Adriana Trigiani is a reader’s dream. For starters, she’s funny—before the publication of her debut novel 12 years ago, the self-described “theater-person”-turned-scriptwriter already had an enviable career writing for The Cosby Show, A Different World and other popular comedies. (Of her first novel attempt, she now says, “I didn’t even know how.” After a pause, she laughs. “Of course, I didn’t know how to write television either, and I wrote TV!”) She’s down to earth, despite living a Greenwich Village–based life that many writers would consider glamorous. (“I write about working people,” she says, with conviction. “When I was young, I was stupid, and I thought maybe I would write the fancy stuff. I’m not interested in the fancy stuff!”) She’s generous with her time, interfacing with book clubs every week. (“Book clubs are the best thing that has happened to the world of publishing,” she once said in an interview with Good Housekeeping.) And she keeps her readers at the forefront of everything she does. (“Talk about being able to prioritize!” she says. “If it doesn’t serve her, I don’t do it. It’s so easy.”)
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And, while worldwide audiences flock to her three popular series—the bestselling Big Stone Gap, set in her Virginia hometown and featuring a charming cast of eccentrics; the bestselling Valentine trilogy, following a woman working to save her Italian family’s designer shoe company in Greenwich Village; and the Viola books for young adults, starring a quick-witted teenage filmmaker from Brooklyn—she’s still not afraid to try something new. She’s written two nonfiction titles (Cooking With My Sisters, sharing her family’s recipes alongside anecdotes from their kitchens, and Don’t Sing at the Table: Life Lessons From My Grandmothers), a handful of stand-alone novels, and scripts for venues large and small (among her recent projects: a big-screen version of Big Stone Gap, and a play that’s been commissioned for her local Cherry Lane Theater).
Her new novel, The Shoemaker’s Wife, is her biggest departure yet—a multigenerational epic inspired by the love story of her grandparents, a seamstress and a shoemaker who immigrated to America from the Italian Alps. It’s been touted as the book she was “born to write,” and its instant bestselling success is a testament that when it comes to art, risks can be worth taking.
With several successful series, what made you decide to write a stand-alone book of this magnitude?
Mostly I sit alone in a room and cry and do my job—so when they let me out of my cave to go on tour, I really listen to my readers. And two things kept coming up: “When are you going to write a big novel?” And, they really wanted me to challenge myself. One reader wrote to me and said, “You know, I think you’re good, but I think you could be a lot better.” Most people might be insulted by that, but I ruminated—I really thought that through for a while—and I thought, She’s right.
This novel was over 20 years in the making with the research. I would noodle with the timeline in between things; I would write scenes. This was really kind of a lifelong project—it had a whole different feeling to it. When I gave the first few chapters to my editor, I was sick to my stomach. I thought, Oh my God, is she going to think this is the worst thing she ever read?
So when did you actually begin work on the book?
Easily 25 years ago. When I was young, I would have conversations with [my grandmother] and then write down everything she said, ’cause I didn’t want to forget it. At that point I just thought, This is information I can give to my children [one day]. But then it became this. … The timeline is truthful, and many aspects of the story are truthful.
This is clearly your most research-intensive book. What were the challenges of making it historically accurate?
To be fair to my other books, research is always a big part. But you are 100 percent correct: This is a whole different, giant undertaking. I had great researchers—I use students as interns because I know I would have appreciated that while I was young, to have a job like that. I’d assign [each one] very specific aspects. For example, I’d say I want to know about this particular battle in France in World War I—I need the uniform, I need the this and the that.
Here’s the great thing: I live in New York, so I could go and stand where the characters lived. I could feel it. I really had an opportunity to do something special, because I live here, with the research.
But then, you take it all in, and you throw it out, and you write. You have to—not forget it, but it’s in your psyche, and what gets in gets in, and what doesn’t doesn’t.
Did the interns give you written notes to work from?
Yeah, we had an amazing file. Also, we had all of the research regarding my grandparents. I did a lot of that in Italy, and you’d be stunned at how much I have. Wonderful records were kept—the wartime elements, their ships’ manifests, I had everything. I [even] used the actual name of—in 1913, when my grandmother came over—the doctor that took care of [her] when she was very ill.
She was actually seasick, like the character in the book?
Very much. And it ended up to be something far more serious, that she just never went home. That always haunted me from the time I was little—I couldn’t understand that. So this novel was about sorting all these things out that troubled me. And then as a novelist I could let my imagination soar, and write the version of it that I thought was most satisfying, and hopefully is for my readers.
What does your family think of your books?
They’re pretty great about it. They know I’m not writing memoirs. Don’t Sing at the Table is very accurate—it’s my paintbrush, though, and I say that at the beginning: “Look, this is how I saw it.” … As an artist that’s what we do: We take it in, and we impart the story through our own lens. In so doing, it’s very personal to that particular artist, and that’s as it should be.
You’re very meticulous about describing your characters’ work at their crafts—shoemaking, garment making, cooking. Can you compare those processes to the crafting of your stories?
Absolutely you can draw that line. You know, when my grandmother showed me a nightgown that her mother had made—you can’t even see the stitches, that’s how beautifully made this is—I was probably 20 years old, and I thought, I don’t know how to do anything. I really don’t know how to make anything! That’s what I thought then, and now I understand that I’m making something—I’m just not doing it with a needle and thread, or leather and a knife. I’m doing it with the thing that I know how to work with, which is language, and memory, and emotion. We tend not to value the gifts we’re given—because they’re given to us, you know what I mean? And I’ve learned that I really value that I see the world in this way, and that it’s incumbent upon me to do my best by it, whatever small gift I’ve been given.
