On this page, you will find interviews with writers and friends of the Centro Pokkoli. Most recently, with Gigi Pandian who dropped by for a chat while researching Bomarzo nearby!
Linda Lappin of Centro Pokkoli interviews mystery novelistWriter
GIGI PANDIAN , author of the Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mystery Series and the Accidental Alchemist Series during her recent visit to the Monster Park of BOMARZO, researching a new book due out next fall.
L.L. Gigi, how did your writing career begin and what attracted you most to the mystery genre?
Gigi: It never occurred to me that I could have a creative career, but at 25 I was in a PhD program and miserable. Something had to change, so I dropped out with my Master’s degree, got a part-time job and started taking art school classes, and in my free time began toying with a novel. A few years later, I discovered National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) , the challenge to write a 50,000-word draft of a novel in 30 days. It was the push I needed to finish a novel. I submitted my rough draft to the Malice Domestic Grant competition for unpublished mystery writers, and much to my surprise, I won their grant that year! That’s what got me to take my writing seriously. I joined writing groups, took classes, and put in the time to turn a good idea into a well-executed novel.
I’ve always loved mysteries, starting with Scooby Doo and Encyclopedia Brown. It’s one of those unquantifiable things, where I’ve always been drawn to the mysterious in all aspects of life, such as seeking out gargoyles, ruined castles, and ghost stories when I traveled. Though my childhood home was lined with books of all genres, it was the mysteries I was drawn to.
L.L. I had the pleasure of meeting your parents, I know also that your father is from India, perhaps the greatest story-telling culture of the planet and that your mom is an anthropologist. In what ways did your family heritage contribute to your writerly imagination?
Gigi: It was such a treat that it worked out for us to visit you in your medieval village in Italy! There’s no way I’d be a writer without my parents. In addition to my house being filled with books, my mom took me on academic research trips with her, starting with a trip to Scotland when I was 10 years old. I’ve also traveled to India several times with my father, to visit family and see the country. I’m an only child, so I created my own adventures and made up stories on those trips. My parents were both cultural anthropologists before retiring, and they told me great stories from all over the world, so my own stories were building upon ideas they’d already exposed me to.
L.L.: In what ways does the spirit of place – the genius loci – come into your inspiration or your writing?
Gigi: It’s essential for me to understand the spirit of the places I write about. My books are set in places ranging from San Francisco and Portland in the US to Scotland, France, India—and next up is Italy. I’ve lived in or visited all of the places I write about. The Internet is great, but there are questions, happenstance meetings, and sensory feelings that will never occur to you unless you’re experiencing a place first-hand. I love writing puzzle plot mysteries, and some of my best twists are from unexpected experiences when traveling. My second novel, Pirate Vishnu, is set half in San Francisco and half in India. I’d already written a draft of the book when I returned to India on an unrelated trip. We got lost driving between Trivandrum and Kochi, and the combination of a local map and the generous people who helped us find our way gave me a great idea to solve one of the problems with the book, as well as adding a symbolic layer.
L.L.: I know that in addition to being a USA Today bestselling author, you also have a day job in the so-called real world. Would you like to say something about balancing these two aspects of your life?
Gigi: I have to be very disciplined! In addition to the fact that I set my alarm and get up early every day of the week, one of my sacrifices is that I gave up the Sunday New York Times. I’m very protective of my writing time. At the same time, I don’t want to get burned out. I never work during the evenings. That’s my time to relax with my family and friends.
When things started happening with my writing, I took a three-month sabbatical from my day job. I learned that with all the time in the world, I wasn’t any more productive. It’s a compelling motivation when you know you have to be somewhere in a few hours—you’ll sit down at the computer rather than dawdling for “just a few minutes,” which inevitably turns into much longer. I’m very glad that I didn’t quit my job, because during that sabbatical I learned just how much I missed my co-workers, the work I do in my job (at a civil rights organization), and having structure in my life.
L.L.: We met after you posted a Goodreads review for my mystery novel Signatures in Stone after which I emailed you and we met up in person. How important are social media to writers these days, in your experience?
Gigi: Thank you so much for your hospitality in Italy, Linda! I’m so happy you reached out to me after I posted my review. Our experience is a perfect example of the wonderful things that can come from of social media. It’s not possible to know when a small gesture, such as leaving a review of a book I enjoyed, will lead to so much more. My philosophy is that it’s impossible to know what works for promotion, so I’m going to focus on what’s fun.
Linda Lappin of Centro Pokkoli interviews Rome author and journalist Sari Gilbert about her new memoir MY HOME SWEET ROME.
