How to Write a Novel about Family and the Past
When I was young, I always loved to listen to our family’s stories about our past. The lives of my grandparents fascinated me, because of their world gone by. I was curious and wanted to see and understand how we arrived at our lives today. Later on, I learned that if I couldn’t see it for myself, I could create it with some real elements and hints: words, ideas, family vignettes, outdated articles and kitchen utensils. because in Sicily, we come from a line of cantastorie, bards, who travelled from town to town to sing and tell stories.
I was interested in antiques and in old ways to do things. I loved antique rocking chairs, spinning wheels, gadgets, hand-stitched footstools, coffee grinders by hand, old copper kettles, sewing machines with peddles, iron rest plates and trivets, old irons, mandolins, books, diaries and ephemera with tattered covers and bent-eared corners. There was nothing better than sitting around my Grandma’s table listening to her, my mother and aunts talking.
I stole my womenfolk’s stories, snippets of how things were done in the “olden” days, recipes and cooking lessons from all of them. I heard secrets. I eavesdropped as they’d switch to Sicilian or Italian so I couldn’t understand, but I’d always get a word or two or some action would give much of their confidences away. I learned interesting Italian words and their meanings—I was by no means fluent in Italian—that would come many years later when I lived in Rome for twenty years. I imbibed in a drink called customs and mores, ethnicities, social behavior and scruples.
There was nothing I liked better than to spend a Saturday morning with my cousin routing around in Grandma’s huge basement, Grandpa’s workroom, or the immense closet/deposit/ store room on the first landing of the main staircase, situated under the attic stairs, or else the closet in the attic bathroom that housed a tub with lion’s claws feet, in her century Brooklyn home! I found the most interesting things, such as: a long hank of beautiful chestnut hair, a mercury thermometer, a ring with a red stone, an old meat grinder, many sepia-toned photographs that spoke parables, etc. “Every picture tells a story.”
When I looked at the photos and all of these old items, I asked myself: What are they saying? Listen and ask. Rob and steal with your eyes and ears, pickpocket stories, make a heist of little things that, when held, magically transform themselves into yesterdays.
There’s a line from a 1986 Clint Eastwood Movie, Heartbreak Ridge, when Eastwood says: “Improvise, Adapt, Overcome.” I had not yet seen that movie when I was young, that would come many years later, but I was already thinking along similar terms: Invent, Change, Astound when telling a story.
I always told stories since I was little because my mother, grandmother and aunts told me stories about their youth. When they finished speaking, I wouldn’t let them off the hook. I was like a little inquiring editor, constantly saying, “And then what?”
And so it was that all of my childhood questions came into play when I started to write Lemon Blossoms. I remembered my aunt Jay telling me that her grandmother was a mattress-maker, that my grandfather made wine, that my grandmother had had a miscarriage, lost another baby at birth and another a few months old in between her and her mother.
Years later, when my Dad came to visit me while I was living in Rome, I interviewed him about his youth in Sicily. I was brought up Roman Catholic and knew a great deal about the religion because I went to Catholic schools with the nuns until I sophomore year. They say to first write what you know—well I knew about this and well-armed with all this information, I was able to construct a first draft of my novel Lemon Blossoms while enrolled in Florida International’s Creative Writing Program as an MFA candidate. Of course, that novel would be transformed and revised many, many times, but the basics—I had those at my fingertips.