When I heard that Stephanie Barron (AKA Francine Mathews) would be interviewing author/editor Juliet Grames at The Poisoned Pen, I knew Denis and I would have to go. I've seen both women before at Poisoned Pen Conferences and Left Coast Crime when it was here in Phoenix, so I knew we were in for a treat. I just didn't know how delicious the treat would be! I'd always known Juliet in her role as editor for Soho Press, so seeing her as a writer being interviewed by one of her authors was a must-see.
I'm going to skip the chatter and head straight for the interview. I record them now which means not only can I share more of the interview verbatim with you, but also I can enjoy myself more during the event because I'm not scribbling furiously every second. Let's get started!
|Don't you just love it when someone tall comes in at the last second and sits in front of you? Stephanie Barron (left) and Juliet Grames (right)|
Barbara Peters: Good evening, everyone. Thank you for coming out. I always encourage you to come and meet debut authors because then you will have bragging rights forever, right, in case they turn into a bestseller or a critical hit. The hilarious part of this is that the three of us have known each other for years. She's an editor at Soho which is part of Penguin Random House. Francine, AKA Stephanie Barron, has published many books with Random House, and now I am an editor at Random House. It's just really amazing how it's all worked out.
Anyhow, that's not the point of the evening. Francine and Juliet are here to discuss Juliet's book and also turn the tables and find out what it's like for an author to grill an editor. I'm going to pass around cookies, sit down over here and enjoy it!
|Stephanie Barron aka Francine Mathews|
Juliet and I have worked a lot together. One of the reasons I was so thrilled to find her and have her agree to take me on as a writer is because she actually edits. Those of you who know book publishing won't be surprised to learn that many of the people in New York in publishing are focused on acquiring books but not necessarily on actually editing them. I'm glad that she's getting the hot property treatment and I'm looking forward to having her talk about it. Juliet was the hot property with Stella Fortuna about a year ago and had a dizzying experience with the sale of her first manuscript.
Juliet: It's still pretty dizzy! [audience laughter]
Stephanie: What I love about Juliet's editing is that she's extremely thoughtful and very well versed in the canon of English literature. She's deeply interested in character development... and all these things I've experienced as a writer being edited by Juliet are amply in evidence in her first novel, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna. Fascinatingly, when I first started working with Juliet, I didn't know that she was a writer as well. It's unusual, obviously, to wear both hats because they're both so time-consuming. Juliet is also an associate publisher at Soho which means that she's responsible for so much of the running of the company.
She mentioned at one point-- I think we were at a bar-- that she was finishing her novel, and I was blown away. Then I learned that the woman who is now my editor at Random House-- because I have editors at both houses-- in fact tried to buy Juliet's book. So it's that sort of six degrees of separation. So, Juliet, if you could, I know you've done this quite a bit because I've seen you on video doing this... if you could explain a bit about your inspiration for Stella Fortuna and how you were compelled to write the book we have sitting here in front of us today.
The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is a novel about two sisters. When we meet them, they're about one hundred years old, and they've been locked in a blood feud for about thirty years. The book purports to go back to the beginning of their lives in a tiny village in southern Italy and unpack what made them go from being best friends to bitter enemies. It tells the hundred-year life story of these sisters, their feud, and specifically the main character of Stella who has really bad luck and lots of near-death experiences.
I come from a very tight-knit Italian-American family. You can see that my parents and baby are here. They traveled from two states on the East Coast in order to be here, so we're just a very tribal people. A lot of Italian families are very tight-knit. My grandmother was, in fact, an immigrant. She came over in the 1930s when she was a teenager. The core relationship between the two sisters was inspired by her and her sister. They were very involved in my childhood. They took care of me when my parents were working before I went to kindergarten. They were a huge part of my life.
When I was five years old, my grandmother had a brain injury that ended in a life-saving lobotomy. She lived an additional thirty years after the lobotomy, but it completely changed her personality and caused this terrible feud with her sister that no one ever understood. I used that heartbreaking family schism as a jumping-off point to unpack the Italian-American immigrant story. I was really fascinated by the region of southern Italy that they came from-- Calabria, which I found very difficult to read about because there's not a ton written about it, so I really wanted to put down something in text for other people to know more. And also to collect some of the lore from other immigrant families who'd come over to live in the Hartford area where my family settled. Those were my two aims. One, to try to represent the Calabrian experience, and two, to honor my grandmother and the lost person she was before this accident that completely changed her personality.
