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An Interview with Louisa Ermelino photo

We live in a moment when self-conscious elements of fantasy seem nearly omnipresent in contemporary American literature. Surrealist fables, pastiche parables, retellings of fairy tales, and the reclamation of all things speculative have, in recent years, made literary fiction a rather whimsical place to be. As the real world feels increasingly devoid of magic, we are correct to admire those writers who attempt to interject some magic back into it. Perhaps slightly more admirable, though, are those writers who can write about the world — our mundane, recognizable world — and convince us of its magic without the aid of extra-realistic components.

In Malafemmena, Louisa Ermelino depicts a world ruled by superstition, ritual, mysteries, and initiation. Midwives and new mothers squabble over the best place to bury an afterbirth. A woman goes to violent lengths to prove the virginity of her son’s bride. Backpackers on the road to India risk their humanity in pursuit of the sublime. Set in the Italian immigrant communities of New York and the druggie expat communes of Asia, these stories reveal our world for what it truly is: the aggregate idiosyncrasies of seven billion shamans. A place of rumor and hearsay, where a person’s life might change forever based on a whim and an anecdote. A place where a reputation — good or bad — is tantamount to destiny.

Ermelino is the author of three novels (Joey Dee Gets Wise, The Black Madonna, and The Sisters Mallone), though Malafemmena is her first collection of short fiction. As the Reviews Director at Publishers Weekly, she is well acquainted with the world of books from both sides. Via email, she was kind enough to answer a few of my questions regarding her sources of inspiration, her history of travel, and the peculiar demands of the short story form.

How long of a time period do the stories in this collection represent? You’ve written three novels, but this is your first collection, so I’d imagine some of these are quite old. Can you talk a little bit about how the collection came together?

The stories were written beginning in the late 1980s through to last year. I started writing stories when I was getting a master’s at NYU. It was a program in the English department originally, not an MFA, and like most MFA students, I wrote stories, ten altogether, and all of them were published in literary magazines. My first novel, Joey Dee Gets Wise, was inspired by the first story in the collection, “Where It Belongs”. The baby born in the story becomes the femme fatale of the novel.

I wrote the novels close together and then life interfered when I started working full time, then in the past few years I contributed to anthologies and some magazines but never thought of a collection until Caroline Casey, who was working at Sarabande at the time, was sitting in my office pitching books. For some reason, I told her that I wrote stories, and she said send them to Sarah (Gorham, Sarabande’s editor and co-founder) and I did.

Anyone but Sarah would have thrown the whole mess in the garbage because the early stories were not digitized and I sent xeroxed pages in all sorts of shapes and sizes. I figured I had nothing to lose and was a little embarrassed that I had been so aggressive. After all, Caroline had not come to Publishers Weekly to find an author.

I didn’t anticipate anything particularly happening, but I got a phone call from Sarah saying she would be in New York and did I want to meet for a drink, which I did, and while we were sitting in a bar on Sixth Avenue, she handed me a contract. And I signed it right there. (I think…If I didn’t, I should have).

She told me I needed more pages and I went off to Ucross, the writers residence in Wyoming, and I wrote stories until Sarah said “enough”. And not until the stories were all together did I realize there was a theme. Sarah suggested the title Malafemmena which means “bad woman” and is the title of a very famous Neapolitan song from the 1950s in Italy and it all came together. I had a collection. Sarah was an amazing editor and the press has been wonderful, all of them. Somewhere, I still can’t believe it happened!

Oh wow. I would not have guessed these stories represented such a long time span. I think they feel very much of a piece, even if they sort fairly easily into the New York / Italian American stories and the expat / backpacker stories. And even those two categories compliment each other surprisingly well. Did you deliberately try to set up that contrast, between the stories of Italians in New York and the stories of Western travelers in Asia? Or did that come about organically?

I’ve been alive a long time! The two main influences in my life have been growing up in NYC and the traveling I did for years after college, which are the themes I wrote about early on. The novels are a trilogy of Italian American life in the community at the edge of Greenwich Village in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. I grew up in a multigenerational extended family with a strong oral tradition, so stories were everywhere. But while there are stories in the book originally written years ago, I feel like the collection is a more mature work that pulled everything together. And I have to credit my editor, Sarah Gorham, with the arrangement. I deferred to her completely.

Maybe the oral tradition is part of the link, because the backpacking stories have that, too: so much information is passed from traveler to traveler, since they are outsiders within larger cultures that regard them with suspicion, which turns them in toward each other. And there’s a level of groupthink that comes from that, which amplifies bad ideas (like smuggling drugs over borders).

Both New York’s Italian community in the 20th century and Westerners backpacking through Asia, as milieus, have been the subject of a lot of cultural depictions. There are a lot of stereotypes associated with them. Your book reads very fresh, though. Were you conscious of trying not to tell stories we’ve already heard before?

The Italian American milieu can get really stereotypical with the loving nonnas and the harsh fathers and, of course, the Mafia, and I’m always aware of that when I’m writing the stories. But basically it’s just what I know. I did not have loving grandparents or a harsh father, but there was a Mafia presence in the neighborhood when I was growing up…the social clubs, the goods that fell off the truck. I remember when Joe Valachi “talked” and I remember hearing always that the news reports got everything wrong.

