Interview by Tiziano Thomas Dossena
Dr. Mario Dell’Olio is the music director at an independent school in Sonoma County, California, and the author of several books. My review of his last book appeared recently in our magazine.
L’Idea Magazine: Hello Mario. I have just finished reading your last book, “Letters from Italy”, and writing a review on it. I enjoyed the book very much, and I am sure many other people will. We’ll talk about your book in a while, but I would like first to ask questions about your background, if that’s all right with you. You are a Music teacher. Were music and teaching always in your mind as a career?
Mario Dell’Olio: I have always loved music. I sang in choirs and played guitar throughout high school and university. But I never dreamed I’d be a music director/teacher. I planned to become a priest and hoped to teach as well. During my seminary studies, I continued singing and eventually directed the choirs. Whenever liturgical duties pulled me away from my music, I got upset. It became clear to me that music was my true passion.
L’Idea Magazine: You also studied Religion, first by obtaining a Master of Religious Education, then the degree of Doctor of Sacred Music, and finally by pursuing postgraduate work in Theology as a seminarian at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Was religion always that fascinating to you? Did you intend to become a priest? Was your book “New Men; Bonds of Brotherhood” based on this last experience of yours? Is “Forbidden Rome,” your 2020 book, a rewritten and reedited version of “New Men”?
Mario Dell’Olio: Theology has always intrigued me. My parents instilled in me a deep respect for God and religion. As a young boy, I used to play at saying Mass at a little altar I created. From a very young age, I dreamed of becoming a priest. New Men is fiction based on actual events that took place while I was in Rome studying for the priesthood. It includes stories from a number of my classmates as well as my own. It’s a dramatic story that exposes the hypocrisy of the church. Forbidden Rome takes the characters of New Men and follows them into the next phase of their lives. It is essentially the same story with a different ending.
L’Idea Magazine: Very interesting… You also have a Master of Music in Vocal Performance. Can I assume that besides teaching students how to sing, you sing on your own? Did you ever think of pursuing that career?
Mario Dell’Olio: As I mentioned, I have always sung in choirs. My degree in vocal performance trained me as a tenor soloist. I have performed in numerous concerts in the United States, the Virgin Islands, and Italy. Although I love to sing, I enjoy conducting and teaching choirs much more.
L’Idea Magazine: Who is the composer who inspired you the most and why?
Mario Dell’Olio: Antonio Vivaldi inspires me. It seems that I could relate to him in so many ways. He was a Catholic priest, a teacher, and a musician. His work at the Ospedale della Pietà, a foundation that cared for abandoned and orphaned children not only produced beautiful music: it did so with a population that was in great need. He composed music that lifted up his singers. His music served to raise them from their plight in life. Many of his singers went on to have professional careers in music due to his tutelage. I used Vivaldi’s Gloria as the basis of my doctoral project.
L’Idea Magazine: Besides being a musician and teacher, you are a successful writer. Your book “Body and Soul,” finalist at the 2019 Wishing Shelf Book Award, explores the strife of coming out during the 1980s. Could you tell us more about this book, please?
Mario Dell’Olio: Body and Soul was born of my imagination as I reflected on my desire to become a priest. I took a young, idealistic character and followed his coming-of-age story, dealing with faith and sexuality. Switching timelines, I followed him thirty years later as a professional. He encounters his first love and his world begins to unravel. The story is about his struggle between his body and his faith journey.
L’Idea Magazine: You also had another book that was a finalist at that award in 2018, “Coming About. Life in the Balance.” This touched on a totally different topic. Could you elaborate on that?
Mario Dell’Olio: Coming about is the true story of my spouse and me. At 40 years old, we quit our jobs, sold our home, and bought a sailboat. Our dream was to sail the Caribbean islands. On our maiden voyage, we battled storms and mechanical malfunctions. It is a harrowing story that includes a rescue at sea and shark-infested waters.
