Adriana Trigiani, THE GOOD LEFT UNDONE

Adriana Trigiani, THE GOOD LEFT UNDONE

Bestselling author Adriana Trigiani returns to talk about her latest novel, The Good Left Undone, an intergenerational story inspired by the true history of Italy and Italian immigrants on the brink of World War II. Adriana shares how her family’s stories are always woven into her books and which threads were featured in this story. The two also discuss Adriana’s varied career as a writer, how she keeps her beloved family members alive off the page, and what inspired her other recent projects.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Adriana. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your —

Adriana Trigiani: — You glow in the morning. You look so pretty.

Zibby: Thank you.

Adriana: You glow, girl.

Zibby: I’ll take it. I’ll just put that on repeat every day when I’m feeling so awful and all the rest.

Adriana: I know, I know, but you shouldn’t. You shouldn’t. That’s a waste of time. As my mother said, in ten years, you’ll really be sorry you said it.

Zibby: I understand that now as I look back and I’m like, oh, my god, I thought I looked bad then. Anything for that.

Adriana: I know, right. That shoebox of bad pictures, now you’d put them in The Met.

Zibby: Totally. Spotlights. Literally, sometimes I just post, I’m like, I used to look like that.

Adriana: That’s actually me. I love it.

Zibby: Aging, whatever. You have a new novel out. You’ve written a bazillion books, I think twenty-plus at this point. The Good Left Undone, tell everybody about it. Tell everybody what this book is about. Why this book? Why now?

Adriana: You know, you say aging. The premise of this book is, a family’s only as strong as their stories. Woven into that — you’re born at a certain time. It seems to me that it’s the women in the family that pass the stories down in their actual veracity and description. At the beginning of this novel — it’s set in contemporary Italy. I thought that because I have cousins over there. I’m very close to my cousins. I’m a real Italian. I have family there. I love them. I pay attention. Before COVID, I went over there every year. I would be redeemed. Then I would come home and try to apply those ways of living to life here. What you realize after a while, no family’s perfect, but you also realize how people run their families. We were just talking about your beautiful memoir. You’re leaving your children something. I believe in that. This started out of my need to — my grandmothers are gone. My mother passed recently. I just had this sense of them. I had a window because — I returned to Penguin Random House, to Dutton, to my editor Maya Ziv. You’ll find this as you go on in your writing life. You’re refortified about the stories that you want to tell.

I call this my hit-by-a-bus book. Every single book I’ve written, I’m in love with and proud of. I’m one of those authors. I just loved the process of writing them. This one is really deeply personal. It would appear on the surface, well, it’s not your family exactly. My grandmother, my mother, they’re all in here. I’m in there in teeny-weeny ways. I mean, teeny-weeny because I had this beauty of the characters. It’s intergenerational, so there’s a very central youth story there of a girl that’s about to get married who’s twenty-four. She’s the granddaughter of the woman who held this story of her mother. It goes back to World War II. I was directing a movie in Scotland. I had made a list of places I wanted to go. Zibby, I am not as organized as you are, but I made a list. Of course, it was alphabetical, so I started with St. Andrews. That’s where I got the story. I went to a wedding that I crashed. I always crash weddings. I believe it because Italians think it’s good luck to see a bride on her wedding day. My phone is full of brides. When I’m on book tour, ooh, there’s a bride getting married, or whatever. We think it’s good luck. That’s what triggered it. I’m in the back of this Catholic cathedral. I am Catholic. All the music that was played at that wedding was played at my mother’s funeral. My mother had chosen it, so I thought, okay, this is a sign from my mother.

When I got outside and I was taking pictures, this man behind me goes, “Who are you?” I turned around. It was the priest. I said, “Oh, Father, I’m just a tourist.” I went back to taking pictures. He said, “What’s your name?” I told him my name, Adriana Trigiani, that difficult name to say. He said, “Oh, you’re Italian. I thought you were.” I said, “Oh, yeah, I’m Italian American.” He said, “Then you need to see our garden.” That’s where I got the story of the Arandora Star that I had never heard. By the way, published by MJ, which is Michael Joseph in England, and they never heard of it. It was propagandized and buried, the story. Then I researched it, hired researchers, the great Cynthia Olson out of Spokane, Washington, who’s an attorney. You want an attorney to unearth facts. She did the lynchpins. Then I went back and figured out how to do it. There’s a great deal of truth in the story. It’s also, I make a meatball out of my family and immigration, which is a big theme in our family. In our family, immigration is a word of honor.

Zibby: Wow. Wait, talk more about the story that you found and why you .

