Dear Reading Groups,
I hope you’ll consider choosing When We Were Strangers. I’ll be adding to the material below with links to interesting source materials, observations from readers and other interview material. If your group is like mine and often launches from discussing the book to discussing Life, perhaps Irma’s story will be a way to share your own family’s immigration stories or your own experience — and we’ve all been there — of being at some time a stranger in a strange land. If you have questions or comments about the book, please send them on (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll write you back. If you’d like to set up a call or Skype during your group discussion, we can do that too! And if you’re in the Knoxville area and would like a visit when your group meets, I’ll try to oblige.
Interviews & Blog Reviews
The “Online Reviews” list to the right on this page is only a few out of many blogs discussing the book.
Pictures from Reading Groups
If your group reads Irma’s story and you’d like to, please send me a photograph and I’ll post it (with some or no identifying info, whatever you like). Every group is different — what’s wonderful about your group?
The Images of Inspiration
Here is a recent photograph of Irma’s village of Opi in the mountains of Abruzzo (south-central Italy). I kept this image on my desktop and went back to it often, using the view from a distance to put me in mind of how Irma might have remembered her home. Below Opi is Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s “Young Woman of Albano” (1872). Albano is near Rome, but the young woman’s somber gaze, her graceful gesture, and the imagination of a scar, not visible on her cheek, were powerful images. I kept a photograph of the painting propped above the computer while I wrote. [The Opi image is used by permission of ViaggioinAbruzzo.it; the Corot is by permission of the Brooklyn Museum.]
Some Q’s and A’s on When We Were Strangers
Q: When We Were Strangers explores Irma’s journey from Italy to America—from girl to woman—and on a wider scale examines the human condition and the common threads that unite us all. How did you keep all these elements in play?
I knew from the first Irma would begin in fairly self-absorbed innocence, become traumatized in Chicago and that out of that trauma, that very dark place she would find a guide back to the light, to a resurrection of the self that would be more other-directed. I had lived in San Francisco before moving to Italy and liked the idea of Irma’s voyage ending there, but also the westward journey worked for me. Besides the Corot painting, I had a postcard of trunks piled up at Ellis Island. These two images – Irma and her baggage – marked for me the specificity of her character, and it does seem to be true that specificity, if deeply felt, can be a path to expressing our commonality.
In the same way, I think that a metaphor like “the journey” can be pointless and flat if the particular quality of a journey is not articulated. As noted elsewhere, I spent a good deal of time researching and imagining Irma’s physical world – and the details of that world that would imprint themselves on her. I also worked hard to create real characters around her, people with journeys and stories of their own. I didn’t want anyone in the novel whose only job was to nudge the narrative along or provide exposition. An incidental character may not have a lot of “page time” but he or she must be real and whole and particular. That practice prepared the way for one of the most difficult scenes, when Irma confronts the humanity of Jake, when it would be so much easier for her to objectify and abuse him as he has objectified and abused her. That meant, of course, that he can’t be just “the rapist,” but has to be someone with a past, with things he likes and dislikes and people who have other experiences of him. So Irma’s encounters with the human condition have to be grounded in her experience of others as human, not Italian, Greek, Irish, American, etc., but as people on a journey, as she is, as we are.
Q: You’ve said you became very close to Irma as you wrote her story. Did this make describing some of the more difficult or traumatic aspects harder to put on the page?
Yes, for sure, and I don’t see any way around that pain of identification. You have to imagine a scene very graphically to write about it, press your face into it and feel what the characters would feel. Perhaps there are other ways to write but I don’t know them. To pick a milder example, I’m fairly claustrophobic, so describing life in the hold of the Servia was uncomfortable; the storm at sea was worse. Irma’s trauma in the ruins of the Chicago fire was so hard to write that I had to do it many times, each time forcing myself back to that burned house, observing more, listening more closely, using more senses. I even felt guilty for “letting” Irma go there, for not warning her. A character can feel like your child whom you want to protect, not only from the outside world but also from any weakness in herself. But fiction writing is not about being a hyper-protective parent, and members of my writing group warned me more than once against creating a chronicle of Saint Irma. She did things she wasn’t proud of – like stealing from the Missus – and I had to let that happen, just as the rape had to happen. It was part of who she was, the situation she was in, her complex of choices and the journey that was hers to take.
