Does Adriana Trigiani have it all? She writes bestselling books (her new novel, The Supreme Macaroni Company, is set to be released in November by Harper); she’s a comedian; filmmaker (currently directing the film adaptation of her first novel, Big Stone Gap, for which she also wrote the screenplay); and the wife of Tim Stephenson, the lighting designer of The Late Show with David Letterman. The two have an 11-year-old daughter, Lucia, and Trigiani has six siblings, describing their relationship as “one arm short of being an octopus we’re so close.” She doesn’t, however, believe it’s possible to have it all: “You don’t get everything you want, that doesn’t exist in this realm.” What she does believe in, she says, with her characteristic exuberance, is hard work, determination, humor, and the power of storytelling.
Trigiani’s own story started in the small coal-mining town of Big Stone Gap, in southwest Virginia, the setting of her debut novel of the same name. Although she speaks about her childhood with affection, she says she always felt like an outsider because she came from a large Italian family. Trigiani is funny—a trait she says she’s always had. “I don’t know why, but whenever I said anything, people would laugh—even when I was being serious!” The roots of comedy, she believes, are really ways of dealing with pain. “Comedy is a reaction to the world and I think it really helps to be an outsider,” Trigiani notes, adding, “I’ve always been very interested in people’s behavior, to the point of being obsessed—seeing what people needed and reading them, I think that’s the backbone of comedy.” She wanted to be a playwright and studied theater at the all-girls Saint Mary’s College in South Bend, Ind. After graduation, she moved to New York City, where she founded a female comedy troupe—the Outcasts.
Her father was in the garment manufacturing business and one of his associates in New York let Trigiani use his office at night for auditions. She made her off-Broadway debut at the Manhattan Theatre Club and “went everywhere in the ’80s and did regional theatre.” She still enjoys plays and theater “because it’s alive.” Trigiani also notes the theater’s similarities to a family. “It’s a community,” she says. “Then you take your family story and you put on a show.”
Trigiani, who currently lives in Greenwich Village, says she’s loved New York ever since she was a child. “I love the smell of exhaust, I love screaming people, people moving quickly—this is my city, I’m connected to it, and I will never leave it.”
While she has always been interested in a wide variety of things, everything Trigiani does revolves around telling riveting stories. “For me, the word is spiritual and biblical. From the word comes the action and the story,” she says. Hard work is another driving force for Trigiani. “I had to make a living, always,” she says. “Nobody ever said, here’s a check, go paint the Sistine Chapel. I always had a lot of jobs, and every job I had helped me understand how to work better.” Trigiani worked in television for years; she was a writer/producer on The Cosby Show and A Different World, and was executive producer and head writer for City Kids for Jim Henson Productions. In 1996 she wrote and directed the award-winning documentary film Queens of the Big Time, the story of her father’s hometown, Roseto, Pa.—an idea she had after viewing 60 mm films taken by her grandfather from 1935–1960. “After seeing those films, I understood that my grandfather, who was a machinist in a factory, was actually an artist, and I had to make a movie to go along with these images.”
Next, Trigiani wrote a screenplay called Big Stone Gap, which became the basis for her first novel “It dawned on me in these development meetings that I had a lot more to tell,” she says. She was working on a television show at the time, and woke up early each day to write the novel. Big Stone Gap was published by Random House in 2001. The inspiration for the story came from a trip she’d taken in 1998 to see family in the Italian Alps, and while there, she began to see connections and similarities to the mountains back home in Virginia. In a notebook, Trigiani wrote her initial idea: “This is a story of a girl and a boy in the mountains of Italy who fall in love. She gets pregnant and comes to America rather than shame her family. She meets a man who moves her to southwest Virginia where he has a pharmacy.” The idea of a main character who works in a pharmacy appealed to her because “this woman would know everyone’s secrets, and would have no illusions.” Trigiani liked writing novels from the start. “I thought, ‘Wow, I know how to do this,’ ” she says, adding, “It suited me—it fit: long periods of being alone punctuated by very public exchanges.” She wrote three more novels in the Big Stone Gap series: Big Cherry Holler, Milk Glass Moon, and Home to Big Stone Gap. Trigiani says she couldn’t fit everything she needed to say about her roots in a single book. “I’m not lightening in a bottle—I’m not going to write one book and have it say everything. I come from people who work in factories, and I work in a factory of my own design. I do things until I get them right, and that takes time.” She’s also written standalone novels, such as Lucia, Lucia; Rococo; and The Shoemaker’s Wife, as well as a young adult series and a cookbook, Cooking with My Sisters (she describes that collaboration as “hilarious”). Her nonfiction debut, Don’t Sing at the Table: Life Lessons from My Grandmother, came out in 2010. Her latest novel is the final book in the Valentine series. Speaking of the protagonist of that series, Valentine Roncalli, Trigiani says, “I had a bee in my bonnet about writing a woman between the ages of 33 and 40. I felt like 40 is when a woman starts to own her own life.” She adds that she loves the character of Valentine because she’s so complex and frustrating. “She had it all and she didn’t know it.”
On tour, Trigiani has developed an act that she says is closer to stand-up comedy than to straightforward reading. “I’m here to serve my readers; I’m not in this for any other reason.” She describes herself as overly optimistic. “I don’t like any art form barraged in violence or hurt,” she says. And she’s “crazy” about her readers, most of whom are female. “I see them in their complexities, these women; I see how a book from me is an escape, and my role as a storyteller is to lift these readers out of something sometimes, or to turn the mirror on them.” She wants her readers to have fun, connect, laugh, and cry together, she says.
“I think the book business is really sitting on the greatest moment in the history of time,” Trigiani says. “We are providing the stories to the hungry public. We have more avenues to do it than ever before.” Change, she believes, is good. “There’s more knowledge at your fingertips than ever before—that cannot be bad. It’s fantastic, all of it.”
And looking forward? “My next book? It’s big: really, really big. I don’t want to tell yet.”