Adriana: I go into this garden resurrected by and designed — you have to understand, St. Andrew’s Cathedral’s old. There’s the River Clyde. Glasgow’s like Brooklyn. If you want to get a visual image of Glasgow, to me, it’s Brooklyn, but there’s more antiquities there, shall we say. Just like Brooklyn, there are shipyards. They built ships there. One of them is the ship that’s involved in the novel that I’m about to tell you. The Arandora Star was one of five of, they called them the Blue Star Line of luxury liners. You might say, why are you interested in ships? Because my mother framed every immigration document in gold and hung in our family home. We would look at the Rochambeau that our grandmother came over on like it was — how could I describe it? Like the chariot of heaven, the Rochambeau. The Arandora Star Line, when war broke out — World War II had many false starts, but the one that sealed the fate of who we call the Britalians, which are just like Italian American immigrants, but they’re in Scotland — they brought gelato. They brought fish and chips, pizza. We were in the food business. If you were really ambitious in Scotland, you put up a gelato factory. My character is the peddler who sells it off his truck. His brother’s the rich one. He’s still peddling, . is his name.

I took all these bits of what’s true and made the landscape. What is the landscape? These five ships were requisitioned by Churchill to transport prisoners. Eventually, they did have crosses painted on them and stuff. What they did, and it’s dramatized in the novel, is they wrapped them in barbed wire to transport prisoners. Here’s who you had on board the Arandora Star on the morning of July 2nd, 1940. Keep in mind, on June 4th, 1940, Mussolini declared war on England. There’s a true story of — let me just put it to you this way. The Nazis would prowl the seas. There was a general named Günther Prien who was kind of the king of the U-boats. He was a diabolical, evil son of a bitch. He prowled the seas. He had one torpedo that morning. The Arandora was transporting Jewish intellectuals and Nazis on the same level of the ship. Then stuffed below, of course, were the Italians, 784 of them. Günther Prien snaking around, it’s all described in the book. My characters are all in place, including this fabulous character, , based on — they’re all based on real people. The only name that I kept exact was the priest because he has no heirs, and I wanted him honored. So snaking around down there. He had one torpedo. They were doing test runs, the Nazis. Isn’t that delightful? They saw the ship, and they fired it. Seven hundred-some Italians lost their lives. Their name is on a plinth. I had no idea. I didn’t even know there were Britalians. I didn’t know they immigrated there. I did understand a little bit about, a teeny-weeny bit — I have Australian Italian friends and Canadian Italian friends, so I knew that people got places not just by traditional immigration, but as prisoners of war. I didn’t know how they got there or why or any of that.

The great Winston Churchill — just to tell you as you write your novels — I started out, I had three hundred pages of Winston Churchill in here. Three hundred pages. It’s all cut. I cut all of it. I had this scene. I was determined. I had a scene. This scene had to go in the book. I was obsessed with him, but more obsessed with Orson Welles. There’s a time when Orson Welles met Winston Churchill. Sidebar, sidebar, but germane to the story. When Winston Churchill said — they brought him this problem with the Italians, the Britalians. He goes, look, they’re embedded everywhere. There was this fear of the fifth column. There had been a lot of — haven’t we seen this lately? — a rachet up of fake news about the Italian immigrants, of which I had to pay for a piece to put in this book so you could see, in our intense research, what would found. It’s in there with the guy who wrote it and everything. It was talking about beetle-browed Italians. It was just horrible. There was a built-up hated happening.

Winston Churchill, who you know was worried about the families, the shopgirls, the kids, his country going to the Nazis, panicked, I believe — historians all differ on this — and said, collar the lot of them. Get every Italian, Scot, every Italian Brit — Britalians they’re called — every tally — which was the slur name for us — get them off the island. Ship them off. Put them in prison camps. There were prison camps in Canada, Australia, the Falklands. On this particular boat, they were headed to Canada. They weren’t told where they were going. They were just herded up. You know the Italians. I love my people. My people were dressed to the nines because they thought they were just going to register somewhere. They’re bantering with the cops and the people rounding them up, the soldiers, because they’re all friends. They’re all friends, but if you’re an immigrant, you’re waiting for the knock at the door to say, get out. I wait for it. I don’t know. It could happen. The story then became how my characters, my Italian family, played into this story. It’s kind of delicious. You read it, so you know. There’s two big love stories in it. As much as I love the one life-one love story, there’s something about the resonance of love lost and love found again, which is hope. That’s hope in a jar right there, hope in a jar that you lose your love and you will love again, the promise of hope that you will love again. Zibby, I have been talking for two hours.

