other benefits from sprinkling the pages of your books with humor?
Trigiani: I prayed for brains and beauty—but was given ÒfunnyÓ instead. The talent I have, above all others, is a sense of humor. It may actually be my only gift—and I milk it for all itÕs worth. Also, I see the world as a hilarious place—and therefore, it comes with the territory of creativity—the written and spoken word (in my case). I believe also, that I inherited my comic timing from my father—who had a killer pause in conversation—that you find in the delivery of the great comedians. IÕm not nearly as funny, but I do all right in that regard.
D&S: One of the wonderful things about the Big Stone Gap books in particular, but all your books in general, is the interspersing of wonderful recipes—food becoming a lovely accompaniment to events and intricate relationships between the characters. Yet one imagines that food is much more in the books than an accoutrẻment to characters and actions. What are you aiming for with the association of food in the stories, particularly in terms of the recipes?
Trigiani: I love to cook, so IÕm always collecting recipes—but in truth, I didnÕt put them in the novels because of that—I remember in the hometown paper, The Big Stone Gap Post (donÕt want to say The Post because you might think I mean the Washington Post) that about one third of the content was recipes—or announcements about church suppers—(a roll and coffee was always part of a covered dish supper—and it was advertised as such). Anyway, I just looked at taste as one of the great senses that needed play in storytelling. I like to make my reader hungry when he or she is reading—it goes back to my own experience: the cheese Grandfather gave Heidi, for example—I just like reading and eating together.
D&S: In many of the Big Stone Gap books there are references to mountain top removal, with the issue playing a significant role in Home to Big Stone Gap, your latest in the series. Some years ago, we presented to Denise Giardina the Appalachian Heritage WriterÕs Award, and she too felt strongly about the topic. What has been your experience with mountain top removal, and why have you decided to make this issue part of your work?
Trigiani: I come from a family that was green before it was cool. We didnÕt use paper towels, we took care of stuff—we were never wasteful. One of the first lessons I was taught was to never, ever litter. Leave the world better than you found it—was a popular phrase growing up. We have one planet—and the human race will not survive if we donÕt take care of the world for the future generations. It may look like a mountain that isnÕt doing much—but in fact, a mountain is an ecosystem, part of a whole—and if you slice off the top off it, and poison rivers, kill vegetation (The Appalachians ARE the American rain forest!) and lose people in the process, what is it exactly that we gain? Short term profits do not yield long term sustenance. This is so much deeper an issue than how things look, though if youÕve seen the mountains after Mountain Top Removal, it looks like the results of the nuclear holocaust—this is about what we value and how much we value the world for future generations.
D&S: The wonderful story about how you turned Big Stone Gap into a novel from a screen play allows us some insight into your work habits—a strict writing regimen during a six-month period in 1996, from 3:00 a.m. until 8:00 a.m. while juggling responsibilities in your day job at Showtime. You have said, ÒIÕm very disciplined. Writing is not a job I do; itÕs the way I live.Ó Can you explain what you mean, and describe the remarkable writing process that allows you to craft a novel a year, while directing, traveling, and being a mom and wife.
Trigiani: Writing is not a career, itÕs a calling. IÕm compelled to it—have to do it, need to do it. I canÕt separate what I do from who I am. Writing is not a job that leaves you at 5:00 p.m.—the characters stay with me while IÕm awake, the scenes play through when I sleep—itÕs a constant—even as IÕm writing this, part of my brain is off in the midst of a scene that needs rewriting. If I go to a movie—often my mind wanders to whatever IÕm working on—and my husband catches me talking to myself—a lot. My dear friend Stewart Wallace, the composer (wrote the opera of The BonesetterÕs Daughter by Amy Tan which opens in San Francisco in the fall of 2008) and we get together and have a good laugh about being artists—and the irony of calling what we do a Òcareer.Ó ItÕs not a Òcareer,Ó Stewart always says—there are no guarantees, thereÕs no gold watch at the end, you can not be an artist for profit—because we believe there isnÕt enough money in the world to pay someone for creating art. So we bob and weave with it—and apply professional principles to what appears to be a career—and attempt the business side outside of the process of making the art—and hope for the best.
