Wednesday, June 19, 2024

“Being raised as an Italian American influenced my life in so many ways…” An exclusive interview with Tony Taddei

Interview by Tiziano Thomas Dossena

Tony Taddei is the author of “The Sons of the Santorelli,” a collection of short stories published by Bordighera Press. He is a past recipient of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship for Fiction

L’Idea Magazine: Hello Tony. Having earned an MFA in performance and dramatic structure from the Temple University Acting Conservatory, you have acted both on stage and on TV. What is the most gratifying experience you had while acting? Are you still active with your acting career?
Tony Taddei:  I haven’t acted professionally for years, but I can tell you that some of the most gratifying experiences I had during my days as an actor were on stage in front of a live audience (as opposed to acting in film and TV). When you act on stage the audience becomes your partner, so to speak. When things are going well, you can almost feel them breathing with you, experiencing the scene emotionally in the much the same you as an actor might be.
To take this a step further, there are corollaries between acting in front of an audience and writing fiction with your audience in mind. Having had the benefit of being a stage actor really helps me when I write fiction, imagining who my reader might be and anticipating their reaction to the words and scenes I’m laying down. In a sense, when I write I’m both the actor and the audience, and I wouldn’t be able to do that as well if I’d not been an actor first.

“Likewise, creating sketch comedy is where I also really got my start as a writer.”

L’Idea Magazine: You also were part of a sketch comedy group, weren’t you?
Tony Taddei: Yes, the group I was with wrote and performed our own materials—skits and monologues—which often came out of improvisations we did. It was some of the most fun I had on the stage. Making people laugh is its own sort of joy.
Likewise, creating sketch comedy is where I also really got my start as a writer. Very early on in the genesis of the group I found that I had a facility to take an idea that I or someone in the group came up with and put it down on paper in a way that was often surprising and usually pretty entertaining. Even today, if you look at some of my fiction you can see the twists and turns my plots take to try and surprise the reader and keep them involved. That comes, I think, directly from my time spent writing sketch comedy.

L’Idea Magazine: Although your background is in acting, you also wrote for stage, TV, and films. Could you tell us more about that? Do you expect to still write in the future for the entertainment business?
Tony Taddei: As mentioned above, I got my start writing sketch comedy and from there, I wrote plays as well as a TV pilot and a film (which was optioned by never made). As to writing again for film, TV or stage, I’m not really sure. Some folks have been talking to me about the idea of taking the stories in “The Sons of the Santorelli” and creating a script for a limited on-demand series. I’m not sure yet how that might work or where it might go but if the interest picks up, I’m totally on board.

L’Idea Magazine: After attending many conferences and workshops, such as the Yale Summer Writers’ Conference and the Norman Mailer Writers’ Residence, you taught a more natural, humanistic approach to writing to students from fifth through twelfth grade, and trained teachers in more than 50 schools. Which one was more challenging for you, the young students or the teachers?
Tony Taddei: Both groups had their own unique challenges. The challenge with the kids was that you had to walk into a room of pre-teens or teens on a Monday morning and immediately grab their attention for an hour, keeping that up for the rest of the week in one-hour increments. My acting training came in handy here as well, because I thought of the work in the classroom as a sort of joint performance between me and the kids I taught. That said, there were times that most of the kids in a class would not respond no matter how much I tried to pull it out of them. In those days I just had to look for the one or two children who were into the writing to divide and conquer.
The challenge with teachers was that oftentimes they were taking the writing workshop as a requirement of their in-service training and because it was usually after school or on a Saturday, they really didn’t have much energy left for any sort of creative thinking.  Teachers are some of the hardest working people on the planet and we owe them everything, but they have their limits. The last thing they wanted to do on their time off was to listen to some guy with a bunch of paper and pens asking them to write stories. With that in mind, I tried to make it fun for them, allowing them to take the writing where they needed to take it while getting them into the mindset of being kids again so they could free up and better understand how this might apply to their students. This was its own kind of work but really gratifying when I got it to happen.

“Growing up as a first-generation Italian American kid with parents and grandparents who were born in Italy, I did have some experiences that inspired the stories in tone and theme. That said, it would be a mistake to think that this book is a thinly veiled attempt at an autobiography.”

L’Idea Magazine: It is stated that the stories in your recently published book, “The Sons of the Santorelli,” are fictional. Did you have any personal or familiar situations that inspired them? Are all stories in the book about the same family?
Tony Taddei: Yes, the stories in the book are all about the same family, a patriarch, and matriarch, their four sons and the sons of those four sons, along with assorted characters in the extended family. Growing up as a first-generation Italian American kid with parents and grandparents who were born in Italy, I did have some experiences that inspired the stories in tone and theme. That said, it would be a mistake to think that this book is a thinly veiled attempt at an autobiography. There are almost no parts of any of the stories that are based on anything that happened to me or anyone in my family. This was very purposely done to tap into the invention and creativity (and surprises they bring for the reader) that are necessary for a good story.

