For many years before Tony Taddei was creating characters on the page, he was creating them on the stage as a trained actor. Born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut, Tony now lives in New Jersey. I first met Tony in 2014 when we both attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. A few years later, we reconnected through the Bennington College Writing Seminars. Though all of my interactions with Tony had been related to writing, I hadn’t had the pleasure to read his work for myself until the recent publication of his collection of linked short stories, The Sons of the Santorelli. What a joy it was to discover the craftsmanship and poignancy in these twelve stories about an immigrant family, particularly the men in the family who struggle with their desires and ambitions. Yes, this is a narrative about an immigrant family, but as David Gates said about the book, this is not “the conventional immigrant family saga.” Tony was kind enough to answer some of my questions about putting these stories together, about how he avoided convention, and how he infused a political slant into such personal, character-driven writing.
DL: How long did it take you to write these stories, and do you recall when you knew how individual stories would work together? Can you talk about your reasons for writing multiple, linked stories rather than a novel?
TT: I took my time writing these stories, so that the process from drafting the initial stories to finalizing the collection probably took five or six years. The collection wasn’t the only thing I was working on during the time, and, in any case, I didn’t want to rush the process of writing the collection. First, because I wanted to get the premise of each story right as well as to spend time considering what stories might need to be added, and second, because I was having a lot of fun writing about these people and I kind of wanted to savor it.
During the process of working on the stories I don’t think I really had a master plan for how they would all work together. That said, once I decided to write one story for each of the Santorelli sons and grandsons as well as at least one story about the patriarch, the linkages between stories started to become evident, and I was able to find ways in rewriting the stories and adding new ones to get them to work together as a piece. My goal was to have each story stand on its own but also for a reader to be able to sit back and think about them in their entirety after finishing the collection to realize that the parts of the book made up a whole.
As to why I wrote the saga of this family as linked stories rather than a novel, I did it because it gave me the ability to tell multiple, smaller stories that I would not have been able to tell in a novel (while still trying to make the novel a cohesive whole). It was also a lot easier for me to write about the individuals in this very complex and human family in separate stories than it would have been in a novel. By telling the story of the Santorellis a character at a time, I think I did more justice to each individual while still creating the personality and a legacy of a whole family.
DL: One of the recurring themes throughout these stories is the idea of the immigrant experience, often depicted here in connection with “immigrant shame” and the idea that America “breaks” the spirit of immigrants. This is the antithetical American story. How conscious were you of making this kind of political statement during the writing? Do you have advice for other writers about incorporating political ideas into fiction?
TT: As the work progressed, I was very conscious of it. Having come from an immigrant family and seen them fail more than succeed at the things they most wanted I can be somewhat cynical about the idea of an American Dream to begin with. I knew that cynicism would likely play a role in the situations I put my characters in.
That said, I didn’t I initially set out to tell stories that torpedoed the idea of what can be achieved in America. I set out to write human stories that were compelling to read as well as funny and tragic with as many twists and surprises as I could manage. In order tell the truth about the characters in this family as I saw them, I had to show the forces that were working upon them. The largest of those forces being that for most immigrants and, especially for the poor, this country very often only lets them get so far before it pushes them back down again. This comes in the form of economic imprisonment, and it comes in the form of racial imprisonment where one wave of immigrants who’d faced bigotry visits their own xenophobia and bigotry on the next wave of immigrants to reach America’s shores.
My advice for writers who want to incorporate political ideas into fiction is to first find an honest story that is personal and then begin writing it without focusing on the political or cultural connotations. If the story is honest and tracks with the world we live in, they won’t be able to help themselves from writing about the political forces that are acting upon their characters. Those forces come into play in our lives most of the time without us even realizing they are there. After that, when the writer looks back on what they’ve written, they can draw out the more political aspects of the story to any degree they choose. To put the above more succinctly, all politics are personal. I think any political writing should follow that guideline.