LL: Two things I wondered after reading your memoir about your life in Rome: how long did it take you to feel perfectly at ease and at home in your new language, in both personal and professional contexts? And did you ever experience culture shock? What does that term mean to you in terms of your personal experiences?
SG: My first experience with living in Italy was in the second semester of my junior year, with the Syracuse University program in Florence. School was in an American context but we lived with Italian families, in my case two different families, each for two months, which I guess is how my Italian got a head start. It wasn’t until later on that I really felt perfectly at ease in Italian. I made further progress when I spent the first year of my two-year Master’s program in Bologna where I made a point of studying not in the Johns Hopkins library but in the biblioteca of the faculty of Giurisprudenza, But it was probably only when I went to Rome a couple of years later that I became “really me” in Italian. I spent at least a year doing research on my doctoral dissertation and working part-time in an Italian international affairs research organization. Almost all my friends were Italian and I don’t recall having any trouble at all then with the language, although clearly I must still have been in a learning stage.
As for culture shock, I don’t remember that any of that at all. I was SO excited and happy to be in Italy – on all those three occasions – that I believe I was open to everything and curious about everything. I remember having coffee at the café in Piazza San Marco in Florence; I think I was just 19 and the fact that right across the street was the San Marco monastery with its Fra Angelico frescos was so thrilling to me it would never have occurred to me to be homesick. Also, I was always convinced, even as a teenager, that I belonged in the Mediterranean, including France.
LL: It has been suggested that to acquire a second language is to acquire a second self. Would you agree?
SG: Hmmm. I don’t think so. I think what it does, however, is to give you added dimensions. I feel comfortable in another language when I can make jokes in that language and others understand them. But in any event, just learning the language is not enough. To be truly fluent, you have to know HOW to use the language and that involves having your cultural ears on and understanding what the people who speak that language as natives MEAN when they use the words they use.
LL: You have had quite an impressive career in journalism working for some very prestigious papers, both American and Italian. The switch from the American press to the Italian was quite a feat. I am sure you excited a lot of envy. With few exceptions, newspaper journalism in Italy seems still to be male-dominated, like everything else. As a single career woman, and foreign to boot, with ambitions, what obstacles if any did you meet?
SG: I wouldn’t say that newspaper journalism in Italy is male-dominated except, of course, at the editor and deputy editor levels. For years now there have been many well-respected and active women journalists, so gender was not a problem (if anything, in terms of actual reporting, is probably was an advantage, especially if you are an attractive woman.
At the paper I joined, there were some problems at the outset since my hiring – I learned later – interfered with a promotion schedule I knew nothing about. The main difficulty, I guess, was accepting the tendency by some Italian newspapers at glossing over the facts. Once I was asked to write a controversial financial story I was unable to return and the editor of that paper, now no longer in business, wanted me to write it anyway. When I refused, he just got someone else to do it. But the paper I was at, Il Sole 24 Ore, was not like that at all. The stories that I did, which were political, were never censored. I am not so sure about economic stories, since the paper is owned by Confindustria, Italy’s association of manufacturers.
I don’t think I encountered any obstacles as a woman because by the time I began working for Italian papers, I was known as someone who had worked for some very prestigious U.S. papers, in particular, The Washington Post. Ironically, the Washington Post itself never seems to have thought much of me; American papers, at least large prestigious ones, make a huge distinction between staff members and stringers (the Brits don’t seem to have this defect, considering stringers expendable and exploitable. However, the Italians – fellow journalists and sources alike – did not know this so gave me a lot of prestige and thus access to sources.
LL: In some ways, this book is an insider’s guide to Italian culture with a leitmotif of romantic encounters -- a one-woman Sex in the City. Somewhere in your book you say that Italian men want to be loved first and desired later. Is that still true? One feels that Italian society has changed a lot. Stereotyped roles have become more flexible and the north is surely different from the south in this regard: is the Latin Lover a dying breed? A dinosaur?
SG: What I meant is that they care more about being loved (read adored) than desired. I am afraid, since Italian men are generally not interested in anyone who is over 40 that I really can0t say to what extent this is still true or not. What is true, is that Italian women have changed. When I first came here, Italian young women generally did not have sex before they got married or at least were engaged. Now, although of course there are exceptions, they have sex in their teens just like young American girls do and I am not really in a position to know much about what goes on in their beds. I think probably Italian men now know (or care)more about how to please a woman than they once did but I can’t swear to that. The things that are immediately obvious is how today’s Italian men are so much involved in the care of their infants than used to be the case AND, alas, how many are gay.
