Getting personal and historical with ‘The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna’ author Juliet Grames

Juliet Grames has been thinking about Stella Fortuna for nearly her entire life. Well, sort of. The titular character of The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna bears parallel characteristics to her grandmother’s own life. Both emigrated from Southern Italy to America. Both had an accident that reshaped their personality and life.

In Fortuna, Grames follows the intricacies of family dynamics over a long and winding generation. As secrets and hidden histories unveil themselves, the family members begin to see each other in different light.

I corresponded with the author, who is also an Associate Publisher at Soho Press, about the real life history that inspired the novel and her role in the literary world other than being a writer.

This book seems to have been somewhere inside you since you were a child. You wrote a great background on your website, which I’ll link to, but can you give a brief version of your grandma’s story here?

My grandmother—who was born in a small village in Calabria, in Southern Italy, and who emigrated to the US as a teenager—had eight near-death experiences over the course of her very long life. I’d wanted to write about her almost unbelievable personal story and the world she came from since I was a little girl, and eventually that took the shape was this novel. 

In the end, though, this book is fiction. How did the idea that started Stella Fortuna evolve into the final version?

My grandmother suffered a traumatic brain injury when I was five years old, and after a life-saving lobotomy was left dramatically altered. I found I couldn’t write about my grandmother in the end because of her lobotomy—I was never able to know the real, pre-procedure her well enough, no matter how much third-party research I did. So instead I invented the fictional character of Stella Fortuna and planted her in the village where my grandmother was born, imagining the characters who might have surrounded her and the circumstances that might have brought a woman like her to the US. 

I’m so appreciative of the family tree that was included. How intricately did you plot Stella’s family? Was it prior to writing or did her family shift as you discovered the story? 

I’m afraid I’m the type who plans every tiny detail before embarkation, and for creating what I felt was a realistic enough family for Stella (who grows up in an extremely family-oriented Italian household) I needed to develop life stories, marriage and in-law maps, and village institutional knowledge that extends pretty far past the family tree in the printed book (I really didn’t want it to include any spoilers!).  

In my book club, we recently read books on immigration and a member whose sets of grandparents are from two different regions of Italy discussed the loving, but serious rivalry of sorts between the sides of the family. Calabria plays a central role to your novel as well as your family history. What about the region sets it apart from other areas of Italy?

Calabria is a fascinating, wonderful, and vastly misunderstood region of Italy. It was really important to me to try to represent it in its richness and complexity, because in the course of my research I became frustrated with how little is written about it, and how what is written focuses only on the negative. Calabria’ss long history of victimization under colonial exploitation has had many dire consequences—rampant poverty, which resulted in widespread malaria and population loss due to emigration; little access to literacy until the 1920s, meaning it is mostly left without its own written history; organized crime, which started to dominate the entire region around the turn of the 20th century. But there is so, so much more to it—more than just beautiful sights and delicious foods to delight tourists. There is also a 3000-year history (the Odyssey is set in Calabria, by the way!) and a rich, multi-textured culture of music, proverbs, agricultural sorcery and secret wisdom. It’s also the ancestral home of many, many Americans. 

You’re an Associate Publisher at Soho Press. How did that position help with writing your debut?

Since about half my job is editing other writers, and I believe editing is about 75% of writing, so my day job was certainly good training. Editing books also teaches you stamina for really long projects, which is something you desperately need for writing a book. 

Also, I feel a lot of young writers focus so heavily on writing, writing, writing. But they might not know about other aspects of the publishing world. What exactly does being an Associate Publisher entail?

It means different things at different companies. Usually the Associate Publisher works with the publisher on the press’s overall strategy and business. Often there is a strong marketing or business component, but in my case, my role is more editorial than that instead, because I also edit the Soho Crime imprint. I will say, though, that I was very grateful for my knowledge of the entire business end of the publishing process. I can imagine many debut authors must get very frustrated with aspects of the business I knew to expect. 

Your pinned tweet is: “There are three rules for writing. Unfortunately, no one can agree what they are.”–W. Somerset Maugham… What were your three rules of writing Stella Fortuna?

Keep going.

Keep going. 

Keep going. 

Follow Juliet Grames on Twitter and Instagram.

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