L’Idea Magazine: Your books, even when novels, are always based on true stories? Your last book, “Letters from Italy,” definitely is, and you did a marvelous job at bringing reality in without getting trivial or monotonous. Your characters are alive and display very interesting traits, but not all necessarily positive. How did you deal with eventual negative feedback from relatives in reference to some of the depictions? Did you find it hard to remain objective while describing certain events in this book?
Mario Dell’Olio: Depicting the unsavory passages in Letters from Italy was the most challenging part of the writing process. The stories of abuse and harassment were so personal to my mother and other family members. Initially, my mother did not want me to include them in the book. But I believe they show the strength it takes to overcome painful moments in life. I gained a greater respect for my parents as I learned how they navigated their trials. To be honest, I am still apprehensive about negative feedback from my extended family. But I haven’t received any as of yet.
L’Idea Magazine: Besides your parents’ letters, you seem to have done a lot of research to ensure the portrayal of the situations at various time periods was accurate. Did that take a lot of work? Was your physical description of the characters based exclusively on your mother’s observations and photographs of the time? Did you have access to other forms of documentation?
Mario Dell’Olio: I had heard so many of these stories from both my father and mother throughout my childhood. When I began writing, I realized that I had taken many things for granted. My curiosity was piqued. I researched the economic woes before and during the first and second world wars. I dove into the history of Italy and the reign of Mussolini. Researching the history of Italy gave me a greater understanding of the plight of southern Italians who emigrated to escaped poverty and despair. I had many original documents including birth certificates, death certificates, report cards from schools, and my postcards and letters. I had access to hundreds of photographs from both sides of the family. But the most vivid descriptions came from my mother’s keen memory.
L’Idea Magazine: How much did your Italian Heritage influence your life and career choices?
Mario Dell’Olio: My Italian Heritage has always been central to my life. Three languages were spoken in my home: Italian, Biscegliese, and English. The customs and traditions helped form my values. Many of the most important events are celebrated by preparing and eating traditional dishes. I studied the Italian language in high school and university, which gave me further insight into my heritage. My love of Italy began when my parents took me there as a high school graduation gift. I was able to speak to my cousins and Zii in Italian. I chose to study in Italy during college, and post-graduate work. I wanted to share my passion for Italy by leading over 30 student tours to Italy. I will return to Italy in March 2023 with a group of students.
L’Idea Magazine: Are you working on any other literary projects currently?
Mario Dell’Olio: I am writing a novel that takes place during the unification of Italy. The main character is based on a few stories my mother shared about my great-grandfather. Although the story is not about him. I am researching the political landscape of the opposing sides as well as the economic impacts unification had on the former Kingdom of Two Sicilies/southern Italy. The story will follow an unlikely hero who learns about what is most important in life: love and family.
L’Idea Magazine: If you had the opportunity to meet and talk to any person, past or present, who would they be and what would you ask?
Mario Dell’Olio: Pope Francis. I’d ask him why he doesn’t ordain women to the priesthood and let them marry.
L’Idea Magazine: Three adjectives to describe you…
Mario Dell’Olio: Compassionate, Friendly, Humorous
L’Idea Magazine: What other interests do you have besides writing and music? Do you have any hobbies?
Mario Dell’Olio: I am an avid gardener. I like to grow vegetables and herbs. I also love to cook. I am always looking for new pasta recipes from the many regions of Italy. Travel is another one of my passions. I love to explore different cultures.
L’Idea Magazine: Any unrealized dreams you feel like sharing with our readers?
Mario Dell’Olio: Having Letters from Italy or Coming About made into a movie is one of my great dreams. There’s still time!
L’Idea Magazine: A message for our readers?
Mario Dell’Olio: In all of my books, the main characters look for deeper meaning along the journey of life. I encourage everyone to look beyond themselves to see the faces of others, to look deep within to see what lies in their hearts, and trust that being your authentic self will bring happiness and love.