LL: What newspapers do you read regularly? What state is Italian journalism in today? What do you think of the Huff post Italian version?
SG talian newspapers are not in great shape, but this is true of newspapers in many parts of the world. My first Italian newspaper of choice is Corriere della Sera with La Stampa running a close second. But I strongly object to their habit (all Italian papers are like this) of never bringing the reader up to date and of using made up quotes to replace a headline). I also listen to Sky News regularly and to RAI News 24. But if it is international news, I will still read the New York Times, watch CNN and sometimes listen to NPR. And then there are others but as I am no longer a working journalist I do not keep up as much as before. Let’s say I keep up as a concerned citizen more than as a professional.
LL: One feels that we are in the midst of a great cultural transformation. The German hegemony within the EU, the divide between north and south, environmental issues and migration; the connivance of government and corruption and at the local level, the deterioration of life in the cities. Where do you see Italy headed?
SG: I don’t think Italy is headed anywhere, at least not anywhere good. It may keep muddling through but I have very little confidence that it can produce a modern, rigorous and responsive government – of any color – which is what every country needs, especially in our complicated times. Every time I hear an Italian say, and it happens often, “Eh, siamo in Italia” to explain something that is not working properly, a law that is not applied, graft that has been uncovered etc etc I feel like saying, “but you, you are Italy, do something”. Italians, as a group, are too quick to give up, to resign themselves, to accept. But they’ve done it for so long (and Roman Catholicism has not helped!) that it probably is really too late.
LL: Rome had numerous issues over the last summer. Would you comment on life in Rome today?
SG: I think Rome is in the worst state that I have ever seen it in. The city is dirty, regulations are applied only sporadically, no one has done anything about the illegal vendors – reportedly close to 2000 and 30 every day in just my own little piazza – and it’s a crying shame since the city has so many wonderful sites to visit and admire. I only recently saw the new “home” that’s been erected for Marcus Aurelius attached to the back of the Palazzo dei Conservatori in the Capitoline Museums and I was bowled over. But it’s infuriating. There is so much talent and inventiveness around but none of it, or very little, is usedtio improve everyday life. Although it makes me sad to say it, the basic message of my book is “it’s a nice place to visit, but would you really want to live there?” I, myself, have been spending more and more time in what we call, la provincia, “the sticks”.
LL: What writers do you read for pleasure and inspiration?
SG: That is a hard question to answer because my reading is very eclectic. I have always loved crime fiction, everything from the cosies – such as Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie - to the hard-boiled detectives created by such as Dashiell Hammetl and Raymond Chandler police procedurals, particularly British writers such as Colin Dexter , Reginald Hill, Ian Rankin, the brilliant women writers such as Ruth Rendell and P.D. James, Americans such as Michael Connolly, Elizabeth George, and Donna Leon, and of course the Scandinavians. And then more literary novels, past and present. Have been thinking lately, that I ought to re-read everything I read in my 20s and 30s, but would one find the time? Doubtful.
LL: What is your next writing project?
SG: Actually, I myself have been playing around with a mystery series set in Italy with a woman journalist as the main protagonist. I am also working on an anecdotal and, where possible, collection of tips “for a better trip to Italy”. The first entries can be seen on my website: Italyusersguide.com. How to cross the street without getting killed...and other tips.
LL: What advice would you give a young person wanting to move to Italy to become a writer?
SG:I don’t think it matters where you live if you are interested in writing fiction. If you find the place where you live interesting, or even fascinating, there will be plenty of stories for you to tell. If you are interested in being a free-lance journalist in Italy, I think you have kind of missed the boat. News has changed so much since when I came to Italy but one thing that hasn’t changed is that most free-lancers are exploited. The general problem about coming to Italy to work – aside from the bureaucratic hassles in getting a residence permit that allows you to work – is that this is a very seductive country where whatever your field you need real determination in order to avoid being sucked into a pleasant but marginal life-style.
LL: What would you like to add?
SG: Only, alas, that living in Italy means you will be bouncing back and forth between desperation and exaltation. Desperation because, if you love this country, or once loved it, it’s hard not to feel it is doomed. Exaltation because of the unbelievable and thrilling treasures of the past that are around every corner and over every hillside.
Follow Sari's blogs @ stranitalia.com
An Interview with A.E. Stallings of the Athens Poetry Centre
Linda Lappin talks with A.E.Stallings about her life in Greece and the workshop she teaches for the Athens Poetry Centre.
