Jackie Townsend in Rome (photo used with her permission)
As a veteran of cross-cultural relationships (I am now on my second marriage to someone from another country), I tend to fancy myself as something of an expert on the topic. On the one hand, I know the joys of living in an intimate relationship with someone from another culture. On the other, I am only too aware of the pitfalls, a few of which I listed in an early post that still gets lots of hits: “Cross-cultural marriage: Four good reasons not to rush into it.”
I was therefore delighted to come across the novel Imperfect Pairings, by Jackie Townsend. From the outset of the book, I could see that here is a writer who understands that marrying someone from another country not only means marrying the family—but marrying the culture, by which one means the REAL culture, not the tourist version.
The imperfect pairing at the center of Jackie’s novel are Jamie, an American career woman, and Jack/Giovanni, who received his education at MIT but is from an old Italian family. The reason he has two names? Because, when he gets to Italy, he “literally turns into another person with another name,” as Jamie informs her mother at one stage.
Unsure of the relationship at first, Jamie finds herself powerfully drawn to Jack/Giovanni. Not only is he physically attractive, but he’s a man of hidden depths, who seems to understand her better than anyone else.
Eventually, the pair get married—but it’s not a fairytale wedding in the Italian countryside. Rather, it happens in city hall—Jamie has offered to help Jack get his green card. But despite this rather unromantic beginning, the couple grow close, and Jamie gradually immerses herself in Giovanni’s life, especially after he quits his job in the United States to help out with resurrecting the vineyards on his family’s estate.
As one reviewer said of Jackie’s novel:
It’s a brilliantly-written small gem, with exquisite detail and equally exquisite crafting of language, by an American author with her own Italian husband and her own Italian experience. It’s a guidebook to Italy, and a guidebook to how Italians really live their lives.
So can love cross borders? Fortunately, Jackie has agreed to answer some questions about her own life and the book. And she has kindly offered to GIVE AWAY ONE FREE E-COPY to the person who leaves the most interesting comment!
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Hi / ciao, Jackie. Thanks so much for agreeing to be our featured author this month. First can you tell us what made you decide to write a novel focusing on a cross-cultural relationship between an American woman and an Italian man?
I am 16 years married to an Italian who came to the U.S. for university and stayed.
And you called the novel “Imperfect Pairings”–why?
I got tired hearing all the oohs and ahs: “Oh you’re married to an Italian, how wonderful!” It’s so much more complex than that, and I wanted to dispel the notion of the romantic Italian love story, but in a real and true way, which means also dispelling the romanticism of relationships. The novel is about a couple dealing with real issues and real life, and learning to love each other even more in the midst of all that.
Did writing the book help you to process your own experience of getting into a cross-cultural relationship?
My own experience of being married to a foreigner exposed me to the parallels between cultural differences and marital differences. Entering a foreign country can be like entering a relationship and vise versa. To get to know someone, to understand them, you need the cross the border into their country, the country of their mind and soul. But even if you do eventually learn their “language,” you will never speak their native tongue, not really anyway. Which leaves the question, “Is it possible to ever really know the person you love?”
How much of the book is autobiographical?
Only about thirty percent of the story is autobiographically based. It took me much longer than Jamie to truly open myself up to my Italian family. Part of my writing the book, is homage to that, and them.
The Italian wine-making industry figures large in the novel. Did that emerge from an actual experience?
My husband’s family lives outside Turin, in Northern Italy, not far from the Barolo region. They did once have a summer villa there, where they made wine, and this is what inspired me to use wine and the resurrection of the family vineyard as a catalyst for the story. I love the way Italians treat wine, casually, like a member of the family, an old friend. Wine is a relationship. It requires love and care and tending to if it’s going to survive and grow, and, still, you don’t know what that wine will ultimately be, how it will taste. It became the perfect metaphor for the book.
Why a novel and not a memoir?
I’ve always written fiction, that’s the genre that comes naturally to me. I like the freedom, the idea of letting the characters take the story where they want to go, as when Jamie and Giovanni head to Southern Italy, to Napoli, at the end of the story.
Staying on the theme of your own life and travels, how and where did you meet your Italian husband?
My husband grew up in Italy, Australia, and Bangkok. He moved to the United States for college. We met four years later at business school in Berkeley. I had no idea he was Italian. He was raised in international schools and learned English very early on and worked hard to fit in, to have no Italian accent. But in Italy, he’s the opposite, staunchly Italian and working hard to rid himself of his American accent because he needs this sense of heritage, of home.
The inner nuances of Italian life
In the book you describe Jamie’s many displaced moments: her initial discomfort at being thrown into a physically demonstrative family that loves sitting down to home-cooked meals; her surprise at discovering that her American values of self-reliance and a can-do spirit do not really register with Giovanni’s people; and, perhaps most shockingly of all, her perception that her husband’s allegiance to football trumps all else. At one point she actually wonders if she and he have been “raised on different planets.” What was your most displaced moment when visiting Italy with your husband?
In the beginning of our relationship, it was knowing that he might be embarrassed my me, and my rather bawdy Americanism.
That reminds me of the first time Jamie and Giovanni visit Italy, not long after they’ve met, and she suggests that he sleep in her room. He gets angry and says: “It’s just not something you do here.” I know that you and your husband live in New York City. Have you ever considered moving to Italy?
