Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Mary Melfi

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Mary Melfi

Foreplay: Followed by My Italian Wife (Guernica Editions) is a new publication that combines Mary Melfi's two full-length plays, connected by themes of family, culture and the witty exploration of relationships.

Today we talk to Mary about the importance of Italian culture in her work, what her plays say about marriage and about her own favourite plays to see in the theatre.

Open Book:

Tell us about your plays, Foreplay and My Italian Wife.

Mary Melfi:

Both plays focus on love, sex and marriage. Foreplay zeros in on the sentiments of a well-to-do couple in their early thirties who have problems in the sack. The protagonist, Bianca, can’t have an orgasm, and so her dear husband, Adam, not only calls in a sex therapist to help solve the problem, he also concocts an elaborate scheme to win his wife’s trust, all too aware that you can’t have good sex without it. My Italian Wife focuses on jealousy and infidelity. In My Italian Wife the lead character, Rita, a middle-aged teacher, imagines her husband, a doctor, has countless of affairs, including one with her younger sister. As both plays are comedies the tension created by the sexual insecurities of the parties involved don’t have dire consequences, and that could easily be because laughter is better than sex (Or, maybe not.).

OB:

Why package these two plays together? What do they have in common, and how are they different?

MM:

Both Foreplay and My Italian Wife revolve around the sacrament of marriage. Yes, sacrament! Both plays celebrate the sacredness of the (notarized) joining of two people in love (and hopefully, in lust, as well). Both plays conclude that even though marriage is not all fun and games (Too much mutual distrust and suspicion to override), it is still “a thing of beauty.” Those who have the good fortune to have someone to confide in, play with and argue with, have it good. Real good. How are the plays different? Foreplay investigates the sexual dynamics of a young couple, recently married, whereas, My Italian Wife, focuses its attention on a man and woman who have been married a long, long time. They are older, but not wiser. Unconditional love is never easy to come by. Couples fight, make up, fight and sometimes manage to create a little bit of heaven. Still, because there is no social stigma to divorce those in long-term relationships are beset by the same anxieties young people are forced to suffer through. In an ideal world Time is on your side, but in the real world Time can (and will) do you in. Luckily, Time is no barrier to romance. Couples don't necessarily have to climb the highest mountain and swim the deepest river to get their happily-ever-after, but they do have to show love (Fidelity counts).

OB:

In My Italian Wife, is the Italian background of the characters essential to the play? What attracted you to writing about this particular culture?

MM:

Yes, the Italian background of the characters is essential to the play. Or maybe it is not. Actually, Rita Romano, the lead female character in the play, asks the same question. Is she is an emotional mess because of her upbringing or is it because she is naturally insecure? She speculates that whatever problems she has are Not necessarily a result of being Italian, but of being Italian-Canadian. In her mind, she believes anyone who is forced to move from one country to another for whatever reason, political or economic, pays a price. Nothing comes easy for her. On the surface she has a charmed life, but she is not happy. She continuously worries she will lose whatever she has, and then she will have to deal with the nastiness of the world all by her lonesome self. Forever jealous (as are most Italian wives) she assumes that her husband is not sexually satisfied with her. And hates herself for it. You don't have to be Italian to identify with her. Anyone can feel they don't deserve to be loved because they're not up to par.

As to the question: “What attracted you writing about this particular culture?” The answer is simple: It's in my blood. Having been born in a little hilly town in Southern Italy and having lived with parents and grandparents and great grandparents who made their living off the land, how can I not think of myself as anything but a farmer's daughter?. Both, my play, My Italian Wife, and my memoirs, Italy Revisited: Conversations with my Mother, were challenging to write but fun too, as they helped me understand the complexities of Italian culture — not the one defined by Da Vinci or Verdi but the one defined by Southern Italian farmers. For those like my parents who lived in the Southern Italian countryside prior to World War II, life had more to do with figuring out how to survive, than how to compose arias or paint pretty pictures. Still, despite their difficulties, they not only managed to come up with the bare necessities, they also managed to incorporate joy in their everyday lives — a major feat for poor people. Italians are not a sour lot — perhaps that's why North Americans started to imitate some of their customs (e.g., drink wine with their meals). Italians insist that life is beautiful, la vita e bella, not because it is devoid of sorrow, but because sorrow has an antidote. It could be joy. It could be compassion. It could be forgiveness. For Italians if there is a problem there is a solution (Maybe that's why over 50 million Italians immigrated, rather than whining about their condition, they simply left the country of their birth for greener pastures). Southern Italian farmers in the 1930s didn't write self-help books (Most were illiterate) but they knew how to help each other, and help themselves. Essentially, they knew how to cope with life's difficulties. They tried to pass this knowledge — street smarts you might call it — to their kids, but many of us (including Rita Romano, in My Italian Wife) dismissed them as cafone, country bumpkins, and did not listen to their sage advice.