L’Idea Magazine: You portrayed an Italian American family starting in the 1930s, with all the obstacles that society was presenting, showing them through the years, with their changes and adaptation to the ever-changing America. Did you ever think of making this a novel?
Tony Taddei: I did for a short time consider writing it as a novel and made a couple of quickly aborted attempts at it, but it soon became clear that telling the story more episodically gave me the opportunity to tell many smaller stories with many different protagonists. Once I wrote the first couple of stories and saw the structure of how I might portray the larger family story in linked stories, the work started to flow very naturally, and I was able to link them together just enough to make it feel a bit like a saga.
The thing I like about this as a book of stories is that each of the titular sons as well as the patriarch (Vittorio) and matriarch (Aida) have their own opportunity to present themselves in a story where the action serves as a metaphor for who they are. It was a great thrill to see it come together in that way.

L’Idea Magazine: Are you working on other literary projects at this time?
Tony Taddei: Yes, I’m finishing up another collection of short stories roughly linked around the melancholy, indignities, challenges, and occasional pleasures that men (and in particular fathers) face as they age. Each of these stories also weaves in animals and their ability to live instinctually and unquestioningly as a humorous and (I think) affecting counterpoint to the men in the stories who are mostly creating their own problems and then struggling to accept the circumstances they find themselves in. I’m hoping to have these stories published as a collection sometime soon so readers can judge for themselves. For now, if any of your readers want to read a couple of these stories, they can go to Animal Literary Magazine and The Florida Review online. Each has published a story from the collection.

L’Idea Magazine: If you could define yourself with three adjectives, what would they be?
Tony Taddei: Inventive, Compassionate, and “Wordy”

L’Idea Magazine: How do you feel being Italian American influenced your life and your life choices?
Tony Taddei: Being raised as an Italian American influenced my life in so many ways it’s hard to know where to start.
Some of the ways my ethnicity influenced me are shared with other groups of people whose parents and/or grandparents immigrated to this country: a sense that family is the most important thing; a love of good food and satisfying work; a deep sense of responsibility and loyalty to those who have loved and nurtured us.
On the other hand, there are some things that are more specific to Italian Americans that have been very foundational to my story (one or two not so positive): specific prejudices that are sometimes visited on Italians as criminal or less than trustworthy; the romance and music of the Italian language, which I believe often underpins my writing in English; the deep, sometimes frightful role of the Catholic Church in Italian American culture, which permeates my thinking even to this day (and even though I am an agnostic who does not practice Catholicism or any other organized form of religion).
What’s clear to me is that I’d have become a very different person had I not been Italian American.

“I’d like to be traveling for pleasure a bit more since travel has always provided me with a great source of inspiration.”

L’Idea Magazine: Where do you see yourself ten years from now?
Tony Taddei: Spending more and more time writing, reading great writing, and surrounding myself with good writers. I also hope to have at least one or two other books published by then. At the same time, I’m also very much looking forward to spending more time with my children and grandchildren (the first of which is due in September of this year). I’d like to be traveling for pleasure a bit more since travel has always provided me with a great source of inspiration.

L’Idea Magazine: If you had the opportunity to meet and talk to anyone from the past or the present, who would that person be and what would you like to tell them?
Tony Taddei: There are many great and well-known figures from history—writers, actors, artists, and thinkers—that I’d love to meet for many different reasons. But if I had to pick one person from the past who is no longer alive to talk with again, it would be my own father. My father died when I was in my mid-twenties and he never got to see any of my success as a father, a writer, or otherwise. I’d love to be able to talk to him about the role he played in my success. It also would be cathartic to finally talk through and put to rest all the unfinished business we had. As with most men, I had my emotional challenges when it came to my father. The idea of talking to him about those challenges, man to man, at the age I am now, fills me with melancholy but also with a sense of peace.

L’Idea Magazine:  A message for our readers?
Tony Taddei: Yes. Keep reading everything you can and, if you’re so inclined, keep writing as well (in both English and Italian J). It’s the best way I’ve found to make sense of the world and free the heart. Salute’.

Tiziano Thomas Dossena
Tiziano Thomas Dossena
Tiziano Thomas Dossena is the Editorial Director of L’Idea Magazine. He is the author of “Caro Fantozzi” (2008), “Dona Flor, An Opera by van Westerhout” (2010), "Sunny Days and Sleepless Nights" (2016), "The World as an Impression: The Landscapes of Emilio Giuseppe Dossena" (2020), "Federico Tosti, Poeta Antiregime" (2021), and "La Danza del Colore" (2023). Dossena is the editor of A Feast of Narrative anthology series and co-editor of Rediscovered Operas Series books on librettos.

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