Zibby: I love it. Thank you for making my job so easy today. I’m just going to pour myself a cup of coffee and settle in. One or two more questions, we’ll be done.

Adriana: Nothing happens easily. It’s always over the course of — this book is many years in the making. They all are. I keep these — I can’t turn the camera around, but there’s just stacks of notes like a hoarder lives here. They’re notebooks. They’re full of ideas and ways to tell a story. I have notebooks on immigration. I’m interested in immigration. I can’t understand why we, and I include my people in this — really, it’s our people because we’re all one — why we suddenly, once we’ve assimilated, we don’t want anybody new. We were the new people. Interesting to me.

Zibby: It’s almost like you work so hard to get into a club that you want to prohibit any new members or something.

Adriana: It’s like that. It’s like that, but of course, it’s spiritual too. There’s some idea that, my people had it hard, but now we don’t go back. I think you have to stay in the heart of the immigrant, always, when you are an immigrant. You must stay there. You must hold onto the pain, the suffering, and the joy of it all because if you don’t, you lose your democracy.

Zibby: Did your mom and grandmothers, did everybody instill that in you? Is it just something you feel like you understood? Is this something that’s talked about similar to the Passover table where you retell the story over and over again? Was this one of those things?

Adriana: What I always like to say is, around the Catholics, that we got everything from the Jews. Everything. We got every prayer, that learnedness, that study, that idea of, you walk with your faith. You live it. You write it down. You pass it on. You shore up your families with faith. My family was all about that. We are, of course, incredibly flawed in all kinds of ways, but there’s this fundamental foundation of pride in what we come from. It would never occur to me — listen, I grew up in Appalachia where we had to dig to find Italians and our fellows Catholics there. We were this little band of misfit toys, I called us, because we were less than one percent of the population. By the way, there was one Jewish family. That’ll tell you where we are. I grew up in a place where, interestingly, it was mainly Scots, Irish. The other were Melungeons, African Americans, and Native Americans, some people of Turkish descent from the French and Indian War that stayed there in the mountains, that beautiful mix. As Italians, we kind of swept in. We had to find our place once again. I had a little drop from my grandmothers of what the experience of immigrant was, a little bit.

My mother’s people settled on the Iron Range. The stories were told to me. It became The Shoemaker’s Wife. My grandmother, Perin, she’s Venetian. She’s from the Veneto, they call it, right near Venice. Her story was a great one, of my great-grandmother dropping her boyfriend and going with my great-grandfather. They moved to America. That’s a whole story. Then my father’s people and the way they got here — they’re southern, not too south, not too north, kind of in the middle, , that area, . Those stories were what we talked about around the dinner table. When I went and stayed with my grandmother when I was in my twenties and I’d hang out and stay — she had a bedroom that looked like I Love Lucy. was in my grandfather’s bed. We’d talk all night. It’s about to be Easter time. I said, “How’d you color your eggs back –” I’d ask stupid questions because I’m a writer. She said, “We didn’t have the little tablets to dye our eggs.” She goes, “We used herbs. We used beets to make them pink. We used onions to make them this beautiful taupe-y color.” They’re taupe eggs. You see where I’m going here, farm girl, and then the farm in Italy and how her mother — she had a sister who’d go collect the mail at the end of the lane. She goes, “I never wanted to bring a letter from Italy because my grandmother would cry.” Let me show you something. Can people see us on this thing?

Zibby: For parts of it, yeah.

Adriana: How do you like how I call it a thing? This is my great-grandmother’s purse.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, wow.

Adriana: In the purse — my cousin gave it to me — book of prayers. Don’t think I don’t go in here and see what she marked. I do. Look at this, the libretto, . This is her travels all over Italy. There’s money in here. Look at the letters, the letters that she dreaded. Look at the handwriting, how beautiful. That’s what my house is full of. It’s full of the past.

Zibby: For people only listening, Adriana just held up these — it’s like out of a movie. I’ll put it on Instagram. It’s these antique letters and old stamps. It’s this old-fashioned purse. It gives me the chills. It’s amazing that you have that.

Adriana: Here’s the truth. I’m not going to be alive long enough to tell all these stories. One letter is a story. That’s not the only — I’ve got boxes of them because that’s how they communicated. My point is that everybody has these things. If you don’t have the physical object, you have the story. The idea is, tell the story, as you did in your memoir about your grandparents. If you don’t tell the stories, I have no context for who Zibby Owens is. I have no idea. I know you in the moment. When I look at you, I don’t have to have met your great-grandmother because you’re her. You see? You don’t have to meet my people. You’re meeting them right now. That’s how I look at it. That’s how I write novels.