Early on we had lofty dreams about living in Italy. The idea sounded romantic, but the reality was that the more and more we visited, the more and more I realized that moving to Italy would mean essentially moving in with his family—more disconcertingly his mother, a lovely kind woman, but also, well, I’ll let you imagine. The other reality was that it’s not easy to move to Italy and work. Job opportunities there just can’t compete with those in the States. Will we give it all up some day and move there? We’ll see.
What was your least displaced moment, when the Italian way of life made sense, and you felt as though you belonged in that part of the world—or as Jamie puts it when she comes to tolerate football, “accidentally entered some alternative universe”?
Three years ago our Roman cousin (the inspiration for the character Silvestro) asked me to be the godmother to his third child. Italians take this duty seriously, and I was very touched that he asked me, for Romans can often be all about Rome, and yet he skipped over all these other family members, even my husband, for the Americana. I’ve never felt so naturally a part of things (this, after 12 years)—standing in this magnificent church in the center of Rome, holding his baby in my arms as the priest christened him, trying not to shake or trip or fumble, surrounded by all of our Italian family, those who had so easily and truly made me part of their lives. I think I finally let myself believe it. It takes time, years, for cultural barriers to fall down, to really get to know someone from another country. But what I’ve learned is that you can. It’s something I would never have believed earlier on in my relationship with my in-laws.
That’s a touching story. Does having a non-American husband make you look at life in the United States any differently? In the book, Jamie comes to reappraise her sister and brother-in-law’s values after being exposed to a different part of the world.
Absolutely. It gives me perspective. My husband’s view is always global, from the outside in, sometimes infuriatingly so. While my view, the view of most Americans, will be from the inside out. We are the center of the world. But in fact, we are not. You can’t get this perspective, I don’t believe, unless you are intimately involved with another country, you “marry” them. I feel so lucky to have this experience and perspective in my life.
Self-publishing, a Writer’s Digest prize & praise from Italian Americans
Moving on to the book: What was the most difficult part of the book-writing process?
My writing is very subtle. I want my readers to read between the lines, to feel what’s going on in the quiet places. In as such, bringing out the romance between Jamie and Giovanni proved difficult. Because I believe that love is very personal and private, between two people only, and so to expose Jamie and Giovanni’s love felt like I was tainting it. I had to get past this. Knowing when to let love surface, getting the balance right, was difficult. It took a lot of time, and many of rewrites.
What was your path to getting it published?
I self-publish my novels through my own imprint, Ripetta Press. It’s a decision I came to a few years back when my first novel, Reel Life, came close but ultimately had no success in finding a publisher. When Imperfect Pairings came along, I didn’t even bother trying to find a publisher. I became accustomed to the freedom of being able to do what I wanted with the book. And I was going to have to market it myself anyway.
Are you comfortable with indie publishing—is it working for you?
It’s become relatively easy to self-publish, though it might not be for everyone. In my case, I’m able to garner enough press and sales to sustain myself and find inspiration. Speaking of self-publishing, Imperfect Pairings just won an honorable mention award for literary fiction in the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book awards, which of course I was very pleased about. My plan is to have the book translated, first in Italian, and work to find an international distributer.
Wow, congratulations! And well deserved. I must say, was impressed by how elegantly and lyrically you write. So what audience did you have in mind for the book? Has it been reaching those people?
Some people from the pure Romance genre got a hold of my book early on, and were wildly disappointed. This is not your typical Italian love story, and far from your steamy romance. It’s an adult romance, and people who get that really enjoy it.
The best reception of the book has been from the Italian American community, people who have some connection with Italy, second or third generation transplants. Many of those readers can really relate to the idea of an Italian’s displacement and the differing cultural dynamics between America and Italy.
I noticed your first book was about sisters, and this book has a sister relationship at its heart. Are you working on the next book now? What is about, and will it have a pair of sisters?
Funny you should ask. Yes, my next book has a sister theme. Two young adult women from different countries and cultures—one is Italian and one is American—will discover that they have the same father.
I presume you have a sister or sisters in real life?
Yes, I have two sisters (and a brother) who drive me crazy. But I love them. They provide inspiration for a lot of material!
10 Questions for Jackie Townsend
Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: Hologram for a King, by Dave Eggers.
2. Favorite literary genres: Fiction, novels and short story collections, both classical and contemporary.
3. Reading habits on a plane: I travel frequently, and often far. Planes are my excuse to spend uninterrupted hours getting lost in a novel. I travel with my Kindle. It gives me this sense, tucked into my purse, that I’m traveling with all my books.
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: 1984, by George Orwell but only because I couldn’t think of anything else.
5. Favorite books as a child: To Kill A Mockingbird; Catcher in the Rye
6. Favorite heroine: Dorothea in Middlemarch
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Joan Didion
8. Your reading habits: At night, before bed, but I will also sometimes get up and read in the morning, for inspiration. I am always inspired to write when I read great fiction.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: Mine.
10. The book you plan to read next: The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri
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Thank you, Jackie! As mentioned, I loved the book—everything from the big picture of the cross-cultural relationship to the little details, like Jamie having to get used to the fact that Italians don’t snack between meals. I also love something you said just now: “Entering a foreign country can be like entering a relationship and vise versa.” I believe there’s something in this book for every expat or serious traveler.
Readers, how about you? Any further questions for Jackie, or comments? Remember that if you leave a comment, you’ll be eligible to receive a free e-copy of the book! So, comment away! Extra points, as always, if you’re a Displaced Dispatch subscriber!
The winner will be announced in our Displaced Dispatch on November 30, 2013.
Can’t wait to read the book? You can always order a copy at Amazon.
STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!
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Images: Jackie Townsend in Rome; book cover art.