Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story, is the debut novel from Joe Giordano. Birds of Passage recalls the Italian immigration experience at the turn of the twentieth-century when New York’s streets were paved with violence and disappointment.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Joe about the book. Here’s what he had to say.
Congratulations on the publication of BIRDS OF PASSAGE. What was the genesis of the novel?
A: My father was an immigrant from Naples as were all my grandparents. I’m old enough to have known Italians born in the nineteenth-century. While Birds of Passage is not about my family, I tried to capture how people of that time thought and acted. Immigration, of Hispanic people into the United States is a hot topic and there are many parallels to what Italian immigrants faced in the past.
How long did it take to write before submitting it for publication?
A: I started the novel in October 2013. My first draft was completed by the following April. I had the manuscript professionally edited, reworked, then I started submitting to publishers in August. By January of 2015, Harvard Square Editions expressed interest, but with suggestions for improvement and asked for a second edit. When the rewrite was completed, Harvard Square Editions agreed to publish in May 2015.
How much research did you do? For example, how did you know about the arranged marriages, the medical inspections before boarding the boat, municipal corruption? Was the union busting done by Italian scabs historical fact?
A: I took a graduate course at the University of Texas at Austin on the Progressive Era, mainly to learn about the environment my family encountered when they immigrated to the United States. My paper for the course focused on Italian immigration and I read numerous books and papers on the subject. The course reading and the paper research were the foundations for the historical facts included in the novel. During the semester, I wrote a short story, “The Sour Smell of Pain,” which triggered the idea to write a novel.
Birds of Passage begins in 1905. My wife, Jane’s grandparents had an arranged marriage in 1916, although by then the practice had faded. Italians were hungry for work and did participate in strikebreaking until they were finally accepted into unions. In Birds of Passage, I provide an option for how Italians might have become part of the Longshoreman’s Union.
There are several intertwined, intricate plots at work in the novel. How do you plot? Do you work from an outline? We’re thinking of a line late in the novel when the main character and his adoptive father are discussing the murder of the main character’s half-brother: “Don’t torture yourself. No one could have imagined every twist of events.” That could also serve as a tagline for the story, but when you start a project, do you first imagine every twist of events?
A: Duel plots seems a standard technique in fiction. I had a general idea on how the story would unfold around Leonardo, Carlo, and Azzura, but as happens many times in my writing, the characters revealed what they would do next only when they were plunged into some difficult situation. I believe it was John Updike who labored over the last line of his novels, then never deviated. I’m not that good.
How do you effect an Italian cadence and rhythm to the dialogue when writing in English? Or do you think and write in Italian first and then self-translate to English?
A: My Italian is not good enough to pen prose. My parents and grandparents spoke a mix of Italian and Neapolitan, which is a distinct language, not a dialect. I use a text-to-speech reader to refine my work. Of course, growing up with New York Italians gave me a familiarity with speaking styles.
Is “bird of passage” an historical phrase used by Italian immigrants?
A: Italians were the first immigrants to the United States who returned to their home country. Quite often, they worked a season and returned with savings. Most were men. Many made multiple round trips. These travelers were termed Birds of Passage by Americans. When immigration laws were tightened after World War I, many decided to stay permanently in the U.S. and brought over families.
Are you influenced by the obvious books and movies when writing Italian-immigrant themed works? For example, early in the narrative, there’s the famous phrase, “…an offer you can’t refuse…”
A: The full sentence spoken by Moretti in Birds of Passage as he tries to convince Leonardo to go to America is, “This is an offer you can’t refuse? No?” The last word was Moretti’s unintended subliminal warning that perhaps Leonardo should refuse. In The Godfather, an offer you can’t refuse carried the threat of death. That’s not the case between Moretti and Leonardo. The connection with Birds of Passage and The Godfather was unintended.
Any concern that this novel and others in the Italian-immigrant genre contribute to a cliché that Italian-Americans are inherently criminal? The Medinas are law-abiding, but a lot of the other characters of Italian heritage are not (as are not the Irish- and Anglo-Americans).
A: There are a number of Italian-American groups who criticize the portrayal of Italian-Americans as criminals. I think that the Italian-Americans of today are Americans, fully integrated, and less likely to suffer from the prejudice of stereotypes. Many Italian-Americans admired The Godfather even though the Corleone family was criminal. The Corleones exemplified courage, family loyalty, resourcefulness, their own brand of integrity and seemed to control their destiny. They killed people, but that was just business. The character, Ignazio Terranova, in Birds of Passage, represents a more accurate Italian criminal personality around 1905 than does Vito Corleone.
Leonardo’s thoughts and expectations at the end of the novel beg for a sequel . . .is a sequel in the works?
A: I’m working on a modern literary thriller about an Italian-American who runs afoul of the Russian mob. I hope the reader won’t be able to put it down. A sequel to Birds of Passage will be written if the novel is popular and readers demand more.
A final question, related to writing in general, that our readers are probably interested in and would find valuable: over the years, you’ve submitted about 50 stories to Bartleby Snopes, with only one acceptance (“A Careless Mistake,” February, 2013). How do you handle rejection? What keeps you submitting?
A: Ninety-five percent of the stories rejected by Bartleby Snopes were accepted by other magazines for publication, often after an additional rewrite. I expect the remainder to be published within a year. As of this interview, I’ve had seventy stories published almost all by different magazines. Once one of my pieces is accepted, I rarely submit again to the same magazine. I’m trying to broaden my readership and reputation.
However, I continue to submit to Bartleby Snopes for the quick feedback I’m given on new drafts. Writing is a lonely pursuit. My wife, Jane, helps me on new stories, but an experienced editor, like those at Bartleby Snopes often can point out the one or two things that need to be revised before the story is publishable. That’s why you see so much of my work.
Regarding rejection, I have a number of friends who won’t seek publication because of sensitivity to rejection. I think writers should embrace rejection as an incentive to improve. We must resist the temptation to argue with feedback but instead reflect on why the particular editor/reader had that reaction. The reader, not the writer, is in charge of determining both the quality of the piece and its meaning. When it comes to writing, I have a lot to learn, but the creative process is fun. Rejection makes acceptance sweeter.
Joe, thank you for talking about your book and sharing your thoughts with us. Good luck with the release!
The first chapter of Birds of Passage is available on Joe’s website. Be sure to sign up for Joe’s blog on his “Contact” page.