Monday, March 14, 2005

Queen of the Big Time: an interview with Adriana Trigiani

Courtesy of Quality Paperback Book Club...

Adriana Trigiani isn't just the author of acclaimed, bestselling novels like the Big Stone Gap trilogy and Lucia, Lucia. She's a wife and mother with a two-year old daughter, a former script writer for TV (including The Cosby Show), a playwright, performer and documentary filmmaker . . . and a hilarious, engaging lunch companion, as we recently discovered. Read our conversation with Adriana, where she talked about her newest book, The Queen of the Big Time, its deeply personal inspirations and so much more!

QUESTION: We hear you've been working on the movie version of Big Stone Gap. This is actually a return to an earlier phase of your career. How did you start out?

ADRIANA TRIGIANI: I'll be directing Big Stone Gap. Right now we're in pre-production, revising the script; I'm hoping that will begin by the end of this year. And Lucia, Lucia was bought by a company called Deep River Productions. I wrote that screenplay but am not directing that one.

I was a theater major at Saint Mary's, an all-women's college at Notre Dame in Indiana. I came to New York City to be a playwright, and made my off-Broadway debut in 1985 in a play I was commissioned to write called Secrets of the Lava Lamp. I started an all-girl comedy group called the Outcasts, which is funny to me today because of that huge hip-hop group Outkast. And then I was really broke, doing plays in regional theater in Missouri, Pennsylvania . . . I worked steadily year-round, paying the rent as an office temp, a nanny [and] all kinds of odd jobs.

There came a breaking point around 1989; I'd been doing the play thing for four to five years and could not make a living. [After signing with a theater agent] I admitted "I'm broke, you've gotta get me a job." He said, "the fastest way to make money is in television." I grew up in Big Stone Gap, Virginia--we barely had reception, I never even watched TV. The agent told me to write a spec script; watch an episode of the show and write another episode. I could do that! He gave me the tape; the show had not premiered yet. I went to a friend's house to watch it--I didn't even have a VCR myself--and I couldn't get the picture to come up on my friend's TV! So I listened to it like a radio play, took notes [and wrote the spec script] . . . It was the pilot for Roseanne. A week later, I had a job. I started out at A Different World and then moved on to write for The Cosby Show. It took off from there. Then, I made a documentary, Queens of the Big Time, that got me attention from a place called The Shooting Gallery, which had just made Sling Blade. They asked me what I wanted to do: I wanted to write and direct a movie about Big Stone Gap. So I wrote the screenplay . . . [which eventually became the novel]. That's how it happened!

Q: What's the relation between your 1996 documentary Queens of the Big Time and the book?

AT: The setting---Roseto, PA--and the annual pageant that happens every July, in honor of our Lady of Mount Carmel. The Blessed Mother, throughout history, in our Catholic belief, has appeared on Earth. The Blessed Lady of Mount Carmel appeared in England to a coal miner. So when these Italians came over to America to work in the clay quarries outside Roseto, it just made sense that the church be in honor of our lady of Mount Carmel, since it was the Blessed Mother that fit the needs of that town. Starting in 1893, they had this festival, a carnival to raise money for the church. And then in the late 1920s, they began a pageant where a 16-year old girl and a runner up would become the queens of the festival. They sent these girls out to sell tickets door to door, and the one who raised the most would become queen. They built schools from this, furnished the church, all kinds of programs. My grandfather was one of the key instrumental people in building the Our Lady of Mount Carmel School. He was also the first Italian American on the board of a bank. He crossed all these lines, and he's one of my heroes. He and my grandmother built this great life together . . . she was a toughie! Like The Queen of the Big Time protagonist, Nella.

Q: What were some of the other influences for The Queen of the Big Time?

AT: There's funny stuff in it, but there's a lot of sadness and melancholy. I'm totally influenced by the real-world environment as I'm writing. There's a war going on! Examine how we're building our families for clues in this world disorder. I really think that these wars are raging because we have people in families that have feuds, where people don't speak to each other . . . If we can't get along on this level, how can we expect our government to do it?

My father died when I was editing Lucia, Lucia . He told me a story shortly before he died, which makes its way into The Queen of the Big Time. His parents didn't take him to the circus with a ticket--they took him in the middle of the night to watch the elephants put the tent up! It was so magical. It's these weird fragments that weave themselves into the novel.

There was this black and white photograph that my grandmother had saved. There's my great-grandfather, a farmer who looks like Gepetto; my great-aunt, their barn, this hill, an [unidentified] man, and my great-uncle. They're standing in this field of dandelions. In the background you see the slate slag hills, which they've blown up the ground for the quarries. And then beyond that is the town of Roseto, this beacon. I'd put that on my desk and just look at it and go into the reality of that photograph to write this world. The details are all there. There's a ladder that's on the barn, the way the sun's hitting, the way the hills are rolling.

To find out about Adriana's next project, her favorite books, The Sopranos and more, read the rest of this interview online! To begin, click here.


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