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Let's talk about your inspiration for the novel. It's based somewhat on your grandparents' lives.
This novel took me over 20 years to write, and my family is on every page. My grandmother used to tell me stories about her life, and I began to write them down. I didn't want to forget any of it. And her story was just so sad to me. Her husband was her one great love, and she was true to him until her death. She was widowed at 35, and she died at 97. She never dated or looked at another man. She told me about immigrating to America, and living in Hoboken, New Jersey, which I always sensed didn't go so well. I let my imagination craft a story for my characters in the novel from there, but the timeline very much mimics my grandmother's life. Also, when the character Enza goes to work as a seamstress for the opera singer Enrico Caruso, I got to have a little fun. That would have been my grandmother's dream, so I gave it to her in fiction.
Did your family enjoy the book?
They really love it. They've been very supportive, and it's been wonderful. It makes me happy to know that our history is somewhat preserved, and at the same time it's been embroidered, so to speak. It's the greatest thing ever.
Why were you interested in writing about the immigrant experience?
I'm obsessed with feats of daring: leaving home to come to an unfamiliar place, choosing someone to fall in love with, the great mystery of two people coming together. In everything I write, I'm obsessed with asking, "Who do we love?" and "How do we survive by the labor of our own hands?"
This book is Ciro and Enza's love story, but it's also the story of how they find what they're meant to do and how they survive. To me, to be an American is to be an immigrant. And by becoming American, you're choosing to find a way to survive and thrive. And this idea is still current -- people have to leave their families to survive. We don't live in four stories of the same house, get old, and die in the arms of our children. They move to get a job. Enza crosses an ocean and never sees her family again, and it's very dramatic, but it feels real. And it is real for most of us.
Did you visit Italy much while you were writing the book? What is your favorite place to visit while you're there?
I did, and I try to go every year. I love to go to the mountain where my grandmother lived and where the book's characters come from. Going up that road really means something to me. I think about how my grandmother never went back up this road again. It's very intense and emotional.
The Shoemaker's Wife is just such an epic story, which is very different from the other fiction and the YA books that you've written. How was writing it different for you?
I feel like I just sat at the keyboard for years, drank coffee, wrestled with it and cried. The style of the book was really important to me. I was attempting to make it like a well-made coat, with a little bit of tulle peeking out, or lace or a ribbon, something that would give it design. When I look back at all my other novels, I think Lucia, Lucia and Queen of the Big Time were inching toward being epics. And I feel like it's my job to serve to my readers. In our culture, with texts and e-mails and all that stuff, we're becoming less writerly, and my readers want more from me. They said, "Please, a bigger book, a longer book." And I said, "Great, I'm going to do an epic for you." And moving forward, I think I'll stick to writing epics.
Has writing an epic been rewarding for you in a way your other writing hasn't?
It's all building blocks. Every sentence you write leads you to the next one. It's all part of this glorious process of being an artist where you just try to keep pushing and growing. Some artists will come up with one formula and stick with it. That doesn't interest me. I'm always trying to push it.
And in a world where everything is texting and tweeting, why do you think it's still important to read novels?
You need it for your mental health and your spiritual growth. You need to be quiet, contemplative, and in your own world. That's how you find comfort and solace and that's how you grow your soul. If you don't do that, you'll go nuts.