Your books are very atmospheric. How do you go about bringing a place to life, and why do you feel that descriptive quality is so important to a story?
When I was a kid I read a lot … I live in New York because I read Harriet the Spy a thousand times. I can tell you that: A childhood book completely shaped me. I was always attracted to real-people characters. Heidi is one of my favorites, and when I read Heidi for the first time I could really taste when grandfather gave her a slice of cheese and that bread and a glass of milk. That was the worst diet ever! But the point was, I remembered the details.
And so, when I was a young writer I always worked hard on imagery, and I knew that the roots of imagery were the senses—and that if my readers could feel, taste and see what I was talking about, I would be able to tell them a story. Sometimes I get criticized, because there are readers that don’t want all that [description], but I think it’s important. It’s the hallmark of my work, and I would never change that. It sets the stage for those real characters to come through and tell their story.
You’re a very diverse writer. Did you set out from the beginning hoping to work in so many forms?
I really try to stay in the moment, and I go where I’m led. I don’t ever try to have a master plan and then beat myself up when it doesn’t happen, to be perfectly honest. [Laughs.]
I understand the terror that we put ourselves through. I know what it’s like to be having to put in eight hours somewhere, sometimes 12 hours somewhere, and have this calling within myself to just want to be in a room writing. That’s why I work so hard, and that’s why I’m relentless. It doesn’t have anything to do with some big plan.
I try to listen to the moment. … I’m interested in how we survive by the labor of our own hands, and who we choose to love. Those are my two themes—they’re in every book I write. When I started, the stories I was telling were just kind of complete complete, you know? But when times are difficult and people are making choices, I think they want to immerse themselves in a place and a time and a world that satisfies them and takes them away—pure escape. That’s why I decided at this moment it was The Shoemaker’s Wife. There hasn’t been a weekend or a holiday or a day off in three years, but the readers totally inspire me.
You chat via webcam with three to five book clubs every week. Why do you feel it’s important to connect with readers that way?
Well, you know, I had every job in the world. I was a temp on Wall Street, I sold tickets in a movie theater, I worked in retail, I was a nanny, I was a cook. And when you clear away the cobwebs of the description of every job in the world, at the bottom of that job is service. It’s service. And I took that ethic and applied it to my writing craft. So, what my reader wants, she shall receive. Knowing that the more people that read my books brings the price down makes me work harder. And my mother is a librarian, and that’s the ultimate service of thought, ideas and education, so I’m big into libraries.
Has it helped you as a writer to interact with readers on that level?
Absolutely. I care what my reader thinks. There is no fancy recommendation you can give me that would matter to me as much as Mary Jane from Youngstown writing me a letter. There is not one. Don’t need it, don’t want it, don’t require it, does not fill up my soul. It’s about her, not about the rest of it.
You mentioned you haven’t had a day off for three years. What’s your writing routine?
I have a daughter in fourth grade, and I’ve learned that when she is at any activity I have to seize it. I can’t wait, I’ve got to just do it. I get up very early, and then when she’s in bed I work again. And during the day if she’s doing something I can sit by and do what I’ve got to do. I don’t like to do that, but this book required it, and the wonderful thing about my job is that I can be with her as I do it a lot of times—you know, the nuts and bolts of it, the editing and the note-taking and all that. I can’t sit there and write with her in the room, that’s too hard, but I can do the things around it.
Tell me about your travel tours. How did you decide those would be a natural extension of your writing?
Adriana Trigiani Tours sprung from five years ago when we were in Italy doing research on shoemaking. I have a friend, Gina Casella, who works in Italy in importing and exporting and knows everybody. I mean, hotels, head of the fashion institute—everybody. So I called her up and said, “I need to learn how to make shoes,” and she put together an amazing tour for me that was off the beaten track—best hotels, best food, on a budget. So I said to her, “Could you do this for my readers?” She put the plan together, and we came up with walk-in-the-steps-of-the-characters boutique tours for women. … We have tours named after the novels, and it’s just a booming business.
What’s up next for you?
I’m directing and writing the Big Stone Gap movie. I have Ciao, Valentine coming out and a new Viola in the young adult genre, later this year and early next year. Then I’ve got another big one to put out. And I’m just going to try to continue, as is my fashion, a book a year until I’m dead.
So you think you’ll stick with books? You don’t see yourself returning to TV?
I try to do it all, to be perfectly honest, because it requires different aspects of myself. I have a lot of things in the oven, all of which will get done, and beautifully, in time. But I try to look at art like it’s daily sit in that chair and get it done—and live in the world at the same time. That’s the challenge. … I could not have written this without the rich life experience that I have when I walk in the door. I couldn’t do it.
Writing is writing. It’s an abiding, wonderful talent, craft, gift that stays with you your whole life. And you can go in different forms, and you can try them. Look at me: I’m writing novels because I found something I love because I tried it. Don’t be afraid to shake it up.
What do you tell writers who struggle to find the time?
You’ve got to make it. … I can’t do what I do and be out on the town. I’ve got to have my hiney at home working. That’s the way it works, for me. I have to work hard. I’m not naturally great at anything. I have to work really, really hard. And you know what? I can do that. If that’s the requirement, I can do it; if I end up with The Shoemaker’s Wife, I can do that.