In conversation: Ann Hood

Editor Alicia Anstead talks about craft with novelist Ann Hood.

Ann HoodI’m not Italian. And I have no idea what my family’s immigrant experience was. But I did grow up in a large Catholic family in an urban setting at a time when girls were gumptiously finding their way into the world’s larger conversation. Even if we were not talking about it, we crafty girls were watching, observing, taking it in. We were sitting on stairs, listening through the doors, peeking through keyholes. That bird’s-eye determination to be in the presence of stories and to stare down drama drew me into Ann Hood’s novel An Italian Wife, which spans several generations of Italian women who are wives, yes, but whose thoughts and actions tell a complex story about marriage, family, community and the passage of time. Hood takes it all in, the sights, smells, sounds, moods, motions and inner thoughts. The book opens in the late 1800s with the story of Josephine Rimaldi, married at 15 by family arrangement in Naples, and then left behind for nine blissful, self-aware years in Italy while her husband sets up life in America. Within nine months of arriving by ship to New York Harbor, she is pregnant, and the babies come and come and come so often that Hood helpfully provides a family tree that charts the generations into the 1970s. In its thoroughness of time, place and voice, An Italian Wife reminded me of Anna Quindlen’s coming-of-age novel Object Lessons (which, coincidentally, also features an Italian wife). Hood captures not only the long-ago past but also the not-so-distant past of her own generation – as Quindlen did as well. Hood writes fiction (The Knitting Circle, The Obituary Writer), memoir (Comfort), nonfiction (The Red Thread), short stories (An Ornithologist’s Guide to Life), and she edited a collection of essays (Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting). We met at the Miami Book Festival International last November to talk about her work. The following is an edited version of our conversation.

Alicia Anstead
Clearly a lot of research went into this book. What’s your process? How do you begin and end with your research?

Ann Hood
I’ve heard so many other writers say something similar, that you research and research, and then you only use five percent of it. That certainly was the case with this book and really any book that I’ve had to do research for. I sit in the library and read until I realize I’m going down a rabbit hole, that I will never use this stuff and that’s my sign to stop. I almost never even open the notebook. It’s more like a process of being a sponge and absorbing the details that you want or need.

Anstead
Where is that material being absorbed?

Hood
That’s a good question. I suppose my brain but also whatever part of my writing self is emotional. You know? Because I just pull the details, and I’m often surprised. I think of my brain like that thing in your dryer that collects lint. I’m putting a lot of stuff in, and I’m surprised at what it caught, what stayed after I cleaned the lint thing out. But for this one, I was inspired by the chapter called “Dear Mussolini.” I’d actually gone to Yaddo, the artist colony in Saratoga Springs, to finish a novel, and my mother told me a story the night before I left about in the ῾30s ῾how our Italian-American neighborhood was so pro-Mussolini. They had rallies, and someone would pass an empty flour sack, and the Italian-Americans would throw in their jewelry and money to send to Mussolini. And I said, “I’ve never heard this story.” To prove it, she sang a pro-Mussolini song in Italian.

Anstead
Which you had never heard.

Hood
That I’d never heard. So when I got to Saratoga Springs instead of doing my novel, I sat in that library, and I read Mussolini biographies. I read books about immigration, in particular, to New England where I’m from. And that story came out of that. That was 15 years ago. So this book was written as a series of short stories over 15 years, which is why it wasn’t painful.

Anstead
That’s a long time.

Hood
Yes. I was never thinking of them as a novel. I can’t say I never thought of them a one narrative because obviously they were the same characters, but they each lived in their own story.

Anstead
When did it become a novel for you?

Hood
Last summer, I wrote the story that’s the chapter that’s called “Captain Macaroni,” but it isn’t the last story in the book. I didn’t write them in any order. I was willy-nilly writing these. And when I wrote that story, I had this sense of completion, and I thought, “This family is going to be OK. If this kid is the one, he will keep the traditions; he will keep the family together.” You know? And I said, “I’m done.” But I said, “Done with what?” I put it in the file where they had all been, and many of them had been published as stories. I looked and I had something like 400 pages of these stories, and I said, “I had no idea I had that many.”

Anstead
That’s astounding.

