What inspired you to write Amy’s Story?
I’ve been living in this country for forty-plus years as a citizen, and I’ve experienced the changes that took place over that period of time. Some good, some not so good, but all significant in the way they affected our lives, our values as a nation, and our position in the world. I wanted to capture all that in a novel. This book comes out at a time when our country is divided on the issue of immigration, and this book can elevate the conversation beyond the headlines.
You’ve written multiple scholarly books and essays. Why transition to fiction?
There’s a big difference between these two modes of writing. Scholarly writing is more “scientific,” so to speak. It requires rigorous research and a constrictive scheme. Fiction allows for the free flow of ideas and a good deal of imagination, although an organizing design and strict discipline in its implementation are absolutely necessary. In my last scholarly book on Russian cinema, I inserted a few fictional vignettes. This was a very unorthodox thing to do, and I thought it would stir a wave of disapproval in the academic community. Instead, the book won a prestigious award. More importantly, it made me realize that I could write fiction, and that this was what I wanted to do.
How did your own upbringing in Italy influence amy's story?
My upbringing in Italy is part of my cultural background, and therefore a major component of who I am. A novel, if it is real literature, is inevitably the expression of the author’s personality. It would be wrong to say that this or that character represents the author. It does not. But all the characters come from the author’s inner world, because they are composed by fragments of the author’s global experience—real people that the author met, or fictional people encountered in other novels and films and later internalized and elaborated. My Italian background emerges in the creation of Italian places and people, to which I can apply the right coloration and atmosphere. But also in the point of view of a non-native looking with foreign eyes at American reality.
Similarly, how has your own life played into the writing of Amy’s Story?
I'd never be able to write science fiction because it’s a purely imaginary world in which I didn’t live. I can write only about people and places that in one way or the other I have experienced. Of course, I do invent characters, places and events, but they do not come out of nothing. In my brain there’s already a model for them. Therefore, I can say that my life played an important role in Amy’s Story, although this is not an autobiography. It’s a novel.
Do facts and fiction blend in a novel?
There is no real distinction between these two dimensions, because even historical facts become part of one fictional universe. In other words, they are used fictitiously. The aim of the writer is to create the effect of verisimilitude, so that the reader would “suspend her disbelief” and immerse herself in the fictional story. On the other hand, having achieved this goal, many writers, and I’m in that number, devise a stratagem to jolt the reader out of the fictional universe and remind her that she’s reading a text, an artificial construct, and therefore should look at it with a critical eye. This is what happens in my novel toward the end, where a twist in the narrative changes the whole perspective.
You highlight specific events and movements, like the Vietnam War protests, the uprising of feminism and hippie culture, the Kent State shootings, and more. Why the use of these events in particular?
The events I refer to had a tremendous impact on how American society evolved over the past forty years. I noticed a transition from a society grounded in unshakable principles, and therefore comfortable with a solid sense of identity, to a society shaken by doubt, in search of a new identity, and gradually becoming affected by a good dose of cynicism. In other words, turning more European, regrettably I must say. I tried to be as inclusive as possible in the selection of the historical events, but I also had to limit the scope not to overwhelm the narrative. The historical background is important, but the narrative has to be on the foreground in order to keep the reader immersed in the fictional story.
What research went into writing this historical novel?
I relied a great deal on my recollection of the facts. But I turned to reference sources to check precise locations, names and dates.
What event in Amy’s life do you think is the most essential to the development of her character or may have influenced her destiny?
I think her parents are essential in shaping her personality. Both free spirits, artistically gifted, and successful in their professions. The first summer she spent in New York as a kid visiting with her father certainly impressed a direction to her future choices. What comes later in her life is a natural development.
As an academic, is there anything about academic life you hoped to convey in the novel?
Well, nothing really positive, I’m afraid. As a tenured professor, I was part of the establishment, but I found academic life to be rather disappointing. In an ideal world, the university should be a place that stimulates knowledge and creativity through a free exchange of ideas, a place that rewards excellency. Instead, more often than not, creativity is not encouraged, mediocrity is rewarded, and conformism becomes the norm. I am particularly alarmed by the suppression of free speech we see on campuses nowadays, which generates intolerance and violence.
