In November, I met Juliet Grames, author of her debut novel, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna. We met at an event held in my home state where she talked about her novel and her family. I even had dinner with her! It was an unforgettable experience, further deepening my love for literature and becoming an author.
I read her novel last month and was deeply moved by it. From immigration to feminism, this book has every topic that can interest a reader. There is so much history, and as a Connecticut native, like Juliet, I was interested to learn more about my own family’s emigration to the United States.
From Calabria to Connecticut: A sweeping family saga about sisterhood, secrets, Italian immigration, the American dream, and one woman’s tenacious fight against her own fate.
For Stella Fortuna, death has always been a part of life. Stella’s childhood is full of strange, life-threatening incidents—moments where ordinary situations like cooking eggplant or feeding the pigs inexplicably take lethal turns. Even Stella’s own mother is convinced that her daughter is cursed or haunted.
In her rugged Italian village, Stella is considered an oddity—beautiful and smart, insolent and cold. Stella uses her peculiar toughness to protect her slower, plainer baby sister Tina from life’s harshest realities. But she also provokes the ire of her father Antonio: a man who demands subservience from women and whose greatest gift to his family in his absence.
When the Fortunas emigrate to America on the cusp of World War II, Stella and Tina must come of age side-by-side in a hostile new world with strict expectations for each of them. Soon Stella learns that her survival is worthless without the one thing her family will deny her at any cost: her independence.
In present-day Connecticut, one family member tells this heartrending story, determined to understand the persisting rift between the now-elderly Stella and Tina. A richly told debut, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is a tale of family transgressions as ancient and twisted as the olive branch that could heal them.
How long was this book in the making?
A long time–you could say since 2011, when I first wrote down Stella Fortuna’s name and earnestly started research and note-taking. Or you could say since 1988, when I was five years old and realized I was already haunted by what I didn’t know about my grandmother’s life story. I spent the thirty years in between then and now trying to learn more about her, about the faraway world she came from, and about other immigrant women in her generation, trying to fill in the blanks. In the end, I couldn’t fill them in, so I wrote a novel about a fictional Italian immigrant woman, instead.
Can you talk about your literary pilgrimage to Italy? I know you did a lot of research for this book—how did it change the book itself, and how did it change you?
Yes, I did a lot of research in many different formats, but one of the most important pieces of the puzzle was the month I spent in Ievoli, Calabria, the village where my grandmother was born a hundred years ago. I showed up in Ievoli knowing no one, only with an overwhelming feeling of crazed, high-pressure joy, terrified that my Italian wasn’t good enough, that I would disappoint my grandmother’s legacy, that I’d never be able to reconstruct her life from what she’d left behind so long ago. My terror was unjustified on all counts. I was welcomed with open arms. Total strangers (who turned out to be third cousins, of course–it’s a small village) insisted I live in their home, fed me and drove me around to their favorite sights and introduced me to anyone they could think of who might have helpful information for me. I spent a transformative month absorbing everything I could about their mountaintop lifestyle, their food and folksongs and proverbs and superstitions, and realizing how much of it was already familiar to me, cultural residue of my time with my grandmother. I left knowing so much more about her, and so much more about myself–and knowing I would go back.
Your book is about your family and their struggles. Can you tell me about your experience writing about something so personal?
Although my inspiration for beginning this book was my grandmother–and just as much her sister, my great aunt–it is, in the end, a work of fiction. Because my grandmother was lobotomized when I was five years old, I never felt I understood who she really was as a person before her brain injury, despite the many hundreds of hours I spent with her (she lived to be 98 years old). I tried to write a biography of her many times, but I could never wrap my head around her motives or choices. In the end, I only felt free to write and finish a book inspired by her by inventing a fictional woman to write about instead.
Not only does your book shed light on Italian culture, but it also puts a spotlight on immigration and the struggle that those who emigrated faced (in America and the families back at home). What did you hope to get across writing about this topic?
We are at a pivotal and violent moment in American history. I am especially grieved by the vitriol toward immigrants in the press and among politicians, especially considering the very vast majority of Americans are descendants of immigrants who would not have been allowed legally into the United States under current restrictions. I would dearly love to see us rehumanize the conversation around immigration by remembering our immigrant grandparents and imagining how their–and our–lives would have been altered if they had faced the immigration conditions in place today.
This book is truly a feminist novel. What do you hope readers take away after reading Stella Fortuna about women, specifically women from that era?
Thank you. It would make me happy to know that a reader of my novel was inspired to reappraise their own foremothers–grandmothers, mother, aunts. For those (many) of us with a grandmother who has been written off in family history as mean, boring, aloof, short-tempered, drunk, stingy, or a difficult woman of any specific adjective, I hope the book inspires the question but why? Why was she a difficult woman? Usually, there is a very, very good reason–an untold story of what she went through to survive or protect a loved one.
What was your hardest scene to write?
If you’ve read the book, I bet you can guess. It was so difficult to write that I knew it would be difficult to read, and I struggled mightily over whether to keep it in the text. But the whole reason I wanted to write this book in the first place was to acknowledge the traumas of our foremothers, which are so often buried in order to protect the legacies of our forefathers.
What’s your favorite underappreciated novel?
Oh no, this question is the hardest one here, since when you really love a novel no amount of public appreciation is enough! I’m going to choose The Last Nude by Ellis Avery, set in 1920s Paris, a fictional reimagining of the life of the young American woman who ended up becoming the model for painter Tamara de Lempicka (as well as her lover). It came out in 2011 and I loved it so much I was eagerly awaiting the author’s follow-up–only to find out last spring that she passed away at age 46 of cancer. She was such a powerful and sensitive writer that I hope many others will discover her and feel compelled to spread the word.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
I think the most fatal flaw among aspiring writers is getting so caught up in the idea of publishing that they drive themselves into despair, when in fact writing should be an art practice that brings them joy. Publishing and everything to do with it is almost entirely out of a writer’s control–it’s a classic situation of not pinning one’s happiness on third parties. Of course, it took me 15 years of working in publishing to feel this zen about it, but I know intimately how the sausage is made. Whatever else is happening in the world, a writer should need to come back to the page and keep striving to attain their highest artistic ability, whether anyone else ever reads it or not. That’s the real goal of writing.
What’s next on the horizon?
I’m working on a novel set in 1960 in Italy, a crime novel about a naive young woman who travels to an isolated village on a charity mission only to realize that she has vastly underestimated the complexities of the locals’ struggles–ranging from emigration to political corruption to the legacy of World War II on a tiny community–and that she’s being pulled into their drama as a sort of amateur detective.
A giant thank-you to Juliet for the interview. You can learn more about her book (and purchase it) here.