Juliet: The biggest problem for me in writing this book... I've told many writers whom I've worked with as an editor that when you hit a wall with your story, follow the character. The character will get you through. You should write from character to plot and not the other way around.
In this case, trying to follow the beats of my grandmother's life story and make things hit like the facts actually happened was so hard because I didn't understand the character. My grandmother was a cipher to me. She had had part of her frontal lobe removed, so I had to decide what bits of her actual life I could use and actually understand why they happened. In the end, that ended up being the eight near-death experiences. So those are all fact. My grandmother had eight near-death experiences. Everything in between those deaths is fiction, and especially the character of Stella is fictitious because I don't know who my grandmother was as a young woman. The facts are lost or eroded by the thirty years that followed the accident. She was a person who needed to be cared for-- a burden-- although we loved her and took care of her... my family did an amazing job keeping her alive and taking care of her during that time. Still... you forget, so the deaths are real and the rest is completely invented.
Stephanie: Okay, so that leads me to a question because, having written myself about people who actually lived-- which I do a great deal-- in my work, there's always a moment where you have to step across a line in the sand, which is what you know about the character and what you decide to own and create about the character. Make that actual person your functioning guide through a story. For me, I've always had to identify a moment of vulnerability in that person. Usually, it's a moment in childhood that scars them or defines them and slightly bends the nature of their personality as they move forward through life. That gives me a handle on them.
Stephanie: Well, I'm interested because you know about the eight near-deaths and yet you say that you know very little about who she was. Yet the character of Stella in the book is such a strong woman, and she's strong against the backdrop of everyone around her. She is a distinctly defined personality whereas her mother, her sisters, her brothers, her father seem to fall into more generalized patterns. Not that they aren't distinct characters. The sister who's so close to her is a very biddable girl. She doesn't strike out on her own, she's a follower... but Stella is such a distinct persona that I felt like this was your grandmother. I'm interested in the choices you made and how you made them to create that person out of what you've suggested was a void.
Juliet: Part of it was imagining, but I have to be honest with you. I've never felt like a very creative person. I don't think I'm good at coming up with things from scratch. At heart, I'm sort of the history major type, and when I was really at a loss for a thing would have happened in the plot, my solace was usually research. The more I read about topics, the more I would find the arcane points, especially the women's lives that don't always make history books that would have vastly affected a day-to-day scenario.
When I was probably in fourth grade, my grandmother came to school to talk to my class about her immigration process. We were talking about where we had come from. She gets up in front of the class. My mother had come with us in case she needed to translate if my grandmother became confused and spoke the wrong language. So in front of the class, my grandmother starts talking about worms. My teacher redirected her because it was incoherent. So we talked about what it was like to go to Napoli to catch the boat, the Statue of Liberty, and New York Harbor. When we got home, my mom said, "Ma, why were you talking about worms?" My grandmother said, "You wanted to ask me about what my life was like in Italy, so it was about these silkworms." and we're all like, "What?!? Silkworms are from China. Everyone knows that!" Then my mother went to ask my great-aunt who said, "Oh yeah. When we were little, it was our only source of income. We raised silkworms all summer long." This is a totally lost art because, after World War II, it all went to the factories in the north.
But suddenly when you understand that probably all the women in this village during the month of July are operating in a kind of fever trance of sleeplessness because they're trying to make their income for the year, it makes it much more likely that you're to have a near-fatal accident when you're not watching your child and they get into something like boiling oil. This is just one kind of extreme example, but more I learned about life and these little tiny details, the more the plot organically clicked into place. There's usually a historical explanation for why something weird happened, you just have to keep digging.
Stephanie: I completely agree with you. I think it has always been the research that has both compelled me to write a story... usually I'm interested in something and I start reading about it and peeling back the layers of the onion, and then I come to the story that is calling me to write it. That's the great gift of loving history, I think.