DL: Many of these stories are told through the male point of view which makes sense given the title of the collection. But that’s not to say that you don’t give voice to women within the Santorelli family. How did you settle on the balance between male and female characters and points-of-view? Were there any challenges in allowing the women to have their say in this male-dominated cast?
TT: Not at all, because I think if you look closely at each of the stories, you’ll see that the women in the backgrounds of these men’s lives are the real truth-tellers. The stories would not have found the ballast they needed for their conflict and reasoning if it weren’t for the women characters. A reader will likely see this most clearly in a story like “Commedia Dell’Arte” which has the matriarch of the family as the protagonist trying to make sense of and tell the truth about male dominance in her life. But it’s just below the surface of most of the other stories as well. From “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers” where a prostitute early on dominates a group of highly dysfunctional and misogynist men, to “Valiant” where the sisters and especially the mother in the family turn out to be stronger and more insightful then either the father or the son.
So, no, I did not find many challenges in allowing the women to have their say in my largely male-dominated cast. In fact, I’d say that the challenge was being able to hold off in letting the women have their say long enough so that the men could act out in the wrong-headed and solipsistic ways that I think make the stories interesting and recognizable to readers. Especially female readers.
DL: In an effort to demystify the process, I always ask writers about the process of submitting their manuscripts for publication. Can you describe the time between writing and publishing these stories? How did you connect with Bordighera Press?
TT: The time between writing and publishing was, to some extent, concurrent. I started to send the manuscript to publishers when I had most of the stories finished but was still revising the last two or three. At that point it was rejection, rejection, rejection until I found Bordighera Press.
Bordighera is a small independent press that is partially privately funded with a mission to publish writing about the culture of Italy and Italian Americans—essays, fiction, poetry, what have you. They publish a semiannual review of shorter work as well as a twice yearly run of new full-length work and are always looking for good writing that fits the themes of Italian life. About 2 years ago, I submitted the title story of my collection to Bordighera for consideration in their semiannual review, and it was accepted. Once I realized that they also published full length work, I sent the full and, by then, nearly completed manuscript, and I was thrilled when they said they wanted to publish it.
I’ve been telling people who ask how you find a publisher for your work that you have to persevere until you find a publisher that is the right fit. Most of the time that’s easier said than done. In my case I believe it was a bit easier because the work was a more-or-less exact match with the kind of work Bordighera is looking for.
DL: What are you working on now?
TT: I’m finishing up another collection of short stories that revolve around the melancholy, indignities, and occasional pleasures that men face as they age. Each of these stories also weaves in animals and their ability to live instinctually and unquestioningly as a humorous and (I think) affecting counterpoint to the men in the stories who are creating their own problems and then struggling to accept the circumstances they find themselves in. These two themes may not at first glance seem to go together, but I think the stories work better because of their juxtaposition. I’m hoping to have these stories published as a collection sometime soon and readers can judge for themselves. For now, if any of your readers want to take a look a couple of these stories, they a can go to Animal Literary Magazine and The Florida Review online. I’m also beginning a novel but it’s too early to say much about it, so I’ll have to get back to you on that.
DL: Are there any opportunities coming up for readers to hear you read from The Sons of the Santorelli either via Zoom or in person?
TT: Yes, I recently read an excerpt from a story in the collection – “We Now Conclude Our Broadcast Day” – online for the Prospect Street Reading series and readers can view that on Facebook Events at https://www.facebook.com/events/413658933932101/?ref=newsfeed (no Facebook account required to view).
Folks can also go to the Selected Audio section of my website and listen to me read the first two stories from the collection.
Other readings are in the works, and I’ll post the particulars to my social media feeds when they’re set. (@tony_taddei / Twitter; Tony Taddei / Facebook; tonytaddei / Instagram)
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Huge thanks to Tony for speaking to me about his new book. Don’t forget to order The Sons of the Santorelli now from Bordighera Press. Make sure you never miss a post by subscribing here: