Rosanna Chiofalo

WOMEN'S FICTION AUTHOR

Q & A with Rosanna...

Q & A for Stella Mia

As is often the case with my novels, I have more than one inspiration for writing them. For Stella Mia, I knew I wanted to set most of the book in Sicily. I also wanted to capture some of the mysticism that represents Sicily. I thought it would be interesting to have a character who sang Sicilian folk songs and who also read people’s fortunes. So that was one inspiration. My other inspiration was my father's grapevine. I had told my editor about the grapevine my father had planted when he and my mother bought my childhood home in Astoria, Queens, New York. In my family, we were all very proud of the grapevine my father had planted in our small concrete backyard. Some people thought the grapevine would never grow, but it did and it made our tiny city backyard look so beautiful. The year that my father had cancer, the grapevine inexplicably didn't grow as lush as it had the previous years. And after my father died, the grapevine all but died as well. Of course, my family and I couldn’t help seeing the irony, especially since my father had planted the grapevine and loved it so much. About fifteen or so years later, sometime after my mother had sold the house, I was visiting our old next-door neighbor and was talking to her in her yard, which faced the yard of my childhood home. I was surprised to see that my father's grapevine was growing again. My mother had tried to replant the grapevine with an offshoot of a grapevine she had received from a friend. But we never got to see if the grapevine would take hold and grow to the lush vine my father's had been since my mother sold the house. Needless to say, I was very moved when I saw the grapevine had grown back and was on its way to looking as beautiful as the one my father had planted. In high school, I had written a college application essay that centered on my father's grapevine, and I always knew that someday I wanted to work it into a novel. So when my editor heard the story of my father's grapevine he, too, felt I should try and work it into my next novel.

I made up the words for the song "Stella Mia," but I got the idea for Sarina singing the song to Julia when she was a baby because a few years ago I learned that my father used to sing to me a lot when I was a baby as he was rocking me to sleep. My father died when I was sixteen, and I had never heard before that he sang to me when I was a baby. My brother told me my father was always singing, and later I did remember him singing a song or two, but I had no idea he sang to me as well when I was a baby. So when I knew I wanted to write about a woman whose mother had left her, the idea came to me that Julia's mother, Sarina, sang her the same song, "Stella Mia," over and over. And the song is one of the few things Julia has to remember her mother by. Songs and music can be very popular since we often attach a memory, milestone, or other significant life event to them. Every time we hear the song, inevitably the memories associated with that song come to mind. For Julia, the song "Stella Mia," still connects her to the mother who left her. For Sarina, the song at first reminds her of her little sister Carlotta whom she used to sing the song to. But later, when Carlo calls Sarina his "stella mia," the song and phrase then remind her of the love she shared with Carlo. In Stella Mia, I do mention a song that is tied to a milestone in my life. The song that Julia mentions she and her father danced to at her wedding, Vittorio Merlo's "Piccolo Fiore," was the same song I danced to at my wedding with my older brother Anthony.

I learned from many of my readers that the scenes that took place in Italy in both Bella Fortuna and Carissima really resonated with them. And as an author, I think I especially enjoyed writing those scenes that were set in Italy so I decided to make the main setting for Stella Mia Italy and just set a small portion of the book in Astoria, New York. I like to challenge myself as a writer and shake things up a bit from book to book.

I was fortunate enough to have parents who didn't hit me as a form of punishment when I was a child; however, I knew other kids who were repeatedly physically abused. I also remember the mother of an ex-boyfriend of mine recounting the horrible physical abuse she had suffered as a child at her father's hands. This was a time before so much public awareness had been brought to light where domestic abuse was concerned. People used to think it was okay to discipline your children by beating them. With my friends whose parents had abused them, I saw the effect the abuse had on their lives as they got older. It eroded their self esteem and many times caused them to treat others poorly whether it was verbal or physical abuse. In Sarina's case, I believe her father's vicious abuse of her ultimately played a role in why she chose not to return to Julia. She never trusted fully that she could be a good mother and avoid becoming the monster her father was. Likewise, she was never fully confident in Carlo's love for her and was easily made insecure when Gemma came into the picture. It was almost as if she didn't believe she deserved to have someone love her the way Carlo did because her father had never loved her.

Though Paulie could be quite an annoying character with his nosiness and crude habits as we saw in Bella Fortuna and Carissima, he was also an unforgettable character for those same traits that made him so irksome. I've always believed there is more than meets the eye with most people. We often forget that people have histories and the events that have happened in their lives make them who they are today. I wanted readers to understand better why Paulie is the way he is, particularly where his need to know everyone's business is concerned. In Stella Mia, when we see that he has been lonely since Sarina left him and Julia, we can understand why he might try to distract himself from his problems and loneliness by focusing instead on his neighbors' affairs. I also thought it would be fun for readers to encounter him again in Stella Mia, and to learn more about him, especially from the perspective of someone who loves him — his daughter Julia.

