Christmas came for me in November this year, when Magnifico won the 2008 F.G. Bressani prize in the novel category. I was thrilled to be able to attend the awards ceremony at the Italian Cultural Centre (can you see it in my face?). A few days later, I gave an email interview to Anna Foschi, founder of the prize. Here's what she asked, and my replies:
What was your first reaction when you learned that you had won the 2008 Bressani prize for the novel category? I am tremendously glad that there is such a prize that connects heritage with literature.
For me, the Bressani award is an affirmation of time well spent. It makes me feel that the year I lived every extra moment working on the story was worthwhile. Once a book is published, it goes beyond the author and all that matters is whether it captures the reader’s heart and interest. A prize says this must have happened with the jurors, and they have discovered a book they would like others to know about.
There is something else, Magnifico is a children’s book. It’s meant for children ages 9 – 12. The acknowledgement from the Bressani jurors makes a powerful and affirming statement about the importance of children’s literature, and historical fiction for children.
For this I am enormously grateful. “Mille grazie!” (Did I spell that right?)
Can you tell us a little about Magnifico the winning novel? What was your inspiration for it? The inspiration began with my mother, Joan. Raised in the 1930s and 40s in the Victoria community of James Bay, “Joanie” was given an accordion because her parents couldn’t afford a piano “and every well-brought up child should play an instrument.” She was not happy about it, though she learned to play it very well in time. Mum had no Italian in her though, that comes from my father’s side. And by that stage in my life, I so very much wanted to explore what it was like to be Italian Canadian in the late 1930s. Living in Vancouver, the natural neighborhood to parallel James Bay was Strathcona. And from friends there, I was introduced to people who remembered growing up Italian Canadian in Strathcona at that time, the visit of the King and Queen, all the pageantry and drama of those days in our history that so captivate children. I wanted to record some of what I learned, but through the flexible lens of fiction.
I feel fortunate to have had the influences of Italian friends and family in my life, particularly growing up. Even though I’m only “1/4” it runs strong, it is very visible in my face, my hair, my eyebrows… from the time I was very young, I knew I always looked Italian. That was a root of some “otherness” to me, growing up in Victoria in the 1970s, but I didn’t think that deeply on what is below the surface until many years later. When I got married, I gave up my Italian last name. That was a loss I didn’t contemplate at the time. And I don’t speak the language, which is so central to the culture. And so the only way I had to reach out and discover more about my heritage was by pursuing a story in this way.
Yours was a family of Italian pioneers on your....side. How did this heritage influence your writing?
It was my grandfather, Marino Candido, my father’s father, who came from Italy at the turn of the last century. My brother, my sister and I – we adored him! He died when I was about seven, I think, and I still remember how brokenhearted we all were. As I’ve gotten older, I’m 42 now, I’ve wished so often that my grandparents were still near. Asking my father for his memories was one way to reach back to another era and bring Grandpa near. Writing gives you a reason, and legitimacy, to ask questions that might be sensitive. Or have conversations about small details in daily life that most of us don’t think about as being extraordinary. This is the great pleasure in doing historical fiction. Time passes and the extraordinary is revealed in the backward glance. The writing is the work. A book is a huge commitment and undertaking. I had to be sure that I had a subject that fully captivated my heart to sustain the work.
What are your future literary projects?
My children are young, and I have two now, I only had my one daughter, Emily, when I was writing Magnifico. So after my day job, I find I am very tied to house and home in the evenings and on weekends. I had to find stories that would not take me away from the family for research, stories I could think through and write at home without reaching out so much. I have this year done a re-telling of an Italian folktale, I am very proud of it, but I’m not sure where it belongs. And by Christmas, I hope to finish a young reader novel (for readers ages 9 – 11) about two sisters, one is very creative and artistic, the other, is a pre-schooler and lots of trouble. It’s just meant to be funny and to help kids find the humour in sibling dynamics.
Do you have any words of encouragement for aspiring writers or new writers?
Use your words for good.
Listen to the people who believe in you, but also listen to those who want to make your work better. Behind every good book is a good editor. At some point, you may be asked to make small sacrifices in a story, or changes you did not expect. If the integrity of the story is not compromised, it can be good to make these changes. Writing is work, it’s never done in a single draft. I always feel like I’m done with the first draft, but I am amazed, when I’m asked to develop something further, that I have more inside.