Poet and workshop leader Alicia Stallings, author of The Archaic Smile (University of Evansville Press, 1999, winner Richard Wilbur prize) and Hapax (Northwestern University Press, 2006), talks about the Muses’ Workshop and its focus on myth.
Lappin: There’s an emphasis on myth and mythology in your workshop, which is indeed dedicated to The Muses. Why?
Stallings: Because we are in Greece, I wanted to use what was around us. Mythology pervades Greek life. My children are named Jason and Atalanta, and their friends on the playground are named Electra, Achilles, Andromeda. It’s also a way to enter into contact with modern and contemporary Greek poetry: poets like Cavafy and Seferis make use of mythology. And it’s a key to understanding modern life in Greece. It brings together many elements in the classroom. Many of my students have been writing confessional poetry. For them, using myth in different sorts of ways and seeing different examples of myth-based poems introduces a new dimension, and can help open them up to new subject matter.
Lappin: Some people may remember studying the Greek myths or the Odyssey at elementary school, with antiquated Victorian translations, high flown language, or modern bland prose versions. In class, you were saying how important it is to approach this material with fresh eyes and a spirit of innovation.
Stallings: In working with myth, you have to feel free to make variations. You don’t have to approach the material in a fusty way, or feel reverent and respectful. Ancient writers didn’t feel that way. They experimented and could be both playful and raunchy. You can take the standard story and give yourself permission to play with it. The Greek myths are very contemporary. Consider the story of Phaeton and the chariot of the sun. It’s the story of a teenager who has been given the keys to his dad’s Porsche and doesn’t know how to control it. Or take The Odyssey—among other things, it’s the first western.
Lappin You say that Greek myths still pervade contemporary Greek consciousness and Greek life. In the current economic and political crisis, do you see any myths operating?
Stallings I’d have to think about this.
Lappin: I was thinking the other day about the sacrifice of the young Athenians to the Minotaur…
Stallings : Actually, that might make a bit of sense… There is a resonance of events. You need to read the current crisis against a larger backdrop of modern Greek history: the founding of the Greek republic, a sort of colonialism that took place. Some people wondered if Greece was ready for democracy. Loans were made on calamitous terms. In any case, it is a gerontocratic society. Young people have no power, no say, an insecure future. Like Kronos, Greece eats her young.
Lappin: In your own work, are there myths that have shaped your life or your vision of your art?
Stallings: I have written a lot about the underworld. Hades and Persephone. Orpheus and Eurydice. I am fascinated by the Underworld. The classical, pagan view of the afterlife seems much less abstract to me, more real than our Christian heaven and hell.
Lappin: I share your fascination. I find your images of the Underworld extremely striking, particularly in the poems “Hades Welcomes His Bride” and “Persephone Writes a Letter to Her Mother “ in Archaic Smile, or “Dogdom of the Dead,” and “An Ancient Dog Grave Unearthed During the Construction of the Athens Metro.” Especially in the first two poems, you give Hades such vivid physical reality, it’s the world of roots and snakes and burrowing right under our feet. In a forum I found on the Internet, you mention that for a while you lived in a basement flat, and that this subterranean environment might have unconsciously influenced you. I’d be interested in hearing more about your fascination for the underworld and its meanings for you.
Stallings: I think if I fully understood my fascination with it, it would subside somewhat. Part of it may be how the dead continue to exist, but as shadows of themselves, like dim but stubborn memories. I like the realness of its geography, how it is a place to be travelled to but not (usually) returned from. I sometimes think, looking back at early poems of mine about the underworld that they are as much about depression as death. But that’s an idea that has only come to me lately. And I think writing about the underworld is fun, too, as well as frightening.
Lappin: You’re a classics scholar and a great admirer of the Odyssey, which you use in your writing classes at the Muses Workshop. I was wondering how you relate to one of its main themes: exile or dislocation. What’s the hardest thing you have had to deal with as an expat writer?
Stallings: Losing track of American vernacular and being out of touch with popular culture. You’re not watching the same television shows, keeping up with the same trends.
Lappin: That might not be bad for an artist.
Stallings: Of course, yet sometimes I find myself re-reading a line I have written and will ask myself, “would someone really say that?” You have to keep in touch with the language. As an expat and also as a mother you are isolated.
Lappin: Elsewhere you have described yourself as a “Mommy poet.”
Stallings: I am. With small children it’s a struggle to find time and quiet in which to work.
Lappin: Do you feel part of the American writing community, the poetry community?
Stallings: With social media, internet, Facebook, Skype, it’s easy to be included in the conversation and to keep in touch. But it’s also good to be independent of it all.
