Tarquini’s new novel, The Infinite Now, centers on Fiora Vincente, a 16-year-old orphan and daughter of a fortune-teller, who is the subject of superstition and suspicion within her Philidelphia Italian-immigrant community. After Fiora is taken in by an elderly man, she begins to explore her latent magical abilities, inadvertently casting a spell that ceases the movement of time.
Tarquini counts Italo Calvino’s novel The Baron in the Trees as a significant influence on her own writing, which also interweaves reality and fantasy: “Calvino’s hero, Cosimo, refuses to eat a plate of snails at the family dinner table,” Tarquini says. “Cosimo’s father, the baron, insists. Cosimo rebels. He climbs a tree in the garden and refuses to come down for the rest of his life.” One line in the book—spoken by Cosimo’s younger brother about Cosimo’s actions—is particularly meaningful to Tarquini: “I didn’t understand that my brother’s determination concealed something deeper.” Tarquini taped that quotation to her laptop to provide, as she puts it, “a constant reminder that my job is to understand that ‘something deeper’ that drives the characters’ actions.”
The first flashes of The Infinite Now arrived with a nighttime vision Tarquini received of Fiora herself: “She woke me from a sound sleep,” Tarquini says. “I heard a voice, young, nervous, a little brash. She was scared, but didn’t want to show it; uncertain, but wanted to be bold. She had dreams and ambitions, and though she’d lost everything, she had hope. Nobody, but nobody, was going to take that from her.”
The Infinite Now is Tarquini’s second novel, after Hindsight (2016). Her creative process typically begins with a central character: “For me, the character always comes first,” Tarquini says. “What does this person want? What is she willing to do to get it? Who or what is preventing her from reaching her goal? Will the character give up what she wants to get what she needs, or will she adjust what she needs to get what she wants?”
The story is not only about Fiora and her inheritance of a complicated legacy—it’s about Philadelphia’s Italian-immigrant communities: “I sometimes say Italians never left the village. They brought the village with them, along with its superstitions and strengths, its aspirations and failings,” Tarquini says.
As a second-generation Italian-American who grew up in the Philadelphia area, Tarquini says that “Fiora and her community are familiar to me as lentils and sausage.” She researched photo and newspaper archives for additional insight into the era when the book is set. But crafting the book’s elements of old-world magic and witchcraft didn’t require much digging: “They are ingrained in the Italian DNA,” Tarquini says. “My grandmother had the gift; so did my mother.”
Thematically, Tarquini also alludes to a classic work of fantasy literature: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In researching the 1918 pandemic, Tarquini learned that one theory traces its origins to Haskell County, Kans., where it’s believed that a soldier home on leave may have passed the virus to other soldiers at a local training camp. With this in mind, Tarquini saw deeper parallels between Fiora’s journey and Dorothy’s: “I imagined my heroine swept far from all she knew by a maelstrom to land at an old man’s door,” Tarquini says. “I imagined her following a road, gathering a tribe, desperate to find a path that would lead her to someplace, or someone, she could call home.”
When Tarquini first conceived of Fiora that night, she was also in the midst of researching her own genealogy. In fact, she had only just learned that her grandfather had been placed in an orphanage following the death of his mother.
In drawing from her own past and that of her family, Tarquini invariably put something of herself in her protagonist: “The cobblestone streets she walks were the cobblestone streets I walked,” Tarquini says. “I’ve taken her trolley, shopped in her market. I know the hand gestures, the attitudes, the expressions, the speech cadence, the customs.” Yet maybe writing is a bit like magic—there remains an element of the unknown at work in every story.