As her squadrons of fans already know, Adriana Trigiani grew up in Big Stone Gap, a coal-mining town in southwest Virginia that became the setting for her first three novels. The Big Stone Gap books feature Southern storytelling with a twist: a heroine of Italian descent, like Trigiani, who attended St. Mary's College of Notre Dame, like Trigiani. But the series isn't autobiographical -- the narrator, Ave Maria Mulligan, is a generation older than Trigiani and, as the first book opens, has settled into small-town spinsterhood as the local pharmacist.
The author, by contrast, has lived most of her adult life in New York City. After graduating from college with a theater degree, she moved to the city and began writing and directing plays (her day jobs included cook, nanny, house cleaner and office temp). In 1988, she was tapped to write for the Cosby Show spinoff A Different World, and spent the following decade working in television and film. When she presented her friend and agent Suzanne Gluck with a screenplay about Big Stone Gap, Gluck suggested she turn it into a novel.
The result was an instant bestseller that won praise from fellow writers along with kudos from celebrities (Whoopi Goldberg is a fan). It was followed by Big Cherry Holler and Milk Glass Moon, which chronicle the further adventures of Ave Maria through marriage and motherhood. People magazine called them "Delightfully quirky... chock full of engaging, oddball characters and unexpected plot twists."
Critics sometimes reach for food imagery to describe Trigiani's books, which have been called "mouthwatering as fried chicken and biscuits" (USA Today) and "comforting as a mug of tea on a rainy Sunday" (The New York Times Book Review). Food and cooking play a big role in the lives of Trigiani's heroines and their families: Lucia, Lucia, about a seamstress in Greenwich Village in the 1950s, and The Queen of the Big Time, set in an Italian-American community in Pennsylvania, both feature recipes from Trigiani's grandmothers. She and her sisters have even co-written a cookbook called, appropriately enough, Cooking With My Sisters: One Hundred Years of Family Recipes, from Bari to Big Stone Gap. It's peppered with anecdotes, photos and family history. What it doesn't have: low-carb recipes. "An Italian girl can only go so long without pasta," Trigiani quipped in an interview on GoTriCities.com.
Her heroines are also ardent readers, so it comes as no surprise that book groups love Adriana Trigiani. And she loves them right back. She's chatted with scores of them on the phone, and her Web site includes photos of women gathered together in living rooms and restaurants across the country, waving Italian flags and copies of Lucia, Lucia.
Trigiani, a disciplined writer whose schedule for writing her first novel included stints from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m. each morning, is determined not to disappoint her fans. So far, she's produced a new novel each year since the publication of Big Stone Gap.
"I don't take any of it for granted, not for one second, because I know how hard this is to catch with your public," she said in an interview with The Independent. "I don't look at my public as a group; I look at them like individuals, so if a reader writes and says, 'I don't like this,' or, 'This bit stinks,' I take it to heart."
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Some fascinating, funny outtakes from our interview with Trigiani:
"I appeared on the game show Kiddie Kollege on WCYB-TV in Bristol, Virginia, when I was in the third grade. I missed every question. It was humiliating."
"I have held the following jobs: office temp, ticket seller in movie theatre, cook in restaurant, nanny, and phone installer at the Super Bowl in New Orleans. In the writing world, I have been a playwright, television writer/producer, documentary writer/director, and now novelist."
"I love rhinestones, faux jewelry. I bought a pair of pearl studded clip on earrings from a blanket on the street when I first moved to New York for a dollar. They turned out to be a pair designed by Elsa Schiaparelli. Now, they are costume, but they are still Schiaps! Always shop in the street -- treasures aplenty."
"Dear readers, I like you. I am so grateful that you read and enjoy my books. I never forget that -- or you -- when I am working. I am also indebted to the booksellers who read the advanced reader's editions and write to me and say, "I'm gonna hand-sell this one." That always makes me jump for joy. I love the people at my publishing house. Smart. Funny, and I like it when they're slightly nervous because that means they care. The people I have met since I started writing books have been amazing on every level -- and why not? You're readers. And for someone to take reading seriously means that you are seeking knowledge. Yes, reading is fun, but it is also an indication of a serious-minded person who values imagination and ideas and, dare I say it, art. I never thought in a million years when I was growing up in Big Stone Gap that I would be writing this to you today. Books have always been sacred to me -- important, critical, fundamental -- and a celebration of language and words. And authors! When I was little, I didn't play Old Maid, I played authors. They had cards with the famous authors on them. Now, granted, they didn't look like movie stars, but I loved what they wrote and had to say. I can boil this all down to one thing: I love to tell stories -- and I love to hear them. I didn't think there was a job in the world where I would get to do both, and now thank God, I've found it."