Hood
Isn’t that funny? I mean, it was so not deliberate.

Anstead
So this novel snuck up on you.

Hood
Absolutely. And people said, “How did you write it so fast?” – because I had one come out a year ago – and I said, “It wasn’t fast. It’s the longest I’ve ever taken.” But it just didn’t have the form, or I didn’t approach it the way I usually write a novel.

Anstead
So you must have gone in and done some massive editing to these stories to make them a novel.

Hood
Oh yeah. Rearranging. And what’s so funny is that my first novel – which came out in 1987 – Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine – was written the exact same way. And at the end of that horrific process of trying to make a novel out of pieces, I thought, “I will never do that again.” And here I am all these years later walking around my dining room table looking at all these stories, rearranging and deleting and making notes to connect them.

Anstead
So I was very intrigued by your title An Italian Wife. I almost felt it should be A Pregnant Italian Wife. It seems like every page someone’s getting pregnant in this book.

Hood
I know. It’s fecund with – fecundity.

Anstead
It made me nervous. But, you know, there obviously isn’t one Italian wife. There are many Italian wives, and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the symbolism of that language, of making it about one and many at the same time.

Hood
Thank you so much because that was such a careful choice. I had wanted to call it Dear Mussolini because that was the first story, that’s what started it all. And my editor’s face! Well, no one wanted to read about book called Dear Mussolini. Trust me. But I thought, “I would read that book.” At that lunch she said, “Tell me who Josephine is.” I can’t even remember what I said. I said this. I said that. And I said: “She’s an Italian wife,” and she said, “Let’s stop.” And in that moment, I nodded. I thought, “Yes, because she was one of so many of these immigrants who came.” She’s not “the” one; she’s “an” among many. The second piece is that she’s a fictional combination of my great-grandmother and my grandmother. My great-grandmother was a shepherdess in Italy. My grandmother had an arranged marriage to someone she didn’t love. She had 10 children. In fiction, no one buys that. I had to cut it down to six. Talk about fecundity. She was never happy with her husband. She never fell in love with him.  In each story, she was a little bit of each of the women. And that, too, added to this idea that she’s not just one. My great-grandmother was an Italian wife, my grandmother was, the immigrant population was. But she’s very particular as well.

Anstead
I’m thinking, too, of all the other wives who radiate out from this one. Your sense of blending real life with the story is also very intriguing to me. When you talk about your two characters – your grandmother and your great grandmother – do you feel that it’s your privilege, it’s your right, it’s your mission to pull from those things?

Hood
No. I shouldn’t speak for all writers, but I do think writers have this living emotion in them, and that’s where I pull from. One of the ideas that propelled these stories in the first place was this memory of my great-grandmother, my grandmother, seven aunts, three uncles, their spouses sitting around the kitchen table late into the night drinking black coffee – they didn’t drink – and smoking cigarettes; they all died from lung cancer – and me being on the stairs or somewhere in the background listening. They didn’t read books. Many of them didn’t speak English, but they told stories. It was oral storytelling. And part of what propelled me to write about it was that I wished I had listened more.

Anstead
Did you know that you were a writer as a little girl?

Hood
I always wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know then that’s what I would be. Eudora Welty said something to the effect of: “All a writer has to do is sit on her own front porch.” But I was thinking: “I’ll go run with the bulls; I’m going to dance in fountains.” That’s what I thought you had to do. And when I was very young, I don’t know what I thought. I knew I just liked language and words, and I certainly didn’t think I would ever write about my Italian-American immigrant life because I didn’t want that. I wanted to live in The Brady Bunch house. Never would I think I’d re-visit that ever when I was running from it as fast as I could. And so I just had this desire to fill in blanks, huge blanks, and that was the fictional piece because all I wanted to do is go kiss boys at a certain point. They’d say, “You have to stay until Auntie So-And-So goes,” and I’d say, “He’s in his Mustang outside. I want to get out there.” And I didn’t listen enough. We shouldn’t as young people, and also we should, you know?

Anstead
Right. And that brings up such an interesting point. When do you cross over into being a person of observation as a writer? My students and I talk about this all the time. When they come to class each week, I do attendance. They have to write their name and an observation, and that’s how we do attendance each week. And the one week I didn’t do it because I thought they were bored with it, they said, “Where’s the observation column?”

