Danielle Trussoni, Author of FALLING THROUGH THE EARTH
Tonight, Boy 1 is playing Mozart’s Turkish Rondo (Piano Sonata In A Major, K331: III. Alla turca: Allegretto..) in front of a NYSSMA judge. I’m hoping he’s too young to get nervous and we can just enjoy it and then go out for dessert afterwards.
Forgot to mention a fun evening last Thursday at a musical benefit to raise money for leukemia research. Lots of my soccer/open mic friends were there, including my friend Kathy. When she wasn’t on stage singing, we were giggling in the corner, and I found out that Kathy has kind of an orgasmic reaction to watching cello players. This I didn’t know. Are you this way, too–whenever someone shares a secret, you want to share one of your own? Well, I suddenly wanted to tell her what really makes my knees buckle: a stutter and a prosthetic limb. I’m serious about this, and in fact, one of my longest standing fantasies (all the way back to high school) was of a man slowly unbuckling and setting aside his prosthetic leg, which (is it just me?) is about the sexiest gesture I can imagine …oh, wait, I was talking about the cello. So every time my friend Kathy melted during a cello solo, I raised my eyebrows and pretended to unscrew a prosthetic arm. I have a feeling we’re going to have a grand time when we go shopping later in the week for our simple yet fabulous outfits to wear to the Elton John/Quincy Jones thingie we’ll be working at later this month.
But more on that another day. Because it’s time to introduce my guest for the week: Danielle Trussoni, author of the must-read, FALLING THROUGH THE EARTH.. (Henry Holt, 2006).
This is a memoir of her relationship with her father, who served as a tunnel rat in Vietnam, and a story of the war he brought back home with him.
Let me read you the opening paragraph of the book, when Danielle has traveled to Vietnam to try to make sense of her father and the life he’d shown her. Here, she stands before one of the tunnels she’ll eventually climb into–a tunnel barely big enough to crawl through, and the kind her father used to travel searching for prisoners:
The guide knelt before the tunnel entrance. Old, energetic, and clearly happy with his job, he smiled as he listed the booby traps he had planted to kill American soldiers: the punji sticks and scorpions rigged into bamboo cages, the explosives packed in Coke cans. The Vietcong, he said, made weapons from whatever they could find, old C-ration tins or beer bottles. Material was never a problem. The Americans left a lot of trash behind (p. 1).
Danielle grew up with stories of these suffocating tunnels and the heightened danger when a tunnel entrance was warmer than usual or smelled of human waste. She’d listened to her father’s drunken stories of comrades dying, and how “every action led to something. He could do nothing but choose (p. 189).” In her home, she had discovered photos of the men her father had killed, and even a human skull he’d brought home with him.
The very qualities that allowed her father to crawl through tunnels (an obsessive, go-it-alone man with unrealistic expectations and a stubborn attitude when faced with a challenge) did not work as successfully at home. And when the family split, Danielle was the only one of her three siblings (though she discovers more siblings throughout the novel), to move in with her father.
Raised with an erratic and volatile kind of love, and spending much of her childhood in the local bar where her father rolled for drinks and brought handfuls of women home, Danielle grew feisty and independent. And like her father, she lived a volatile life, loyal to a battle she appeared to be losing.
There’s such an emotional swell in the final chapters of the book. I found myself choking up even for the minor characters, like Skip, the blackout drunk who has his phone messages delivered to the alley behind the bar, and Rita, the denied daughter of her dad’s first marriage. The story is full of characters who are at once tough and fragile, characters in search of something that may be impossible to find: peace
Tomorrow, Danielle and I will be here to help remedy my one true disappointment with the book, so stay tuned. In the meantime, you can catch her on ABC’s World News Tonight. She was on Sunday evening, but if you CLICK HERE, you can see her right now.
Memoirists Collective; Trussoni interview, pt. 1.
Yesterday, Boy 2 handed me a note when he got off the school bus. During cleanup time in Art class, he’d painted his hand green. His punishment, besides the note I had to sign, was that he was “fired” from his new job of hall monitor. He’s been trying to get the job for two years and today would have been his first day. But due to the paint incident, he was told he lacked maturity for the job. Mr. Henderson thought this was a lot like taking the kids to Disneyland, and then, because they misbehaved in the parking lot, driving straight back to the airport and telling them they blew it. Sigh.
Oh, have you heard of THE MEMOIRISTS COLLECTIVE? Three writers I admire have joined together to help publicize each other’s books. But that’s not all. They’re running a contest for the best opening paragraph of an unpublished memoir. The winner gets a shot with a big name agent. Go check it out when you’re done here.
