Where are you from? Though I was born in Cincinnati, my family moved before my first birthday. By the time I was 15, I had moved seven different times. I think that moving so often as a child, taught me to be an observer of humanity. I was always the kid who stood along the playground fence, listening and sizing up competition, before I jumped into a game. Because of this, I think that I’m now a pretty good read of character, which plays a role in my writing. I am intrigued by human motivation---what makes people make the choices they do in life.
When and why did you begin writing? I was an early reader and became a writer when I was old enough to hold a pencil and scribble out sentences. I was writing plays for my sisters and family dog as well as creating puppet shows by the second grade. I became serious about my writing ten years ago. Books have always been my sanctuary. Sometimes stories offer an escape; sometimes they offer answers. I like to do both in my writing. I think about this when I’m designing the structure of my work. My novels are fast-paced and plot driven but galvanized by layers of complex humanity and literary allusions.
What inspires you as a writer? The human condition inspires my writing. I think the motivating forces that drive people to make good or bad choices can be just as intriguing as the choices, themselves. We are human and we are fallible which lands us in tight corners throughout life. In my writing, I like to explore how we end up toying with sin in these tight boxes and the decisions we choose (or not choose) to climb out of the difficult spaces.
Explain what you mean. Okay. Let’s consider Mary Shelley’s Monster in Frankenstein. The Monster was not innately evil. He was thrown into a world that rejected and muted him because of his hideous appearance. His father rejected him at birth then society rejected him, as well. Society taught him that the only way to alleviate his own pain was to inflict pain on others. Understanding these motivating factors is far more intriguing than the actual murders that the Monster commits.
In my first book, The Marriage of Silence and Sin, there are characters who commit horrible, unspeakable acts. I do not dwell on the evil deeds, themselves. I peel back the motivations behind the acts and the consequences of the decisions. I also explore how people are silenced both physically and mentally by the sins of others. I carry out this theme in my second book, Salty Miss Tenderloin. Starlight Nox is young girl who was born on the gritty streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin District in 1970 to parents who were caught up in the psychedelic haze. They hustled their daughter to support their drug habit. Because of the sins of others, Star struggles to find dignity, self-worth and happiness as a young woman in Cincinnati.
What else inspires your writing? I am inspired by mythology and as well as classic novel writers. I look at mythology as a way to make sense of humanity. Mythology type-cast personalities long before the Myers Briggs or Enneagram profiles. So, I have great fun in reviving personality types through mythology. More importantly, though, I have been influenced by classical writers like Mary Shelley, Thomas Hardy, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Jane Austen.
Which classic inspired The Marriage of Silence and Sin? Mary Shelley and her wretched monster greatly influenced The Marriage of Silence and Sin. At some point in our lives, most of us feel unloved or unlovable---like we have a creature hiding inside us that has been rejected and silenced by our inner or outer world. Mary Shelley explores this other self through the Monster. Similarly, The Marriage of Silence and Sin explores how and why people are silenced and then how they deal with it. Some people lash out at others to alleviate the pain while others turn the agony inward and torture themselves. The story seeks to give voice to the silenced.
Also, to remain in the spirit of the Romantics, each chapter of the book begins with a quote from a Romantic period poet or writer that serves to foreshadow the plot in that section. I connect with these writers, especially William Blake, as I appreciate how they peel back layers of humanity, even if they did it with a touch of opium. I try to expose humanity sans the opium!
What about your most Salty Miss Tenderloin? Where did you find inspiration? Salty Miss Tenderloin is a great story and I loved writing it. I miss the characters, as a matter fact! The story is dark but not nearly as sinister as The Marriage of Silence and Sin. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter and Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge are the unlikely couple that influenced Salty. The protagonist in each classic story, Hester Prynne and Elizabeth Jane, both struggle with happiness, the former because of the life she cast for herself and the latter because of the life she was cast into by others. Both are truly noble women who are wronged by men and by society. The central character in Salty, Starlight Nox, is a combination of these two women, a woman born on the streets of perdition who struggles with self worth and happiness because of her lot in life as well as her choices. As a little girl, Star dreams that her Pygmalion, her Prince Charming, will ride in, swoop her up and save her from life on the streets. As an adult, just like Hester Prynne and Elizabeth Jane, she is deceived and tormented by a duplicitous Pygmalion until an unlikely hero teaches Star that happiness comes from within.
I hope readers also hear echoes of Jane Austen in the story. I’m delighted and entertained by Austen’s divine sense of humor that reveals the sardonic dances in relationships between and among men and women. She is also a master at exposing false appearances that hide behind status and position in society. And, she knows how to give the antagonists a bitter dose of their own medicine, in the most subtle way, of course.
Starlight Nox is a telling name. What does it foretell? Naming characters is important in my writing. I draw on the classics as well as mythology when choosing names. The origin of Starlight Nox is twofold. First, Hester (as in Hester Prynne) means star, and this book was inspired by The Scarlet Letter. Secondly, I challenge fate and destiny with this character--with a name like that, you wonder if her fate was predestined by the stars. Interestingly, she finds a guiding light in an old Italian shop owner named Leo. I chose ‘Leo’ because this regal constellation is one of the largest in the night sky. Ultimately, Leo provides the torch Star needs to break free from her ill-fated destiny. Other names like Janus Perfidious and Kory Hubers foreshadow character types, as well.