Hood
Oh, that’s so interesting! And what might they put for observation? All kinds of things!

Anstead
It has ranged. At first, it was things that they were making up in the moment. Then I could tell they were starting to save them up. And they would say, “I noticed the man downstairs puts his trash out in three bags on Tuesday and his recycling in two bins on Wednesday.”

Hood
Oh my God.

Anstead
So they have started to be conscious observers. When did you become a conscious observer?

Hood
I have always been very good at observing details, but I think an emotional observer is different. I can almost pinpoint when it actually happened. The only job I’ve held other than writer is flight attendant for TWA for eight years, an international flight attendant. And, during that time, I would carry notebooks, and I would write stories. I began a novel called The Betrayal of Sam Pepper. It was the most dreadful thing ever written, and its sole purpose – other than to teach me to write a book; I didn’t know that’s what I was doing; you know I was teaching myself – was because my neighbors who were also flight attendants had made me angry somehow. So I thought I’m going to write a novel to expose their inhumanity toward me. And I did all the beginning writer mistakes. The woman’s name was “Terri” so I named her “Sherri.” And then I’d be out walking my dog and I’d say, “Oh, look at her in those sweatpants. I’ve got to go put that in a scene.” So Sherri has on bad, gray sweatpants. I was working on this, and it was my happiest time. I would sit by myself with my dog and write longhand. I always say I “etched it in my cave wall.” There were no computers. And then as it happens, tragedy struck. My brother was killed in a household accident when he was 30. I was 25. I took a leave from work. I went to stay with my parents. It was summer. I had just been transferred to Kennedy airport and had an apartment in New York. I gave up that apartment, took a leave in August. Two months later, my mother came in and said, “You have to go live your life. You can’t sit here and hold our hands. We have to figure this out.” So I took all my stuff in a Hefty trash bag, most of which was notebooks, and I got on an Amtrak train and got a tiny $220 apartment that was so small on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village that I could make coffee without getting out of bed. My boyfriend met me, and he helped move me in, and then he went off to do whatever he did – work or something – and I remember sitting on the edge of the bed and thinking, “What do I do now?” And my first thought was: “Finish your book.” So I took those notebooks and they were a stack this high, and I started reading, and I said, “This is terrible. This isn’t about anything real.” And I took the notebooks and put them right in the dumpster on Sullivan Street. And I went back up, and by this time, I had acquired the typewriter that has the ball – a Selectric – and I put that piece of paper in, and I wrote the first sentence of what became Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine. I knew then. That’s when I began to be an emotional observer. Something switched that summer. And, you know, I had been an English major. I never took a writing class. I learned to write by reading and analyzing literature as English majors do. Reading and writing collided. You know? I think it had been bubbling even writing that bad novel. But it just collided, and I remember thinking, “I know what I need to say. I don’t know if I can get to it, but I know what this is about.”

Anstead
When you go back and look at the path that leads you to where you are in life, it’s always so interesting; never quite as straight as we think.

Hood
I know. And that’s why one of my favorite things at writers’ conferences: to hear writers talk about how they got where they are. When someone comes up to you and says, “What’s the magic formula?” you say, “There isn’t one. Everybody’s got their own.”

Anstead
It really struck me when I was reading your book that I felt like I was smelling this book and eating in this book and hearing the sounds around me. Could you talk a little bit about that process of making sure you get those details and get them right, but that you’re not putting them in…

Hood
Artificially?

Anstead
As noise.

Hood
Yeah, yeah. Right. I don’t know if you ever have this same question that’s in my mind. It’s one of the hardest things to get a student to do. If I talk about sensual details, and then the next assignment they do it’ll be: “She smelled a Christmas tree. She heard the fire crackle.” It’s: Let me check off the five senses. But really, it’s more about inhabiting a world. It’s almost the same answer as the research question. You have to be able to put yourself in that room. One of the best examples I can think of from this book is the character of Ida in the third section in the ῾70s. I pulled very much from my own self at 14. I had a crush on Dean Martin. There was a boy in a white VW Bug that used to drive down our street. So I pulled a lot of those details, but I really stopped to think what it was like when I was sitting at the top of the stairs having to dust things. That was my weekly chore, to dust the figurines, and I was hearing life below me. And I think if we pause, we often can get there.