And now, on to my featured book of the month. Yesterday I mentioned that I had one pretty big disappointment with Danielle Trussoni’s FALLING TO EARTH. I discussed this with her, and we’re going to remedy things. My disappointment was that I was absolutely desperate for pictures. When I read Marie Osmond’s BEHIND THE SMILE (Oh stop, already I’m going to get notes asking if I’m kidding and I’m not–I read it for research on postpartum depression for a book I decided not to write)–but when I read it, there were something like 20 pages of glossy photos in the center of the book. The best ones showed how the magazines had trimmed down Marie’s post-pregnancy photos so she looked slimmer than she really was and thus added even more pressure for her to keep up an unrealistic image.
But where were the photos in Danielle’s book? Her father had to be small enough to fit inside the maze of tunnels in Vietnam, and yet alluring enough to entice so many drunken women home from the bar. I wanted to see him. I wanted to see Wisconsin and Vietnam. I wanted to see Danielle as a baby and Danielle as a punk rocker Catholic school girl. I wanted to see the bar she’d practically grown up in. So today, and again on Thursday, I’m going to run our interview with the photos that really should have been in the book.
Your father died just before your book was published. Did he get a chance to read the manuscript or the galleys?
My dad read a galley of the book. He and I discussed it before he died.
How did writing this book change your relationship?
There wasn’t much time for our relationship to change. He died about a month after he read the book, and he was so sick that we didn’t want to get into the details of the book. I spent the last weeks of his life with him. That was really important for me.
There are two stories, on either side of your parents’ divorce, that seem to really describe how the relationships were drawn up. One is the scene not long after the divorce, in which your parents are fighting and your dad pulls the spark plugs out of the El Camino to make a point that if she no longer has him, she no longer has his spark plugs. It’s a painful scene, but also comical in the way the real issue and the real emotions are never discussed. Instead you get these volatile bursts that end in some version of people digging in their heels and making any further resolution impossible.
Similarly, there’s a story that, I think, shows your relationship with your mother at its essence–the conversation in the final chapter between you and your mother regarding a time your ran away from home. Now, I don’t want to blow the surprises in the book, but I wonder if you can talk about the family style that shaped you.
My family is highly uncommunicative. The spark plugs incident is a great example. My father wasn’t going to sit down with my mother and talk about things. He would just make sure she couldnt drive off. I’m sure that I learned a lot about communication from my parents. Even the way I tell stories has something of my dad in it–the fast, straight-talking barroom style I heard at Roscoe’s (my dads favorite bar) is in my writing.
The story that you mentioned about me running away is a perfect example of my relationship with my mother. When she talks about it in the book, she mentions that she just let me go, and that she knew Id come back. My mother has always been totally laissez-faire with me, to the point where I’ve often wished that shed actually get in my face a little bit. But that’s her. She’s not assertive. Whereas my dad was always going to tell me what he thought I should do.
You spent a good deal of your childhood in your dad’s favorite bar. I have a feeling not all of what you gained from this is negative. In what ways did this create qualities that you like about yourself?
As I mentioned above, I learned a lot about storytelling at Roscoe’s. I’d spent whole afternoons sitting on a barstool, listening to people (as they say at Roscoe’s) shoot the shit. It was a great education. I also met people who had lived hard lives, and had some devastating stories to tell. As I was just a kid, people didn’t feel that they needed to put on a show in front of me, and so I got to hear about their lives in a very raw and real way. What more could a writer want?
How do you understand your parents differently now that you have your own kids?
Having kids put my parents in perspective. I understand now how hard it is to be the sole source of love and encouragement and money. But I am also still baffled by the way that I was raised, and I know that Ill do everything I can to make my relationship with my kids better than the one I had with my parents.
One thing that I came to see after writing my book is that children expect so much from their parents. I expected more from my father than he was able to give. Writing Falling Through the Earth helped me to let go of these expectations, and that has really made a difference in my life.
You write about characters in search of peace. Describe to me the time in your life you felt closest to reaching it.
Now. Strange as it may seem, the publication of Falling Through the Earth and my fathers death (events which happened the same weekend) have left me feeling as if a new part of my life has begun. I’m starting over. I feel like a different person.
Interview Part 2 Danielle Trussoni, the writer.
