Writing My Way Home
I left Rome in the summer of 1980, eager to make a new life for myself in America like so many Italians before me. New York City was the only possible choice for my new home. I had two wonderful, supportive friends from my college days at Barnard and those four years in the city–during which I played, sometimes studied and above all discovered my independence–were the best years of my life. Or so I remembered, which is all that counts. When I announced my intentions, Federico Fellini, with whom I was working at the time, said I was a fool to leave friends and a solid career dubbing films for the unknown of the U.S.A. and sent me off to his Tarot card reader. I’m not a believer in the power of the cards, but the Tarots declared the trip across the ocean would bring good things. I liked the sound of that. What stuck in my mind most of all was the reader saying, “In America you will connect with your creative side.”
I started writing as soon as I got here, long letters to friends in which I told tales of life in the city. I embellished a bit, tried to find humor in the loneliness that crept in despite my college friends’ efforts, tried to dispel the feeling of being in a vacuum, of not belonging anywhere. By writing the letters and sending them to Italy, it was as if I were throwing a line across the ocean to keep me linked with the people of my past. I felt grounded when writing, connected to myself. I wanted to write more than letters.
I began to do research for a novel about an American woman stuck in Prague and Rome during World War II loosely based on a period of my mother’s life. Then my boss at the advertising agency where I worked wouldn’t give me a raise. I felt angry, helpless. I didn’t want to start pounding the pavement again. Finding this job had been hard enough. I did have one option. I would put aside my WWII research and kill my tightwad boss. On paper.
What did I have to offer to the world of mysteries? I couldn’t write about an American protagonist with an American life. I had gone to high school and college in the States, but that was years before, and even if I were able to pull it off, I didn’t want to abandon my ties to Italy.
After a year of writing and re-writing and a year looking for an agent and a publisher, The Trouble with a Small Raise introduced Simona Griffo, a recent Italian immigrant to Manhattan, who works in an advertising agency and wants to find a new life. I didn’t stray far from my own life. Simona and Griffo were the names of my favorite dogs; her enthusiastic personality is a copy of my sister’s, her sometime sardonic take on life is my own; her love of food belongs to all my family. I wrote about Manhattan, my new home, but Italy kept sneaking in. Simona’s boss is an Italian- American, the agency cook is Italian, and the food Simona cooks is Italian. The second mystery, The Trouble with Moonlighting, brings more Italians to Manhattan. Simona takes a vacation from her advertising job to become the dialogue coach for an Italian film crew she knows from Rome. I was also chronicling the ups and downs (mostly invented) of Simona’s love life with Stanley Greenhouse, a homicide detective who in real life was the business man I was dating.
Why was I writing so close to home? Because I missed Rome, yearned for my friends, my work in the movies, and my two- bedroom home with lots of closet space. Because, by writing about Simona, I was finding myself. I was slowly gluing back the pieces that had shattered in Rome. I was also a new writer, with not much confidence in creating new worlds. Write about what you know, everyone says. I did.
My third novel went to a Club Med in the Caribbean, The Trouble with Too Much Sun, the fourth, The Trouble with Thin Ice, to a not-so idyllic inn in Connecticut. Simona spouted Italian sayings. She reminisced about the past, and the recipes were for pasta, but the Italian connection seemed to be thinning out. Were Simona and her author settling into their new home? I had by then married the business man. It was time to go back and reassess the situation.
The Trouble with Going Home takes place in Rome and the Roman countryside. Nothing is as Simona expected it to be. A young American student gets murdered in front of her eyes the day she arrives. Her mother is involved and is keeping secrets from her. Her father may have a lover. Her ex-husband shows up. Simona tries to see her city and herself with clean eyes. She has changed. So has Rome. But Italian family ties are binding and can lead to murder for the best of reasons.
The next two books, The Trouble with a Bad Fit and The Trouble with a Hot Summer, stay in New York. Bad Fit deals with the garment industry and Hot Summer with the Hamptons scene. Simona has found a partner, Dmitri K., a Russian cab driver who sells hair on the side. She yearns for company to help her solve the trouble she stumbles upon given that Stan Greenhouse, with whom she now lives, disapproves of her meddling. By now Simona has become as American as she can be. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t miss Italy, but, as the Tarot cards predicted, she’s found happiness in Manhattan.
I’ve given Simona a rest, maybe because she and I have settled into our new lives. I went back to work some more on the World War II novel, Seeking Alice, which takes place in Prague and Rome, but again I put aside that very personal story to flesh out an idea that had been brewing in my head. What happens to a family after a personal tragedy? How do they handle their grief and guilt? If they bury it and try to go on with their lives, what outside catalyst will explode those buried emotions to the surface?
After writing and re-writing for three years, The Price of Silence was published in 2007 under my own name (I had used the name Crespi for the Simona mysteries which is easier to remember than Trinchieri ). To my great joy in 2008 it was published in Italy as Il prezzo del silenzio. I felt whole again. My Italian and American selves were now one.
Price was a hard book to write. The story was dark and demanding, and for the first time, I used four different points of view with each character begging for more attention. When I finished it, I felt wiped out. I needed to go back to telling a story with a lighter touch.
I put on my Crespi hat and took a year to write The Breakfast Club Murder, featuring another food-loving Italian American who, this time, doesn’t resemble me in the least. Lori Corvino is trying to find her footing after a divorce she did not want and, at the same time, dealing with the divided loyalties of her thirteen year-old daughter. Just as Lori is restarting a catering career, her ex-husband’s new wife, a successful Manhattan dentist, is murdered two days after her wedding. The police consider Lori and her ex both possible suspects. In an effort to regain control of her life and her daughter’s, Lori tries to make sense of what happened and discovers the murderer.
I had a wonderful time writing The Breakfast Club Murder, which lifted me out of the dark place Price had taken me to. I put the novel in the drawer for the time being and plunged back into the book of the heart, Seeking Alice, my love letter to the mother I never had. After working on it on and off for twenty three years I am proud to have finally finished it.
When the United States entered WWII my mother, pregnant with me, found herself and her three young children trapped in Prague. Overnight she was an enemy to my father, an Italian working for the Fascist government as a diplomat. He became hers. Two months after I was born she became mentally ill and I lost her. Seeking Alice is my attempt to recreate her life just before illness overtook her, to understand what she suffered and to commemorate the strength she showed, despite the ragings of her mind, to bring her children to safety.
Much of the story is built on the memory of family members and many Italian friends who survived the war. Much comes from my imagination because I was barely there and because I strongly believe that fiction heightens the colors of fact.
The Italian version of Seeking Alice, Cercando Alice, was the first to be published in 2010. The Breakfast Club Murder was published in 2014. Seeking Alice was published in 2017.
As soon as Seeking Alice found an American home, I relaxed and soon enough a new mystery idea popped in my head. I wanted to stay in Italy, but in a place that would lighten my heart. I chose the Chianti hills of Tuscany where good food, excellent wine and lovely views entrance its visitors.
A Good Day for Murder took two years to write. This time I wanted two protagonists: an ex-homicide detective from New York and a Maresciallo of the Carabinieri. A Glass of Wine with Murder will be next.
I am now an Italian-American, and very proud of it.
Copyright 2019. Camilla Trinchieri. All rights reserved.