On a summer day in the West Village in New York City, Adriana Trigiani, bestselling author of three warm, funny, romantic novels set in the coal-mining town of Big Stone Gap, Va., where she grew up, sits barefooted on a sofa in the living room of her town house and recalls the night when a drunk in the audience ended her hopes for a stage career. He threw a Swedish meatball at her, calling out, just in case she didn't get it, "You stink!" The meatball incident—it happened during a Manhattan performance by Trigiani's now-defunct all-girl comedy troupe, the Outcasts—convinced the author to move on, she says, first into television writing (The Cosby Show, etc.) and then, just a few years ago, into writing fictional tales about quirky Appalachians, most notably Ave Maria Mulligan, who quickly won the hearts of readers when she first appeared as a 35-year-old self-proclaimed spinster in Big Stone Gap (2000).
Trigiani talks with PW on the eve of a multi-city tour, including appearances on the Today show and NPR, for her new novel, Lucia, Lucia (Random, July), which tells the story of the beautiful young daughter of a large and prosperous Italian-American family in Greenwich Village in the early 1950s. The setting seems to be a big change for Trigiani, or is it? "Actually, the Village has the same smalltown feeling as Big Stone Gap," says Trigiani, the late 30-ish daughter of immigrants, who is every bit as friendly, vivacious and down to earth as her characters and has lived in the Village since shortly after her college graduation in 1981. "When you go out on the street here, you know everyone. People say hello." So there is a neighborhood feel to this novel about Lucia Sartori, 25, a Katherine Gibbs graduate who works as a seamstress in the custom department of B. Altman's department store on Fifth Avenue, and who must choose between her childhood sweetheart, Dante DeMartino, a baker, and the handsome entrepreneur John Dalton, who brings her into the uptown world of his Princeton friends. Moreover, like each of the novels in Trigiani's Big Stone Gap trilogy, Lucia, Lucia draws on her experiences as the third of seven children from an Italian-American family.
Wearing a white T-shirt and black slacks, her hair a bright burst of black curls, Trigiani walks to the mantle over the fireplace and brings back a framed photograph of her father, Anthony Trigiani, a burly man who died at the age of 69 last December. As family patriarch, he moved the Trigianis in the late 1960s from the close-knit Italian-American community of Roseto, Pa., to Big Stone Gap, where he established a blouse factory. Adriana remembers her initial wonderment at the strange-talking Appalachian neighbors. In turn, she says, the locals viewed the Trigianis as "Eye-talians," which is to say "ferriners." From their homes in Brooklyn and upper Manhattan, N.Y.; Nashville; San Francisco; and Alexandria, Va. (where two sisters live), her siblings gathered last winter to bury their father, who had told Adriana only months before, during a Columbus Day visit in New York, "I am ready for the next level." During that visit, he spent time with his new granddaughter, Adriana's first child, Lucia, who is now one year old. "My father's death was as beautiful as my daughter's birth," she says.
As it happens, Trigiani was working on scenes in Lucia, Lucia describing the demise of the fictional Lucia's Papa at the time of her own father's death. "For the first time, I understood the direct relationship between my emotions and what I am trying to do in my writing," she says. "I felt this awesome connection to the process of death. Random House told me I could delay finishing the novel if it was too much for me. But I didn't want to do that. I revised the story of Papa's dying in the book so that I am really describing my father's death."
Close family ties were a given among the Italian immigrants of Roseto, Pa., where Trigiani was born—so much so that medical scientists studying the community have famously described a "Roseto effect," in which social support—the love and caring of relatives, friends, and neighbors—helps reduce stress and disease. Trigiani has recounted the story of the town, her family and the scientific study in an award-winning, feature-length documentary, Queens of the Bigtime (1996), which has never been released commercially.
The author was six years old when the family moved from Roseto to Big Stone Gap, a valley town in the Blue Ridge Mountains with a population of fewer than 5,000 people. Growing up with a keen interest in books and theater, she entered the theater program at St. Mary's College in South Bend, Ind., where she was the first student to write and direct her own play. After graduation, she moved into a Manhattan boarding house for women on West 10th Street in the Village, determined to become a playwright, and earned her living in a series of jobs as a cook, housecleaner and office temporary. For five years, she wrote, directed and performed with the Outcasts, the comedy group she founded ("We did stink, although we did some good stuff," she says), making her off-Broadway debut as a playwright in 1985 when she was commissioned to write Secrets of the Lava Lamp for the Manhattan Theatre Club.
Although she had grown up without television in Big Stone Gap (the mountains prevented good TV reception) and lacked interest in the medium, Trigiani was recruited in 1988 to write for the TV sitcom A Different World, a spinoff of the popular Cosby Show. Since then, she has written and produced for Cosby, Good Sports and Working It Out and served as executive producer and head writer for the critically acclaimed CityKids for Jim Henson/ABC. With the exception of a nine-month stint in Los Angeles that left her homesick, Trigiani did all of the writing on the East Coast so she could be near her family, she says. "But I was doing the kind of writing where someone else creates the characters, and you come in and do dialogue and story. Once you've mastered that, you want to do your own original scripts. And I did. I wrote 15 of my own TV pilots—all big, warm, fuzzy family shows—and couldn't place any of them."
