Monday, February 27, 2023

TBR: Where Are Your People From? by James B. De Monte

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe.



Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?


The book is character-driven, told in the second-person point of view, and contains 19 stand-alone chapters, all centering on retired coal miner and first-generation American, Giacomo Agostini. It is not chronological. It does include moments from Jackie’s youth living in a coal- and clay-mining immigrant enclave in eastern Ohio; his late eighties while he is still hearty and independent; and the end of his years as he awaits death in a nursing home.


Which story did you most enjoy writing? Why? And which story gave you the most trouble, and why?


The stories I most enjoyed writing probably came at the end. I wrote versions of most of these years ago (and rewrote them again and again). By the time I got to the end, I knew Jackie and his world well enough that it came more quickly and naturally. I knew a lot about how he and the others would act in particular scenarios that the writing became a lot of fun in the end. An example would be “The Progress of Man”—a piece of flash fiction really—where the characters (Jackie and his cousin, Moon) are sort of playful.


The story I had the most trouble with is “Dago Red.” There are a fair number of references to death throughout the book—the loss of Jackie’s father, his mother, etc.—but this is the only story where the Jackie finds someone dead in the moment. I wrote a version of this story many years ago and was never quite satisfied with it. It was hard to pull off. Then, I shifted and decided to lay it out at the beginning. The full title of that story, in fact, is “Dago Red, or, Here’s How Cousin Moon Came to Die.”


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.


I have been interested since my undergraduate days (two decades ago) in telling versions of family stories about my relatives who worked in coal mines, who died in coal mines, who hauled moonshine as little kids during prohibition, and so forth. Then, during my MFA program in the NEOMFA and Kent State, my full thesis was about 150 pages of stories like these, all with one central character. My advisor at the time, Varley O’Connor, was very helpful as I shaped these.


In the decade that followed, nothing much came from these and I went on to write other things, though every few years I would go back and rewrite or revise some of the individual pieces. I even submitted a shortened version of the whole thing in the early 2010s to various small presses, and it ended up being a finalist in some contests, but nothing more than that. Flash forward to March 2020. I found myself working from home once COVID hit, no longer commuting an hour each way to work, so I used the extra time to get up before 5 and write for a few hours each morning at my basement workbench. I became entirely focused on this book, writing some new pieces for it, rewriting existent ones, and even scrapping others. After about a year or so, I started sending it out again and, fortunately, Cornerstone Press at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point was interested.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


It’s simple, but my undergraduate advisor, Frank Tascone, told me to write every day, if possible. That hasn’t always felt possible, but I’ve had my best periods of production when I’ve tried to heed this advice, getting into a routine and staying focused.


My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


I love that idea. From now on, I’m going to say that’s my favorite piece of writing advice.


In this book, I knew Jackie’s life would start to come unraveled. Some of the earliest stories I had written were of him in a nursing home. I’ve spent a lot of time in those throughout my life, visiting older relatives, older neighbors, and others. Originally, that’s where I thought the unraveling would be shown. Then, while working on these again, I started seeing Jackie in his home just before going into a nursing home, figuring out those moments where everything starts slipping away from him and he knows his days are numbered—some kind of purgatory. Specifically, I ended up showing him drawing pictures of long-dead relatives in coal dust and mud on the cement block of his basement walls. I never imagined that at all until I started typing the sentences.


How did you find the title of your book?


Originally, I called this Dago Red. One chapter has that title and there’s death throughout; plus, the title seemed original and interesting to me. But after writing and rewriting over time, it did not quite make sense for the full book in the same way that Where Are Your People From? does.


I can remember many times over many years, hearing older relatives—my grandparents and great-aunts and uncles—ask this about others: Where are their people from? What nationality are you? etc. This mattered to them, to know other people’s roots, what brought them here. Most of this generation of my family were children of immigrants, some of them having spent part of their earliest days back in Southern Europe—in Trentino and in Sicily. These identities were dug deeply into them and shaped how they saw and experienced the world, even though they spent almost their entire lives in America. This, along with the second-person narrative voice throughout most of the book, led to the title as it is.


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book?


There’s plenty of food referenced throughout, mostly basic Northeast Italian and Italian-American cuisine: polenta with gravy, gnocchi, salamets, tagliatelle, canederli in broth, anise-flavored pizzelles. Canederli, in particular, is specific to South Tirol, where Jackie’s family comes from, but the version his sister fixes is a bit Americanized (using hard salami instead of speck) and heated up in the microwave for him when he stops by. She makes this still, as their mother did, but she’s in her eighties by this point and there’s no one else that will keep it up after her.


One version of this:


There are simple desserts, too—cakes, pies, doughnuts—all of which are American or some Americanized version of those things. Jackie used to steal apple-and-nut and black-bottom custard pies from his neighbor’s windowsill when he was a little boy, on his way to steal coal from the tops of train cars to bring back home. His mother used to make a chocolate cake with caramel topping on Sundays after having learned of it from relatives closer to the Ohio River, and even served some to a wayward traveler who came begging. And, in the end, Jackie’s nephew picks him up at the nursing home once a week to take him to a local doughnut shop called Taylor’s, the last of its kind in town, where Jackie likes to buy a full bag of day-olds, including apple fritters and other rolls. But they wouldn’t be allowed to call “cream sticks” doughnuts if he had anything to say about it.








READ A STORY, “Effetto Montagna” from The Showcase:







DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.