I use names similarly in The Marriage of Silence and Sin. The story draws on the mythological story of Philomela, a young girl who is raped by her brother-in-law. Her tongue is cut out so she cannot tell her sister. Philomela then weaves her story in a tapestry to reveal the evil deed. The gods turn the sisters into birds, one a nightingale. Thus, one character is named Gale Knightly while another is named Elle.
I have always loved puzzles, and I view writing as a complex puzzle. Names are important pieces of the puzzle that fit together to reveal my characters and the story.
Do you have a specific writing style? Most importantly, I would say that my writing is very accessible to many types of readers, whether someone is looking for a sweltering, plot-driven story or one that integrates powerful moral issues. I try to write the way in which men and women actually think and talk to each other. I think and process ideas through dialogue which translates into a conversational, intimate style. I’m Italian with three sisters and a very vocal grandma and aunt. We all came out of the birth canal with a point to make. I think that comes across in my writing.
What distinguishes your books from every other on the bookshelf? Readers are attracted to my approachable writing style that is intertwined with blister plot movement. I’ve received many emails from readers saying that they have read either book in just two sittings. My stories can also be enjoyed at different levels of complexity, as well. A reader doesn’t have to delve into the literary or mythological allusions to have great fun with the stories. However, there are complex themes, moral questions and contemporary social issues to be considered in each story, if the reader chooses. I bring these points out in the reader guide in the back of each book.
How did you come up with your titles? With my first book, I went through many titles before I settled on The Marriage of Silence and Sin. The novel was first entitled Nightmare, or the Modern Romantics. I loved it, but no one else did. I came upon the final title while reading William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Maybe it was divine intervention on the poet’s part as The Marriage of Silence and Sin captures the two most prominent themes in the book.
With Salty Miss Tenderloin, I wanted to capture the sassy strength and grit of Starlight Nox. She was born on the seedy streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin District in 1970 and managed to survive. Throughout the story, Star is knocked down but finds the strength to pull herself up, time and time again.
Is there a message in either novel that you want readers to grasp? In The Marriage of Silence and Sin, I strive to give voice to the muted. I delve into some horrific realms of humanity including incest, human trafficking, and rape. I want people to finish that book thinking that everyone has a right to be respected and to have a voice. In Salty, I want people to realize that most of us are not handed a life on a silver platter. Life is tough. Stop waiting for your Princess or Prince to drop from the sky to make you happy. Self worth and happiness must come from within.
How much of your story lines realistic? I think my writing is grounded in almost too much reality, at times. What I mean is that my central themes are harsh. I’m not graphic, but when you’re exploring human trafficking or child prostitution, the acts themselves are horrific.
Are parts of the stories based on people you know or events in your own life? When I’m teaching a fiction course, I always pose this question to students: can novelists completely disassociate their lives from their writing? I think that it would be pretty difficult. My life is my fodder for writing. My family, friends and acquaintances are intertwined throughout the book.
What books have most influenced your life most? That’s a hard question, but if I have to pick one, I would say Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. If I had red hair and other male attributes and could design houses, just maybe you could call me Howard Roark. I am a driven person, I set the bar high for myself, yet I have always felt disconnected from normal---the status quo. When I first read the book at sixteen or seventeen, I learned that there is strength and power in being YOU. That’s how I learned to fight those demons in the mirror.
Your books are set in and around Cincinnati. Why did you choose this setting? I chose Cincinnati, first, because I love the city. Our town is a gem. The terrain is beautiful---we have hills, forests, water, great parks, great places to bike and hike. Cincinnati has the arts, music, amazing food and wonderful academic institutions.
Also, I chose Cincinnati because of the conservative values and sense of tradition ingrained in the city. Salty Miss Tenderloin draws on this overt sense of morality that clings to the city. For the most part, I think that this is a good thing, but I also think that Cincinnati, like any town, has a lot of Stone Throwers who seem eternally poised to cast a stone at any glass house that does not fit the traditional mold. I moved to Cincinnati as an adolescent as did Starlight Nox. My parents were divorced, my mom was broke, and we lived with my grandparents. For the most part, I felt like an outsider always looking into the party that wasn’t meant for me. Now, I’ve come to love and adore Cincinnati.
If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in either book? With The Marriage of Silence and Sin, I’ve thought about the question a lot. There is one particular theme that is tough for people to swallow. There is a subplot that deals with incest. This is a highly sensitive topic that many people would prefer to avoid. However, I wanted to echo Romantic period themes, and this is one that Mary Shelley explored in her novella Mathilda. Since writing the book, I have attended about two dozen book clubs. At almost every discussion, a person comes forward with a personal experience of incest. One central goal of the book was to give voice to the silenced. Therefore, if I have given voice to just one person through the story, I consider my book a success.