From Big Stone Gap to the Big Apple

July InterVIEW with novelist Adriana Trigiani

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Print this page by Martha Steger

Everyone loves a Cinderella story, and few people fit the slippers as well as Adriana Trigiani. After growing up in the small Southwest Virginia coal town of Big Stone Gap, Trigiani went on to become a playwright, a writer/producer for Bill Cosby’s television show and a best-selling novelist, published in more than 30 countries.

For Trigiani, who now lives in New York’s Greenwich Village, the distance from Big Stone Gap with its Friday-night football and marching band to the Big Apple hasn’t been that far. She graduated from Saint Mary’s College in South Bend, Ind., — a good transition from her small native town to the big city. Initially, Trigiani earned a living on New York’s cabaret circuit after founding an all-female comedy troupe, “The Outcasts.”

Then she became an off-Broadway playwright before her stint for “The Cosby Show.” Now she juggles being a wife to Tim Stephenson (Emmy award-winning lighting designer of the “Late Show with David Letterman”) and mother to 7-year-old Lucia while answering fan mail and traveling to book events throughout the world. 

Trigiani retains her Virginia ties. She helps with fundraising events at the Library of Virginia and Catholic Charities in Richmond and spends a few weeks with her mother each year in Big Stone Gap. She also visits her sister, Lucia Anna “Pia” Trigiani, in Alexandria. Pia is a partner in the law firm of Mercer Trigiani LLP and president-elect of the Virginia Bar Association.

In what could be a publicity coup for her hometown, Trigiani is in final preparations for the film debut of her first, 2003 novel, “Big Stone Gap.” She will direct the screenplay she has written, and, if she gets her way, the movie will be filmed in her hometown, a fitting tribute to the Appalachian culture she has tapped so richly in her books.

Virginia Business: You’ve talked about how great it was to grow up in a small town. Were there disadvantages, too, in growing up where everybody knows everybody else’s business?

Trigiani: Gossip in a small town? Impossible!  I look at it this way: there are many more nurturing, supportive and wonderful elements to small town life than there are negatives. I live in Greenwich Village now, which is a small town in a big city so I really haven’t let go of the old desires to know my neighbors and be part of a community.  That said, I also love my privacy.

VB: When did you first realize writing was your passion in life? 
Trigiani:  I love reading, and then I fell in love with writing. It felt like a very natural progression. I made the emotional connection of words to paper when I was 12 or 13.  I wrote a lot of bad poetry but had a great time doing it, and then I just stuck with it and practiced.

VB:  Besides members of your own family, who worked hard as immigrants and were artists in their own right, who were your idols as you began your own career and why?
Trigiani:  My favorite series of books as a girl were the Landmark Series of biographies. They were chapter books, and there seemed to be at least a hundred of them.  Basically, they were biographies, whose stories began in the childhood of accomplished Americans — like Sojourner Truth, Babe Didrikson Zaharias or Abraham Lincoln —  and their life stories really stuck with me … I enjoy reading about how a person chooses a path in life and then, despite obstacles or failure, persists.  I like to think that’s what I’m doing when I write a novel — it’s really a life story —  imagined of course, but it’s the arc of a character’s life, and I attempt to track a key event or moments that lead to it, that alters the course of that character’s journey.

VB:  You’ve said you first wrote “Big Stone Gap” as a screenplay, and then an agent advised you to rewrite it as a book. How long did the rewrite take you?  
Trigiani:  I should clarify that the agent was a longtime friend — and she knew I wanted to have a family — and she advised me to find a way to write from home. She read the screenplay and said, “I love this world, it’s a novel.”  I said, okay, I’ll try it, but I had no idea I would enjoy it, or that it would become a passion for me.  Novel-writing is my happy accident!

I get asked about time — and how I use it — a lot.  It’s a great question, and in many ways, I don’t know how to answer it. I found a scene I had written about a character named Ave Maria and her father, Mario, from 1985. I found character descriptions I had written in 1981, filed under “Big Stone Gap” when I was in college.  So you see it takes me, in some cases, 20 years or more to develop an idea. This process, gestation — whatever you want to call it — is the time no one accounts for; sometimes it’s lifelong. Once the idea has percolated long enough, typically it takes me a year to write the book based on the idea. Now, there’s a rhythm to my work.  I work seven days a week, at least a few hours a day and, at the most, seven hours or so. It just depends.  

VB: Tell us about your training for novel-writing and how your stories evolve.
Trigiani:  I was trained as a playwright and then wrote episodic television, screenplays and then made a documentary film.  I found the novel form totally by accident — the aforementioned challenge from a friend who thought I could do it. If there’s a secret to anything that has happened to me professionally, it’s that I don’t hold on when things aren’t working. I try to build my work around my life, not the other way around.

I am very open to how I will tell a story.  I try to stay very, very loose in that regard. Some ideas are poems; some are short stories; and others, novels.  But I don’t connect writing a novel to writing a screenplay. When I write a novel, I imagine the characters as real people in a real world that is very much alive to me … But when I write a screenplay, I must think of the actor. I am giving that actor, hopefully, all he or she needs to play the part. The screenplay has to tell the story in a very visual way to impart that character’s journey.  A novel is the opposite: it describes the world lushly. They are chalk and cheese — screenplays and novels — as they say in England.

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