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In the fall of 2004, Adriana Trigiani took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. When I was a girl growing up in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, I was in the middle of a large Italian family, but I related to the lonely orphan girl Jane, who with calm and focus, put one foot in front of the other to make a life for herself after the death of her parents and her terrible tenure with her mean relatives. She survived the horrors of the orphanage Lowood, losing her best friend to consumption, became a teacher and then a nanny. The love story with the complicated Rochester was interesting to me, but what moved me the most was Jane's character, in particular her sterling moral code. Here was a girl who had no reason to do the right thing, she was born poor and had no connections and yet, somehow she was instinctively good and decent. It's a story of personal triumph and the beauty of human strength. I also find the book a total page turner- and it's one of those stories that you become engrossed in, unable to put it down. Imagine the beauty of the line: "I loved and was loved." It doesn't get any better than that!
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Act One by Moss Hart -- I'm a playwright, and the story of theatre legend Moss Hart's humble start in the Bronx and his desire to make it in show business is the best book ever written on the subject. Mr. Hart is truly funny, and it makes the story crackle and hum. I love how he describes life in the theatre as a writer -- and how honored he was to be an artist in a tough business. I was also struck by his devotion to his dazzling wife, Kitty Carlisle, and their two children. Mr. Hart is an American original, the likes of which we will never see again. (If you read this one, then follow it with George Kaufman and His Friends. It's a good companion read. And then for more great show business stories of this era, Bring On The Empty Horses by David Niven.)
Charlie by Ben Hecht -- This is the best book ever written by a man about his best friend. Journalist Ben Hecht writes lucidly and honestly and hilariously about his best friend and collaborator, the playwright Charles MacArthur. The book was written in 1960 and still holds up with chic hilarity and depth. I reread this often. Then get The Gift of Joy by Helen Hayes, who was married to Charles MacArthur. The story of their first meeting is glorious.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau -- This book is about the importance of self-knowledge and self-discovery in a complex world. I love that Thoreau went off to live in the woods and by the labor of his own hands built a home and survived. He writes about it in plain language, and the results are inspiring. This is another book I return to often. It is brimming with philosophy and humility. Thoreau breaks down the role a person must take in society and away from it. A must-read. This was first recommended to me by my high school librarian, Miss Billie Jean Scott. (Then read all of Ralph Waldo Emerson -- all of it is brilliant.)
Charlotte's Web by E. B. White -- This book is about love. Written simply and beautifully, Charlotte saves the life of her beloved friend using her own unique talent to spin a web. I carry the message of this book -- use your individual talent to carve a path for others. I named my company The Glory of Everything after the passage at the end of the book, when Wilbur the pig has accepted his old age on the farm. He remembers his favorite things, and the final item is "the glory of everything."
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh -- I'm not a girl who grew up wanting to be a ballerina, a bride, or a princess. I never had a doll or played dress-up. I imagined myself a detective or nature explorer. I wanted to wear glasses (alas, it turned out I had myopia, lucky me!) and be smart, first and foremost. I wanted to sneak into people's houses without them knowing it and observe how they lived. I love the different smells of people's homes, and how they arrange their furniture and what they cook. I believe that this book, which I reread over and over again, determined my fate to live in New York City. I knew also that Harriet was a writer, but that was secondary. I was enamored of the apartment buildings she frequented, the dumbwaiter she rode on, the bodega, her school, all of which were very different from a girl growing up in southwest Virginia. I longed for life in the city. I am still in love with this book and my love affair with New York City just seems to grow. Now I share all the sparkle of this great city with my husband and daughter in Greenwich Village. This is my dream come true.
