Adriana Trigiani is a force of nature. I’m reminded of her energy the moment she finds me waiting for her on the bench outside Bubby’s High Line where we’re meeting to talk about her 14th novel, Tony’s Wife, which Harper is publishing in November. Trigiani has the Italian American oeuvre cornered, starting with her first and continuous bestselling novel, Big Stone Gap (2000), set in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia where she grew up in a big, traditional Italian-American family. Made into a movie in 2014 staring Ashley Judd, Patrick Wilson, and Whoopi Goldberg, Trigiani was both screenwriter and director.
With Tony’s Wife, a big hearted page turner, Trigiani tells the story of two singers at different stages of their careers who meet pre-WWII: Saverio Armandonada (who morphs into Tony Arma) is on his way up while Chi Chi Donatelli works in a factory waiting for her chance at the big time. The novel moves from 1932 to 2000 and from the Jersey shore to Hollywood, New York, Las Vegas and Italy as the couple marries and forms a successful singing duo during the big band era of the 1940s.
“The books start out as little books,” Trigiani says, “but then I get obsessed and they turn into epics! I thought this one was going to be spare (not a chance, it’s 462 pages) but…”
Trigiani says that all her books are around in her head for a long time. This one, she says, has been circling for 35 years, remembering that in 1983, she went to see Steve (Lawrence) and Eydie (Gorme) perform. And then there was Louis Prima and Keely Smith: “My father sang and played the piano and would do Louis Prima. He managed the Notre Dame glee club and knew Ed Sullivan because they were on the show at Christmas time. I can still see those men lined up in their tuxedos but at the heart of the book’s beginnings were my father’s old records.”
Memories and artifacts figure in Trigiani’s work but there’s also the force of her characters. “I see them,” she says. “I walk around with them. Their names appear in odd places (Donatelli was the name of a men’s store embossed on a wooden hanger in her mother’s closet). And eventually they’re ready to be born.”
She’s also always exploring relationships: about Tony’s Wife, she says that she never before wrote about a fraught relationship or about divorce. “And the big question that looms in this book is choice. Tony wants to settle down; Chi Chi wants a career. What’s the resolution?”
Which brings us to Trigiani’s mission: to empower women, to have them tell their stories. “Women don’t get what they want because they’re busy,” she says. “They are not waiting for the medal to be pinned on their chest. They’re working, so their stories get lost. Think about it, what happens when a man loses his job? The women go to work. ” When she goes on tour and does speaking engagements, she also does workshops and encourages her fans to write down their stories, to mark their lives, their achievements. And she tours year round since there is always a book coming out, hardcover and paper. “If women write their stories, we’ll have a history. My goal is to get them into the habit of doing this. I’m always turning over the same rock.”
Trigiani is also the co-founder, with Nancy Bolmeier-Fisher of The Origins Project, which aims to inspire students to find their voices and pride through writing about their Appalachian origins.
When she writes, she says, she gets lost in research and goes off in all directions. “It’s hard to start writing, hard to get rid of the research, but the writing actually happens while I sleep. My subconscious has all the answers. But my rewriting is arduous. There was one sentence in Kiss Carlo that I must have rewritten 150 times.
As for ideas, “There are always things in the kettle; I just have to pick. I ask myself, ‘what do readers want? What might the world want?’ I’m always writing for HER.”
Of her success at directing films, as well being a playwright, she credits her mother. “When I went to direct the movie Big Stone Gap, it was what I learned from my mother that made it work. My father ran a mill but it was my mother’s skill set that I channeled as a director. I had to get people together, manage a budget, put out fires, have patience, be cool under pressure. My mother raised seven kids. Everything I did on set, I learned from my mother.”
I walk her to the studio where she’s editing the latest film she’s directed, Love Me to Death, written by and starring Kathie Lee Gifford, a project that got started when Trigiani appeared on the Today Show. She says goodbye, living proof of her last words to me: “Italians can make anything look good,” she says, because we care.”