Monday, August 11, 2014

Interview with Teresa Neumann, author of Bianca's Vineyard

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Teresa Neumann to Flashlight Commentary to discuss her debut release, Bianca's Vineyard. 

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Teresa. Great to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about Bianca’s Vineyard.
I began writing Bianca’s Vineyard in 2001 after going to Italy for the first time, at the invitation of Bianca Corrotti, to meet my husband’s relatives in Tuscany. It was an incredible, life-changing experience for both of us, and the culmination of years of genealogical research. 

The book is based on your husband’s family. How did his relations react to the finished manuscript? 
They were thrilled to see it in print. Bianca’s daughter, Lucia is incredibly proud that her mother has been immortalized in such a way. In particular, I am forever grateful that Bianca herself was able to read it before she died as she was a major inspiration for writing the book. 

You and your husband, David, actually make an appearance in the novel. How did you feel writing yourself into the story? 
It felt perfectly organic at the time and still does. Our introduction to the Bertozzi family in 2001 was a pivotal moment on many levels and meeting the daughter of Egisto’s “true love” on the beach was such a mind-blower, and brought such a symbolic closure to the saga, I couldn’t help but include it.   

The bulk of the novel takes place during the first half of the twentieth century. How did you bridge the gap in time, and in some cases geography, to bring Bianca’s Vineyard to life?
Focusing first on the deep attachment Armida and Egisto had to their home in Tuscany was crucial in describing their American immigrant story because it explained so many things: their deep attachment to family still in Italy, their reluctance to integrate fully into American life, their unique perspective on healthcare and certain other New World institutions. The linguistic and cultural divide Armida refused to face in the US was central to her ultimate disenchantment and decision to return to Italy. 

Luigi and Carmela Bertozzi, Egisto's parents.
For those readers who aren’t overly familiar with it, how did WWII affect life for the average Italian?
It was absolutely devastating. Like Hitler, Mussolini initially rose to power by fulfilling his promise to restore post-WWI Italy to some of its former glories. Many Italians rode the giddy wave of renewed prosperity only to crash when Italy allied itself with Germany in the war. Ancient prejudices came into play and soon Italy was ripped apart by civil war and financial collapse. By the end of the war, Italians were reduced to beggary, starvation, and brutal massacres. No family was spared the horrors of the war. Meeting our relatives in 2001 for the first time was a huge eye-opener. They thanked us profusely for the sacrifice Americans made along the Gothic Line. We had no idea what they were talking about. I think that, because the Italian theater of war coincided with the Allied landing on D-Day and the subsequent battles fought on the Western Front, what happened in Italy during that particular time in the war was lost on many Americans. 

Egisto and Armida have a unique relationship. How would you describe the dynamics that characterized their marriage?
It seems foreign to us today, but back in the early part of the 20th century arranged marriages in many European countries, including Italy, were a standard practice. Extreme pressure was put on Italian males immigrating to other countries to marry Italian women either before they left, or have them “sent” to them once they were settled in their host country. Such was the case with Egisto, who ended up – quite rebelliously – proposing to Armida. She was his second choice for a bride. Though it set their marriage off on the wrong foot, enough physical attraction had developed between them that – were it not for the infamous letter and other significant factors – I might have attended their 50th or 60th wedding anniversary in St. Paul, Minnesota. What a party that would have been! But then, “Bianca’s Vineyard” would never have been written…

Without giving anything away, can you tell us a bit about Werner Kolbe and his view of the world?
Ah, evil, black-hearted Werner, the stereo-typical Nazi SS officer you love to hate. Imagine Hans Landa in “Inglorious Basterds” and you have Werner Kolbe: conniving, power-hungry, diabolical, narcissistic, ruthless.  For Werner Kolbe, the possibility that he could be wrong about anything -- that Germany could lose the war, that anyone would dare contradict him -- was unthinkable and a criminal offense.

The Bertozzi Family on Monte di Ripa Circa 1918 - 1920.
Bianca is the little girl with her arm on Carmela's
shoulder (front row, third from right). 
I personally don't know much about them so I have to ask, how do traditional Italian values and culture influence the story? 
They are at the very core of this saga. People who are of Italian descent, or who have travelled extensively in Italy, understand the inexplicably, deep-rooted influence the Catholic church had, and continues to have, on many Italians – especially of  WWII generation in “Bianca’s Vineyard.” Beyond faith, family is absolutely central to Italians in a way that would blow the minds of many Americans.  Un-pervert the Mafia, remove the corrupt, brutal elements – add loads of love and devotion and respect – and you have the true Italian family. That’s not to say there are dysfunctional families in Italy. Not by a long shot. But commitment to family is the prime expectation and reality of their culture. Personally, it’s one of the things I love to observe most when I’m in Italy.  Having been “adopted” into my husband’s family in Italy, I can honestly say there’s nothing quite like it.

