A widowed butcher. Soccer. A young man in love. What could be more magical? I'm thrilled to have Brigid Pasulka here to talk about her extraordinary novel, The Sun and Other Stars. She's also the author or A Long Time Ago and Essentially True, which won the 2010 Hemingway Foundation/Pen Award and was also a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection.
Let's talk about craft. Do you plan out your novels or just "follow your pen?" Did anything take you by surprise in the writing of this novel?
I think generally, I start with a nice, simple idea, which, after 40 pages of a first draft becomes impossibly tangled and complicated. Ten or twenty drafts later, I’ve managed to unknot it, and that’s the finished novel.
The Sun and Other Stars started as a nice, simple story about the son of a butcher in a small town in Italy who had lost his brother. Then one day, I looked up the spelling of Roberto Benigni and found that he had made it his mission to recite Dante’s Divine Comedy to as many people as would listen. It made me think of how the Divine Comedy is such an integral part of every Italian’s education, and I felt compelled to read it. I was very quickly sucked in, and the parallels between Dante and the story I’d already written were uncanny. I ended up reading it several times, and eventually gave myself over to Dante, borrowing characters and scenes, and forcing myself to think deeply about judgment, sin, redemption and hope.
I loved all the soccer details in the novel. Is this something you already know or did you do research, and what was the research like?
I was a tomboy growing up, and played just about every sport except soccer. So when I came to the realization that I couldn’t set a story in Italy without some element of soccer, I had a steep learning curve. My first introduction was when I was in Italy for the 1998 World Cup. I was babysitting for a family where the father later became a team manager for several Serie A and B soccer teams, so he really initiated me into the cult of soccer. He took me to practices, and, on my last trip to Italy, to a Serie A game. Here in the U.S., I went to a season’s worth of Chicago Fire games, and was given access to practice fields and locker rooms. But most of my education happened on YouTube. The entire history of soccer has been lovingly and meticulously recorded by its fans, whether a spectacular goal that took place in 1964 or Ultra fans taking over a train station or episodes of “Have You Heard the Latest about Totti?” where Roma captain Francesco Totti tries to tell jokes about himself while keeping a straight face. And then, of course, I had real soccer nuts check the final manuscript. But it was a lot of fun to research, and one regret I had while writing the book was not playing soccer when I was younger. It simply wasn’t popular yet where I grew up.
You have a real gift with characters who are so alive, your pages are breathing. How do you go about crafting your characters? When in the writing process do you know that they are alive?
How my characters come to life is still a mystery to me. I usually start with a visual of what they look like--sometimes taken from real-life people or even photos. Etto’s brother, Luca, is based on a photo of a young Italian novelist, and the two random people he’s standing next to in the photo became implanted in my head as Zhuki and Etto. Somehow the face helps me get to the facial expressions, which helps me get to the inner workings of the character. Other than that, I don’t spend any conscious time crafting them. I simply put them in the story and watch what they do. And at first, I don’t really know them, so there’s some vagueness, then some awkward resistance between the dialogue and actions that I want to write for them and what they themselves want to do. But when the dialogue and actions start to write themselves (“Of course he would say that!”) that’s when I know the characters are truly alive.
The novel is also really about community--something that isn't as strong anymore today. Can you talk a bit about that?
It’s one of the things I miss now that I live in the city. I grew up in a farming township of 100 people, and my dad and his wife still live in a similar place. People stop by each other’s houses unannounced. Someone will always be around to plow your driveway. Stores keep tabs. My dad even used to leave the keys in his truck so if anyone needed to borrow it, they wouldn’t have to bother him.
Of course, the downside is that everyone knows everyone else’s business. If anything goes wrong in your family, it automatically goes on the prayer list at church whether you want it there or not, and people read the newspaper not for the news--they already know it--but to see if the reporter got it right.
So the sense of San Benedetto community exists in the U.S.--you just need to look for it. Or create it yourself. But a lot of people--including Etto--fear that kind of closeness because then they feel it obligates them, and we are a society who sees obligations as constricting rather than giving us boundaries within which we can be more ourselves.
What's obsessing you now and why?
Cat videos--what else?
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
None. The questions were great.