Lappin: Do you teach elsewhere in Athens or Greece?
Stallings: I run this workshop (normally 3 weeks in summer) and teach at some workshops/ residencies in the US. I do a lot of literary translation, and also some of what I call “hack work” –reviews, articles, essays. I am a professional writer. If someone says, write me a 500 word blog on Greek food and pays me, I’ll do it. After all, I have to pay my Bulgarian baby sitter who looks after my children when I am teaching or when I need time to write! But both writing and translation take time and energy away from my main work.
Lappin: In this very intense week of the Muses Workshop, we’ve worked a lot with rhyme and form: sonnets, sestinas, pantoums, and villanelles. Would you elaborate a bit about your emphasis on form in your writing classes?
Stallings: I run a poetry boot camp! Many people misunderstand the use of form and think it entails submitting to restrictions. But instead it means giving up control. Not submitting to restrictions, but to destiny or chance that helps choose the next word. Rhyme is also an engine of syntax. And it helps make lines memorable.
Lappin: What writers do you read for inspiration?
Stallings: Among many others, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, Don Paterson, Seamus Heaney. And ancient writers. My favorite poet is A.E. Housman.
Lappin: You have translated both texts of classical antiquity as well as modern Greek poetry, and have received a grant for your translation work. In class you said that translating was a form of very close reading, and a way to know another writer’s work intimately. Aside from Cavafy or other early modernists, are there any contemporary Greek poets whom you have translated whose work you find especially inspiring?
Stallings: I suppose you could include Angelos Sikelianos in the early modernists? There are many wonderful contemporary Greek poets. Interestingly, two of the most prominent are women: Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke and Kiki Dimoula. I have not, however, attempted to translate any living writers. (Indeed, Anghelaki-Rooke translates herself!) I suppose one advantage of working with a living writer is you could pose queries to them. But the disadvantage is you might not like the answers.
Lappin: In class, we looked at the many hand written and typed drafts of Elizabeth Bishop’s famous villanelle, The Art of Losing, which I believe went through eleven drafts. Do you think word processing has made the labor of writing poetry easier—not having to retype every fresh revision? Do you work with a word processor or write long hand?
Stallings: Some people have a fetishistic approach—they have to use a certain pen, etc. I am not like that. People need different things. I write long hand and then on the computer. I actually have some theories about using computers to write poetry. I think that looking at a back-illuminated screen ties up your visual attention in a way that looking at a page doesn’t. I always print out and revise on the printed page. Sometimes in revision, you can lose a certain freshness, and if you’ve just deleted blocks of text, it’s hard to go back and find your earlier versions. I tell my students to always keep a copy of their earlier versions.
Lappin: You’ll be bringing out a new book soon…
Stallings: Yes, it’s called OLIVES—which can also be O LIVES.
It is forthcoming with Northwestern University Press, and should be out early in 2012.
Lappin: A word of advice to writers?
Stallings: You have to give yourself permission to write bad poetry. Clean the brown water out of the pipes. It’s often in revision that a poem goes from bad to good or from good to great.
This interview originally appeared in the Writers Chronicle
LINDA LAPPIN of CENTRO POKKOLI INTERVIEWS JOHN DOMINI
John Domini sometimes stops by when he's in town. LL had the opportunity to interview him for RAIN TAXI
John Domini’s work has been featured in Paris Review, The New York Times, and numerous other outlets. He is a versatile, genre-crossing author, and has published several books of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry over the course of his prolific career. The organizations that have honored his work include the National Endowment for the Arts and the Iowa Arts Council, and he has been an artist-in-residence multiple times with Italy’s Festival delle Storie. He currently lives in Des Moines, Iowa.
Domini’s new collection of critical essays, The Sea-God’s Herb (Dzanc Books, $15.95), sets out to celebrate and define post-modernism in the novel from a fiction writer’s point of view. It fills a gap in contemporary criticism, as essays and reviews of experimental American fiction are rare. The Sea-God’s Herb is a vast book, touching on many issues, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to discuss a few of them with the author.
Linda Lappin: Among the distinguishing characteristics of experimental fiction you mention is the writer’s willingness to breaks molds in terms of prose and structure. Surely the 1970s were a great era for iconoclasm in many areas of our culture, from politics to fashion and much else. What has happened to our mindset and our reading habits? Why are we afraid of the new and different when once we used to thrive on it? Or is that changing?