Anstead
I think about also putting yourself in that space again, when you get a memory and you go with it, you really let it play out.

Hood
The things you remember! For instance, I had forgotten – how I could ever forget this? – one entire summer when I was the most bored kid all the time. I must have been about 12. It took me all summer. I beaded long strings of beads, took the door off my bedroom door – I’m sure my father did that part –and hung the beads and I would enter through, but I had forgotten – for good reason. It’s just as well. But thinking about Ida and that period, I could remember stringing those beads, looking at this long maroon one and putting it next to a blue ball. It just all kind of came tumbling back.

Anstead
Speaking of young people who want to know how to write, I think to say to them, “Just go out and live. It will happen” is a tough piece of advice. Is there something more productive you can tell them to do?

Hood
I always say it’s so simple because it’s: Read and write. I still have books that I read and reread because I love them so much, and I still learn how to write from them. I also have notes. “Start with action,” I remember writing once. I had noticed all these books start with action. And I wrote in a copy of Anna Karenina, “Whoa, Tolstoy!” And it was at the ballroom scene. I was so struck by how he could have so many characters. And I knew them all by this point in that big fat book. But I knew where everybody was standing and what people were thinking, and it wasn’t confusing. And I turned to that so many times in my bad novel that I threw away. I’d have a Christmas party as a scene, and I remember rereading: “How do you know?” It seems so simple when you know how to write. So I think the advice is to read, and not “how to” books, but literature. I think a lot of “how to” books really give bad advice or the wrong advice. It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s not going to make you a writer.

Anstead
You have so many characters in your book. How did you keep them all straight, or were they just born straight in your head?

Hood
They were born pretty straight, but because I wrote the stories in such a staggered fashion, one of the hardest things, especially because I have spatial thinking problems, was keeping track of how many children Josephine actually had. And I had used different names because the stories in my mind weren’t going to be connected. So I might have a character very much like this other character, but in another story, I called her Theresa or something. I had to bundle, and so I used a different name or more children or less children. A lot of it was organizational because of the way it was written. When I am writing a novel like I usually do, I’m much more in control of that; I’m in charge of it.

Anstead
How much of your own identity in all the ways we’ve talked about is important to all your writing, as opposed to just this book, which was really mining quite a bit of your own life?

Hood
It’s always important, and I always mine stuff. My mom read this one. She didn’t pick up anything as being from the family, not because I masked it, but because you start with that seed, but hopefully in writing fiction, something else is growing from it, to use a terrible metaphor. I say this with great honesty: I always approach a book by writing about the thing that keeps me up at night. What is really waking me up or keeping me from falling asleep? What am I grappling with? And then I think, “I cannot be the only one on this planet thinking about this right now. I can’t be the only one worried about this.” I start with whatever that experience is, and I just keeping peeling it until it’s more of the raw experience, and that’s where I think fiction steps in. So I would say I was mining my life – but so much of this never happened. I don’t feel as responsible about using my 14-year-old self; that was kind of fun for me. But I wouldn’t do that to my grandmother or any of my aunts.

Anstead
That whole process that you describe reminds me of what artists cultivate in themselves and what so many of the rest us stop in ourselves – that thing that keeps us up at night – we shut it down.

Hood
And we have to go there.

Anstead
And you have to go there.

Hood
People have asked: “Is it cathartic to write about stuff?” You know, I’ve written a nonfiction book and two novels about losing my daughter. The fiction is fiction. The nonfiction obviously isn’t. People will say “Do you feel better? Now you’ll write about something else? Was that cathartic?” But I don’t think that’s how it goes. You always have to go to that place to write genuinely.

Anstead
How much of your day is writing?

Hood
In my dreams, it’s so much of it. My goal is two hours a day every day. So in my hotel this morning, I did my two hours. I actually did about an hour and 15 minutes. But when I’m in my normal schedule, it’s at least two but as many as six hours a day. Then I reach the law of diminishing returns at six hours. Even a little before that, I feel like I’m using the same words; I’m getting lazier language.