You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly enjoyed writing?
The scene where Armida resolves the choices she’s made in her life and surrenders to the path set before her, despite the risks, was extremely therapeutic for my mother-in-law Violenza, whom I loved dearly -- and, therefore, also for myself. It brought Violenza (Babe) a sense of closure after years of doubt and pain and gave me a deep sense of accomplishment on a very personal level.

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author? Why was it troublesome and how did you work through it?
Because I had to “fill in the blanks” in several major scenes, it’s hard to pin down just one. In general, fleshing out Armida’s character so that she didn’t appear overtly one-sided in her relationship with her husband and children (and later her in-laws in Italy) was a huge challenge. On one hand, she inflicted a huge amount of pain on them and yet she was also a woman tormented by jealousy, insecurity, self-doubt, rejection – a slew of demons from her past – all exacerbated by a physical condition that often rendered her mentally unstable. I just had to be sharply aware of her more redeemable traits.  I’m not sure how I worked though it, other than to incessantly re-write until I felt like justice was done to her character, giving balance to the real Armida without forfeiting the truth.

Alberto, Egisto & Francsco. 
Circa 1955
Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time with or expanded on?
Definitely. I feel like I could have written an entire book on Bianca Corrotti -- and another one on her husband Danilo. To this day, I have never encountered anyone as immediately engaging and mesmerizing, with such poise, command and charisma as Bianca – and she was in her late 80’s when I met her! I count it as one of my life’s greatest honors to have known her. It’s simply unexplainable. 

Historical novelists frequently have to adjustment facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing Bianca’s Vineyard and if so, what did you alter and why?  
Years of research had produced only so much information. I had to employ reason and probability to connect some of the dots – particularly in the final year of Armida’s life, as it was impossible to know what happened in the Salo Republic with Mussolini in control. For example, all we were told of the “Fascist” official Armida worked for in Forte dei Marmi (Tuscany) was that he was an “extremely high-level official.” Ironically, it wasn’t until “Bianca’s Vineyard” was published that our relatives in Italy were able to retrieve documentation that she worked for Prince Junio Valerio Borghese, the Admiral of the Italian Submarine Fleet, the Decimas Mas. The storyline, however, was close enough. The fact remains (via information received through a detective Egisto hired after the war) that what happened to Armida was basically what I wrote in the book, minus the intrigue with the partisans. 

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
ARMIDA!!!! When you read the book, you’ll see why ;-) I’d also give anything to speak to Egisto again. I knew him for several years before he died. Like his cousin Bianca -- and his sister Carilda, and his children, Violenza and Silverio -- he was an extraordinary human being. Oh, the questions I’d ask him!!

Just because I’m curious, if you could pick a fantasy cast of actors to play the primary roles in a screen adaptation of your work, who would you hire? 
George Clooney or Andy Garcia as Egisto; Monica Belluci or Ashley Judd as Armida; Al Pacino or Robert DeNiro as Bruno Carditi;  Sam Elliot or Tom Selleck as Luigi Bertozzi; Maggie Smith as Luigi’s wife Carmela; Ray Liotta as Francesco; Roberto Begnini as Alberto… hmm.

The Bertozzi Marble Company and Stuidio in Querceta (Tuscany)
Franceso Bertozzi Jr. is on the right in the dark vest looking at the camera.
Okay, we've talked a lot about your book. Let's switch gears and talk a little bit about you. How would describe your writing process?
I’m not an outliner. I used to berate myself for not having a more analytical, detailed approach to plot and story design, but have accepted the fact that what works best for me is most important – even it means excessive re-writing during the editing process because of it. I commit myself to writing every day whether I feel like it or not, and usually begin by going over what I wrote the day before and tweaking it. Within minutes, the juices are flowing – especially when I start consulting my thesaurus. 

Who are your favorite authors?
In high school, I had to cut my teeth on the classics; Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Hardy. Like first loves, they still form the foundation of my passion for literature. Other writers who deeply influenced me at a young age were Sigrid Undset, Willa Cather, and Elizabeth Goudge. There are so many great writers today, it’s impossible to choose, but a book that wow-ed me recently is “The Light Between Oceans” by M. L. Stedman. I’m a sucker for travelouges like Peter Mayles’ “Provence” series. My favorite poet (besides Tennyson) is, hands down, Edna St. Vincent Millay.  

What are you currently reading?
“The Sugar’s at the Bottom of the Cup” by Patricia Lynn Henley. It’s the biography of Elda Del Bino, an Italian immigrant to America who lived to be 95 despite surviving cancer four times. 

