Adriana Trigiani interview: Sense of belongings
That hat, a gift to Adriana Trigiani from her dad, lit the first spark of the long-burning torch the novelist carries for Manhattan, where she now lives. Indeed, for all the riveting twists of plot, for all the warmth and humour of its characters, Trigiani's latest novel, Very Valentine, is very much a valentine to her adopted home and, more specifically, to Greenwich Village. It's filled with bittersweet images of changing neighbourhoods – cobblestones and brownstones that give way to highways and glass block towers – and local shops where specialist tastes are still catered for.
Certainly Trigiani resembles a native New Yorker, in head to toe black, with two strands of killer bling running the length of her torso. She glides into the room with arms outstretched, ready to engulf me as if I was family. By the hour's end we are family.
She has that effect on people. When Trigiani addresses a crowd – more like stand-up than your standard book festival fare – the rooms are packed with loyal fans of her novels, starting with Big Stone Gap. The happy result is a night as entertaining as eavesdropping on neighbours gossiping over the back fence.
Though her writing is clear and polished, Trigiani's speech pattern simply will not progress in an orderly fashion. It meanders and digresses and I beg: "Can we get back to the hat? Your father buys you a hat and that brings you to New York?"
Here's the shortish version: "I'm from a big family and it seems like there were more and more children every five seconds. I was the third of seven, all born very close together."
Trigiani gesticulates with both hands when she talks and her voice swoops from a low, confidential rumble to a booming delivery worthy of the stage. She does all the accents, and has an equally varied repertoire of looks that serve to punctuate her tales.
"You weren't ever singled out, that wasn't the law of the house. It was all about don't be selfish, get along – even though we fought like crazy – you take care of your brothers and sisters and you don't diss them in public. We had rules like you never talk about what goes on inside your home outside your home. You know, the Italians are in lock-down. My mother was private and I got a little bit of that.
"We were living in Pennsylvania. We didn't move to Big Stone Gap until I was six. My father was in the garment business and one day when I was four he comes home with the hat and says, 'I brought you this from New York.' You never got anything that was just yours. I never wore a piece of clothing that was new – and that's OK, I'm not complaining, but when you got something that was yours, you treasured it."
At ten, Trigiani became obsessed with the mobile library. She jokes that it was because you couldn't get television reception in her corner of Virginia, but the gal's got "reader" stamped all over her.
"One day a teacher hands me, Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh. I probably read it 150 times. I'm obsessive like that. I re-read Jane Eyre every year."
Harriet the Spy is the story of a lonely girl growing up in the privileged environs of New York's Upper East Side. She obsessively records her thoughts in a notebook, along with observances gleaned from spending every afternoon spying on her neighbours.
"How Harriet lived was so glamorous to me. And I was obsessed with Caroline Kennedy. Do you remember when they'd take pictures of them after school, walking with Jackie O eating ice-cream cones? My whole life became, 'How am I going to get to New York?' The day after I graduated from college I moved there."
The plan was to conquer the Great White Way as a playwright. To finance that she toiled as an office temp by day, and by night, if she wasn't writing, she was auditioning women for an all-girl comedy troupe called The Outcasts, who performed in local restaurants.
Trigiani's first New York address was the Longacre Home for Women on West 45th Street, where the Theatre District meets Hell's Kitchen. "The rooms were clean and spare, but crazy people were living there. There was a woman who, when she opened her door, it was covered in paper American flags. She'd come out and say, 'Is Mrs Truman here?' and I'd say, 'Yes, she's on her way up.' You lie because they're crazy."
A fellow Outcast pointed Trigiani downtown, in the direction of Millbank House, a boarding house for women on West 10th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. "It was the movie Stage Door, basically. Thirty-three rooms; breakfast and dinner included for 85 per week. For somebody who'd never had her own room before, never had that kind of privacy! People need that. Virginia Woolf wasn't kidding. Once I had that base, I was rocking."
Although her plays were winning regional contests, she was advised to study with none other than Ruth Goetz, the writer who, along with her husband Augustus, wrote The Heiress, based on Henry James's novella Washington Square. First a successful play and then a film, The Heiress garnered Olivia de Havilland an Oscar. The redoubtable Goetz gave private – and free – one-on-one writing tutorials for several decades. "She taught me everything," says Trigiani. "One of her rules, which I used to this day, is if you have characters who are talking and it doesn't seem to be going anywhere, put the least likely person in the room with them and see what happens. It's about creating tension."
Trigiani contemplated attending Yale Drama School, but didn't feel she could spare three years to earn another degree. "I heard the ticking of the clock all the time. I felt, 'I can't go to Hollywood when I'm 30, I've got to go when I'm 27.'"