Who do you feel you resemble more: Amy or Stella?
Both characters are fictitious, and therefore products of my imagination.
Why give Amy’s Story the structure you did, beginning at the end of the story?
There are many techniques an author can choose to structure her work. The simplest one is to begin from the beginning and proceed from point A to Z chronologically. But about a century ago, because of a new awareness of the space/time relation and the realization of the stream-of-consciousness way our mind processes events, modernist writers began to structure their novels in a deliberately ‘messy’ way, making it more difficult for the reader to navigate the text, but also affording the reader more freedom of interpretation. My novel is contained in a frame. It starts and ends in the present, while the bulk of the narrative, “Stella’s Story,” unfolds in the past. The frame defines the end of an era and the beginning of an uncertain future. It also gives dynamism to the narrative by providing jump cuts in space and time, and generates curiosity in the reader that feels compelled to keep reading in order to discover in which way the beginning connects to the end.
How did your love and knowledge of film influence the novel?
I just mentioned jump cuts. Other film terminology applies to my writing style as well—continuity, editing, sequence, closeup, medium or long shot, analogical connotation, soundtrack, flashback, fade in/fade out, framing, pan, others… My narrative can easily be adapted to a screenplay because I favor action, dialogue, and atmosphere over inner reflection. In my novels there are also direct references to film. Here, the character of Jim, film teacher and filmmaker, underlines the significance of that medium as an art form and an educational tool. Having said that, I must stress that film and literature remain very distinct communication systems, each with its own intrinsic properties, and that, although they share structural elements, they have a different physical impact on the human brain. The visual language is processed differently from the written language.
There is a great immigrant story within the novel about Rosa’s family which could have been its own novel. Why include it in Amy’s Story?
Now that you mention it, I see it could have been its own novel. But as such it would have been too flat, probably just another sentimental tale of poor immigrants. In the context of this novel, it acquires relief by its multiple connections to other elements of the narrative, especially to “Stella’s Story,” which, as Rosa says, “is in a way a story of immigration.” This theme runs throughout the novel and raises questions that are on the forefront of the current political discourse—What does it mean to be an immigrant today? Do today’s immigrants come to the USA with the same spirit they did a century ago? Does illegal immigration jeopardize national security? How to balance compassion against the national interest?
Did you have a set plan for the novel, or did the story change during the writing process?
When I start a novel I have a plan in my head. I do not put it down on paper because I need the freedom to follow my inspiration. I have a clear vision of the opening and a general idea of the ending, and I know what the kernel of the story is. It is that kernel that will materialize in the creative process. One essential thing for me is to hear the characters’ voices. I need to hear their speech in order to write dialogues that ring true. I need to feel the characters’ presence around me and, if I do, I’m able to place them in the proper environment and let them suggest the action. At times I’m surprised by the turn the story takes, as if the story were writing itself. Which is, of course, paradoxical because I’m firmly in charge. But it’s true. And this charges me with enormous energy.
Do you think you will continue to write fiction in the future?
This is my intention.
Any ideas about what your next work will be about?
I have an idea for a novel but it’s too early to talk about it. I’m now focusing on the translation from Italian of my first novel, Family Album, which is a family saga unfolding on the background of Italian history from 1870 to 1945. The narrative moves from a castle in the countryside near Turin, to Rome, Naples and Hollywood. The story hinges on three women characters, three generations, and includes a multitude of minor characters. It deals with their individual lives and personal feelings, but encompasses universal themes. It will soon be available in English.
Who are some of your heroes, in writing and in your own life?
My heroes in novels and films are the charismatic rogues—handsome, brilliant, sexy, bold, generous and fundamentally good. Somehow flawed. Not perfect, because perfection is boring and colorless. As an example, I could mention Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, and hundreds of his clones. The same can be said for their heroine counterparts. As for the heroes in my own life, they’ll remain private.