Juliet: This is why we like each other. [audience laughter amid the mutual agreement]
Stephanie: The arc of the story is fundamentally that Stella's childhood in Italy is radically changed by immigrating to New York and then Hartford, Connecticut, and her immersion in a new culture. You've woven that against a backdrop of a somewhat tortured romance. I was curious about your choices with that.
I think that if you're growing up in the world Stella is, which is the 1920s, in extreme Catholic patriarchy... it's not the modern Catholic Church. The southern Italian Catholic Church, in particular, was deeply affected by four hundred years of Spanish colonialism which was extremely exploitative. The Church is not just the church we think of, it's also the fact that it owns 80% of the land. So most people are essentially feudal slaves working for the Church, albeit through a middle man who collects a fee. Things like sex and social mores become so binding and grinding. There is no freedom anywhere you go. You don't have the power to work for yourself. I think you get a system where men are... yes, they are empowered over women-- they own their wives and their children, the wives have no personhood-- but the men own nothing else. They toil for sixteen hours a day in these miserable conditions, and often at the end of the year there's not enough money left over to pay for medicine for their children. There's just misery on every side because of this exploitative system developed under the Spanish rule.
If you're a very very good man, maybe you survive that by being a good husband and father, but if you have any personality damage done by four years of terrifying war experience or any other number of hardships that befell this generation, you may go home and take out your anger on your wife. What you may see here are a lot of demented family structures. The men are exploited by this system and then they turn around themselves and exploit. I think if you're a woman who has absolutely no power in this situation other than over her own sexuality, that's the one thing you get to hold onto. Stella sees her one path to freedom as not ever having to subject herself to a man.
Juliet: I did a ton of book research. I wrote the second half of the book first because I felt that I knew it well enough. Meanwhile, I was reading everything I could on Calabria and the south in general. In English and Italian-- which I had to learn for this project. There's just so little written history. Because of the Spanish colonialism, Calabria was basically an illiterate region until the 1920s. Until recently no one was writing their own stories. Now they are, but it's about the Mob, which is a shame because there are a lot of other stories.
I got what I could out of books but ultimately the real research was in going back to my grandmother's village. I took a leave of absence from work and I lived there in the house she grew up in which is now owned by a second cousin who is a retired postman. It was really neat! The first time I met him, I was on an exploratory vacation trip, and he said, "Oh, this is your house, too. You must come and live here for a minimum of one month!" [audience laughter] He meant it, and it was great. He found out relatively early in my stay that I loved the proverbs he shared which are a huge part of Calabria's culture. It's their way of making everything funny.
He'd be taking me around. We'd be meeting people and collecting their histories. I had my tape recorder and I'd have interviews with old people, but the first thing before we sat down, he would say to them, "Tell us your favorite proverbs" and I would write them down in my notebook. By the end of my stay, I had 130 of them. I only got to use twelve in the book, but I'm saving those others! [audience laughter]
|Barbara Peters. Juliet's mother is behind her.|
[Juliet would first say the proverb in Italian then repeat it in English. Want to see and hear this? Check out the event on The Poisoned Pen's Youtube channel!)
Juliet: "The old wolf loses its fur but not its wiles," which I think is great. Another one which is funny or not funny depending on how you're interpreting it is "Which do you want, the full bottle of wine or the drunk wife?"
Stephanie: Oh man, what a choice!
Juliet: These are important cultural, sociological research things that I got a lot of Calabria's character from. It was hard to actually work them in. Something else that I gathered during my time there doing research was folk songs. I learned so much folk music while I was there.
Stephanie: Which is a theme in the book.
Juliet: It is a theme in the book, but it's so hard to work everything in. There's only one song that's actually in the text which is kind of like Calabria's national anthem as I call it--"My Beautiful Calabrese Girl." It so matched the theme of the book, and the tune got stuck in my head, so it sort of wrote itself into the story. Can I sing a little of it?
Stephanie: Oh, please! [audience agreement]
Juliet sang the song in Italian, and after a verse or two, her mother, who was sitting in the audience, joined in. It was so beautiful that tears came to my eyes, and I've since learned that I wasn't the only one who had an emotional response to the song. Please... watch (and listen) to it! The song begins around the 24-minute mark.
Stephanie: I have to commend you because part of the time I was reading The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna, I was actually listening to it on Audible, and of course, the narrator does not know how to sing that song. It's interesting to hear the differences between Italian and Calabrese.