John Domini: The question suggests a monster squid, its home hidden, its arms everywhere. I mean that as a compliment, but I doubt I’ll manage to grab but one or two tentacles. I can say for starters that responsiveness to literary experiment doesn’t break down usefully into decades, but is better understood as a challenge that too many American critics have failed to meet for a good half-century now. That’s my argument in Sea-God, expressed both in my selection and, especially, in the lead essay, “Against the ‘Impossible to Explain.’” Over that same half-century, success in all the arts has been measured more and more oppressively by money and numbers. The hammer of Big Capital has come down hard; just ask any young American trying to make their mark in music. In music, though, even a corporate party like the Grammys will have room for work as outré as Beck’s. In theater, even Broadway will celebrate a mooncalf like Angels in America. U.S. publishing, however, and with it the established venues of literary criticism, still tends to hold the unconventional at arm’s length. Such a situation interferes with a willing reader’s appreciation of the rich adjustments storytelling has made to the sharp turns and sudden crevices of our times. In effect, it robs story of its continuing purpose: to steer us through those turns, and to bridge those crevices.
LL: Where would you situate your own fiction in the “New Republic of Long Narrative,” as you call the contemporary literary landscape? I was intrigued by your suggestion that postmodern experiments often “reveal their own devising.” Could you comment on that with regards to one of your own fiction projects?
JD: Ah, what writer doesn’t love this question? “Enough about those other guys; let’s talk about you!” I’ll try for restraint. For starters I’ll note that a lot of my own fiction isn’t so experimental as that of many folks I investigate in Sea-God. To mention just one, Carole Maso; her Aureole presents more of a challenge to conventional story and language than any of my novels and all but one or two of my shorter pieces. Okay, my Talking Heads: 77 includes the recurring “layout & pasteup,” pretty out there; the Naples novels too, Earthquake I.D. and A Tomb On the Periphery, occasionally poke up into a rarified atmosphere. Nonetheless, my fiction derives essential nutrients from social awareness; it generates drama from the history, the demographics, the economics. Nothing wrong with that; nothing you won’t find done better in, say, DeLillo’s The Names—and to point out such real-world concerns in DeLillo or Maso takes us back to the main argument of Sea-God, namely, that so-called experimental fiction isn’t in fact divorced from this trying experiment we call daily life. That said, I should add that just now, I’m po-mo in utero—in 2016, Dzanc will bring out my wildest yet, a story sequence titled Movieola!
LL: I loved your definition of your younger ’70s self as “Beat-besotted, Dylan-dreaming, Kafka-cantankerous, and Melville-megalomaniacal.” You were publishing reviews and other work back then in very prestigious places. What dreams did you have about the writer’s life, the writer’s role in community/society/academia or elsewhere—and how has it all panned out?
JD: I figured I’d be Vladimir Nabokov by now! Okay, joke, but isn’t that a fitting response to our fledgling dreams? As for how it’s panned out—it’s a letdown, inevitably, though my ups and downs are pretty typical: economic and romantic crises, editors and others who sometimes lent a hand and sometimes slapped me down. I guess what I find most interesting about your question is the hybrid construction “community/society/academia.” I did have such a thing in mind when I was starting out, and I did conceive of criticism as a way I could help raise a roof-beam or put down a decent road for all of us sensitive to fiction’s changing shapes. I perceived such a program for myself, and I’ve stuck with it since. So there’s that.
LL: I was a bit taken back by a comment you make about fiction by American women writers: “Fiction about a woman’s place in the world has tended to omit the spiritual, the Unknowable.” That’s an interesting perception, which I don’t personally share; it suggests that women writers tend to see the novel as springing from social rather than spiritual concerns. In your view, why is this so?
JD: Ow. Can I claim context, here? That line is in a long essay about a woman writer, Jaimy Gordon—an essay trying, among other things, to win her a wider readership. Around the statement there are other factors in play, like Gordon’s age and generation, plus of course the argument of my book as a whole. And while I’m getting all blustery and defensive, I’ll add that the editors and I made changes in order to include more women; we didn’t want a Boys Club. Okay. But I appreciate the question; it means my Sea-God has initiated a conversation, even if the give and take pains me a bit. It means I’ve contributed a bit to that community etc. I just mentioned, by raising such questions. As for your more provocative notion re: women’s fiction “springing from social rather than spiritual concerns,” I suppose that could be taken as an implication in the Gordon essay. I’d be leery of such a sweeping pronunciamento, myself, but maybe my book isn’t. In any case the argument seems to call for—yes!—another essay. Someone ought to raise the banner of, say, Sylvia Plath, and under it lead the Anti-Dominians out to battle. I only hope I live to see it.
