have been married for 35 years; we have one daughter who is a physician and now married. For twenty-one years I was the co-owner of a confectionery store. I have been writing freelance articles and essays for years, but when my daughter graduated medical school, I garnered the courage to retire from the retail business and pursue writing full time. Of course, I am fortunate that we are able to manage this financially at this time in our lives. I am also unique in that I have always treasured family stories and anecdotes even through the teen years which are such a peer focused time of life. I love the first half of the 20th Century (although most of it was before my time, thank you). It was a time when family, friends, faith and community seemed sweeter and better defined.
I understand that you used Bensonhurst, which is part of Brooklyn, New York, as a setting for your novel. "For Jennie." What is it about where you were born that captured your heart?
Donna: There is definitely an unidentifiable mystique about that section of New York. You can actually find websites devoted to people exchanging memories of their childhood or years spent among the streets of Bensonhurst. Writers ask, "Do you remember Ebingerís Black Out Cake? or "How many slices of Spumoni Gardens pizza could you eat in one sitting? I attended St. Mary Mother of Jesus grammar school. My classmates were like brothers and sisters to me. To this day I can see their faces and recall their names. Maybe there was something in the smell of the tomato sauce drifting out of every window on Sunday mornings which infiltrated our bloodstream and made us forever faithful.
You said you "truly believe that we need to embrace our family history." Is this what inspired your novel's plot?
Donna: For sure. For Jennie was inspired by my father's Aunt Jennie. A few years ago I saw a picture of her as a young woman. She was adorable. I had only known her in her fifties until she died in her seventies. She lived with her sister, my widowed fraternal grandmother. I wondered why she never married after I learned she had turned down a proposal of marriage. I became curious about the corsage she always wore in photographs on holidays. Where did it come from? From these questions, I constructed a story of a 45-year-old girdle seamstress and spinster aunt. This is not Aunt Jennie's story by any means; although, she really did go on a church-sponsored cruise to Europe. I have a picture of myself as a child seeing her off at the NYC dock. The stories of her outings with her nieces and nephews are also based on fact. But as far as I know, there was no Vito or Robert in her life. Many other instances in the story are gleaned from the lives of family and friends. I love incorporating and expanding on these moments - nothing is as much fun as real life! By the way, I consciously decided to use my middle initial "L" which I don't generally use in every day life. It stands for Lillian, the English translation of my grandmother's name. Using it as my "pen name" is a homage to my ancestry.
Tell us about your protagonist, Jennie Di Luca, a single girdle seamstress from Brooklyn. What life changing experience brought her from an average life to that of romance beyond her dreams?
Donna: Jennie had been blindsided in romance by an incident in her twenties. Living with her sister and a harsh brother-in-law, she became embittered about relationships and what a woman has to give up in a marriage. She sets such impossible standards for her ideal man it is impossible for her to fall in love. And then along comes Robert and a setting outside of her everyday existence. Jennie allows herself to lower her guard, and the walls come tumbling down. As her perception of what lies beneath the surface of a relationship evolves, she begins to understand that true love has many more faces than she has ever envisioned. Because Jennie possesses a new spark and receptiveness upon returning from the cruise, Vito Parisi, a widowed green grocer she's known most of her life, makes his bid for her affections. Jennie finds she has to juggle this bounty of attention while trying to keep certain aspects of her love life a secret. A nosy, loving family and curious friends contribute to the romantic dilemmas that Jennie has to overcome.
Did your characters hold the reigns to the plot or did you?
Donna: Both. I start with the seed of a story and a general idea of where I will end up. I am still amazed at how my characters wake me up in the middle of the night and tell me their stories. For Jennie was originally intended to be Jennie and Robert's story. Vito turned up at the welcome home dinner for Jennie and told me "You'll have to deal with me from now on." One new character recently woke me up and said, "I'm no stinking accountant! I'm a newspaper journalist." Okay, Jimmy. I made the necessary adjustments to the storyline in my head.
Is this your first novel? Who published it and when? How long did it take from editing to production to finished novel?
Donna: Yes, For Jennie is my first published novel. Once Jean Hackensmith, the owner of Port Town Publishing, requested the full manuscript, the process went rather quickly. She told me she read the story in one sitting; she couldn't put it down. There was minor editing, mostly a refresher course in commas for me. I contacted Port Town in January, and the book was released in July.
How are you promoting your book?
Donna: I've had a book signing in my home town of Sayville at Runaway Bay Books. It was a successful and memorable day. The book is for sale in several boutique shops that also sell books. Local libraries have ordered it. There have been a couple of local newspaper interviews, and there will be several online reviews. Hopefully, a local radio station which has an Italian show on Sunday mornings will be interviewing me on the air. I've contacted many newspapers and magazines that run a book club list, particularly those catering to Italian Americans as those readers truly get nostalgic and emotional with the familiar setting. I will be attending my first book fair as an author at the end of October in St. Petersburg, Florida. I look forward to meeting new people, and hopefully, readers who will become fans of my work. I hope to attend several such fairs a year to meet readers and other authors. These are obviously the people who share my love of the written word.