I received a lot of mail regarding my son getting fired, but I’m going to post the note from my mom:
Hi Susie, I happened by your blog page today and saw the story about [Boy 2] getting fired from his job as hall monitor for painting his hand green! Grandma is mad at his teacher for doing that, which seems very petty. I’m proud that he is so creative that he wanted to paint his hand green. Is it too late to protest?? Grandpa’s reaction was “Why did he paint his hand green? Was it St. Patrick’s Day?” MOM
There’s a great discussion over at Dan Wickett’s Emerging Writers Network between 9 litbloggers, including Katrina Denza who reads more than anyone I know. Kat says this about the purpose of her blog: “I’m passionate about books. And I want to play a part, however small, in making the literary world a kinder place.”
And now, the continuation of my interview with Danielle Trussoni, author of FALLING THROUGH THE EARTH (Henry Holt, 2006). Today she talks about writing memoir.
Tell me something about the writer Danielle Trussoni. Writing habits, quirks, recurring themes.
Danielle Trussoni the writer is someone who wakes up early and works every day, seven days a week. When I’m writing, I don’t pay my bills, I don’t clean the house, and I’m pretty damn grouchy. Writing well requires such concentration that I have little room for anything else. My friendships usually flag when I’m working: I don’t have a lot of time to maintain them. I don’t know how some writers can handle a loaded social calendar while they’re immersed in a project. Actually, Falling Through the Earth was written when I lived in Sofia, Bulgaria with my husband (the writer Nikolai Grozni). I didn’t speak Bulgarian, and I so I found myself relying upon my work as a way to stay connected to English and the States. I’d wake up, make coffee, write until noon or so, and then meet my husband (who was writing in his office on the other side of our apartment) for lunch. It was the ideal situation for writing.
One quirk I have as a writer is that I always ‘dress’ for writing. I put on my favorite necklace and something beautiful (a scarf or a ring) before going to my desk. I know, it sounds like I’m some sort of diva, but for me it is a way of saying to myself: You’ve arrived at the event of your day. And writing is, for me, the main event. Cocktail parties and such aren’t half as fun. Writing isn’t a means to an end. It is the end.
What was the most difficult part about writing this memoir?
Perhaps the most difficult part about writing Falling Through the Earth was that I was fighting with my father during the period that I wrote the book. He and I had a really tumultuous relationship. One minute, we would be inseparable, the next we weren’t talking. So as I wrote this book, I thought of it as a letter to my father, a way to say: Look Dad, this is why we’re estranged. I’m not giving up on you, but I can’t talk to you either.
I think that everyone has a ‘Dan Trussoni’ in their lives in one way or another, someone who they love but cannot understand. These relationships take over a significant part of us, and we spend a lot of time trying to get past them. One woman I know said (after reading my book), My mother is my Dan Trussoni. I think she understood what I was trying to do in this book.
Writing this memoir was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and not simply because writing is a difficult endeavor. Writing a book like this required that I dredge up memories that I didn’t want to remember. There were mornings when I dreaded going to my computer. I felt sad and guilty and over-emotional all the time. I think it was really hard on all the people in my life, especially my husband and kids.
There’s a scene when you followed your dad into the woods after he’d shot a deer. You do not seem the slightest bit squeamish in this scene, as your dad cuts various parts of the deer before you help drag it home. And as this is happening, milk spills out of the body and onto the snow, and you realize the doe was nursing. Now this scene describes the man we see throughout the book, and I’m interested in this dialogue that takes place between a nine-year-old girl and her father:
“I wonder what her baby is going to do,” I said. “What if it starves?”
Dad adjusted the rope on his shoulder. He was dismissive, almost contemptuous. He said, “If it’s strong, it will learn to feed itself.” (p. 37).
I don’t know that I have a question here. I just want to acknowledge the complicated nature of this scene–how it is loving and brutal all at once. He doesn’t see this as a situation where he might provide comfort but rather an opportunity to express his contempt for weakness and dependency. And yet, there’s the bond in what he includes you in–for better or worse, he’s brought you in close to see the man he is and there you go pulling the deer across the snow together, knowing he could do it faster without your help.
This is one of the scenes in the book that (I think) perfectly captures the way that my father interacted with us (me and my brothers and sisters). He believed that it was his duty as a father to toughen us, to make us grow stronger. And strangely enough, he did what he set out to do. I think that I’m stronger than a lot of my friends. I think I’m more resilient. But, of course, thinking this way is perhaps another trait I’ve inherited from my father: I don’t like to admit that I can be hurt.
There’s been a lot of discussion recently about truth and memoir. What have you learned about truth–in trying to capture it and in seeing how others (particularly those represented in your book) have reacted to it?