Now to the work habits:
I donÕt have a secret formula. I knew, at the start, that what made me special was not that I was at the top of the class, had the best test scores, could baton twirl or was a star athlete—I was ordinary. Am ordinary! But I did know I liked watching other people do what they do best—it was always intriguing. You could say that I love an expert—an expert anything. I liked watching my grandmother make pasta—and I loved watching my dad play the piano. I revere the nuts and bolts—the process.
I knew that if I worked hard, I could become the best artist I could possibly be. (For the record, I am not nearly there yet!) ThatÕs really all I had to go on. I just knew I could do this if I worked at it. This, of course, is the cornerstone of discipline: a belief that the talent is at the core, but itÕs useless unless it is honed. Discipline is a dirty word in a lot of circles, because it requires sacrifice. But I donÕt know how else you get where you want to be, unless you give up something that might be fun in order to get there.
When I moved to New York City and lived in a boarding house, I wanted to stay out and party after I did a show with my comedy group, but I had to get up early the next day, and so very early on, in my early 20Õs, I developed a habit of going to bed early and rising early. I stayed out of a lot of trouble that way too. And also, I learned that my brain worked while I slept—the power of the subconscious mind (that again!) and I was able to wake up and work seamlessly—because my brain never slept. This technique is the basis for the process—itÕs how I am able to juggle projects and write a book a year. IÕve learned how to harness the energy of my brain around the clock.
Also, I wonÕt rest until I get it ÒrightÓ or close—that is to say, that I achieve what IÕm trying to say in a scene—have I said what it is IÕm trying to say to the best of my ability? Have I made the scene crackle and hum—have I served the story? Is it surprising—does it flow into a greater whole? Does something happen in this scene that progresses the story of the novel? This is what the craft of writing is all about—engaging the reader in a story he or she does not want to put down told by characters that they relate to and perhaps want to be!
I listen to my readers, I share with them, and I am very grateful because they give me a creative life—the ability to make a living by the stories that I dream about. Now, having said all that—how does a person live a life with a family and do it? There are days when I believe itÕs impossible. I come from a family that never went on vacation—we were self-employed, therefore, we worked constantly. This is not necessarily good—I read magazines where people take a month and go places, and I think—How does George Clooney do it? I have an ongoing daily conversation with Michael Patrick King (the writer/director), and we marvel at how artists before us have done it, lived exciting, bon vivant existences while creating great art. When we read the Letters of Noel Coward—a very prolific writer who knew how to take several holidays a year, we yearn for his schedule, his ability to travel and have fun, all the while percolating new ideas for the next project. The trick, we seem to think, from our research, is to turn the trip into a learning experience, and therefore, itÕs rest AND work. Alas, this does not come easily, but maybe by the end of my life, I will have at least come close to trying to succeed at the balance.
As for being a mother, I drop everything when Lucia comes into the room. I have learned this over the course of her life (sheÕs six!)—I donÕt want to miss a second of her childhood—but again, balance and restraint is called for. I donÕt want to look back and say I wasnÕt present, but I donÕt want to be the hovering mother either. I work at home—and itÕs a blessing and a curse. My old habits of rising early—help—but she senses it and gets up with me—and that defeats the purpose of working in the wee hours. But thatÕs okay. Life is brief—and at the end of it, I hope I can look at her and say, I did my best by you. And the same goes for my husband.
D&S: YouÕve excelled at both screen writing and fiction—how are they alike and how different, other than the obvious? What is your approach and process when you are working in each genre?
Trigiani: Writing novels is one thing—screenplays another—teleplays another still—and plays for the theater another yet! Having done them all, and still continuing to cross pollinate as an artist—I have no hard and fast rules. But let me share this. I was educated as a playwright. The shape of my novels came from the experience of writing plays. A play tells the story of one characterÕs life (at least mine did), and so, all the action must somehow move the character forward and change her. The fundamentals of drama have served me well.
