Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Interview with Mona Rodriguez, author of Forty Years in a Day

Today, Flashlight Commentary is pleased to welcome author Mona Rodriguez to our little corner of the net to discuss her debut release, Forty Years in a Day. 

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Mona. To start things off, please tell us a bit about Forty Years In A Day.
Thank you, Erin, for hosting us today. I spent some time visiting your blog, and I enjoyed your design as well your content. 

Forty Years In A Day begins in 1900 and follows the incredible journey of a young mother and her four children as they escape from Italy into the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, New York. The woman was my grandmother. The story ends with a young woman who knows the father of her children is living a double life with another, but she loves him so much that she overlooks the arrangement rather than forfeit the man. Those were my parents. In between are the stories that I had heard for years from family members, intertwined with a twist of fiction and sensationalism to have some fun. 

The story takes the Montanaro family through several decades, providing the reader an opportunity to stand in the shoes of a past generation and walk in search of their hopes and dreams. It is layered with the struggles and successes of each family member, and illuminates the fact that human emotions have been the same throughout generations; the difference is how people are molded and maneuvered by the times and their situations.

What inspired you to write this story and why did you feel it needed to be told?
When I was in my teens, my sister told me that our father had been married before. Initially, I thought she was joking, but she convinced me that she had recently found out herself. I was shocked that I didn’t know this significant fact about my father. What else happened that I should know? Over the years, I wondered about his previous wife. Who was she? What did she look like? How did they meet? Is it possible they had children? Why did they divorce? My mother vaguely answered my questions. My father, I never asked. I questioned aunts and uncles about his first wife, but I sensed there were bits of their lives that were never to be disclosed.

It was over twenty years later and the night before my mother had brain surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in the center of her brain when she told me to look in their safe at home, there was something she wanted my siblings and me to see. The next day my mother underwent surgery, and she was never the same. We would have found this curious envelope that was tucked away in the safe when my sister, brother, and I were cleaning out the contents of their home, my childhood home, but for some reason, she had wanted us to know. It was a few days later, maybe a week, by the time my sister and I went to their home. (My father was living with me at the time and had dementia). What we found in the safe was our parent’s Marriage License—they had married when my siblings and I were in our teens. What? Impossible! We were all illegitimate children!

When my parents died a few years later, I felt more compelled to delve into their past, but no one alive could (or would) tell me the whole story. That’s when I started to dig up the past. 

You chose to coauthor Forty Years In A Day with your cousin. What led you to take on take on the writing of this book together?
I coauthored the book with my cousin Dianne Vigorito. She gave me the support and validation I needed to pursue this project. I was lucky to find a family member to work with, and she had an immediate interest in the idea. She grew up hearing the same crazy stories, some of which were almost unbelievable, that were told by our ancestors.  

What research went into Forty Years In A Day? Where did you start and what proved the most intriguing discovery over the course of your inquiries? 
I had a story to tell and I knew it had to be told. I started by writing down the stories I had heard and interviewing the elders that were still alive. It took seven years—researching, seminars, workshops, conferences, and reading everything from books on how to write dialogue to reading mainstream fiction to rereading classics. I also studied the history and lifestyles of the era.  Dianne and I worked on our own, and we also worked together several days a week, collaborating, rewriting, and editing. 

Unlike Ellis Island, Hell's Kitchen bares very little resemblance to its former self. How did you approach recreating this historically volatile neighborhood? 
There’s a glut of information out there. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum and Lower East Side Tenement Museum were invaluable, as was the New York Public Library. Also, watching films and listening to the stories told by elders gave us a good commentary of the times. 

Much of your story is based on your own family history. Did you find it difficult working with such personal material?
I think it was the opposite, and writing this story turned out to be a gift. It gave me the opportunity to work with a cousin that I otherwise would not have had the great pleasure to spend so much time with and get to know so deeply. It taught me the power of more than just one and the art of compromise. 

Writing the book was a catharsis as well. I had some stories churning in my head for many years, sparked by the stories of my family’s past.  Writing it down cleared my head somewhat. Although I had started with the intention of writing a story about my father’s family, it turned into a novel. I get asked all the time what parts really happened, and people are genuinely surprised which stories are real and which ones were contrived. There was so much more I wanted people to know about the era. It was fascinating.