As for the travel stories, I haven’t read too much about the trail to India. There were a lot of lost souls among those early travelers. What interests me was these people and how they behaved in these strange places; at the time I was traveling, they were mostly Western Europeans; they really were a tribe.  The book I love about the road east is The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux; so irreverent and so on the money.

I’ll have to check out that Theroux book. That’s a world that fascinates me. And I suppose it’s changed over the years — like everything else — since backpacking has become a more popular activity. Do you mind if I asked what made you start travelling after college, and for how long you did it, and how you decided to come back?

It was the Vietnam War era and the crux of the counterculture…the late 60s. I suppose I chose flight to fight and I’ve always been seduced by “the other,” the idea of a stranger in a strange land. It was a total arbitrary decision to go East…a place, a time, and…how ordinary, a man…a lethal combination. It was years I was away.

I always thought something would stick…I’d find some reason to stay abroad. But it didn’t, and at one point I just hit a wall and came home. I got a real job and an apartment. Artists were moving into the factories where the Italian Americans used to work, in bookbinding, candy making. Cella? The chocolate covered cherries? They were made in what’s now Soho.

There was a group of us that left after college and we all seemed to come back around the same time. And a whole new era started in the neighborhood and I was so lucky to be positioned in the middle of it. I had the best of both worlds.

Do you recommend travel to aspiring writers? Do you think it adds anything to the writer’s skill set? (Apart from colorful experiences to write about, obviously.)

Experiences of any kind are fodder for writing, but not everyone likes to travel. Writers have rich internal lives. With imagination and the gift of observation, one can make art without going very far. So many writers are completely consumed with one environment…Faulkner with his Yoknapatawpha County…William Kennedy with Albany.

I don’t have much advice for aspiring writers except that you really have to just do it and let the chips fall…any artistic life is a challenge. And sometimes the stars align.

Who are the writers who have influenced you? Do you see yourself as following any specific traditions in American literature? Or in art in general?

If there’s any tradition it would be an Italian one. I love Alberto Moravia, Carlo Levi, Nani Balestrini, Elsa Morante, Giuseppe di Lampedusa — the way they tell a story so quietly. There’s always a moral, a bittersweetness, and humor, and irony. Like the films of Lina Wertmuller: Seven Beauties, for example, where the main character upends his life for honor and in the end he discovers he’s powerless to affect fate. Or Mafioso by Alberto Lattuada. The character is doing everything right but then he is pulled into a crime that he has to live with while everything and everyone around him stays the same. And the best part is these films are funny, but then also so sad.

I actually thought of Moravia! Also Cesare Pavese and Leonardo Sciascia, whose work is likewise sort of quiet and tragic. Not tragic in a Romantic way, but in sort of a fatalistic way. And I can definitely see your work inhabiting that same space. Is that reflective of your personal worldview, would you say? That we’re basically powerless and things tend to not work out?

I’m in both camps. I have the American silver lining belief that everything happens for the best but also the southern Italian fatalism gene that leaves us helpless in the face of destiny. I always recall Diane Johnson’s Le Divorce. The protagonist is a young American girl who comes to Paris and starts an affair with an older Frenchman, and at one point he says to her (I’m paraphrasing) : “You Americans. You always believe everything will turn out all right, but you know what? It doesn’t.”

You’re the Reviews Director at Publishers Weekly, which, I would think, is an interesting job for a writer to have. I was wondering if working in the reviews industry has altered the way you think about books?

It’s sobering to see the thousands of books that are published. It’s a never-ending flow. We get hundreds a week at PW, and I am so aware that each one of them took so much work and devotion yet only a very small number will get any attention at all. I think writers should not think about this, but I see it every day. It hasn’t stopped me from writing, though, but it has made me realize that it’s a game of gratitude and luck. If you write, you have to cherish every step: you get an agent, you get an editor, a publisher, you hold an ARC in your hands, you hold a finished book…maybe you get a review, or two, or more. You just have to appreciate what you get, and you can dream, sure, but in the end you just throw it out there and cross your fingers.

How has working in the short story form compared to writing novels? These are very story stories in this book: concise, compact. They aren’t long Chekhovian things. Is short fiction a liberating form, for you, or do you feel confined by it?

I wrote stories early on and then abandoned them for novels. Then I wrote a few for anthologies and fell in love with the form. Stories are hard…and a collection is a challenge because the stories cannot all be equally good and so they compete with one another. Kind of like siblings. When a short story is good, it’s truly haunting…the Alice Monroe where the wife gets dementia, the Leonard Michaels where the boys sit on the roof and spy on the young rabbi having sex with his wife in the afternoon, the Russell Banks about smuggling drugs in the Caribbean. There’s nothing like a good short story. They are terrifying to attempt to write.

Do you think you’ll write more stories? What are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel but thinking about a play, which I’ve never done and which seems an impossible thing to pull off…but I'm thinking…

image: Michael Deagler