I believe my dialogue is sharp in the novels because of my experience working with actors. I hear every character differently, therefore write their voices to suit who they are. Nothing worse than a novel where all the characters sound alike—having to go back and re-read to catch the authorÕs intent is a pain. So, IÕm very aware at cutting the suit differently for each character. I was trained after college, in my early years in New York City by Ruth Goetz, half of the great team of Ruth and Augustus Goetz, who wrote, among other plays, The Heiress. I received a classical tutorial for four years in my early 20Õs from her—and she was a relentless taskmaster. I learned a lot about structure from her. These forms are all very different—and I would have to spend a few pages writing about the fundamentals of each—but when it comes to novels—I love writing them—because IÕm free. ThereÕs no budget to cut, no scene thatÕs too long—and no boss telling me it can not be done. I can do anything I wish in my novels, and that has been the greatest gift of all to me.
D&S: You have said that Òrejection is a regular, routine part of being an artist.Ó Can you share with aspiring writers some of your thoughts about rejection?
Trigiani: My advice is: get used to it. It comes from everywhere—and now, with the internet, anybody can say anything about anybody anytime and it goes out into the world like itÕs a fundamental truth—but of course, we know itÕs just an opinion—but those opinions can sting. At this point in my life, and IÕm going to be very direct here, I will let it hurt my feelings for ten minutes and then, I move on. Really, itÕs the only solution to the age old problem. There is only so much time—and IÕm not going to waste it worrying about something I can not control. Also, I try to find something helpful in criticism—and sometimes, I find something useful that helps me grow. Again, if you work hard—and do your best—thatÕs all you can expect of yourself. But you have to know youÕve done your best—and that takes time, lots of time—and lots of dedication.
D&S: Rococo was a departure for your narrative point of view, in that the story is told from a maleÕs perspective. Unlike some writers who talk about the difficulty of narrating in the skin of the opposite gender, you have indicated that becoming Bartolomeo di Crespi in that book was as natural as slipping into a different pair of shoes. Share some of the creative process of capturing this or any character.
Trigiani: I donÕt know where it comes from. IÕm there with the characters from the first line—and they take me through their story. DonÕt know HOW it even HAPPENS. I heard Bartolomeo so loud and clear—and there are days that I still do. All of my characters fascinate me—and when IÕm writing, I actually think IÕm going to run into them. Art is born in a place that has no gender, and no judgments—I just let it happen.
D&S: In ÒThe Art of Fiction,Ó Henry James spoke about the Òalchemy of artÓ and the creative mind to change the smallest event in real life into vivid fictional life. You have been able to transform so many events from your own life and those of family and friends into the pages of your fiction; often even the most minute, seemingly insignificant detail becomes the donneẻ or seed for a story or episode in your writing. What are your thoughts about blending real and fictional life, and what is the reaction of those around you when you do this?
Trigiani: I get beat up for this sometimes—(my friend Rosanne Cash and I talk about this a lot—our points of view as artists) but hereÕs the truth: I remember what I remember, and I see what I see, and I describe it thusly—and relay it in my fashion.
I have a dreamy memory. I find beauty in things that others have said are ugly, I remember things as beautiful when often, to others, they are not. I do not like the underbelly, I like to turn the underbelly over and let it dry in the sun. I remember things as funny—whereas to somebody else, it was far from funny. I paint with a dreamy brush. When someone has been cruel, I find a way to try and understand why. When I have anger, I move through it—not make it a way of life. I forgive, I overlook—and repaint and restyle and refashion. I believe in denial—I believe in pretend—I believe in creating a world that begets the lovely. I am comforted by gorgeous surroundings—soft chairs covered in sumptuous fabrics, a hot mug of coffee, candles lit, books opened—these things take the rough edges off of life—I create peace—beauty (my version of it), ambience—knowing the setting, calm and lovely will create the place where the emotions will follow. I do this at work—I do this at home, and I do it in hotel rooms.
Thank God IÕm writing fiction! I have a license to make things pretty. Now, this is not to say that my characters in their worlds do not grieve, are not hurt, do not suffer and are immune to tragedy. Far from it! All the guts of life are laid bare in my work—I just happen to think that choosing someone to share your life with is possibly the most daring choice a person can make—and losing that person—equally life altering. Or having a child—this simple human step—to me—is overwhelming and divine and frightening—you see—the real stuff is the daring stuff—to me.
