Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Mary Bucci Bush

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Mary Bucci Bush

California-based writer Mary Bucci Bush is the author of Sweet Hope (Guernica), as well as the 2006 short fiction collection A Place of Light. After studying with American short fiction legend Raymond Carver, Mary found a literary home with Toronto-based publisher Guernica Editions.

Mary talks with Open Book about family history, her very first publication and the books she'll always come back to.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Sweet Hope.

Mary Bucci Bush:

Sweet Hope tells the story of an unlikely friendship between two families, one Black and one Italian, scrabbling to survive on a Mississippi Delta cotton plantation at the turn of the 20th century. Italians were illegally imported to the South and held in a contract labor system designed to put and keep them in debt while the few remaining African American sharecroppers taught the Italians to work cotton, speak English and survive. Although fiction, the novel was inspired by the childhood experiences of my grandmother and her family who were unwitting participants in the “Italian Colony Experiment.”


The historical basis for your book may be surprising to many. How did you come across it?


I was born into it. I grew up hearing my grandmother’s stories of her childhood on Sunnyside cotton plantation in Arkansas. After she died I went looking for the place. One of the residents of Lake Village, Arkansas told me that a historian had come shortly before I with similar questions, and she put the two of us in touch. Randy Boehm helped me out a great deal with my research of the Federal investigation papers on Sunnyside and some other plantations, and the peonage and violation of alien labor law charges, found in the National Archives in Washington, DC.


How did you deal with the intense subject matter you were approaching? Was it ever difficult for you, as a writer?


I cried a lot. There are still times when I’ll re-read a passage from my novel, or even just think about a scene from the book, and be moved to tears. I think about my family and all those families I will never know, but I also think about the fictional characters I created who are real for me, so my emotion is for all of them.


What recurring themes or obsessions do you notice turning up in your writing?


I’m profoundly affected by the influence of the spirit world, the dead who never really leave us. Sweet Hope plantation — as with much of the Mississippi Delta — is a haunted land, and many of my characters are haunted by past actions and by the dead who live with them. Water imagery is big in Sweet Hope, with themes of drowning or near drowning and loss and redemption. Bird imagery and flight also figure in.


How would you compare the experience of writing a novel with that of writing a short fiction collection?


I wrote individual short stories over a few years, and after a while started thinking about putting the best of them together in a book. I usually know where I’m going with a story, or else have faith that the story will carry me someplace it’s meant to go. Even if a story doesn’t work out, you can leave it in a drawer and move on; it’s not like you’ve invested years of your life in it.

A novel is an entirely different experience. Pardon yet another metaphor on writing, but for me, it’s like being a space traveler: you are competent and well-equipped, but then somehow you lose contact with earth and your ship is out there lost in space. You don’t know where you’re going, exactly, or if you’ll ever make it back to earth or how long your provisions and oxygen will last or what kind of reception or significance your space travel will have when and if you return. But you keep doing your job in spite of everything. You go through the motions even when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing anymore. You pray a lot, and despair some, but you keep doing what you were sent out there to do. And then, if you’re lucky, miraculously you make it back home.


Who are some people who have deeply influenced (fellow writers or not) your writing life?


First and foremost, family members influenced me more than anything. My grandmother, Pasquina Fratini Galavotti, delighted me with her voice — broken English, the Italian accent, the funny words she used sometimes when she couldn’t remember the English words. Her stories of being a child on Sunnyside plantation fired my imagination. Living in a “hell,” a “dirty, wild place full of snakes everywhere,” where “we was like wild animals”? Tell me more!

And then there was Aunt Pearl Bucci Bush, a born storyteller, since everything under the sun was a fascinating story to her (that she just had to tell you, even if she’d told you a dozen times already). Cousin Patti Galavotti Connell’s exaggerated, hysterical accounts of everyday life leave everyone in stitches. The list goes on. What my family does when we get together: we tell stories.

As for “real writers” who influenced me: my first graduate teacher at Syracuse University, George P. Elliott instilled in me the drive to concentrate on making my writing the best it could be, to read and develop as a writer. He was a true man of letters and an intellectual.

Then Raymond Carver, whose work I had fallen in love with before we met, joined the Syracuse University faculty. My very first publication in Black Warrior Review was because he encouraged me to send my story “Muskrat” to them. Unknown to me, Ray had talked me up to his agent in NY, and when I was offered a contract for my first book of stories and thought I needed an agent to handle it, Amanda (Binky) Urban took me on because of Ray.


Is there a book you’ve read recently that you wished you had written?


I periodically re-read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and am always knocked over by the simple, direct, yet often poetic prose. I love the narrative voice and the leaps in time — and setting, whether on this planet or Tralfamadore — that seem just right. Likewise, I’m in awe of Michael Cunningham’s craft in The Hours, his beautiful prose and his stellar juggling of the different story lines and voices. Being a huge fan of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway adds an extra layer of appreciation for me. Two books I’ve wished, since first reading, that I could have written: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Carson McCullers’ Member of the Wedding. Awesome! I ache just thinking about them.


What are you working on now?


I started a sequel to Sweet Hope. The bi-racial main character was only a few months in the womb when Sweet Hope ended. Raised in an African American household, Angel Hall has no idea that his mother is Italian. Nor does he know that his father was murdered before he was born or why there are so many secrets in his family. He joins the army (serving as a Buffalo soldier in Italy in World War II) full of confusion, questions and a free-floating anger and returns to the Mississippi Delta even more confused and looking for answers. The novel takes place in three locations: Italy during the war, the Delta and finally Los Angeles. I’m really excited about this novel and can’t wait to get back to working on it.

Mary Bucci Bush received her M.A. and D.A. from the graduate program in creative writing at Syracuse University, where she worked with George P. Elliott and Raymond Carver. Her short story collection, A Place of Light, was published by Guernica in 2006. Her novel, Sweet Hope, about Italians and African Americans working together on a Mississippi Delta cotton plantation 1901-1906, was recently released with Guernica. She lives in Pasadena, California.

For more information about Sweet Hope please visit the Guernica website.

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

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