I think truth is a big responsibility, one that I took seriously. I don’t think a memoir is the place to make up events or characters. Writing a memoir was difficult precisely because of this: I couldn’t create events simply to satisfy the plot. In some places, it would have made the book better if I had been able to add some fireworks, but that is the limitation of memoir and I honored it. I did change many characteristics of people and places that appear in the memoir (this is mentioned in the “Note” at the beginning of the book), because I thought it wouldn’t be fair to some people, especially those who would rather keep their lives private, to put their real names in my book. My mother, for example, is never mentioned by name. She didn’t want her name in the book, and I respected her wish.
There will always be contention about family stories. My sister and I compare memories all the time; we often remember the same event quite differently. And there comes a point when you can’t allow every perspective into the book. As I mentioned, I was estranged from my father during years that I actually wrote Falling Through the Earth, and so I relied heavily on memory, especially the scenes from my childhood. Other parts of the story (his Vietnam experiences, for example) I had documented in my early twenties. I interviewed him, taping some of the conversations. I used these interviews when writing the war scenes, which was very helpful. But still, to paraphrase something Mary Karr said in her New York Times op-ed piece about Frey: Memoirists don’t walk through their lives with a camcorder taped to their heads. We rely on memory. Human memory is sometimes imperfect.
I loved the scene of your dad feeding the family–“he cracked walnuts, picking the meat with a steak knife and scattering the puckered nuts across the coffee table for us (p. 62).” Can you tell me a story of your own nuclear family that gives a little taste of what is unique to most but normal for you?
Do you mean with my husband and kids? Well, it is perfectly normal on a Saturday morning for my son (who is in kindergarten) to be reading aloud from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland while my daughter (who is three) asks her dad (in Bulgarian, her first language) when he’s going to stop reading his Tibetan texts and make mommy (who is biting a pencil and trying to find some weird piece of information on the internet) her much needed cappuccino.
Who’s been showing up to your readings–Vietnam vets? The children of war veterans? Other writers?
There have been a lot of people my age (people in their thirties) at my readings. I’ve had a lot of contact with Vietnam Vets and children of veterans, but it is amazing to me how many people have come up after a reading and have told me that they have no connection to Vietnam, they have no relatives who have never been to war, and yet they found themselves deeply involved in my book. I’ve also had a lot of writers at my readings. They like the way the book is written, my choices as a writer, and that has been gratifying.
Your memoir has received critical acclaim on NPR, on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, and so on. What’s been the reaction of your family?
My younger brother and his fiance are following the book’s successes, and they are really happy for me, but the rest of my family is pretty uninvolved. My husband, who is a writer, is thrilled about the success of Falling Through the Earth. We’ve been celebrating for a month.
Nikolai Grozni Talks about His Wife, Danielle Trussoni.
I’m very happy to report some good news for my friend, Ellen Meister: Lisa Kudrow has signed on to read the audio version of her novel, SECRET CONFESSIONS OF THE APPLEWOOD PTA. Yay for Ellen!
I want to thank Danielle Trussoni for visiting with me this week and for writing a book that is still churning around in my gut. All week I’ve had this song stuck in my head: Cameron McGill’s What the Hell (I Love This Girl Danielle).
So today, I have Danielle’s husband, the Bulgarian writer, Nikolai Grozni, to help finish up a week-long focus on her book.
How did you and Danielle meet?
We met in Iowa City. She was in the Iowa Writers Workshop and I was a part of the International Writers Program.
Tell me a highlight of your relationship.
My favorite family moment with the in-laws was when Danielle, her Dad and I were held hostage in Serbia.
Tell me about Danielle as a friend, a mother, a writer.
The year after we were married, Danielle used my toothbrush to scrub the mud from her tennis shoes and then put it back.
When, during the process of her writing this book did you realize it could be a big deal?
She’d been involved in the project for so long that I knew it was a huge deal for her. After she found her editor, George Hodgman at Holt, I knew that the two of them would make the book a big deal for other people as well.
What’s your favorite passage from Danielle’s book, and why?
I love chapter ten, about her dad’s girlfriends.
What does the spouse do at a reading or at a book signing?
You have a book deal yourself. Would you tell me about your book?
It’s called Turtle Feet and it is about my time in India as a monk. It will be published by Riverhead in a few years.
Where do each of you do your writing? And what are some of the quirks you each have as you’re thinking, writing, and editing?
I have an office about a block from our house. Danielle writes in an office at home. I’m not sure what Danielles quirks are, but I have to be wearing my favorite boxers if I’m going to write well. I have about ten pairs of the same kind.
Is writing your day job?
What’s been the hardest part about the road to getting published–for you and for Danielle?
What do you wish for your family in the next 5 years?