Now, back to the dream state, and my dreamy memory.
HereÕs an example of what I see versus what the practical person sees: when I went home to Big Stone Gap with the movieÕs producers and I showed them the coal transom between Appalachia and Big Stone Gap, I had described it to them as a glittering structure strung with Christmas lights, and I described the coal chute as a magical tube that delivered black diamonds. When we got to the site, they stood there awhile in front of this old broken down steel structure, overgrown with weeds—and finally, somebody said, ÒAdri, whereÕs the glitter?Ó But I remembered it as so. I remembered that transom as awesome and magical. My memories, are MY memories. To someone else, well, they are something else entirely—their memories. No right and wrong—just different. And thatÕs what makes horse racing!
D&S: One of the important themes in your books is the Òoutsider.Ó Sometimes your outsiders are alienated by virtue of ethnicity, sometimes by gender or some other factor. Why do you consider this such a significant and relevant idea today? In what ways have you felt yourself to be a Òferriner,Ó as you have expressed this idea for the ÒoutsiderÓ?
Trigiani: We would have world peace if we recognized that there is no such thing as an outsider. Now, thereÕs a giant theme at work! We are all part of a whole—but alas, we donÕt always act like it. I try always, to focus on what binds me to other people—not what separates me. Having said that, itÕs a good lesson for every person to have been a ÒferrinerÓ—to know what it is to have to survive by your wits—and to prove that you are worthy. It builds character—and sometimes, from the rubble, an artist is born.
D&S: Several of our Appalachian Heritage writers have found that it took leaving the region to be able to articulate Appalachia in their fiction or poetry—Robert Morgan is perhaps one of the best examples to come to mind. You left Big Stone Gap at 18 and then after college spent most of your working life in New York City. In Big Stone Gap you write, ÒSometimes you have to strip away everything to find what you were in the first place.Ó How does ÒdistanceÓ allow you to be a better writer? How important do you think place or region is to good writing?
Trigiani: Well, distance has its distinct benefits. Distance lessens pain, rejection, suffering, and misunderstandings. Distance, looking back in memory, can send the writer into a dream state, if she or he is willing to go there. Distance hopefully, ultimately is the path to wisdom found. With separation, with time, a person can see all sides—not just her own—and figure out somewhere in the criss-cross of the paths, where the truth lies. But, not always. I had a glorious small town upbringing—not perfect—but vivid, memorable in its detail. I had a very emotional father and, though sheÕs Italian, a stoic and elegant mother—who was very, very kind (still is!) and full of love for her children (still is). I come from a big family—and therefore, as a middle child, knew my place. Every person in my family has a different story- and a different point of view. Distance has helped me understand that—and allow for ÒairÓ in the memories. I ask respectfully, always, that they allow me my memories—and my point of view.
Readers are by nature, great travelers. One of the gifts of reading is free travel that comes with picking up a book. A reader may want to go to Africa, and she or he can do so in a great read. Readers want to go to southwest Virginia, so they pick up a novel of the Appalachians. I like non-fiction autobiographies because I like to enter a life on the ground floor, from the perspective of the person living it. I find I can almost inhabit places created by the writer who is telling the tale. For me, good writing is illuminating something I never heard of—or showing me someplace IÕve never been—or know so well, itÕs in my pores. I like being taught, and I like being heard—and great writing brings both to the table.
D&S: All your fictional stories draw upon the past in a creative and dynamic way—whether you are writing about Italian American life in the 1920s or Appalachian small-town life in the 1970s. Share your thoughts on how the past informs, frames, and transforms present and future time for us.
Trigiani: IÕm comfortable in the past—maybe because most of the critics in the past are dead. ThatÕs a joke. I like the past because I love hearing about it—and reading about it—and because life moved in real time—not in this instantaneous cyber pace we live in now. My most recent novel, Very Valentine, takes place now in Greenwich Village where I live; but itÕs about old world craftsmanship, shoemaking by hand. I reveled in the research, and had to slow down and really look at the moment in a way I had not done in other novels. I had to think about what we are feeling now—the state of the world, without piling non-essential claptrap into my story. We are still human beings—and IÕm still a human being writing about being one—we still need time to feel, to connect, to fall in love—or not to—to grieve, to own the landscapes of our own hearts. You canÕt do that by text messaging.
