Adriana Trigiani’s The Shoemaker’s Wife is a gorgeous, epic story about two people who are meant to be together: Enza Ravanelli, a seamstress, and Ciro Lazzari, a shoemaker. They meet as teenagers in Schilpario, Italy, but fate brings them to America at different times. Ciro works in Little Italy, and Enza earns a position at the Metropolitan Opera. Eventually their paths cross again and they are unable to deny their connection. In a Q&A with BookPage, beloved author Trigiani explains the familial inspiration for this story and why she loves librarians and her fans.
Your novel is based on your grandparents’ story; your grandfather was a shoemaker and your grandmother adored the music of Enrico Caruso. What in The Shoemaker’s Wife is fictionalized? Did your grandmother really work at the Metropolitan Opera? Did they face many obstacles in coming together as a couple?
For the longest time, I noodled with the timeline of my grandparents’ love story. The historical facts of their lives were clear and documented. My grandfather Carlo emigrated in February 1912 just weeks before the Titanic met its fate; my grandmother, a seamstress, left Italy a year later, intending to stay only to make enough money to build a house for her family in Schilpario, then planned to return home to her family.
My grandfather joined the Army and became a soldier in World War I—so you see, I had immovable dates in the timeline, but then, empowered by the emotions I imagined they had, I built the story like a garment. For example, I could take you inside the Metropolitan Opera House in the days of Caruso, a character I found so compelling. I wondered what it would have been like had my grandmother met her musical idol and become his seamstress, making his costumes. Everything is fictionalized in a novel, so I let my imagination loose with the details of the research.
When I was a child and first heard my grandparents’ love story, I remember thinking it was very sad—my grandfather died so young, and they loved one another so deeply. They had such a sense of honor, and a deep set of immovable principals. Even today, I think how rare it is to love so deeply.
“Somewhere deep down, my young self told me that I needed some years on my soul to write this story in the best manner possible.”
Your novel is told from both Enza and Ciro’s point of view, but it’s called The Shoemaker’s Wife. Do you consider this to be more of Enza’s story?
No, I think it’s got scope in the third person. You get the story from all points of view, and also the touches of the authorial voice, all of which was new for me. The title comes from the name my grandmother was called when she first moved to Minnesota. To be a man’s wife means something, and I wanted to honor that.
I loved how you captured the longing so many people feel for the place they came from. As Enza says, “Any small thing that reminds me of home is a treasure.” Do you feel this way about Virginia—or Italy, the home of your ancestors?
I do. Places conjure such emotion in me. The colors, scents and small details ignite memory and therefore imagination. I can actually revisit the feelings I had as a child in a very real way when I go home. We once stopped at a fruit stand with my daughter in Pennsylvania, and I remembered having been there when I was four years old. The world we walk in holds the action of our lives—it’s very important, and in a novel it sets the stage for the action. When I return home to Italy, it’s always very emotional. I always wonder what would have happened had my grandparents never left. Where would our family be?
Ciro and Enza’s paths cross many times before they finally make a commitment to each other, and some of their meetings are truly accidents—like when they meet in the hospital or outside of the opera house. Like Ciro, are you personally intrigued by the mystery of our connections? Do you think accidents happen for a reason?
Always remember that we are not humans having a spiritual experience, we are spirits having a human experience. There are no accidents. We do some choosing, but once set in motion, life unfolds without our choosing. This is why art is so important—it expresses emotion, the power of the unseen. Anything we do to connect emotionally to one another, to bridge differences and create understanding clears the path to love. That, ultimately, is what intrigues me and keeps me working long hours. I’m trying, like everyone else, to figure it all out.
Enza makes professional sacrifices to be with Ciro, although she remains independent and headstrong, developing the family’s business after she becomes a wife and mother. Do you think that she embodies the typical woman of the 1920s, or is she ahead of her time?
Women historically, do what they have to do to take care of their families. All mothers work, inside the home, and most of the time, outside the home. Sometimes we go in and out of the working-for-hire world. The 1920s were mod, progressive, and boundaries were loosed and crossed in terms of the role of women in a productive society. My grandmother, like every mother we know, figures out what works for her and for her family. We’re all in this together, frankly.
You have many devoted fans, and this year you are going on an extensive book tour. What is the best part about meeting your readers?
Now you’re getting to the absolute best part of my job. I love my readers and can’t wait to meet them. When I was a girl, I never met an author, and imagine, growing up and meeting so many, and being thrilled at the opportunity. Whenever I read to my daughter, we always read the author’s name, so she might understand that an artist provided her with the story she is about to read, or that I am reading aloud to her. I can’t believe I have the gift of meeting my readers and talking to them. I love all the forms of social media—a reader can reach out to me instantly and ask me a question. I Skype to book clubs a few times a week—to libraries too.
In 2010, you were honored with a RUSA Award (from the ALA’s Reference and User Services Division). How have librarians supported you as an author?
I had the first and best librarian support me, my mother Ida. Her twin sister Irma was also a librarian, and I was so proud of them always. They were professional educators. In my home, teachers, professors and librarians were revered. I only gain more reverence for them as life goes on. When I am invited to a library, I always try to show up—and imagine receiving such an honor from a group that I idolize. It’s a very big deal! I loved my town library and the bookmobile. It’s funny, I even remember the first library I ever set foot inside—in Bangor, Pennsylvania. That little library is still hallowed ground to me. At Saint Mary’s College, I loved our library with its alcoves, soft reading chairs and low lamps. I’d do anything for our libraries.
Ciro and Enza both believe in the “better life” that America can provide to immigrants. As you write, “Better meant American. Better meant safe, clean, honest, and true. Dreams of every size and description lulled them into restful sleep at night and fueled them through their backbreaking days.” Even with high unemployment numbers and a tough economy in America of 2012, do you think that newcomers to this country can find a better life?
Absolutely. And, we should welcome them—as we were allowed to enter and thrive, the laws should honor that debt and pay it forward.
You spent more than 20 years working on The Shoemaker’s Wife and say that it has been your “artistic obsession.” Why did it take so long for you to finish telling the story?
My artistic life never ceases to surprise me. Sometimes, I feel an urgency to a story and sit down and work until I’m finished, and it takes a year. The Shoemaker’s Wife took me 20 years—somewhere deep down, my young self told me that I needed some years on my soul to write this story in the best manner possible.
You wonderfully evoke the feeling of Italy, from the beauty of the Italian Alps to the taste of homemade gnocchi. How do you get in the mood to write such lovely descriptive passages? (Cook? Listen to music? Visit Italy?)
My imagination has never let me down. I walk in the world and remember to take it in. I wish I could hold moments, but knowing that’s impossible, I try to remember, reframe them and put them on the page, hoping they won’t be lost in the noise of the present. I do know, and can share this with your readers. Love and support, kindness and enthusiasm from my readers sustains me and pushes me to work harder for them. I am grateful every time I sit down to write, knowing that it is made possible by readers who are seeking enlightenment on some level, entertainment on another, romance when it’s delish, and the possibility of travel. Books can take you anywhere. I haven’t left the factory really. I’m sitting here making something for my reader. I want her to love it, hold it and share it, like all the best things in life. A good story can release us from our grief, and point us in the direction of our dreams. Nothing better than that.
Read a review of A Shoemaker's Wife.