LL: Not very many women writers are mentioned in your book, and in fact, there just aren’t that many contemporary experimental women writers that have achieved national recognition. There could be very many different reasons for that. One thing that came to my mind, with regards to my initial question, is that many innovative women writers privilege one or the other (Arundhati Roy, for example, or Anais Nin), structure or prose, but not both at the same time, which would place them outside the camp as you define it. Do women writers tend to be more conservative? Is it harder for a woman to affirm herself as an experimental writer? Do publishers tend to take more seriously male experimental writers than female?
JD: My previous answer touched on this subject. The editors and I cared about including women, though of course we were limited to what I’d published. I didn’t have anything on Aimee Bender, for instance, and her fabulism would’ve felt at home. What’s more, since the book appeared, I’ve written on iconoclastic texts by women like Jenny Erpenbeck, books that would address your concern. Still, this question brings up a larger issue, namely, how commercial publishers tend to view outside-the-box stories and novels from women—which is askance at best. Again, we can all think of exceptions, but insofar as Sea-God calls mainstream American editors and reviewers to task for their aversion to risk-taking, the complaint also applies to how they’ve treated women writers. Not long ago I heard Carole Maso open up, with admirable frankness, about the difficulty she still has getting published. What does that tell you?
LL: You conclude with an essay on Dante and the archetypal storytelling patterns we find buried in narratives. Could you say something about your own relationship to Italian classics and how they have influenced your own fiction?
JD: First, I ought to point out that one critic has already claimed the Dante essay feels shoehorned in. It just won’t fit, says he, and the God—or Goddess—of lit-crit may agree. If so, all this mere mortal can do is reiterate the point made in the preface, namely that the essay belongs both for its unearthing a less than obvious narrative in the poem, and for how it connects that strange narrative to our ordinary cares and joys. Like all the other pieces in Sea-God, it argues for the humanity of challenging literature. Now, in my mind’s eye and ear, that very claim sounds Italian. Even at its most baroque, so highly wrought as to seem solely about itself, Italian work has always conveyed something of the street, garden, kitchen, and, of course, the bedroom. Even the infinitely brainy Da Vinci reveals, in his Madonnas and saints, that he knows suffering and passions, and asserts their centrality in his art. I could work up a whole new essay, one that explained, also, how I’m holding off on the Naples trilogy of Elena Ferrante, until I can take a good long run at her work in Italian. Still, once more I’ll rein myself in, and mention just one figure who’s lately meant a lot to me: Eduardo De Filippo, the masterful Neapolitan playwright (and more, of course). Every time I’m in southern Italy, it seems, I’m bowled over by yet another of his plays. The one Americans might’ve heard of is These Ghosts (1946), which John Turturro brought to Broadway. No one who sees it can go on believing that the Latin Americans invented magical realism—or that something groundbreaking formally can’t also prove heartbreaking.
Read LL's review of Domini's A Tomb on the Periphery here in Gently Read Literature
LINDA LAPPIN of CENTRO POKKOLI INTERVIEWS MIRIAM POLLI, author of IN A VERTIGO OF SILENCE
Linda: We first met when you came to Italy to participate in a workshop organized by the Pokkoli organization conducted by Peter Selgin. I know you are or were part of a writers group in New York City organized by Walter Cummins. How important has it been for you as a writer to be in contact with other writers?
MP: Too important. I’ve recently moved to Virginia to a farm my husband really wanted to have in his life. We’ll be splitting our time between Virginia and Key West. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been searching for a group. I attended one group twice but was discouraged by the low level of writing and felt it was more of a therapy session. When writers have never heard of Poets and Writers or The Writers Chronicle it’s time to go. Two-Bridges, Walter’s group, was extremely important to my growth. They were all previously published writers with very high standards. At times it was very intimidating to me, but I learned so much. Including that I was a better writer than I thought. At a workshop level where you respect the work of others, and constructive comments help you to discover your own work, where you must also learn to let some of the remarks go, I think you gain a sort of confidence in what you alone are trying to do. If nothing else, it makes your skin thicker.
Linda: Your first novel is a saga of Women’s lives in different eras and places. Is there one with which you identify most strongly? Or one which it was harder to write?
