Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Mary Melfi

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Ten Questions with Mary Melfi

Mary Melfi talks to Open Book about writing and her latest book, Italy Revisited, Conversations with my Mother (Guernica Editions, 2009).

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your latest book.

Mary Melfi:

Fortunately (or unfortunately) everything one would want to know (or not know) about my latest book can be found on the website my son, Stephan, created for me. Here is the description of the book as found on the website: www.italyrevisited.org. “The day to day life of Italians living in the countryside at the turn of 20th century is described in detail in Mary Melfi's memoir entitled: Italy Revisited, Conversations with my Mother. Anything and everything is looked at – from the South's matrimonial customs, to how time was told (by the shadow the sun cast), to how laundry was done (by the river or at a public water fountain), to how wheat and olive oil were the currency of choice (barter was in use) and how old-time religion explained the meaning of life. The search for the author's roots took her on a time travel trip to the 12th century. Here church bells spoke for God; the baker woman knocked on folks' doors in the middle of the night, taking their unbaked loaves of bread to her place of business; the medicine woman boiled the leaves of chestnut trees and applied the treated water to stubborn wounds; here the newly-deceased were laid out in their best clothes in open coffins on kitchen tables; here marriages were as much about property as they were about love (Pre-nuptial agreements were the order of the day). In Italy Revisited Mary Melfi set out to understand the old world and how it influenced her upbringing in North America. She discovered that despite the abject poverty of the 1930s, the peasantry in Italy had a beautiful and unique culture.”

OBT:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?

MM:

I suppose I originally intended the readership to be folk who were mirror images of myself – second generation Italian-Canadians who immigrated with their parents as youngsters and who had almost no idea of what life was like back in their parents’ hometowns. Later, when I started gathering information about the living conditions in Southern Italy at the turn of the last century from speaking to a variety of first-generation Italians I suddenly realized that pre-World War II Italy was a fascinating place, so it was then that I suspected my story might be of interest not only to Italians but to anyone who was fond of history.

OBT:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

MM:

My favorite part of the day is the morning, so the hours from 9 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. are part of my ideal writing environment. Of course that was the case when my late husband was alive and still living at home with me; even when he was not at home, and I knew he would be coming home, then I could spend a great deal of time at the computer and play with words. Back then I did not feel writing was an isolated activity and not much fun as my husband was around, always ready to love me, so I could bloody well do what I liked and feel good. Now, that my husband is no longer cohabiting with me, anything and everything I do makes me feel lonely, writing most of all. So there is no ideal writing environment at this point in time. Because, as I said, my ideal writing environment included my late husband being close by, and as he is no longer close by, writing has become a chore too lonesome for words.

OBT:

What was your first publication?

MM:

Back in the late 1960s a Montreal Italian newspaper reserved a page for local English poets. I was about 14, a high school student, when my first poem was accepted for publication in that paper. That publication probably changed my life forever – and not necessarily in a good way. From that first publication sprang the need – the addiction – to get published. Having “a monkey on one’s back” is a true liability.

OBT:

Describe a recent Canadian cultural experience that influenced your writing.

MM:

Listening to Leonard Cohen’s live concerts on TV instills in me the sense that poetry is alive and well. Yes, he’s singing the lyrics, so technically it’s not poetry, still, whenever I pay attention to what he is saying I am certain that words can be used to describe the human condition. Often – too often – words fail to capture the complexity of what it’s all about, and because Leonard Cohen manages to do it, that inspires me to believe that if I try, really try hard, and then I too might be able to create poetic images that resonate with the essence of being a spirit in a human form.

OBT:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

MM:

I would not choose three books – I would give a travel guide and suggest that the individual take a trip across Canada.

OBT:

What are you reading right now?

MM:

The fact is I am not reading anything at the moment. I am too sad to read right now. I can’t read unless I am happy, and I haven’t been happy for a long time, as my husband, long before he died of cancer this October was ill and that took the joy out of books.

OBT:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

MM:

I received a lot of good advice from a variety of individuals – like, “Write about what you know,” “Follow your passion,” etc. But the best advice I got was, “Keep your day job.” Unfortunately, as a young writer I must have been hard of hearing, ‘cause I didn’t follow the advice (pity).

OBT:

What advice to you have for writers who are trying to get published?

MM:

I am in no position to give advice; whatever I did, I did wrong. So, my advice would be don’t do what this so called author, Mary Melfi, did.

  • Don’t isolate yourself as did Mary Melfi. Network as much as you can. As they say, It’s not what you know, but who you know. If you think it’s any different in the publishing world, you shouldn’t be in it.
  • Don’t jump from one literary form to another as did Mary Melfi. It’s hard enough to get established in one genre, but if you start switching forms, boy, will you get into trouble. You can kiss away any Canada Council grant that might have come your way. Sorry, but that’s the sad truth.
  • Don’t avoid academia as did Mary Melfi. If you want to be a writer, you should get a Ph.D. in something or other, and live in the Ivory Tower. As places go, the Ivory Tower is well-furnished, well-heated and beats living on the streets (not a nice place).
  • Don’t be a shrinking violet as was Mary Melfi. Be an egoist. Proclaim to the world that your book is the must read of the century. Go ahead, invite the audience to applaud you. If you don’t, you might end up alone in a big room, wondering why it’s your party and you’re crying your eyes out.
  • Don’t avoid writers’ organizations as did Mary Melfi. Canadian Authors’ Association is a good place to network. O.K. the fees are high, but if you do become an academic, then the fees are no problem.
  • Don’t avoid getting an agent as did Mary Melfi. Literary agents according to urban myth (I’m not sure if it’s true) manage to get real bucks for their authors’ hard work). The problem, of course, is that you need to be referred to a literary agent to take you on, so you need to network, and if you can’t do that, well, sorry, but you’re in trouble.
  • Don’t dream the impossible dream as did Mary Melfi. One has much chance at being a successful writer as one has at being an astronaut (not too many of those on the Canadian government’s payroll). Sometimes giving up is the brave thing to do.
  • Don’t turn into a bitter old lady as Mary Melfi might soon be. Best to have a sex change operation and start over.
  • Don’t ask for advice as did Mary Melfi. Be your own counsel and you might, just might, be the next Canadian literary star.

OBT:

What is your next project?

MM:

Silence is golden, and if it isn’t, it should be.


Mary Melfi is the author of several books, including Infertility Rites, Sex Therapy and Stages. She lives in Montreal, Quebec.

For more information about Italy Revisited, Conversations with My Mother please visit the Guernica Editions website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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