The Landmark Series of American Patriots -- I read them all. I made a game out of it, challenging myself to finish the long shelves full of them at our library. My librarian, Mrs. Ernestine Roller at Big Stone Gap Elementary School in the 1970s, turned me on to these fabulous biographies of everyone from John Adams to Molly Pitcher to Babe Didrikson Zaharias. I would check out two for the weekend and take them home and devour them. I have a thing for biographies and autobiographies, and these do not disappoint. They are told beautifully and are well written. I collect them now for my daughter at yard sales.
Anything by Bobbie Ann Mason and Lee Smith -- I don't mean to lump these beautiful writers together, but they write of the coalfields of southwest Virginia, the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee and North Carolina with such depth, passion, and accuracy, I could sit and cry. Read Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith and Zigzagging down a Wide Trail by Bobbie Ann Mason. Their sentences are artfully constructed and sometimes I laugh so hard I get sick.
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams -- I visited New Orleans in the '80s and was struck by how perfectly Mr. Williams described the feeling of the place in this play. I love the characters and the conflict, and the very essence of how sick some relationships can be, and how deeply disappointment and broken dreams can affect us, ruining life and relationships.
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller -- I doubt anyone will ever top this play for the picture it paints of American life. I ache for Willy Loman every time I read the play and see it. The desolation I feel after I put it down is hard to explain. This is a play that cannot be derailed by a bad production, as the words sail over the action and sear the heart like an arrow. Everybody knows or loves a Willy Loman, making this one a classic. I love the plays and poems of Kenneth Koch.
The poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks -- This African-American poet out of Chicago captivated me in the ninth grade, and I still can not read her poems enough, just for inspiration and clarity. She describes life in her world (inner-city Chicago) with lyricism and beauty and sadness. I include her because, having never met her, I feel I know her through her words, which is the sign of a great, great writer.
Why Love Is Not Enough by Dr. Sol Gordon, The Power of Your Subconscious Mind by Joseph Murphy, and Having It All by Helen Gurley Brown -- I love self-help books: They are easy to read, and often there's a nugget that holds you in good stead in the face of a problem. With that in mind (!) Dr. Sol Gordon's Why Love Is Not Enough is succinct and gives the definition of true and lasting love in a way that no one has done before. If you are considering marriage, read this book. The Power of Your Subconscious Mind is brilliant in that it can give you the tools to tap your inner voice, something we all need to be reminded of. And finally, Having It All is a book I throw in my purse when I'm going on business trips. Ms. Brown is funny, writes in her own voice, and talks to you like a best friend about how to succeed in the world, with business, life, men, and girlfriends. I reread this one when I need a boost!
That Certain Something by Arlene Francis is a delectable advice book about how to be a gracious lady. She has a quiz with a "Charm-o-Meter" -- really fun.
The Confessions of St. Augustine -- This is a first-person account of a journey of failure and faith. I read this in college in a humanistic studies class and have never let go of the message of it. St. Augustine was a wild party guy, and when he finds meaning in his faith, it doesn't replace his desires, the real wrestling begins. It's the primer on how the most unlikely guy in the world became a saint. Also read: Saints for Now, edited by Clare Boothe Luce. It's hard to find, but she had the great writers of her day write about their favorite saints. Sublime.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?It Happened One Night -- Brilliant casting and writing and directing. This movie defines life in the 1930's, the haves and have nots and how love rules the day. A great one- Clark Gable is delicious, and Claudette Colbert is sophisticated and funny.
Rocky -- The persistence of the character got to me –- that, and he loved a girl named Adriana/"Adrian."
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir -- One of my favorites, lost count of how many times I watched -- Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison so sexy and yet they never touch. And I love Gull Cottage that Lucy Muir rents with her daughter, Anna. There are so many lines I remember in this one. One is when the housekeeper is climbing up the stairs with Lucy, and Lucy is telling the maid, "I never accomplished anything." And the maid says, "You have your daughter!" And Lucy says, "I can't take any credit for that." And when I had my daughter, I understood that line for the first time. A child is a gift -- we don't own them, we can only guide them -- and ultimately, we can take no credit.
How Green Was My Valley -- The incomparable Maureen O'Hara, Walter Pigeon, Roddie MacDowell- life in a Welsh coal mining village. A must see. Heartbreaking.