I think some of the most fascinating relationships are familial ones. I'm close to my family, and I do enjoy writing about families and their interactions with one another whether they are good or bad. Families are quite complex, and the way we act with some of our family members might not necessarily be the same way we would behave in some of our other relationships. I love the multifaceted complexity of the bonds that hold family members together and when something happens that tests those bonds or breaks them.

When I was a teenager, my friends and I used to get regular Tarot card readings from a fortuneteller. My brother had bought a deck of Tarot cards, and my sister and I used to practice giving each other readings. I haven't had a reading since my twenties when a coworker and friend gave me one. Though I was very intrigued by Tarot cards when I was younger, I don't believe in them now. I also didn't like how for a while you carried in your mind the reading you received and were waiting to see if what transpired in your life matched the reading. I don't believe we were intended to know the roadmap in our future, and we shouldn't be living our lives trying to figure out what is in store for us. But I still do love the mysticism and allure that Tarot cards hold even though I've given up on them to tell me my future or help throw some light on whatever obstacles I might be facing currently in my life.

I haven't completely formulated the idea for my fourth book, but I do know it will be completely set in Italy, and pastries will figure prominently in the novel. Sorry to be mysterious, but that's all I can predict for the future right now!

Q & A for Carissima

KEY-OH-FAH-LO

My brilliant editor, John Scognamiglio, and I brainstormed on the storyline for Carissima. He thought it would be cool to have a sort of Italian The Devil Wears Prada subject in which a young ingénue clashes with a diva actress. I loved the idea! I wanted to continue the story of Signora Tesca, who was a secondary character in Bella Fortuna. I felt she was intriguing and had secrets and I wanted to explore her story more deeply in the second novel. So I thought, what if she was related to a famous Italian silver-screen star who suddenly comes to the working-class neighborhood of Astoria, New York, much to the surprise and pleasure of the residents.

Yes, I have a sister. Her name is Angela. She is older than me, and we are five years apart. When I was very young, we were close and were always by each other's side. But as I got older, we started to fight more, as many siblings do. However, once we became adults, we became close again. I've always been fascinated with relationships between siblings, and I knew I wanted to focus on sisters in my second novel. Ironically, a few months before I started writing Carissima, a childhood friend of mine died quite unexpectedly. She was my sister's age and had been very good friends with her when they were teenagers and into their twenties. And when I was a child, I looked up to her as another older sister. I'm also very good friends with the younger sister of my friend who passed away. This only convinced me even more that I wanted to focus on sisters in my second novel. I also wanted to show two different relationships with sisters. Pia was always close to her sister, but then she loses her. Francesca was once close to her sister, but then they have a huge falling out and don't talk for decades, only to be reunited later in life. I wanted to illustrate how different some sibling relationships can be from others and how they can influence the people we become.

I've never been particularly starstruck by celebrities, not to the point where I must read the gossip mags or follow their every move. Also, as a New Yorker, I do see celebrities walking the streets of Manhattan quite frequently. New Yorkers, for some reason, don't get fazed by famous people as much as other Americans. However, there are a few luminaries whom I do find quite intriguing. I don't really have a favorite movie star, but the ones who have fascinated me are Princess Grace, Gina Lollobrigida, Claudia Cardinale, Raquel Welch, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Meryl Streep, James Dean, Robert De Niro, and Daniel Day-Lewis. I do have a favorite celebrity who's not an actor-Bono, the singer of the Irish rock band U2. I've always been moved by his lyrics and his unwavering passion and commitment to human rights.

I love Three Coins in the Fountain, and you're probably going to laugh, but ever since I saw Gidget Goes To Rome as a child, that's been a favorite of mine as well. I also enjoyed very much Woody Allen's To Rome With Love. The city looked absolutely stunning in it!

Yes, of course, I visited the Trevi Fountain and made the famous coin toss and a wish. That's a must if you go to Rome! But sadly, I don't remember what my wish was. I guess I'll have to go back and make a wish that I'll never forget! One custom I didn't know about when I visited Rome is that there is a certain way you are supposed to toss the coins into the Trevi Fountain, as Pia learns when she is in Rome. Perhaps that is why I don't remember my wish, since I didn't throw the coins the proper way!

Naturally, I do have a special affinity for Queens, especially Astoria where I was born and grew up; however, I also wanted to set my novels in Queens because whenever New York City is featured in books or movies, Manhattan is usually the borough that is chosen. While I love Manhattan, I wanted readers, particularly non-New Yorkers, to get a flavor of what the rest of New York City is like.

