INTERVIEW WITH ADRIANA TRIGIANI
By Stephanie Longo, Ovunque Siamo Book Reviews Editor
For a writer, there’s always a story behind the story. For Adriana Trigiani, the stories behind the tales she tells in her novels are usually drawn from family lore, both in her own family and in her human family at large. Deftly weaving the lives of her characters into critical moments in American history has become her specialty—we laugh, we cry, we become fully invested into the lives of the people playing their roles on the stage she creates, and her latest work, “Tony’s Wife,” is no exception.
Tony’s Wife takes readers on a multi-decade journey through the lives of Savero Armandonada, also known as Tony Arma, and Chi Chi Donatelli, the love of his life. With the Big Band era and World War II as a backdrop, readers see Tony and Chi Chi meet, fall in love, lose that love, and more. In this month’s edition of Ovunque Siamo, we had the chance to speak with Adriana and discover more about “Tony’s Wife,” her heritage, and what’s next for her.
SL: Tony’s Wife starts off with Saverio’s pivotal childhood experience when his father kicked him out on Christmas Eve– why do you think that familial rejection shaped his relationships later on in his life?
AT: Everything that happens to us in childhood shapes us, of course, but what is endlessly fascinating to the novelist, is what sounds, tastes, scents and places, (for starters) trigger memories of these events. No holiday is more anticipated for a young Italian American than Christmas Eve, and on that very night, a night of such promise, beauty and hope, the course of Saverio’s life changes. As his life unspools over the course of the story, the events of that night follow him all the days of his life, to the end of it. The familial rejection was one thing, and the way Saverio processed it and held it inside his soul was another.
SL: What were you trying to show with Saverio’s backstory?
AT: I think Saverio’s backstory is important because it shows the particular circumstances of his upbringing, and how he responded to them. It’s always interesting to see what people remember of their childhoods, and how that plays into their adult decisions. Saverio’s adult life was haunted by his boyhood experiences.
SL: Chi Chi Donatelli is one of your most endearing characters– I love her! I’ve noticed through your books that you always have a strong female lead with an independent mind, which is often not a stereotypical view of an Italian American female. How are you trying to reshape the narrative of Italian American women in fiction and how do your female leads fit that?
AT: I did not set out to shatter the stereotype; I just write what I know. I saw women of such consequence, courage, intelligence, guts, sensuality, creativity and joy when I was growing up. And yes, some of them were also angry and marginalized and hurting– this is the cross in pursuit of the crown of the Italian American woman. She has opportunities in America that she would never have in Italy. A few months ago, when I was in Italy, my cousins told me that as a woman I would never have had this career in my mother country. I would like to think that maybe I would have defied the odds. But, I doubt it. I came along at a perfect time; I came of age in the 1980’s– all an Italian American girl needed was a can of hairspray and a dream.
SL: How long does it take you to research a book? How long does it then take you to write one?
AT: Honestly, it takes me years to write a book. This particular story was born in the 1980s when I accidentally tagged along to Carnegie Hall, to a Steve and Eydie concert, with my aunt, uncle and their friends. I loved it– and it got me to thinking about show business marriages and the life. I took notes, and did a lot of research and, as you know, had my own seven years in cabaret in New York City, so I knew my way around a floor show and a two drink minimum. This was a world I really wanted to tackle.
SL: What is the overall message you wanted to convey in “Tony’s Wife?” How is Chi Chi and Tony’s love story different from the others you have written?
AT: I never set out with a message. I try to create a world down to the floorboards and as high as the sky. I listen to the characters that walk into the room and want to be heard. I get up and read the pages aloud every day when I’m working, which sounds a little nuts when I write this, but in fact, it’s bliss. And, I count on a team of folks who care about books and stories as much as I do to get the finished book into your hands. A writer needs feedback and support– in every corner. This work is spiritually grueling. You are trying to connect– it’s a relationship reader to subject. I’m not telling you something; as an author it’s not like I know everything. What I write is just a story, it illuminates truth as it goes, and I’m sharing it. I want you to come along with me into the world. I am neither pushing you through the door or judging you as you stand there and choose not to enter– I’m asking you to please join me inside this story because you’ve got to meet Chi Chi. Or Tony. Or Mariano. Or Helen Overby. It’s a pact. And every day, in every way, I don’t want to let you down. I’m the daughter of a librarian– I was taught books are sacrosanct. I’m dealing with the divine when I write one. Every single day, I know I’m not worthy– but that doesn’t stop me from trying!
SL: What does it mean to you to be an Italian American woman? How is this shown in your writing?
AT: Well, Steph, cue the orchestra. I’ll tell you what it means to be an Italian American woman because no one has ever asked me this question, and I have been waiting.
To be an Italian American woman means I have high hopes: that there are within me American guts and Italian craftsmanship– I care about details, I want things to be beautiful, to be right. I have always believed that there isn’t anything that I cannot do that I set my mind to, especially if I call on the women who came before me– which I do regularly. I fear no deadline because I have a spiritual army that’s pushing me forward. I will someday be part of it for my daughter and her children from the other side. I have a deep faith that was nurtured in me by the women in my family. I am good at business because my grandmothers ran their own businesses and never apologized for their efforts. There’s no shrinking violets in success, or weeping willows in despair. Own the truth of what is happening to you. If you’re unhappy, it’s your problem. I’m good at failure because I’m not in the denial business. The more you hit me, the harder I’ll hit back. And when I love you, friend, family, husband, child, it’s eternal. I am all in. No half measures. No cheating the recipe. That’s what it means to be an Italian American woman to me.
Now, for part two of your question: I hope these tenets show in my stories and the characters– and how they handle themselves as they navigate grief and loss, success and failure, love and duty, creativity and drought– all of it. Because if I’m doing my job, you will see all the colors of my characters, and understand who they are and what they want, they should delight and surprise you– and annoy you, and maybe on occasion enrage you a bit- -because I’m trying to write human traits of good people in difficult situations, as they pursue their dreams. They ain’t saints, they’re based on the real deal.
SL: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books?
AT: I have so many favorites, too many to name, but since this is an Italian American magazine, let me name an Italian: my honorary brother David Baldacci. As for my favorite books, right now I’m going through my books and unpacking them, so the childhood ones are popping up. Here are two: The Story of Silent Night by John Travers Moore and They Had Faces Then, a yearbook of the stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I loved Hey Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka, Aristotle’s Way by Edith Hall and A Mad Love by Vivien Schweitzer.
SL: What’s next for you?
AT: Tony’s Wife, the paperback ,comes out July 23 with study questions! I’ve had a glorious year. I directed a movie written by the inspirational Kathie Lee Gifford, in which she stars with Craig Ferguson and we shot it in Scotland. “Very Valentine,” which I adapted for a television movie, will debut on Lifetime on June 8. It stars Kelan Coleman and, get this, Jacqueline Bisset as the nonna, Teadora Angelini. I’ve seen it, and it’s fabulous. Very Valentine is the inaugural pick of the Lifetime National Book Club! I have a couple of movies in the pipeline, including an adaptation of Tony’s Wife, and, of course, I’m working on a new novel and a couple of surprises. I’m most happy that I got my house painted and decorated as I like it. You have to come over.
SL: Thanks Adriana for your time and we wish you all the best with your upcoming projects!