What do you like to do when you're not writing? Any hobbies?
I used to play the violin (fiddle) in a band all the time before I started writing seriously. I’ve since had to give it up as I simply can’t give it the time that it deserves. But, though I may no longer have time for hobbies, family trumps everything. Life is just too short to not love them while I can. My 3-year-old grandson is pure joy and a continual source of inspiration for me. When he calls, I’m there – body and soul.

Where do you stand on the coffee or tea debate?
Coffee in all it’s forms. Can’t resist a cappuccino, affogato, mocha… 

Bianca and her sisters Lida, Rina, and Bice.
Taken in Strettoia (Tuscany).
And finally, what's next for you? Do you have a new project in the works?
I finished the sequel to “Bianca’s Vineyard” last year. It’s called “Domenico’s Table.” Now, I’m in the final stages of getting my third book, “A Year in the Company of Freaks” to print. Though it’s main character is Italian-American, it’s set in the early 1970’s in northern California and therefore entirely different from my first two books. Readers of any age, I believe, will thoroughly enjoy it; but those who lived through the time period will probably have a special interest in it. It should be available for purchase by December 1, in time for Christmas.  I’ll be posting its release on my website:

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Teresa Neumann was raised in a large, boisterous Irish-Catholic family from Iowa and is the author of “Bianca’s Vineyard,” and its sequel, “Domenico’s Table.” Both books are based on the true stories of her husband’s Italian family in Tuscany. She has lived in Oregon for over 30 years with her husband and three children. In addition to enjoying family, writing, reading, meeting her readers, wine tasting, traveling, and all things Italian, Teresa loves playing the fiddle with other musicians.

Website ❧  Blog ❧  Facebook ❧  Twitter ❧  Goodreads

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“Bianca’s Vineyard is many things: a striking portrait of wartime Italy under the Fascist reign of Benito Mussolini; a poignant story of family, torn apart and brought back together in the decades that spanned the Second World War; a love letter to the Tuscan countryside through its downfall and triumph. But beneath the lush descriptions of the Italian wine country and the startling brutality of a gruesome war that left a lasting impression on the entire world, it’s a story about forgiveness and second chances, and true love that prevails. The novel, ultimately, is a beautifully descriptive piece of historical fiction that spans nearly ninety years of one family’s history, focusing on one of the most pivotal moments of the twentieth century. The plot twists and turns with all of the provocative intrigue of family lore, but never fails to delight.” — The Portland Review

“Bianca’s Vineyard is involving and smoothly written, which is not surprising because Neumann is a journalist. Her dialogue is crisp and believable, and her evocation of the battle between partisans and Nazis is painful to read. Most of all, her story is of the secrets, compassion, family loyalty and long memories of people in small villages.” — St. Paul Pioneer Press

“Filled with drama and mystery, this page turner will have you longing for a vineyard of your own. Recommended for readers of historical fiction with lush settings and fans of family sagas.” — JoAnne Drake, Willamette Woman Magazine

Bianca’s Vineyard is beautifully written and is rich in culture and complex characters. Neumann gives you a realistic picture of what people went through during the war and how they survived a terrible force bent on destroying everything they have worked hard for and loved. I highly recommend this story! You will fall in love with it the moment you start the first page. Five Stars! — Historical Novel Society, Layered Pages

“Teresa Neumann’s wonderful novel, born in the contemporary history of Italy, has the impact that only a true and deeply human story could deliver. This is no fluffy Under the Tuscan Sun affirmation of all the cliches about Italy that you’ve read in recent years. Yes, the long family table under the sun, the wine and the wonderful Italian food, and the charming Italian eccentricity are all there … but this book is a riveting human story told by a master storyteller. It transcends place and time. With the instincts of a detective, Neumann investigated the tangled and often missing threads of a family story that found its way through the decades down to her. She has created a story that a absorbs, stuns, and sometimes overwhelms the reader with its reality and immediacy.” — Dick Paetzke, Author of Postcards: Little Letters From Life

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Format: Print & eBook
Publication Date: November 12, 2010
Released by: All’s Well House Publishing
ISBN-13: 978-0983121008
Length: 412 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

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Check Out All the Stops on Teresa's Neumann's Bianca’s Vineyard Blog Tour Schedule

Monday, August 11
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Tuesday, August 12
Spotlight at Reading Lark
Interview at Flashlight Commentary
Wednesday, August 13
Review at Oh, For the Hook of a Book
Thursday, August 14
Review at Beth’s Book Reviews
Monday, August 18
Review at A Chick Who Reads
Review at Queen of All She Reads
Tuesday, August 19
Spotlight at Historical Tapestry
Wednesday, August 20
Spotlight & Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Friday, August 22
Review & Interview at Bookish
Tuesday, August 26
Review at Luxury Reading

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