Q: You don’t shy away from exploring the reality of difficult issues. Irma’s decision to have an abortion was a major event in her journey and could draw criticism from some readers. What would this choice have meant in the context of her time—particularly for someone with her religious upbringing?
Irma’s decision is difficult and she struggles unsuccessfully to find an alternative. Clearly the church did not condone her choice. However in the 19th Century, abortion wasn’t the public policy issue it is today. The legality of abortions varied through the century, but generally, control of fertility was a woman’s concern. Perhaps Victorian reticence added to the silence. In Irma’s time, abortionists were rarely prosecuted except in cases of willful harm. In many ways these weren’t “the good old days.” Without effective contraceptives, it wasn’t uncommon for married women at all social levels to have a dozen abortions in their child-bearing years, as well as resorting to a home treatments ranging from useless and bizarre to deadly. State-funded welfare systems were decades away and many orphanages warehoused children for “adoption” into servitude. Childbirth was so dangerous that termination of unplanned pregnancies often seemed preferable to risking death. Dangerous concoctions like Dr. Bronson’s Infallible Cure were sold openly in magazines to “restore regularity” or “remove obstructions.” Readers interested in this subject may want to read Janet Brodie’s excellent study: Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth Century America. However this is all sociological background. Like the decision to leave Opi, Irma does not make her choice lightly or without pain. As a writer, all I could do is to present as clearly as possible her choices, her situation and the wholeness of her person and hope that readers see Irma’s course as consistent with who and where she is.
Q: Considerable research went into the careful detailing of everything from Irma’s passage to medical knowledge of the time period. How did you approach this task?
I was fortunate to have begun my research when I was Writer in Residence at the University of Tennessee Libraries. My sister holds a doctorate is in immigration history and she led me to classic works like Philip Taylor’s The Distant Magnet: European Emigration to the United States. I read a good deal in English and Italian on the economic situation in Southern Italy at that time. The Special Report of the Chief of the Bureau of Statistics produced in the 1880’s gives a wealth of information on costs of consumer goods and wages (as well as recondite data, like the contribution of human hair to the GNP of various European countries and a U.S. importer’s evaluation of the “moral fiber” of Venetian glassblowers. I couldn’t work in this last factoid, but readers will be relieved to know that their fiber was excellent.) For background on ranges of reaction to sexual abuse I interviewed professionals in a rape crisis center and a women’s clinic. Having lived in southern Italy for ten years helped, of course. I visited Opi several times, lived in a small town with some of Opi’s insularity, and studied Italian at a school near the Piazza Montesanto in Naples, where Irma was so overwhelmed by the exuberant chaos of that city.
Q: When We Were Strangers grew out of a short story. Can you describe that initial project and what made you return to it?
I published a short story in New Letters called “Threads on the Mountain,” which is the basis of this novel’s first chapter and ends with Irma leaving Opi. I always liked the story and after a difficult and unsatisfying experience with another fiction project, I began wondering what happened to Irma after she left Opi. The arc of the novel, her journey across America and metamorphosis from needle-worker to medical worker, came to me in one piece and a few years ago I started to research and then write. The short story genre demands a very quick establishment of place and character, which was helpful when I began the novel, since Irma’s character was so clearly in my mind: her strengths, her standards, her fears and native wit. Zia Carmela had a larger role in the short story and since we would be leaving her behind in the novel, I had to reduce that role, which was hard, since I had grown very fond of her. I suppose that’s one of the costs of writing a journey-based novel liked When We Were Strangers: there were so many characters that I grew fond of and curious about. Yet, like Irma, I had to leave them behind. Assunta, Attilio, Teresa, the Serbian girls, Lula, even the Missus, Jacob and his sisters – what happened to all of them?
Q: Some authors say they end up taking direction from their characters rather than the reverse. As you were writing did any characters or plot lines take on a life of their own?
Entrepreneurial Molly had a way of muscling herself into the plot and making herself indispensible in the same way that she managed more and more of Mrs. Gaveston’s boarding house. I really hadn’t imagined anyone like her when I started the Chicago section. Then she appeared, at first just to take away Irma’s house-cleaning income, and then to become Irma’s guide and prod. I think that many of Irma’s sensibilities and values were truly opaque to Molly, but she is a good and loyal friend and essential to Irma’s personal journey. At first I assumed that she would stay in Chicago while Irma went to San Francisco, but Molly thought otherwise and as you see, she came along and is there to the end, the “aunt” to Irma’s child.