Would you rather be writing or acting? I know both you and your husband, Jack, are devoted theater fans. Tell us about your experiences on stage, about how you worked together on smaller productions and how you love visiting Broadway.
Donna: At this point in time I prefer to write. However, the years when we actively participated in theater were wonderful. We met in an acting class at Queens College. The professor must have seen something between us because he paired us in a scene that we needed to rehearse, perform and be graded on. We actually ran into him after school was out when we were on a date. He didn't seem the least bit surprised that we were together. My husband taught Communication Skills and then English for thirty-four years. He also directed two school productions a year. I wrote scripts that were spoofs of Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel for the smaller winter productions. His first musical was You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown. I accompanied on the piano for that one. After that year, they used the school orchestra so I was out of a job! I kept busy as a back stage and administrative manager, with a hand in the make-up pot and an eye on the energetic performers. I remember sitting up until 3 in the morning one year as we tried to figure out how to get about a dozen prop sewing machines off our theater-in-the-round stage while the crew set the next scene in The Pajama Game. Then there was the year my family room curtains became part of the "raise the barn scene in Plain and Fancy. I did not exactly donate them to the cause. I came downstairs in the morning and my barn red drapes over the sliding glass doors were missing! They did cover the open space between the roof and doors quite effectively.
I acted in local theater, mostly straight plays. As a family we were all in South Pacific. My husband was Lieutenant Cable, our daughter, eight at the time, was Emile de Becque's daughter, Ngana, and I was in the chorus. My husband and daughter have continued to act, sing and dance while I sit in the audience, proud and applauding.
Jack and I attend several Broadway plays a year. We just saw Dirty Rotten Scoundrels which was a lot of fun. Light in the Piazza was a recent favorite, and I just adore Ragtime based on the E. L. Doctorow novel.
When you're not writing, where can we find you?
Donna: Because I am retired from the retail world, I can spend a great deal of time devoted to the world inside my head…and doing Google and library research. To break up the lack of physical activity you may find me in my basement with free weights or on the treadmill in front of the television. Mind you, I hate every second of it. I've done both these routines for seventeen years, and I have yet to experience that exercise "high." I am a ProLiteracy America volunteer. It is a terribly frustrating and incapacitating to be unable to read and write. Whether it be someone who never had the opportunity to learn due to life circumstances or someone who is struggling with English as a second language, the ability to give them the gift of communication with the written word is tremendously fulfilling. I also volunteer at a soup kitchen, which is another humbling and rewarding experience. I spend time with my mom, and we enjoy socializing with our friends as a couple as often as possible. Since Jack retired from teaching last year, we have an educational consultant and advisory business. I am involved in the administrative end of that. It allows us time for theater and travel. I am in my kitchen on most days as I enjoy cooking and experimenting with new recipes. Food gets a fair amount of page time in my books as it has always been a big part of my life with family and friends.
You admit to being a "voracious reader." What book currently has your bookmark in it?
Donna: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. It is a family saga with an unusual twist, quite lyrical and enthralling. My non-fiction book at the moment is The Sicilians by Joseph F. Privitera. I have three research books on opera and two on the Korean War for the manuscript on which I am now working. Good Housekeeping, Readers Digest, and La Cucina are magazines on the coffee table which usually get read during TV commercials or in the car (I'm the passenger). Unfortunately, I somehow feel compelled to read everything that comes into the house, so I'm reading the AAA magazine, AARP's magazine or the Costco magazine while I'm stirring a pot or on hold on the phone. I love words and the way they come together to uncover a new picture in your mind or to restore an old emotion to your heart.
What are you writing now? Has Port Town shown interest in it?
Donna: I am working on a mainstream novel entitled Among These Shadows. It is the story of Lucy, the daughter of a small opera house impresario, her parents, her three brothers and her best friend, Jimmy. This family also resides in Bensonhurst. It takes places mainly from the 1930's - 1960 with occasional flashbacks to an earlier time. There are, of course, romantic interludes for some of the characters, but the main story revolves around the Salvatori family and the secrets that affect all their lives.
To be honest, I haven't broached the topic of this book with Port Town yet. Jean has been going through a hectic time in her life right now, and I felt like she didn't need to hear from me again as my horse has just put one hoof out of the starting gate.
An even earlier manuscript, Time Takes No Time, based on a family story my maternal grandfather swore was true, is right now being considered by Legas publishers. They are also a small publishing house dedicated mostly to academia. But they do publish fiction by Sicilian American authors which are set in Sicily, as this story is. Keep your fingers crossed!
--Interview conducted by Denise Fleischer
©Denise Fleischer, gottawritenetwork.com