Today for Write On we’ve asked our friend and fellow Pandamoon author, Dana Faletti, for her insight and expertise on transporting readers to another place with our writing. Dana is author of THE WHISPER TRILOGY, a young adult paranormal romance series, and her debut women’s fiction novel, BEAUTIFUL SECRET, is a sweeping drama of family secrets and forbidden love set in both France and Italy, coming October 11 from Pandamoon Publishing (Can’t wait for it? Pre-order it now here).
1) As an author who often draws from your Italian heritage in your own work, what do you find is essential for taking a reader to a particular place and culture?
For me, creating a sense of place it really about appealing to the senses. What is the character seeing, specifically, in that place? What types of foliage? Colors? What does the place smell like? When you’re talking about Italy, smells and tastes are enough to go on for pages of setting up place. In Beautiful Secret, Italy is almost like a character rather than a setting, because the reader connects so strongly with it. I think this is mainly a sensual thing and partly because Italy is a sensual place.
2) That said, what do you feel are some common mistakes or cliches you encounter when reading or watching stories that represent Italian culture in Italy or here in the US?
So many TV shows and movies and even funny vemes portray the typical Italian mafioso or the typical Italian-American mama in her house dress, pinching her kids’ and grandkids’ cheeks and making sauce. Italy is also glorified in the media and in American culture as being one of the most romantic places in the world, as Italians are known for their tempers and their romanticism. We are that but we are so much more as well. We embrace our baseness as part of our humanity and don’t try to cover it up but we also don’t apologize for our sophistications. Italians are a people as diverse as any and Italy is a country that’s full of contradictions. You can’t really nail Italy or Italians down as being one thing or another. Beppe Severgnini, one of my favorite writers on Italy says it so well-
“First of all, let’s get one thing straight. Your Italy and our Italia are not the same thing. Italy is a soft drug peddled in predictable packages, such as hills in the sunset, olive groves, lemon trees, white wine, and raven-haired girls. Italia, on the other hand, is a maze. It’s alluring, but complicated. It’s the kind of place that can have you fuming and then purring in the space of a hundred meters, or in the course of ten minutes. Italy is the only workshop in the world that can turn out both Botticellis and Berlusconis.”
3) How can authors avoid these common pitfalls? What have you found works best for you?
Personally, I only write what I know, what’s in me. My best writing happens when people and experiences have moved me. Beautiful Secret bled right out of me. For a long time I wanted to write the story of what happened to my grandmother when she was unwed and pregnant as a young woman in Italy. After going there several times and visiting and falling in love with the people and the land, I had story after story to share. Beautiful Secret is the culmination of my stories, based on the people and places I love.
For others, I think the best way to avoid stereotyping is to only write what you know. If you research something, don’t just research it on google or on paper. You have to go to the source to really know something. In my editing process, it was interesting to answer questions about Italian culture. From the perspective of someone who has never been there, something in the text may seem unrealistic. My editor and I had many a laugh talking about truths of Southern Italy that are way stranger than fiction.
Also, only write what you’re passionate about. The love you have for whatever it is – whether it’s a historical time period or crime solving – will make you enthusiastic and authentic in your research and this will echo in your writing.
4) What led you to set portions of your upcoming novel, Beautiful Secret, in Italy? What about the country spoke to you as a writer?
Ahhh, everything about Italy speaks to me! Endlessly. The moment you step foot into Italy, everything seems to be amplified. The food tastes fresher and brighter. People speak with unapologetic emotion. One of the most moving moments of my life occurred when I first landed in Reggio, Calabria. I’ve written about it before.
I was 20 years old, on my first-ever European vacation with my parents. We had just flown from France, where we’d visited my great uncle and his family, to Reggio, Calabria, where my dad was born. On arrival into Titto Minitti airport, which is a tiny one or two terminal structure, we walked down the jetway and into the gate to find a gathering of forty-some people who were waiting. For us. For my father. These were great aunts, uncles, and distant cousins who remembered the tumultuous time when my father was born and perhaps hadn’t laid eyes on him since he was a baby. These strangers who were my family, filled the small space completely, their faces tear-streaked, their arms opened wide in anticipation of my parents and me. An overwhelming sense of love and acceptance and belonging slammed into my heart at that moment. Here were these strangers, crying out my name, pulling me to their bosoms and holding me as their tears washed over my skin, kissing my cheeks repeatedly. They’d never even met me, and yet they cared deeply for me. Why? Because I was family. And that was enough.
This aspect of Italian culture is probably what speaks most loudly to me. Even as I am sucked up into this memory, I’m crying.
5) You create a real lushness of setting and culture in Beautiful Secret. What was your research process like in preparation for your novel?
Most of the places I describe in Beautiful Secret are places I’ve seen and experienced. Bibba, a dance club that is the setting for a pivotal scene in the story, is based on a disco my own cousins took me to. Zio Nino’s French and Italian homes are real places, where I’ve spent weeks of my life. Valanidi is Guiseppe’s hometown and Trunca is the mountain town where my grandmother, Maria grew up. Trunca truly does seem as if it’s plucked out of time, existing entirely in its own personalized era.
Much of my research involved asking my cousins a gazillion questions. I have never personally driven from Revin, France to Valanidi, in Reggio, Calabria, but my cousin from France does it every year. He mapped out his route for me and gave me details about the stops along the way. One funny tidbit is this- during editing phase, my copyeditor questioned me about Michel, one of the main characters, stopping for “delicious coffee” at a gas station across the Italian border. She asked how gas station coffee could be delicious when most people view it as disgusting. I giggled when I read this, knowing that terrible coffee is probably impossible to find in Italy. They don’t do terrible coffee. The minute you cross the border, the taste of the coffee changes. On swallowing the first sip, you know you are in Italy. My cousin detailed to me where he always stops for his first Italian coffee after he crosses the border on his long drive.
6) What other advice would you give writers who want to enfold a unique cultural heritage into their writing?
Again – writing what you know, where you’ve been, the cultures you are passionate about. Immerse yourself in the place, the people. For me, that’s really the only way to know a culture well enough to set a book in its country.
7) One final question: If you had to choose one aspect of Italy that constantly draws you back to its place and culture, what would it be?
That’s easy. My family. The place where my father was born. Most people who plan a trip to Italy imagine all of the things and places they will see. Rome, The Vatican, Pisa, perhaps. Me? I’ve been to Rome, and I enjoyed the history there. I would like to travel through other parts of Italy, but Calabria, specifically Valanidi, always beckons me back. It’s like there is a magnet on that mountain, and I’m drawn to it with an inexplicable force. And when I get there, it’s like I can finally breathe. Like I’m home.