By Daniel Ford
There’s nothing better than promoting books based in your own backyard!
Author Diana Sperrazza, who was raised in a blue-collar neighborhood in West Springfield, Mass., recently talked to me about her journalism career, the ‘60s and ‘70s counterculture, and the inspiration behind her debut novel, My Townie Heart.
Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to become a writer, or is something that grew organically over time?
Diana Sperrazza: Journalism was really my first real calling and it was a strong one. But eventually I wanted to tell stories that were more personal. I was very specifically interested in the influence class has on how a person makes her way in the world. I left my job as a producer at CNN so I could do the low residency MFA program at Bennington College, where I did their nonfiction track. The only thing I could possibly imagine writing then was a memoir. But by the time I had finished writing my thesis, I was getting sick of talking about myself. I also began to doubt my own life was interesting enough to sustain a book. So I tried writing fiction that was influenced by my own life but told a more dramatic, bigger story. After a while, I knew it was the way I wanted to go. That said, I’m still getting used to the idea of actually being a fiction writer.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
DS: I remember reading all of Jane Austen as a child and young teen. Then there was this blackout period in my adolescence and early adulthood where I didn’t read fiction at all. I thought only nonfiction stories were worth anything. Once I began to write, I happened upon Russell Banks and Dorothy Allison and felt the truth behind their fiction and it changed how I thought about things.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
DS: I write intuitively, like I’m listening for the story inside of myself, but it sure wouldn’t look that way to an observer. I wrote My Townie Heart in bed with the television on (the sound was turned down) tuned to reruns of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” In a way, she kept me company. I also like to write in noisy coffee shops. Perhaps it’s the result of all the years of working in news, but it’s hard for me to work if it’s too quiet. I enjoy feeling the buzz of others around me.
DF: As someone who was trained as a journalist and made a living at it for a couple of years, I have to ask what you think of the current state of journalism and why was it something you pursued when you first started out? Also, what’s the most entertaining story you ever worked on?
DS: I’m almost 61 years old, so I was drawn to journalism back in the late ‘70s, in that heady post-Watergate time. I really did believe it could change the world. It seems incredibly naïve now to have placed so much faith in that institution, but back then, being a journalist was about having a higher calling and working to reveal the truth so things could be made right. These days, the news business is more involved with making money, often at the expense of just about everything else. There is still some great and courageous work being done out there, but it’s harder and more dangerous that it was when I was doing it.
DF: What inspired you to write My Townie Heart?
DS: I was tremendously moved by the movie, “Mystic River.” Someone in my extended family was attacked as a child and I witnessed for myself how it changed everything. I went right out and read Dennis Lehane’s book. I was struck by how the blue collar characters were like the people I had grown up with and in my heart, I knew I had to write a story about them and about myself too.
DF: What made you decide to set the novel in the 1970s?
DS: So much changed in that era! Certainly it all started in the ‘60s, but it took the ‘70s to metastasize those changes, for people to feel them in their daily lives. So suddenly feminism, drugs, the counterculture, eastern spirituality—all of that became a felt reality, even in more traditional blue collar neighborhoods.
DF: What were some of the themes you wanted to tackle in the novel?
DS: Certainly I wanted to talk about trauma, and how and if you get over it. But I also wanted to talk about class. For the record, I don’t view those two subjects synonymously. Everyone is vulnerable to trauma. But if you grew up blue collar, you were probably told to quit your whining if you had problems, that it was better never to mention that your parents hadn’t finished high school (never mind college), or about how you had to work in a factory in the summer to pay for school. If there was violence or alcoholism in your family, you were supposed to cope and bury your shame. On the other hand, you also learned how to be self sufficient, how to work hard because no one was going to hand feed you anything, and, if you didn’t fall into the tempting traps of envy or bitterness, you gained a sense of your own integrity, because whatever you’ve done in the life is truly yours, not propped up by someone else’s efforts or money. I wanted to take those subjects out of the closet.
DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters? How do you develop your characters in general?
DS: Most of the characters in my novel are composites of people I knew in certain periods in my life. Some are made up completely. Laura’s character is emotionally true of me. The details are invented, but the major themes are not: I am from a blue-collar neighborhood in West Springfield, Mass., and my father was an alcoholic. I had no sister, but I have two brothers. I had a hard time with college and left. The counterculture had an enormous impact on me. I got overwhelmed and agoraphobic as a young woman and had to work very hard, mostly on my own, to recover. I moved to New Mexico for a new start and went back to school, but I studied journalism, not law. I think my characters come together in my subconscious, where the real and the imagined can comfortably co-habitat.
DF: Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next?
DS: I’ve started writing another book, but am not going to say much about it yet. I’m still feeling my way with the story, but it’s about a middle-aged man who also has class issues.
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
DS: A number of years ago my writing partner, Janice Gary (author of Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog-walking and Deliverance) heard this lecture at an AWP conference by Walter Moseley. He had just written his book on how to finish a novel, and he said that you have to work every day on your writing, even if you only visit it and read over the previous day’s work; you have to keep the connection current and alive. It was the best advice either of us had ever heard and both of us managed to finish our books. He was also the one who introduced me to the idea that writing comes out of your subconscious. It’s like a pipeline you have to keep open and clear.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
DS: I love the Showtime series “Ray Donovan,” but I don’t talk like that. People from western Massachusetts sound nothing like people from Boston. Totally different accent!