Laura Valeri’s debut collection, The Kind Of Things Saints Do (2002), won both the John Simmons Short Fiction Award and the Binghamton University John Gardner Award in Fiction; John Dufresne described it as “a daring and stunning debut.” The promise revealed in those stories has only deepened in the years since I first became acquainted with both Laura and her work. I have known her as both an academic colleague and a fellow fiction writer, and I’ve enjoyed discussing the art and craft of life with her. She is wise and funny and smart, a natural storyteller, a gifted teacher, and a devoted connoisseur of good food, good conversation, and good words.
Her most recent title is Safe in Your Head (2013), a Stephen F. Austin Press prizewinner, a novel in stories featuring recipes and luck remedies for women during war time. I was grateful that she took the time to share how these dreamy, powerful tales came to be, how they commingle magic and history and the fine food of Laura’s native Italy in a collection of narratives both ethereal and earthy.
Tina Whittle: Safe in Your Head is a work of fiction, but it is based on your coming to the United States at an early age. It is rich with the food and culture of the Italy of your experience, and also with the Italy of history before your time. How much research did you do into Italian history, especially the early to mid-twentieth century?
Laura Valeri: I did extensive sleuth work for this collection. The proverbs and the folklore remedies, for instance, had to be searched through various archives. I knew a few from tradition, but I also wanted to include less obvious ones. I also did research on my family history to sort out fact from myth. My grandfather fought during World War II. We knew he had been on the Russian front, and we knew that he somehow survived Italy’s change of allegiance from Germany to the United States while he was still entrenched with the Germans, because he recalled German soldiers using their bayonets to cut the hands of Italian soldiers who tried to hang on to their trucks as they retreated. When I began to check the facts against my family’s stories, however, some things didn’t add up. The change of allegiance came later. What he was remembering was the retreat from Russia, just ten months before. Memory is tricky. You can’t trust it. I had to ask a lot of questions, dig up a lot of newspaper articles and official documents.
It was exciting because I discovered my grandfather’s secret life as an activist. At seventeen, he was arrested for spreading fliers against Mussolini—which is why he ended up on the Russian front before he was even old enough to go to war. His brother, who was older, was taken and beaten to within an inch of his life. They all paid a great deal for their beliefs. I saw footage of what happened on that Russian front when the German lines were broken. It was carnage. Some 2,000 Italians died every day. Due to a snafu in military communications, Italian soldiers wore boots designed for the African desert. In addition to having to face an enemy that had superior weapons and that outnumbered them exponentially, these young men had to wrap cardboard on their feet to fight off frostbite.
In terms of the subject matter, I had intentions to write about the more subtle devastations of war, the effects that are visited on those who stay behind—the children, the wives, and mothers. I had a vague idea that my own life, though so removed from those events, also had been affected by my ancestor’s role in the two wars—and I was right, in more ways than I could anticipate. The year my father decided to emigrate to the US, Italy had just lost a pope, there was a brutal backlash after a government crackdown on an insidious mafia network, and a terrorist group called the Red Brigades infected and disrupted all socio-political dynamics. Then, the former Prime Minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped and executed. My father, like many others at the time, was afraid that we were on the brink of a Communist revolution. He used his international contacts to have his consultancy contract moved to a branch of Pfizer in New York, and we were gone.