Anstead
I hear that from a lot of writers. Some writers say, “Oh, I do four hours a day,” “I do this many words a day” or however they frame it. And I think, “Is there any other profession in the world where you can say, “I’m just doing two hours today”? It’s really interesting, isn’t it? And we accept that as acceptable.

Hood
It’s like when you want to give advice to young writers. Really, the only advice is, “You’ve got to do it. Put your butt in the chair.” Right? And when I say, “I’ll do two hours today,” it means I have to sit down. It’s so easy to think about writing; so easy to talk about it; and it’s so easy to avoid it. But a big part of it is getting the writer to sit and do what they’re supposed to do.

Anstead
And also, writing takes place outside of those two hours, the gestation in our thoughts when we step away.

Hood
That is the hardest thing when you get the question – which isn’t what you asked: “How much do you write a day?” Twenty-four hours! Sometimes, right? And I’m also a writer who really likes to think before I write. So many writers, especially new writers, are so quick to the page, and I feel like there’s great value in letting the idea turn over a lot.

Anstead
What about revision?

Hood
That’s all you do. When I was a flight attendant, a pilot asked if I wanted to sit in the cockpit – this could never happen today – for landing. And I said “Yes, that’s great.” He said, “But you can’t talk.” So I was sitting there, and we were landing at Kennedy, and it started to snow. And the lights from the plane and the lights from the city came up, and it looked like – this sounds so ridiculous – but it looked like we were entering Narnia, or some fairyland. The Empire State Building was twinkling. It was this amazing thing. And when we landed I said, “I can never thank you enough. That was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.” And he said, “Why do you think I do this job? It’s for the seven minutes of takeoff and the 11 minutes of landing. The computer does the rest.” And to me, that’s like writing. You do it because you get this great idea, and you have the excitement of the first draft, but most of it is revision, and doing the wrong stuff, and fixing and fixing. And then, you get the landing. It’s very much the same. I’ve thought about that a lot when I was in the muck of the eight hours to Athens. But the landing’s there, and that’s why I think a lot of new writers stop with the joy part. They’ve written this, and it was so exciting, and it’s so messy and flawed and glorious, and that’s one-tenth of what you have to do.

Anstead
I love how you put that. I can really see that in both the literal and the symbolic. Is there anything else that you would like writers to know about craft? What they should be paying attention to, what they should be afraid of, what they should be fearless about?

Hood
Well, I think the word is fearless because once writers start editing how they do what they do or what they’re writing about, I think you’ve already lost what you need to be doing. So I think being a writer is emotionally brave, and if you can’t go there, maybe you’re not ready to do it yet.

An excerpt from the opening page of An Italian Wife by Ann Hood

Salute

In America, anything was possible. This was what Josephine’s husband told her before he left their village to catch the ship in Naples. She didn’t know him, this husband of hers. Their marriage had been arranged by their parents long ago, before Josephine had breasts or menstruated for the first time. He was considered a step up for her family: his parents owned land in the next village, and pigs, and even a cow. He had been to Rome, where for two years he worked as a guard at the king’s palace. “Vincenzo Rimaldi,” Josephine’s mother had told her from the very day the betrothal was set, when Josephine was only eight years old. “He will give you a good life. You will have fresh milk every day. And pork all year long. And most important, you will have land. Land is better than gold, Josephine.”

Josephine had nodded, but really she would rather have gold than land or pigs. She liked pretty things, shiny things, things that glittered. She collected rocks with veins of fool’s gold, or pieces of flint that sparkled in the sun. Once she found something bright-blue and unidentifiable and she kept it in her apron pocket, believing it must be valuable.

Because her husband-to-be was eleven years older than Josephine, she didn’t meet him until the day of her wedding. He was away in Rome; he was taking care of all that land.

A week before her fifteenth birthday, her mother woke her and explained that her wedding would be today. The husband- to-be had managed to book a spot in steerage on a ship to America and he would not be back for some time. The families had decided it was better for the wedding to happen right away, before he left. If God was smiling on them so much as to get him a ticket on that boat, then perhaps he would send them a child right away too.

Excerpted with permission from Ann Hood © 2014, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Alicia Anstead is editor-in-chief of The Writer. She teaches writing at Harvard.