I think becoming a published author has given me a thicker skin. As writers, we tend to isolate ourselves and are very protective of our writing. Once we decide to try and get our work published, we must expose ourselves and our writing. Having grown up as the child of Italian immigrants, my mother strove to always make a good impression and avoid at all costs making a bad impression, or "fare la brutta figura", as it's known in Italian and which Francesca talks about in Carissima. "La brutta figura" is very much an integral fiber of Italian culture, and it's definitely worn off on me. But after deciding to seek publication for my first novel, I knew that sharing my writing with the world was important to me, especially if I wanted to grow as a writer. In terms of helping me to understand how some people can change for the better or worse when they reach their goals in life, I guess I can see how one can get consumed by all the attention you receive when people share their enthusiasm for you and your work. However, I've always been a very down-to-earth person, and even at a young age, I knew who I was. I know that will never change, especially since for me, writing is as much about making a personal connection with my readers as it is about fulfilling my childhood dream of becoming a novelist. The best part about becoming a published author is without a doubt hearing from my readers and having them tell me that they were able to relate to my characters or certain aspects of my book. I have been very moved by readers who have also told me that reading about Italian American characters and their culture has helped them to reconnect with their heritage as well as helped them to relive some of their own special family memories.

Q & A for Bella Fortuna

KEY-OH-FAH-LO

Since I was a child, I always wanted to write a novel someday. I began to seriously write in college. Like many other aspiring writers, I had writers' block and attempted several novels but then abandoned them as I got stuck. It's ironic because a few years ago, I consciously decided to give myself a break from writing or even thinking about my writing. I just needed to stop pressuring myself so much and just walk away from it for a little while to get a better perspective. Deep down, I knew I would return to writing someday. Three years ago, I relocated to Austin, Texas, and I was doing lots of freelance copywriting for several book publishing houses. It was different from when I was an in-house copywriter and copy director since I was writing so many assignments at once as opposed to revising mostly what my freelance copywriters were doing for me. I think being forced to complete so many freelance writing assignments under deadline made me accustomed to writing and not over thinking it, which is what I was doing when I was working on my short stories and novels. It was quite liberating. So when I wrote the outline and first four chapters of Bella Fortuna to be considered for publication, the writing just flowed out of me (thank God!).

I became interested in weddings when I was planning my own six years ago. I thought it would be interesting to have a strong female character who finally finds love and becomes engaged after having to make her clients' dreams come true for so many years. I wanted to explore how so many brides-to-be fall victim to becoming obsessed with having the perfect wedding dress.the perfect wedding.even the perfect man! Valentina, who's seen the crazy behavior of her Bridezilla clients, should know better, but she, too, falls prey to wanting perfection.

Superstition is very common in the Italian culture. As the daughter of Sicilian immigrants, I did often hear my relatives refer to the powerful "mal'occhio." What I often heard was that a curse had been cast on someone when that person suffered a misfortune in their lives. It's funny. Just being jealous of someone could cause a curse to then be placed on the person you're envious of. I never put much stock in curses or bad and good luck, but I am a believer of fate and karma. Ever since I read Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy for a paper I had to write in school, I became intrigued with the notion of fate versus the concept of exercising control over your own life. I do feel that ultimately everyone has the power to alter and control their destiny, but I also believe some things happen because they were meant to occur that particular way.

Again, I have to refer to another Victorian master of literature and inspiration to me - Charles Dickens. I always loved how Dickens created a host of characters who had idiosyncrasies. Perhaps I could relate to these characters so much since I grew up in a city as large as New York and encountered so many different types of people with various personalities and quirks. I was also trying to demonstrate how as a society, we often judge someone based on appearances. And if someone acts in a weird way or exhibits any behavior that deviates from what society considers to be "normal," we're even quicker to condemn without making an attempt to understand their motives. Even Valentina is guilty of this, as we see several times in the novel.

Though Olivia is quite a bit older than me, I did not have a difficult time writing in her voice. I enjoyed writing very much the chapters that focused on Olivia. Originally, when I came up with the idea for Bella Fortuna, I wasn't planning on Olivia having as strong of a role in the novel as she did. But when it came time to describe Olivia, I felt the only way I could do justice to her was to have the reader get to know her through her point of view. And the deeper I got into the novel the more I realized Olivia also had a compelling story to tell. I feel that once the reader learns about her history they can understand why she is so hung up on superstition and believing that fate controls our lives.

Read, read, READ! Reading has helped me tremendously in my own writing. You can't get better at writing without reading voraciously. And don't be afraid to surrender yourself completely to your writing. Let your imagination take you where it wants to take you as you're writing.