"I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, found out three things: First, the streets weren't paved with gold; second, they weren't paved at all: and third, I was expected to pave them." This sentiment is echoed in your work. Why did you feel this aspect of immigration so important?
We don’t realize what our ancestors went through to make life better for themselves and for us. What they faced was incredible—the living conditions, poverty, disease—and their work ethic was admirable. I am lucky to be where I am, and I make a concerted effort to wake up grateful every day. As a friend put it after finishing the book, “I am so freaking glad I did not grow up during that time in the city—so brutal!” 

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, perhaps meet and discuss things over a drink, who would you choose and why?
Hands down—Victoria. She was an amazingly women who wanted to do the right thing for her children. Without giving away the story, I often wonder where she summoned the strength to do what she did, and if I would have been so courageous. She did it not so much for herself, but for her children. She was the ultimate mother. 

What do you hope readers come away with after reading your work?
Our book stimulates conversation because everyone has an immigration story to tell. It reignites that curiosity and admiration for what our ancestors had endured and accomplished. I find friends sharing their ancestors’ stories, even close friends whose stories I had never heard before. It also reminds us that every family has hidden secrets and how the choices one person makes filters down through generations.

There are many themes that run through this story—the loss and rebound of hope, overcoming fear, discovering strength, honesty, perseverance, forgiveness, it goes on, but I think the main theme is the importance of family. Not just blood relatives, but friends that are like family. It’s having the people who love you around you that can get you through the trying times as well as take parallel delight in your good times. They are the support group that come along with you on your journey through life, and if you’re lucky enough to have people who love you in your life, you’re lucky enough. 

Finally, what is next for you? Any new projects waiting in the wings?
There are six cousins at the end of our story. The idea is to take that next generation into the next era.  

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About the Authors: Mona Rodriguez coauthored Forty Years in a Day with her cousin Dianne Vigorito. Throughout their lives, they had heard many stories from family members that were fascinating, sometimes even unbelievable, and decided to piece together the puzzle of tales. Through research and interviews, their goal was to create a fictional story that follows a family through several decades, providing the reader an opportunity to stand in the shoes of a past generation and walk in search of their hopes and dreams. What they realize in the process is that human emotions have been the same throughout generations – the difference is how people are molded and maneuvered by the times and their situations. Mona Rodriguez has her MS in environmental Management from Montclair State University. She is presently a trustee on the board of directors of a nonprofit foundation created to benefit a local public library and community. She lives with their husband in New Jersey, and they have two grown sons. For more information, please visit the official website.

About the Book: Confession is good for the soul even after the soul has been claimed… The story begins in Italy, 1900. After years of torment and neglect, Victoria and her four small children immigrate to Hell’s Kitchen, New York, to escape her alcoholic, abusive husband. On the day they leave, he tragically dies, but she does not learn of his death for several years—a secret that puts many lives on hold. Quickly, they realize America’s streets are not paved with gold, and the limits of human faith and stamina are tested time and time again. Poverty, illness, death, kidnapping, and the reign of organized crime are just some of the crosses they bear. Victoria’s eldest son, Vincenzo, is the sole surviving member of the family and shares a gut-wrenching account of their lives with his daughter during a visit to Ellis Island on his ninetieth birthday. He explains how the lives of he and his siblings have been secretly intertwined with an infamous Irish mob boss and ends his unsettling disclosure with a monumental request that leaves Clare speechless. Forty Years in a Day is layered with the struggles and successes of each family member and defines the character of an era. Follow the Montanaro family through several decades, and stand in the shoes of a past generation.

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Check out all the stops on Mona Rodriguez and dianne vigorito's Forty years in a day virtual book tour

Monday, August 5
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Tuesday, August 6
Review at Impressions in Ink
Interview at Flashlight Commentary
Wednesday, August 7
Review & Giveaway at Let Them Read Books
Thursday, August 8
Review at A Book Geek
Friday, August 9
Review & Guest Post at The True Book Addict
Interview at Layered Pages

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