An Interview with the Author
What is this book about?
My book is a memoir of the many years of experiences that I and my family have had while operating the longest running food concession at The Wisconsin State Fair. We all grew up spending a part of every August there and now we still come together from all over the US to rejoin each other. That's the basic setting and focus of the book, but the real story is much deeper than that. It's about the people – for example, my Italian immigrant grandparents, real characters, who started the business, Mille's Italian sausage, and who leave their indelible mark on three subsequent generations. Then there's my father who, in his inimitable way, focuses on the family business - and his family - for eleven days of each summer. As for me and my siblings, the book gets into our childhoods spent in the setting of one of the greatest state fairs in America with lots of opportunities for mischief and inspiration.
In addition to some light-hearted and pretty hilarious humor, it's also balanced with a serious and poignant aspect. Returning to family, hometown, and to one's self are all important elements as is my own experience in growing self-awareness and how that came about. And then there's a brief but near-tragic episode that is part of my history and which adds a degree of tension to this book.
All in all, Eleven Days in August is a book that any adult reader is likely to enjoy. It will take them behind the scenes, so to speak, and presents real characters, in both senses of the word, that most people will appreciate and perhaps be able to relate to others in their own lives. Although I didn't set out to do so, others have told me that what I've written is really great Americana, and I believe that's true.
How would you describe the theme of Eleven Days in August?
Eleven Days in August is about the way by which a small family business, begun way back in 1932, has served as an anchor point - the sole anchor point - that brings a widely disbursed (geographically) family back together, year after year, generation after generation. This family gathering, based on hard work, is really all about renewing family relationships and creating a rich tradition that is passed along to subsequent generations.
But, in addition to this, the book also deals with the concept of serendipity, that strange and wonderful experience of setting out to do or find something and, in the process, finding something totally different and unexpected. That "unexpected something" in most cases turns out to greatly exceed the reward initially sought. My grandparents and father had no idea that their goal of making money selling sausages at The Wisconsin State Fair would one day become the only common element that brings us all together each year. When I took the business national and went on the road for a whole year, I was thinking about self-sufficiency and was surprised that the road led me to self-awareness and appreciation for what I already had. And the examples go on and on.
OK, so the annual family business itself has led you to certain awareness; did the writing of the book about that family business teach you anything about yourself?
Absolutely – the book took me in directions I hadn't anticipated. It's strange, but I was really surprised to realize how accessible and powerful the memories of things that happened thirty, forty, and even fifty years ago still can be when explored in this manner. The process of reflecting and writing about them opened doors into my subconscious mind that had never been entered before. This was a very powerful emotional experience. An example of this is the fact that I never wept at the deaths of my grandparents or father – but writing about that all these years later - in a writer's coffee shop near Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square, I got all misty and had tears running down my cheeks. That really surprised me.
What writers or works have inspired you - either in the creation of Eleven Days in August or your writing style in general?
I've always enjoyed the style of the great storytellers – Garrison Keillor comes to mind. I also admire the unusual character development of Larry McMurtry – his resume is, of course, incredible, and so are his wonderfully atypical characters. Another writer, an old-time journalist, I admire is Gordon MacQuarrie of the early Milwaukee Journal whose rascally characters of Stories of The Old Duck Hunters and Other Drivel live forever. Then there's the screenplays of the great Giuseppe Tornatore, whose movie projectionist, Alfredo, in Cinema Paradiso reminded me so much of my grandfather that I knew I'd eventually have to write about him. I'm not sure where I get my prose style of writing from but I do enjoy those writers who can say things in a certain way that just makes you stop, reread a brief phrase and dwell on it for few moments. I'd like to have my reader's have that experience with Eleven Days in August from time to time.
"Grandpa and the Cowboy" is the title of one of the chapters of Eleven Days in August - what's that about?
This was an incident, both very funny and poignant, that happened way back in 1959. It deals with a conflict between my rascally, lazy, but lovable grandfather and my hardworking grandmother when our temporary sausage stand had to be relocated. Grandpa and a carnival roustabout, who I refer to as "the cowboy" for good reasons, took the lazy approach to get it done. It involves the fragile, wooden framed sausage stand, a Ford pick-up truck, some heavy rope and a whole lot of scraping and creaking. As I describe it in the book, it's the only time I ever saw my grandfather move faster than a crawl. The episode includes a very emotional old-country Italian style heated argument between my grandparents with lots of Italian words I had never heard before and which don't appear in most Italian-English dictionaries.
So you're a Wall Street guy who goes back to Wisconsin every year to sell sausages for a week or so - that seems like a pretty big switch, yes?
It certainly is. As I mention in the prologue of my book, on one day I'm meeting with a Wall Street business executive who runs a division of one of the largest financial institutions in the world – he has about 30,000 people under him. We discuss potential opportunities that could save his division millions of dollars – annually. Then, the next day, I'm getting crap from a Milwaukee teenager who wants sauerkraut on his $4.50 Italian sausage sandwich. But I do enjoy every second of the contrast and that goes to the heart of my memoir.
There's a very frightening episode in your book that deals with an incident involving the abduction of your infant son. Without giving away too much of the story, can you tell me how that affected you as a father and later, as a writer?
That happened at a time when I was a very different person than I am now. Back then, I was Mr. calm, cool, and collected – had to be. But the incident gave me a perspective and appreciation for certain things that I don't know if I would ever otherwise have. I'm certain I would act differently if that were to happen today. Writing about it in my book forced me to face certain emotional challenges and, at a profoundly personal level, opened a door to my psyche that I am just beginning to explore.