Zibby: Wow. I also love the idea that you’re never going to run out of things to write about.

Adriana: No. It’d be impossible. You know I’m a director of movies. I will never run out of movies to direct. I won’t because that business is what it is. Even when you make one, you start all over the next morning to try to put together another project, put together another project, and another. It doesn’t have the rhythm, say, of other art forms because you’re reliant on many other pieces to come into focus and place.

Zibby: You really are this equal-opportunity storyteller. There is no format that you’re not digging into, with novels and movies.

Adriana: You know, I did TV.

Zibby: I know, TV. Back on The Cosby Show, right? Back in the day.

Adriana: Yeah, that’s right. I started on A Different World and then went to The Cosby Show. Betwixt and between all those, I did the Farrah Fawcett/Ryan O’Neal sitcom with the great Alan Zweibel. I was a baby writer on that one where I met my best friend. It’s one thing after another. I only say that because I was longing to find the place to tell these stories. Twenty-two years ago when television kind of took a turn for the mean, I can’t write that stuff. I’m not into it. I could probably, if I had to, figure out how to do it, but I’m too interested in these stories to squander my time.

Zibby: Do you feel compelled to now collect stories from other people that you meet along the way? You meet tons of people. You’re always interviewing. You have your Tuesday night Facebook Live.

Adriana: My last novel was Tony’s Wife, which I love. I wanted to write about craftsmen in music over the last century because it was — our grandparents, Zibby, danced to music of working-class people. Prior to 1900, it was fancy-pants, very classical stuff. In fact, one of my grandmothers was such an Enrico Caruso fan. She loved the opera. Now I love it. I didn’t. I think once you’re fifty, you love the opera. I don’t know why. I hated the opera until I was fifty. We’re all in the same boat now. We love it. The idea that there were art forms that every immigrant had a hand in — we laugh about the Academy Awards, but the Academy Awards was a desperation shot. Louis B. Mayer was worried that everybody was going to radio. They thought that it was the end of the movies, and the talkies would kill the movies. They put together an award show to kind of lure people. When Claudette Colbert won, she was on a train going on a ski vacation. Nobody cared. Nobody went. They thought it was a publicity stunt. It’s grown into this iconic thing. As iconic things go sometimes, sometimes they lose their jet fuel over time. If they just went back to what it was at the beginning, they’d be fine, but there’s all this hoi polloi. When the fanciness moves in, Zibby, it’s over. When fancy pants takes over, you lose the touch of the people. When you lose the touch of people, art dies. My opinion.

Anyway, wrote Tony’s Wife. Really, what I was going to do was write the story of Mrs. Frank Sinatra, the first Mrs. Frank Sinatra. I became very interested in her because one of my close friends, Sharon Hall, was producing the hundredth birthday of Frank Sinatra. You can go back. This was at the beginning of my writing career. I don’t know when he turned a hundred. Maybe 2007 or something. I don’t know. I can’t do math. Sinatra was interesting to me because he was a working-class Italian boy. Then you found out the working-class Jewish kids, the working-class Irish, the working-class — I could keep going. There’s three books. There’s All the Stars in the Heavens, which is about the golden age of Hollywood and a story that I found that I thought was riveting about a young Catholic actress, Loretta Young, and her assistant who was Italian. I invented her. That was the golden age of Hollywood. Then I wrote Kiss Carlo, which is the advent of television. By the way, the first director and developer of the television series was a woman not credited as she should be, Gloria Montemuro from New Jersey, who became Gloria Monty, who was the person that reinvented daytime television with General Hospital. I wanted to write about her and that whole scene through the eyes of a guy that comes home from the war and what happens to them and this Italian Shakespeare company, then Frank Sinatra. It soon became apparent to me that the story wasn’t her story. Also, I would’ve had to go at hand to the Sinatras. They tell their stories better than I can. Instead, I wrote about a man that didn’t become Sinatra, because of his lack of discipline and his — could’ve — and his wife, who was the songwriter and performer. They meet on the Jersey Shore in 1938. You see how I do it. It’s always family, family, family. Always, my family’s woven in as deeply as I can weave them.

Zibby: Wow, amazing. I can’t believe we’re out of time already. Adriana, as you know, I could just sit and listen to you all day. We didn’t even talk about your children’s book. We did our little Instagram Live on Valentine’s Day. It was so amazing, House of Love.

Adriana: How fun was that? That was so much fun to be with you on Valentine’s Day.

Zibby: I’m so glad we did that. Your children’s book’s amazing and also speaks to family and home and the importance of everything that your thematic oeuvre, if you will — there’s somebody starting out. They have a million family stories. They don’t know where to begin. What should they do?

