Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Q&A with Juliet Grames

Juliet Grames, photo by Nina Subin
Juliet Grames is the author of the new novel The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna. She is associate publisher and curator of the Soho Crime imprint at Soho Press.

Q: You note that one of the inspirations for this book was your own family. How much did you draw upon your family members in creating Stella and her family?

A: My mother’s parents emigrated to the United States in the 1930s from Southern Italy, and I grew up surrounded by her tight-knit family and their many stories about the “old country,” arriving in America, laboring in fields and factories and saving up pennies to try to carve out a piece of the American dream.

I was always fascinated by the stories they told me about the parts of Italy they came from, and by the chutzpah they had in sailing off into the unknown, battling through hardships to keep their families together. I have wanted to write a book set in the Italian-American community my whole life because I found them so inspiring.

All of the characters in The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna are completely invented, though, with the exception of one: Auntie Tina—Stella Fortuna’s indefatigable, culinarily talented, slightly bawdy sister—was drawn from my beloved late Great Aunt Connie, to whom I dedicated the book.

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the novel, and did you learn anything surprising?

A: I did do a ton of book research for this—trying to recreate a 1920s Italian village was a challenge I only felt up to undertaking once I had read everything I could find. Even then, though, I still felt I needed to know more, and I took a leave of absence from my job in order to go live in the village my grandmother was born in.

I was very fortunate in being able to interview lots of people who remembered the 1920s and 1930s, and these oral histories were even more helpful than anything I learned in my copious reading.

I learned so many things that surprised me—one of the reasons I love collecting older people’s stories so much! The truth is indeed more interesting and sometimes harder to believe than fiction—that it is difficult to pick only one thing to share with you here.

I will say that digging into the village’s municipal archives (birth and marriage certificates, emigration visas, property deeds) revealed things about my own family that my mother and her own mother hadn’t known. In writing a novel about family secrets I accidentally stumbled on some of my own.

Q: What do you think the novel says about family, and also about immigration?

A: Life has taught me that families are both really complicated and also profoundly influential on important decisions we make, even decisions that don’t seem to have anything to do with our families.

There’s a Calabrese proverb that I use in the novel: I guai da pignata si sapa sulu a cucchjiara cchi c’e vuota, which translates as “The problems inside the pitcher are known only to the spoon that stirs it.” In other words, only a family knows its own problems.

I hope the novel encourages empathy and patience for difficult people by reminding readers that “difficult” personalities are often products of family hardships.

As for immigration, I have always found the notion of stepping onto a boat to sail away from your homeland forever, to head toward another country you have never been, where you don’t know the language and have no promise that you’ll be able to thrive or even survive—I’ve always found the thought overwhelming, heartbreaking, and inspiring.

I’ve never done anything remotely as brave as my immigrant ancestors, and thinking about what they went through makes me try to be braver, too, and makes me especially compassionate to other brave people who are taking that unfathomable leap into the unknown for the sake of their families.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: The narrator of the book declares that the book is an attempt to restore the good name of a misunderstood old woman. In my life I have had the privilege of meeting many formidable and fascinating old women, including my great aunt and my grandmother. I would be overjoyed if the book inspired readers to celebrate or learn more about the lives of their own grandmothers—maybe especially their “difficult” grandmothers.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve got a couple books in the works, but the one I’m most excited about is a sort of murder mystery set in 1960s in a very secretive mountain village in Calabria (the same region of Italy where Stella Fortuna is born). I have been a crime fiction editor for the last decade and am really excited to try my hand at writing a mystery novel!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Only that I am so pleased to have this opportunity to chat with you about Stella Fortuna! Thank you for reading. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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