Juliet: They are very different. Calabrese is called a dialect, but I think that's disrespectful. Just because it's not a written language, it is a language. It's full of classical and Byzantine Greek, there is a ton of Arabic. There is a ton of Albanian, and of course, Spanish.
Stephanie: I want to get back to your choice to insert yourself as a narrator, why you felt it was important to frame the book with your voice.
Juliet: Because Stephanie, we can't all do what you do! I have the very highest respect for actual historical fiction writers because what you have to do is pick your period and your theme and then stick with it and actually tell the story staying within the rules of that time period. I just couldn't do it because there were so many things I wanted to say that would not have been native to Stella's point of view. I did try to write this in first person from Stella's point of view, but I realized that I was leaving so much in the margins of the text that was making me angry to leave out. So a very modern fictional narrator began to interpolate, and I just let her stay.
Stephanie: Did you ever consider framing the book differently?
Juliet: No! [audience laughter] You mentioned that you didn't know I was writing when we first met, and at first I was really gunshy about confessing to anyone in my publishing life or wider life that I was writing because if it didn't go well, I thought it would be not only embarrassing for me but maybe reflect poorly on my career as an editor.
Stephanie: So what you were hearing was publishing's conventional wisdom...
Stephanie: ...about how you structure a story...
Stephanie: ...and yet you as an editor... bought that, and that's interesting.
Juliet: I think now, in retrospect-- and I should have known better, I've been in publishing for fifteen years-- but I think a lot of agents are looking for things... agents only make 15% of the sale-- so often they are looking for books that remind them of ones that have done well. So if you're doing something very different, it becomes harder to see how you're going to position it. On the flip side, I think editors are bored by seeing the same things over and over again, so I think they wanted the thing that didn't remind them of what they'd already seen before. My advice to aspiring authors is don't give up. The agents were the most difficult part of my publication process, but I think that's the case for many people.
I also think that if you know what your book is you should trust yourself. If it turns out that your book is only for five people, that's fine. [audience laughter]
Stephanie: Wow. That goes against everything any writer is told on a daily basis.
Juliet: Now I'm going to wear my editor hat. When I edit authors, I hope I never tell them that they're telling the wrong story or that they're telling it in the wrong way. And if that does happen, it makes me wonder if maybe we shouldn't be working together because we don't have a similar vision for the book.
Stephanie: How did you, as an editor who probably has to submit to market considerations, how you were willing to buck market considerations to a certain degree in writing your own book?
Juliet: I'm never willing to submit to market considerations which is maybe why I work at an independent press. [audience laughter] I know. I can't. As a reader, I don't want to read things that remind me of other things. I think everyone should be free to follow their hearts. [audience applause]
Stephanie: The counterpoint to this is that most large publishing houses are governed, not by editing, but by their marketing departments, and the marketing departments are focused on whether you have a platform on social networks that you can use to sell your books. They are obsessed with that. Your reach, your followers... it's all done by the writers now. It's highly unusual-- and you usually find this only in smaller publishing houses-- the willingness to allow writers to follow their hearts.
One last question: what are you thinking of focusing on next besides your beautiful baby, Carlos?
Juliet: In my research for this book, I found that villages are so remote and disconnected in Calabria during this period that you could find all this interesting information about another Calabrese village that has absolutely nothing to do with the world you're writing about, which was a great disappointment-- because I found some amazing content-- but I also found inspiration for another book! So that's where I'm at.
As you may know, I'm a crime fiction editor at Soho and that's what brings me here today via that connection. I'd like to write a crime novel after carefully studying the form for ten years, so we'll see if I can pull it off! [audience laughter] It's really hard to plot responsibly! I'm writing a book set in the 1960s in the very deep south of Calabria in a mountain range that's home to the Calabrese mob. They are one of the largest and most heinous crime syndicates in the world, and they've really flown under the radar.
I will tell you that I did drag my very good sport mother on a two and a half week exploratory tour of these Mafia villages in Calabria during the summer of 2017.
After a short Q&A session, the event was over. What a fun and informative evening-- just as I knew it would be. I wish all of you could go with me to The Poisoned Pen-- it's a little slice of heaven for book lovers!