Why do I like the past? Well, you could have a feeling in 1910—and hold on to it. Now, life is rushed: you better have that feeling, understand it and move through it—because the assault continues as long as the batteries arenÕt working on whatever gizmo we communicate with this day. People are lonelier than ever, maybe that has something to do with spending our days looking down at Blackberries instead of up into the faces of actual human beings.
This rush is not good for anybody—and it concerns me as a mother. ThereÕs no time to think anymore—and this is a tragic thing—we need contemplation, deliberation, meditation! We need the quiet, the company of our own counsel, the connection to spirit—to grow and to experience life fully. The old saying—We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spirits having a human experience—is something I think about everyday. I try and move in the world as a spirit—and simply be—not easy when beepers, bells and whistles are going off. An artist must go inward—and modern times do not assist our process.
D&S: You have shared in other interviews your personal favorite authors and books—Charlotte BronteÕs Jane Eyre, ThoreauÕs Walden, WilliamsÕ A Streetcar Named Desire, MillerÕs Death of a Salesman, The Confessions of St. Augustine, the books of Bobbie Ann Mason, Lee Smith, and others—but what were the specific literary influences on your own storytelling and style?
Trigiani: ThereÕs a wonderful movie director in Hollywood named Liz Allen, who is working on a movie about the life of Beverly Cleary (who wrote the childrenÕs books Ramona, and Fifteen, and The Luckiest Girl). Mrs. Cleary also wrote autobiographies that I enjoyed (The Girl From Yam Hill). I met with Liz in Los Angeles for tips and advice about directing Big Stone Gap. She had read the book and asked me if I was a Beverly Cleary fan. I told her I was (I read Fifteen a thousand times and the Luckiest Girl just as many!), and Liz said, ÒI knew it! I could tell from your writing.Ó Beverly Cleary writes a good story—plain and directly. The emotions are real—but the style is clear, very very clean. I am, by nature, wordy, florid and over the top with descriptions, explanations and outbursts in words. My brilliant editor Lee Boudreaux helps me stay plain and clear. ItÕs always funny to me when I get a letter and the reader says, you write so simply. Because I really really really have to work at simple, and I admire it in others. Emerson, Thoreau, the BronteÕs, the great playwrights—they write of complex emotions in a very direct fashion. ThatÕs my goal—thatÕs what I work towards. Sometimes I succeed, and the rest of the time? Forgive me. IÕm still crafting and learning.
D&S: Several of our Appalachian Heritage writers have noted the importance of storytelling. In reference to your childhood pastime of playing with author cards instead of Old Maid, you said: ÒI loved what they wrote and had to say. . . . I love to tell stories—and I love to hear them.Ó Is there an early, particular or favorite story that you loved hearing—and could share with us now?
Trigiani: So, so many stories I could write here. I weave some into my novels—so you can find them there—stories my grandmothers told me. In particular, I love the stories of how my grandmother Lucia fell in love with her husband Carlo, and how my grandmother Viola fell in love with her husband Michael. I keep the wedding cake topper from ViolaÕs wedding under glass in my living room—the figurine on the cake topper is dressed circa 1932, in a drop waist dress with a bobbed haircut! These stories are special to me, and I find, as I write them, or alter them in books, that my readers share similar stories. Our exchange is one of the best gifts this life of writing has brought to me. I canÕt believe the connections sometimes, the similarities.
D&S: WhatÕs your next project mulling about in your mind?
Trigiani: At home: my daughter enters first grade—my husband is nominated for an Emmy for lighting on The Late Show with David Letterman. I am mulling a win for him! For me: two sequels to Very Valentine—and three young adult novels called The Viola Chesterton Chronicles—and . . . making the movie Big Stone Gap—and looking ahead and beyond, savoring these days, because they wonÕt come around again.
August 12, 2008