The Quiet Man -- The Duke and Maureen O'Hara -- I love this story. It's mouthwatering Ireland and two unlikely lovers. No one has spunk and sheer personality like Maureen O'Hara. Don't miss 'Tis Herself, her autobiography. She tells a lot about the behind-the-scenes of making this movie.
Midnight -- No one is sexier than Don Ameche as a Romanian cab driver and Claudette Colbert as phony royalty. Sexy, funny slapstick.
Midnight Run -- This movie makes me laugh every time. Robert De Niro reminds me of the men in my family in this picture, and nobody does a double take like Charles Grodin. A great partnership on screen. I watched it with my parents once, and they were both laughing so hard, it brought me such joy!
Pillow Talk -- With Rock and Doris. I can recite lines from this one. Hilarious. The art direction of a 1960 bachelorette apartment is the best. Doris Day is unsung as an actress; she carved the path for comediennes, though she never gets the credit.
The Sound of Music -- Catholics singing on a mountain, seven kids -- reminds me of my family.
The Bicycle Thief -- I think of my father when I watch this movie, and it helps me understand the pride of a man who wants to be all and everything in the eyes of his children. Simple and lustrous.
Test Pilot with Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, and Myrna Loy -- This is the best script I ever read -- or heard. A pilot (Gable) lands in a cornfield in a prop plane, his mechanic buddy (Tracy) has to fix it, and Myrna Loy, a farm girl engaged to be married, has been waiting all her life for her true love to fall from the sky.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I am in total silence when I write -- I don't even like the sound of the dryer going -- I like the quiet. But I love all kinds of music at all other times -- my favorite was when my father played the piano-fizzy jazz renditions of classics. I really miss his piano playing -- he often played when I signed books, and my readers loved it. The first album I received was from Pat Bean, my parents' dear friend: She gave me Al Green's Still in Love with You in 1972. I loved every track -- and the picture of Reverend Al in a white suit on the cover sitting in a rattan chair.
Growing up in Big Stone Gap, I listened to a lot of country and soul/funk like the Chi Lites, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Natalie Cole. I have always been a big Bruce Springsteen fan. If I'm going to weep, I listen to Panis Angelicus -- for some reason, I can not hear it without having a breakdown. When my daughter was a few months old, I sang "When You Wish Upon a Star" to her and she looked at me and began to cry. There's something about that song that got both of us. The album that changed my life was The Cars -- because the cover was finally a brunette (she was Hispanic) with big red lips who was laughing. After the ‘70s with all the blondes, I knew that there was a greater world out there -- and perhaps there was room for an Italian girl who didn't iron her hair.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I give funny books. One of my favorites is Ten Fun Things to Do Before You Die, by Sister Karol Jackowski. I'm giving the big fat Diana book about the princess to friends who adored her. I give fiction away -- a lot. I bring books on planes and when I'm done, pass them on. I give I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith away a lot.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Everything has to be clean and orderly when I sit down to write. I have candles going, and small objects that remind me of what I am working on, or bring me into the world of the character.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
There's no such thing as an overnight anything. Okay, maybe you can get someone to do your dry cleaning overnight, but you can't catapult a career in a day. I don't know how long it took me to get here because I feel like I'm just getting started. The harder I work, the luckier I get. Rejection is a regular, routine part of being an artist. Criticism is part of it. It's very hard -- but having a thick skin comes with it, so grow one. And don't look back.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
It would be a girl from Big Stone Gap whose name I don't know but she can tell a good story and would hopefully get the opportunity to go to college to fulfill her dreams.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Be yourself. Be persistent. Work hard. Don't ever take no for an answer, but know when to back off. If something isn't working, regroup and fix it.
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|Adriana Trigiani Home
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|In Our Other Stores|
Signed, First Editions by Adriana Trigiani|
|Big Stone Gap, 2000|
|Big Cherry Holler, 2001|
|Milk Glass Moon, 2002|
|Lucia, Lucia, 2003|
|The Queen of the Big Time, 2004|
|Cooking with My Sisters: One Hundred Years of Family Recipes, from Bari to Big Stone Gap, 2004|
|Home to Big Stone Gap, 2006|