In 1988 she sold a television pilot and moved to Los Angeles. "I wrote 15 pilots in ten years because it was a good way to make a living. Then I staffed (as a writer] on shows. I started out on A Different World. I did The Cosby Show and Good Sports with Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O'Neal."
During these years Trigiani met the two most important men in her life, outside of her blood relations. She met her future husband, Tim, when he served as technical director for a play she put on in Lehigh, Pennsylvania (he's now the Emmy-award winning lighting director of The Late Show with David Letterman). Just as significant was the start of her friendship with Michael Patrick King, whose office was situated opposite hers when both worked in Hollywood.
He is still close at hand upstairs in the Greenwich Village brownstone that Trigiani and her husband bought some years ago. The friends meet on the centre landing to work, compare notes and offer mutual encouragement.
King is the man behind Sex and the City, and it transpires that Trigiani inspired some of Miranda's plotlines. "Everything becomes everything when you're writing a TV show. You use your past, you use your friends, you use your family, the actors, anything. Michael had a great team on the show, but I was right downstairs.
"Just to give you an example of how much I influenced the non-sexual parts of the show – because I won't talk about sex with anybody, to me that takes the starch out of it. Anyway, I was in California on a job and Michael lived out there at the time, around 2000, and I got laser eye surgery. Tim was in New York, so Michael took me and that became an episode – it's all me. He even took home the tape of my eye surgery!"
Do they ever argue over who owns an anecdote? "No, his writing is very different from mine. There's an electricity to what he does. He's fire. I'd say I'm like a needle and thread."
When telly turned "mean" in the late 1990s, Trigiani felt it was time to get out. "The kind of stuff I write, there wasn't going to be a place for me to work in television." Instead she penned her first novel, the hugely successful Big Stone Gap, which is being filmed with Trigiani directing and Ashley Judd and Whoopi Goldberg in starring roles. Subsequent books include Big Cherry Holler, Lucia Lucia, and Return to Big Stone Gap, bestsellers all.
Writing sitcoms is a seven-day-per-week job, so switching to novels gave Trigiani – who walked up the aisle on 17 December, 1994, after years of resisting it – the breathing room to try for a baby.
"Tim and I were together for almost five years but I never wanted to get married. I didn't live with him. I thought, 'If he moves in, what if I don't want him around?' I didn't understand the nature of men and women, really, because you don't mind it if it's your man. We have a real good thing," she purrs.
"I started thinking about having a baby (in the 1990s] but it took a while. When 9/11 happened, we lived downtown, but I had a book signing in Philadelphia so we were there on the day. When I saw the images on TV I said, 'Those souls are all coming back right away, they're really young.' I just had a feeling. Six weeks later I'm at the doctor. It happened that morning or the night before. And the doctor's office is packed. She said it was the 9/11 effect already."
The life-enhancing properties of kinship feature in all of Trigiani's work, including Very Valentine, the first in a projected trilogy. To honour her grandfather, Carlo Bonicelli, a shoemaker, Trigiani created the Angelini Shoe Company, a small family concern specialising in bespoke wedding shoes. Now run by family matriarch Teodora and her granddaughter, Valentine, it's based in an atmospheric building on Perry Street, at the western edge of the Village. But faced with soaring debts, the pressure is on Teodora to sell off her valuable real estate and retire. Valentine, however, is not only dedicated to her craft, but, in the wake of a failed romance, has made work and saving the company her raison d'tre.
Trigiani did the research, and deftly takes readers through the intricate process of building a shoe.
"The human foot really has not changed in 2,000 years," she marvels. "And this thought made me nuts with crazy passion: every pair of shoes made prior to1900 was made by hand. There had to be a cobbler in your town to make your shoes. Here's what I learned: on one side of my family (in Italy] they were butchers. They were farmers then butchers then tanners. If you find a farmer, you eventually find a tanner, and where you find a tanner you eventually find a shoemaker. In my family that's how it was.
"Two things are apocalyptic, enormous: people who survive by the work of their own hands, and who we choose to love. I'm obsessed with that. These two people together out of all the millions of possibilities? Why? To me, those two things shape your life. From that will come a lot of things: will you create a family? A work of art? And it's what everybody comes back to when there's an economic collapse: how's my relationship and how's my work?"
Far be it from me to contradict such a vibrant force of nature, but having adopted a few cities of my own over the years, much in the way that she adopted New York, I believe that where you choose to love is nearly as important as who. To that end, it's hard to picture Adriana Trigiani anywhere but New York – or to picture New York without Adriana Trigiani there to immortalise it in print.
• Very Valentine is published by Simon & Schuster, priced 12.99.