In 1998, her friend and agent Suzanne Gluck read one of Trigiani's screenplays and said, "This is a book; it has such a wonderful voice. Write it as a novel." From 3 to 8 a.m. each day, Trigiani worked to transform the script into her first novel, Big Stone Gap; then she would go to her day job as a TV writer, she says. She keeps the same early morning hours today—but no longer has a steady TV job. Instead, she devotes time each afternoon to revising her novel in progress. So far, the method has produced a bestselling book a year, including Big Cherry Holler (2001) and Milk Glass Moon (2002). P.S.: producers are now taking another look at her TV pilots.
Now in bookstores just in time for beach reading, Lucia, Lucia has been called a "poignant and feeling" novel that will make readers laugh and weep (PW), "a big, sloppy wet kiss to Greenwich Village" (Kirkus Reviews) and "an Audrey Hepburn movie that was never made" (Baltimore Sun). It is certainly all of those things—as well as a tale inspired by a real-life woman named Lucia who was in her 60s when Trigiani first encountered her on walks in the Village years ago. Like Lucia in the novel, the woman once worked at B. Altman's, wore a fur from September to June no matter what the weather and had an apartment filled with wonderful old pictures, says Trigiani, who once visited for tea. Trigiani lost touch when the woman entered a nursing home several years ago. "I also gathered objects of the period to help me in the writing—a photo of the 1950s model and actress Suzy Parker [who made her Hollywood debut in the musical Funny Face, which starred Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire], a fabric swatch and a shoe of the era," she says. "And I bought some great old dress patterns on eBay."
Although she herself does not sew, Trigiani notes that both her grandmothers were seamstresses and that she hopes the details in Lucia, Lucia are the fine stitch work of a well-made story. "For me, writing is all about the story," she says. Asked how she thinks of herself as a writer, Trigiani declines to wear a specific tag. She does not consider herself a Southern writer, although she idolizes Lee Smith, comes from the South and has written more often than not, so far, about characters most likely to pop up in the region. She doesn't call herself an Italian-American writer, although her photograph graces the cover of a recent issue of the Sons of Italy's magazine, and she took part last March in a Washington, D.C., panel discussion of Italian-American writing, along with novelist Lorenzo Carcaterra, poets Dana Gioia and Paul Paolicelli and family historian Bill Tonelli. "Sessions like that always become a tiresome argument over whether The Sopranos defames Italian-Americans," says Trigiani. "I came back to New York on the shuttle looking like this"—she abruptly stretches her entire body straight out, eyes clamped shut, as if in a casket. Finally, she does not see herself as a writer of urban romances, although she touches in Lucia, Lucia on the fictional turf of Elinor Lipman, whose editor is also Lee Boudreaux at Random. "I like to think I am simply writing 'heart of a woman' stories," says Trigiani. "I am writing about the conundrum of being a woman—about love and work, and how do you choose?"
Last May, Trigiani elaborated on that theme in a commencement address, "Guts, Blind Faith and Sunblock," at her alma mater, St. Mary's College.
"For a woman, love and work are symbiotic; they are her conundrum and her truth," she said then. "None of us get it right, know that from the get-go. There is no super woman, there is nobody on earth having it all, there is no right path on the complicated journey. So, I recommend, make it your own. Design your life. When it comes to work, do what you love, seek your dream, and make a deal with yourself that you won't stop until you hold it."
Rendered in story, the message has won the author many readers, mainly women "from their mid-20s to their mid-90s," as she puts it. And then there is the example of her life as an independent, strong-voiced woman who has become "an overnight success after taking it one step at a time." In designing her own life, she leaped at her agent's suggestion that she turn to novel writing: "TV writing was requiring me to travel a lot, and I wanted to have a baby," she says. She and her husband of eight years, Tim Stephenson, an Emmy award—winning lighting designer for The Late Show with David Letterman, named their daughter Lucia after Adriana's grandmother Lucia Bonicelli.
So, in a manner of speaking, Trigiani delivered two Lucias within a period of 12 months: love and work, one step at a time, and all within the bonds of an extended family that remains close, even with siblings—including a lawyer, a writer, a songwriter and an at-home mom—spread hither and yon pursuing their own dreams. Her mother, Ida, lives alone now in the family home in Big Stone Gap, and Trigiani says the family is helping her decide on the future. After all, coming from Roseto, they know about family support. As Trigiani's father advised regarding his new granddaughter not long before his death, "You can have all the rules in the world, but I only know one thing for sure about being a parent: the only thing you can really do for your child is to be there for her."
As for work, Trigiani says she has been polishing her screenplay for Big Stone Gap, which she will also direct. Her good friend Rosanne Cash will write the music. Casting and production will begin soon. Then there is her next novel, which she has been writing in her office upstairs for months. It's a "barn burner," she says, meaning one great story. It's about a farm girl, her star-crossed lover and what happens between them in a very special town—Roseto, Pa.