OB:

What unique opportunities for comedy did you find writing about these particular characters?

MM:

Both plays focus their attention on love and sex. The subject is as old as time. The Bible, the best-known, if not the first, history book in the known universe, starts off its tale by detailing the sexual habits of Adam and Eve. The couple was tight — Eve sprung out of Adam’s ribs for Heaven’s sake and that starts the ball rolling. From then on every other couple that isn't as tight or as intimate complains. Adam and Eve set the bar high. If a couple doesn't match their interconnectedness and their joyful or joyless (Hard to say) sexual escapades then they feel cheated. Couples demand a hell of a lot from each other. They’re forever expecting their better half to make them happy. And as happiness is hard to come by, there is conflict. And conflict creates drama. The question arises: is the drama generated comic or tragic? Couples inevitably and/or inadvertently hurt each other. Jealousy looms. Complications, misunderstandings and disagreements arise. More war games are played out in the bed room than sex games. The good news is that the majority of couples knows their limits, and will do what they can to quickly repair any emotional damage they may cause to their significant other. To my mind the world of couples is not a tragic one. There is plenty of humor to be milked from their follies. Nothing in life is black or white. Bitter or sweet. It’s always a combination of a bit of love, a bit of hate, a bit of truth, a bit of lies, a bit of this and a bit of that. That’s why I couldn't write a tragedy. There is too much in life to laugh about. And the best source for comedy is one’s own self. Self-mocking wit that’s what drives my creative juices.

OB:

Family seems to be a subject of interest for you. What is it about family relationships that captures your imagination? What has been your own family's reaction to your work?

MM:

My world has been limited to my house and garden. By choice or circumstance? It’s hard to say. In any case because I did not join the work-weary rat race my experiences have been tied to family matters. Maybe it’s all I know, assuming of course, I know anything besides what I don’t want to know and what we all know (Life is a bitch, albeit, a beautiful one! ). As to my family’s reaction to my work, I make it a point, for them to know as little as possible about what it is I do. It’s none of their business what goes on inside my head. Why I allow people I don’t know to take a peek at what’s inside my head is a mystery.

OB:

Tell us about some of your favorite Canadian shows in recent years.

MM:

This is a hard question to answer because I don’t go out much, especially to the theatre because it’s far too expensive on my little income. I do read plays and on the rare occasion when I can actually afford to pay for a ticket, I go to student productions (They're amazingly good). Generally, I see plays I am familiar with and love, like Chekhov’s Three Sisters and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest. The number of Canadian plays I have seen are few and in between, but I do recall watching a fine student production of a George F. Walker play. Of all Canadian playwrights, past and present (Dare I say future as well?), George F. Walker, has done more to upgrade the image of what a Canadian play could be and should be than any other wordsmith in the business.

OB:

What are you working on now?

MM:

I completed two books one of which is non-fiction, entitled, In the Backyard: Questioning the Art of Aging, Dying and Making Love, and the other is a novel, entitled, Via Roma, Between Two Worlds, Two Men. The novel can be described as a metaphysical story of love and lust. It's part murder mystery (The protagonist's husband may or may have not been killed by the Mafia), part philosophical (Queries are made about what happens after one dies) and part warm and fussy (Life is beautiful, and if it isn't, it should be). As it is considered bad luck to discuss works-in-progress, I best keep my mouth shut as to what I am currently working on. Often the future is not what you expect. So it is with books. And with people. You can never know for sure what they’re up to. That’s part of the charm of being human — not knowing.


Mary Melfi received a B.A. in English Literature from Concordia University and a Masters of Library Science from McGill University. Since completing her studies she has published over a dozen books of critically-acclaimed poetry and prose. Her first novel, Infertility Rites, was published by Guernica Editions in 1991 and later translated into French and Italian. Doubleday Canada published her children's fantasy book: Ubu, the Witch Who Would be Rich. In 2009 the author’s memoir, Italy Revisited: Conversations with My Mother was published. Also a playwright, Mary Melfi's works for the theatre have been workshopped in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. She received the Giornata Internazionale Della Donna Award in 2010.

For more information about Foreplay and My Italian Wife please visit the Guernica Editions website.

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