MP: Actually, and oddly enough, the protagonist, Emily was the most difficult for me. Having come from a large family with six siblings I had to struggle to put myself in a single-child family, and one without a father. I felt tremendous empathy for her situation and because of my own pain in life was able to relate to her. I loved all the characters in that book. Even the character of Paulina, whose actions were once described as immoral by another writer in a workshop. So I guess I’m immoral too, because I understood her pain and I tried my damnedest to show how and why she walked the road she did. Once you understand someone there is no room for judgment. The characters, when they truly breakout, they somehow manage to judge themselves. Marishka, the grandmother, was the easiest character to develop. I modeled her after the love I had for my own mother. Although my mother wasn’t magical, who’s mother really is, but I idealized her, put her in that high place I felt she belonged.
Linda: Did you run into any technical difficulties of craft while working on your novel and if so how did you solve them?
MP: Plot has always been a problem for me. At first I find myself following my characters around and forgetting to get to the story, but I’m getting much better at plot. And then there is always the problem of what voice will work. Should it be third or first person? I wrote most of Emily’s chapters in third person but then discovered I couldn’t reach her unless I wrote it in first person. I believe some of her chapters are now first-person, present tense. Past tense with all their “was” “had” drives me crazy. I love when the work has some kind of immediacy and I try to strive for that, but it’s not always right or simple, and I believe form and content should somehow fit together.
Linda: You have some richly detailed period settings. What resources did you draw on while writing to create them?
MP: Hmm…that’s a hard one. I went to the library. Yes, library, because at the beginnings of this novel I didn’t own a computer, and thought I’d never get one. I thought I couldn’t write without the use of a lead pencil and a yellow pad. In the library
I researched coalmines and read about what the coal miner’s lives were like back in the 1900’s. My mother had come through Ellis Island from Sicily and I remembered her words about sailing across the Atlantic and heard stories from her about how some people were sent back. Things really impress you as a child and one never knows what you will find once you start to unpack your memories. My first husband, when I was much too young, had a grandmother who was married to a coal miner who died in the mines. Something I had completely forgotten until I began to write the scenes which took place in the coal mining area of Pennsylvania. I also recall looking at tons of photographs in huge furniture books of the 1930’s 1940’s. Photos of dark, dingy jazz clubs, the desperation of WW II and the glamour and romance it seemed to bring to the United States at that time always intrigued me.
Linda: Your life moves back and forth from previously New York, now Virginia, and Key West, Florida, and a small Greek island. How have these places fed your writing or your imagination?
MP: I don’t want to disappoint you, but the answer is no, they have not fed my imagination, at least not on a conscious level. Writing in a small padded room, perhaps in a NYC building with no windows would be best for me. I need to be stripped of all distraction, and that unfortunately includes the beauty of landscape. Yet we write so much from our subconscious that I’m positive all our experiences have or do play a great part in writing. Traveling, seeing other cultures, observing the pain and joy or silliness and seriousness of others, all surface when we write. Such a mysterious art form. And if you’ve done your job right, it all balances in the end.
Linda: What do you read for inspiration? What are you working on now?
MP My reading runs very close to what I’m working on at the time. I always read fiction simply because I don’t have the time to read anything else, other than a newspaper. I read mostly literary fiction because that’s what I enjoy most. Introspective, emotionally intelligent fiction where the language holds you taut to the end. I’m actually working on historical fiction at the moment, so, I’ve been reading about social injustice, and immigration in the United States back in the twenties. Growing up with Italian immigrant parents in Brooklyn, my father continually voiced injustices towards the Italians when he first came to the United States. My father didn’t believe in government ruling your life, and sided with an anarchist view of the world. He read a lot of Tolstoy! Galilea was one of his heroes. He spoke a lot of Sacco and Vanzetti, who were executed in 1927, after a very long botched, prejudiced trial. This was around the same time my father came to America. A few years back I started to research the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, only to find that there were so many stories about them. Songs, plays, books, written about them. I wondered about Nicola Sacco’s wife, Rosina and who she was. Katherine Ann Porter described her as small timid woman in an article she had written when she attended the trial, but I saw someone else. There isn’t much information about Rosina Sacco out there, so in a way it’s good for me. I’ve been writing her story, writing her point of view, discovering how she became involved with this man who attracted the attention of the world, and who still does all these years later. I feel like I’m to a point where I really know her and am ready to tell her story. This is my first attempt at historical fiction and I’m very aware of the part research plays, and am struggling with getting the right balance. I’ve completed my first draft, well almost, except for the end. Everyone who knows the story, knows how it ends, so I’m still mulling that over.
Linda: Your new work sounds fascinating. Thanks for talking to us today here at Centro Pokkoli! We look forward to reading your new work.
Click here to read a review of In a Vertigo of Silence in Kirkus
Click here to read a review of In a Vertigo of Silence in ChantiReviews