Adriana: The first thing, first of all, I encourage it. I am with you if you want to go on this journey. I think that this is a high spiritual calling to tell these stories. If you have them and there’s anything I can do to help, I say that within the sound of our voices, reach out to me. What you’re going to do, ultimately, is choose one that fuels your ambition. That’s the one you write because in the process of writing a book — they’re years in the making. They are years in the making. Everything I do, it’s never like, ooh, I just got an idea. It’s cultivated over time because I was the kid who was interested in the stories. I had a great-aunt that put her kids to bed and went to the movies every night. You didn’t have TV in the 1940s. You didn’t, early forties and during the war. She went to the movie house. When I got into film, I would talk to her about it. I was young. She’d tell me, “On TV, they cut out the most important scenes.” She’d gone so many times, Zibby, she knew the lines. She goes, “There was a scene with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy where he said –” They used to just cut them, the million-dollar movies. The viewer really wasn’t getting the full — the first thing I say about family stories is, try to put them in a cultural context. Edna Ferber is really important to me. There’s a lot of reasons. She was born around the time of my great-grandmother. She was the only Jewish girl in Appleton, Wisconsin. I’m writing a play about her. That’s how much I love her. You find the cultural context. You read the autobiographies of people born at the time. Then you start to fold it together. You start to just fold it together. It comes together. Success isn’t guaranteed when you work hard.

Zibby: True.

Adriana: It’s just not. There’s a luck factor for a lot of folks. What isn’t lucky is who you are and how you got here. That was somebody’s persistence. That was somebody’s vision. We’re mothers. We get it. We know what we say to those kids shapes their ideas about the world. It shapes them. We have to be careful with that and protect their talents and nurture their talents and get them to be tough. They got to be strong. You got to put them out there. It’s terrible. Motherhood is not for weenies. Having said that, your initial question, which was so brilliant, who did it? In each of their ways, my ancestors that I knew, which would include my mother, made sure it got through to me. Not the greatest student, class clown, always loved show business, I’m that kid. Those seeds they planted, they took root. They really did. Maybe it took thirty years for me to get there, but they took root. Just know that those seeds that are within you will, as a writer. The same goes for our kids and those we know. You have your parents, Zib. Ask them everything. Make lists. I say that, everybody within the sound — if your parents are still on this planet, ask them everything. Thank god. There are questions — somebody said that to me. I wish I could remember who. It might have been my grandmother said it to me. Always ask the questions.

Before my dad died — my father had worn this — we could talk for twelve years. My father wore what you would call a miraculous medal. It’s the blessed mother, which is Mary, the first Jewish mother. It was gold. It’s a beautiful, plain — my brother wears it now on a chain. I figured my mother gave it to him. Before my dad died, it was on my list of questions. I said, “Dad, where’d you get that?” When my father had surgery, they took the necklace off and taped it to the bag of your IV with the stuff in it, taped it. Then when it was done, he put it back on. He never removed it, ever, to swim, anything. My father told me, he said, “No, no, your mother didn’t give me that. My best friend at St. Francis Preparatory School, he was named Guido Allarcon. They called him the Argentinian playboy. He was not a believer. He went to this Catholic boy school, but he was not a believer. He went home one Christmas break. He bought the medal in Argentina. He had it blessed.” I’m not sure if it’s Argentina, so forgive me, to the Allarcon family, A-L-L-A-R-C-O-N. It could be Brazil, but I’m going to go with Argentina because my father called him — I think because it the Argentina playboy. Anyway, he gave it to my dad. He said, “I don’t believe in any of this hocus pocus, but you do. It’s yours. It’s blessed. Think of me.”

Zibby: I thought you were going to say, then he passed away the next week or something. No? Okay. Still amazing.

Adriana: No, it’s not like your life, my god, with the people passing away.

Zibby: No, stop, stop. I just thought that’s where you were — that’s amazing.

Adriana: Do you know what I’m saying?

Zibby: Yes, yes. Ask questions of your parents. That is the best.

Adriana: Think of me. Wow.

Zibby: Love it. Adriana, thank you. To be continued in some way, shape, or form. I only scratched the surface.

Adriana: Maybe over dinner, this time at my house. Maybe my house.

Zibby: Sounds great. I’m in. Thank you so much. Thank you. Congratulations.

Adriana: Thank you, Zib.

Zibby: Bye.

Adriana: Buh-bye.

Adriana Trigiani, THE GOOD LEFT UNDONE

THE GOOD LEFT UNDONE by Adriana Trigiani

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