Q: Your characters are all so colorful, each with a story of his or her own. Were any inspired by people you’ve met or known?
There is an Italian expression, “boh,” which translates to something like “darned if I know.” Pieces of people come flying by, stick together with some mysterious glue, and a character takes shape. I wish that I understood the process better, but I can detect some sources for a few character qualities. Back to Molly, I think her calendars and constant writing, erasing, and refiguring in little squares reminds me of my mother, who planned everything, even designed houses on 4” notepads, as if paper were the rarest of commodities. The Missus was a bit like my first boss, a horrid woman who managed a rare books collection. I had fantasies of infecting it with insects that ate old medical texts. Mostly, though, some detail of research would spark an image, or from the name itself a face would bloom. I’d write a paragraph or so about the person and then in subsequent passes over a passage or chapter, more and more qualities of that character would emerge, rather like a developing photograph. For example, I knew from the first that Madame Hélène, while generous, and professional (unlike the Missus), was also emotionally repressed. But why? I saw her coming from Alsace, which was a coal-mining area in the 19th Century. Thinking of life in the old mining towns near where I live now in east Tennessee, I imagined her having seen far too many babies and young children die to want a family herself or even make one more baptismal gown that might become a shroud.
Q: Irma’s female relatives saved and hid what would have been a small fortune for them—never touching it, even during years of hunger. Did you draw inspiration for these women, and the many others Irma meets along the way, from anyone in your own life?
My great-grandmother came to Iowa from Germany when she was sixteen to marry her brother’s friend (just as Irma tells the immigration officer she is doing). She spoke of coming alone by train from New York to Iowa, not speaking a word of English. A boy at a train station sold bananas and found it hilarious to watch foreigners try to eat the skin, so that’s the origin of Irma’s banana adventure. Her brother’s friend was, by all accounts, a bitter, miserly man, but my great-grandmother learned English and found joy in farming and in her children. My grandfather was her favorite, but when he wanted to go to Texas and had the chance to buy a small farm there, she gave him money that she had somehow saved and secretly hidden from her husband. Like Zia Carmela sending Irma to America, it must have been so painful to watch him go.
Q: On a separate note, we’ve heard that you and your husband make a mean limoncello, any helpful hints for any of us would-be liqueur makers?
Well, since our utter fantasy is to fund a villa in my husband’s region of Le Marche on the Adriatic (see below) through limoncello production, I can only say that our recipe calls on the magic of seven (seven lemons, etc.) and requires large, unsprayed green lemons and straight grain alcohol. On vacation in the Caribbean, we once found the big green lemons and substituted strong rum. That was not a breakthrough limoncello. Stick with the straight stuff.
1. Irma’s practical skills and world knowledge seem so limited, even compared to those of her brother Carlo. What abilities and traits help her navigate the difficult passages from Opi to Naples and then west?
2. Irma’s mother devoutly believes that “If you leave Opi, you will die with strangers.” How does this assertion shape Irma’s experience and how does she ultimately refine it in a way that allows her to move forward in her journey? How does this family assertion compare to others you may have encountered?
3. Opi, real and remembered, is a powerful force for Irma’s self-image and world-view. How does her conception of Opi change through the novel?
4. Unlike many fictional heroines and perhaps many young women, Irma initially has little interest in a romantic union. Why not and what must change for her to have a satisfying intimate relationship?
5. At various times in her journey, Irma makes choices which she herself feels are at odds with the Irma Vitale that she “really is.” Is she accurate in this assessment?
6. Irma Vitale is surrounded by immigrants as she makes her passage west. What various ways of relating to “the Old Country” are represented by these other immigrants, her “fellow strangers”?
7. Sofia gives Irma the option to leave Jake and Daisy’s flat. Yet Irma stays. How does this choice reflect her course since first encountering Jake?
8. Irma’s profession evolves from needle worker to dressmaker and finally surgeon. What inner changes parallel this evolution?
9. Today, as in Irma’s time, many people live far from their birthplace for a variety of reasons. What pressures, challenges and supports seem universal about her experience?