Archive for Sunday, September 19, 2004

Family stories help shape Adriana Trigiana’s novels

September 19, 2004

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— Adriana Trigiani nestles in a large, red sofa in her Greenwich Village home. Her cat curls up in a patch of sunlight nearby, the smell of coffee and muffins drifting from the kitchen.

On the mantle is a large, framed sepia photo of her mother and photos of her chubby-cheeked toddler, Lucia, and smiling husband, Tim Stevenson. Toys are strewn around the house, and books canvass the large cream shelves. Like her writing, her home is comfortable and warm.

And the author herself is as endearing and friendly as her home is welcoming and open. When you talk to her, it's as though you've always known her, which is how she hopes her characters come across.

Nella is the hero in her latest novel, "The Queen of the Big Time." Her gumption and prosperity seem out of place in the years before the start of World War II, but Trigiani said she based the character on her grandmother's life.

"I have so much more in common with my grandmother's generation than my mom's," Trigiani says. "There was something so forceful, so alive with her that didn't exist in the '50s and '60s when my mom was young."

She gestures to the photo on the mantle. "But that doesn't mean Mom isn't great."

Trigiani has written all of her books by weaving family stories and bits of tales she has heard or read.

"I'm incredibly curious," Trigiani says. "My grandmother told me stories of the farm when I was little, and I am always keeping my ears open for a good story."

Small details, familiar territory

In "The Queen of the Big Time," Nella, strong-willed and outspoken, becomes the forewoman of a sewing factory at 16, same as Trigiani's grandmother. The novel chronicles Nella's life and loves, and quickly ran up The New York Times list of best sellers.

Author Adriana Trigiani has written all of her books by weaving
family stories and bits of tales she has heard or read. Her latest
novel, "The Queen of the Big Time," is no exception.

Author Adriana Trigiani has written all of her books by weaving family stories and bits of tales she has heard or read. Her latest novel, "The Queen of the Big Time," is no exception.

"I was trying to make a subtle message: If you make your own living, you can easily dictate the terms of your life, but it doesn't make anything easier as far as relationships are concerned," Trigiani says.

Elsewhere in the story is a relationship between Nella and an Italian poet, who was drawn from a story Trigiani heard on one of her many trips to Italy. Trigiani's other novels, the "Big Stone Gap" trilogy and "Lucia, Lucia," revolve around Italians growing up in the United States and adapting to cultural as well as life changes.

Lee Bordeaux, who edits Trigiani's books at Ballantine Books, said she captured the small details of people's lives, which made her work so familiar to readers.

"She is steeped in the human dynamic. She loves to write about mothers and daughters, men and women together, and grapple with all their complexities," Bordeaux said. "She's a real story teller."

New York Times reviewer Andrea Higbie said Trigiani's writing was "as comfortable as a mug of chamomile tea on a rainy Sunday."

'An Italian thing'

Trigiani's books have a solid following, mostly women. And she caters to her audience. For example, she started adding a few recipes to her books after readers wrote to her wondering how to make "Coca-Cola cupcakes" from her first book, "Big Stone Gap." She's also provided family recipes for wedding cake cookies and Italian sponge cake.

Every Italian, she says, knows that life revolves around food.

"Oh, we are always in the kitchen, always talking about what to make to eat," she says. "It's an Italian, thing, yes, but it's also a big-family thing."

Trigiani has wild, curly hair, large brown eyes and a warm, dimpled smile. She gestures broadly while talking and laughs big, hearty laughs. She has four sisters and two brothers, and her sisters and mother recently collaborated on a cook book which will be out this fall.

"I got so much mail from the readers about the food in the books that I decided we should just put it all down in one place," she says with a laugh. "I have a New York kitchen. I wish I had a real one."

Her toddler, Lucia, walks into the room. Her cheeks are smeared with muffin crumbs, and she clambers for her mother's leg as she eats another part of the treat. Lucia bends down to pet the family cat and lets her mother know that she's ready for lunch, which prompts Trigiani to share her favorite pasta recipe: linguini with pomodoro sauce, fresh basil and good cheese. It's a family favorite.

Eclectic tastes

Trigiani has been married for nine years to Stevenson, who works in television production. "My husband and Lucia have a whole father-daughter thing that I'm not even involved in," she says. She'd like to have more children but acknowledges that it's difficult to raise children and to write, even though her office is in her home.

"When you have a baby, you just forget everything," she says, "I can't remember a thing about regular life these days. It's all about them."

Trigiani began writing at a young age, inspired by stories she heard from her family about their lives and their histories. Her bookshelves show an eclectic taste in literature: everything from a book on the life of the artist Goya, to Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" to Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre."

The daughter of a librarian and a garment manufacturer, she studied writing at St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Ind., and she moved to New York City to write plays, but wasn't able to make a living and moved to Los Angeles.

She got a job as a writer for "The Cosby Show" and later "A Different World," but she wasn't happy living in Los Angeles. Back in the small Virginia town of Big Stone Gap, her family didn't even own a television.

"When I say I was unsophisticated doesn't even begin to describe me. L.A. wasn't for me," Trigiani says.

She moved back to New York and started writing novels. Her latest project is doing the screenplay for "Big Stone Gap," a rich stew of characters and family life set in the 1970s in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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