PW: In your book The Italian-American Reader, you address a version of the question Gay Talese asked: Where are all the Italian-American writers?
Bill Tonelli: There have not been Italian memoirs. There has not been that book that tells the whole story. It's partly that Italian-Americans don't tell too much to the outside—they don't give it up that easily. The act works well, and no one's looking beyond the happy.
PW: What can you say about Italian-American readership?
BT: In Italy there's never been a strong book culture. The more Americanized Italians become, the more they read.
PW: How do you feel about The Sopranos?
BT: I love The Sopranos. I think it's great the way the show deals with contemporary American life and the way it deals with Italian-American families.
PW: Why did you do this book?
BT: My agent discouraged me from doing it at first—lots of work, not enough time—so I put it on the back burner. I grew up in South Philly in the late '60s, early '70s, always searching for writers with Italian-American names. There's something in bad taste to continue to seek out writers with Italian-American names—an old-fashioned mentality—and I have to say that I'm completely surprised I've done it. I just kept wanting to do it, and one day I sat down and I just came up with a proposal. I was sure someone was going to do it at some point, and I didn't want to be left out.
PW: How did you decide on the stories?
BT: Personally. Bringing all these stories together was like a dinner party—I wanted there to be a resonance and for the stories to speak to each other. I chose pieces that had nothing to do with the Italian-American experience if I liked them enough. Ed McBain, who doesn't identify himself as being Italian-American, declined the invitation at first because it would have been hypocritical of him to be included in such an anthology. I tried to show every kind of way there is to be Italian. In the end, I just wanted to have pieces that I loved—all of it great writing and all of it exciting.
PW: Did you have a thesis in mind?
BT: This isn't about Italian-American pride or accomplishment, which can be feel-good and defensive. I chose writers who felt that they had zero feeling of pride. The book skews toward the contemporary. The older writing still stands up, but if the collection is an act of nostalgia, it fails. Nostalgia is a cheap audience.
PW: How do books on Italian-Americana sell?
BT: The number of Italians who identify themselves as such has risen—because people change their minds as to who they are. Perhaps they want to be more connected to family or to tradition. But the appeal goes beyond an Italian-American audience. Look at what people are watching: Ray Romano is like the Italian-American Bill Cosby.
PW: How did your previous work as an editor at Esquire and Rolling Stone contribute to or affect this book?
BT: It introduced me to many writers, and it kept me in the middle of mainstream trade publishing. It gave me the authority to go to a big publisher and say that this book will sell—it may not be big, but it will sell.