Interview: Donna Vitucci’s Inner Princess

In today’s jmwwblog, Lauren Becker talked to the prolific, talented writer Donna Vitucci about nuns, the circus and karaoke. Donna, incapable of giving a dull bio, provided the following:

When Donna was a little girl, she daydreamed about using a gun to hold up the priest in the sacristy after Mass, to demand that he hand over all of the bread – the hosts – because she wanted more than one wafer per week. Then she heard that the nuns baked the hosts in some special religious bakery, so she thought she would become a nun and score all the bread she wanted. Also she thought she would like to wear a black habit with a little hidden watch attached by a cord underneath one of the starchy white bibs the Sisters of Mercy wore. She had seen one of the Sisters withdraw this secret watch to check the time before clanging the bell to end playground recess. Donna did not become a nun, but wears a lot of black and now relies on Panera to assuage her bread cravings.

In addition, her short fiction and poetry have been widely published, and she is very pleased that four chapters of the novel she is drafting at present have appeared or are forthcoming in Storyglossia, Up the Staircase, Chautaqua Literary Review, and Front Range Review. She is a Pushcart nominee for her Night Train short story, “Leo Moon.”

Lauren Becker:
I’m not going to waste precious interview time asking about your inspirations or whether you wanted to be a writer as a child. I believe it is safe to assume that you love to write, that there are some writers you like very much, that you have had a number of people in your life who inspire and encourage you and that, as a child, you wanted to be either a writer or a princess and were pleased to learn you did not have to choose between the two.

You’ve made the unusual choice to have neither a blog nor a website? What’s the story with that?

Donna Vitucci:
There are some things I can do, and some I cannot. I know my limitations. I never learned to program a VCR and now, look, they’re mostly obsolete. I have always had trouble learning to operate the cable channels through our TV. The thought of doing these things wearies me. I’m really just too lazy to devote the time to learning what it would take to get a blog or website going. In my defense, I do READ others’ blogs and websites and enjoy them.

LB: I hate to be the one to break it to you, Donna, but VCRs are, obsolete. And my blog and journal sites are, respectively, an amateurish mess and a bare-bones space begging me to do something interesting with it. I had a friend spend two hours showing me how to put a picture up on the website. I guess what I’m saying is: you can make/beg/pay/blackmail others into doing this kind of stuff. It would be nice to be able to find you and things about you in one place.

DV: Hmmm. If/when (?) I make that leap, blackmail might be the way to go. Thanks for the idea.

LB: In the meantime, you are a frequent, funny, encouraging, and kind commenter on Facebook. I wonder why you don’t give updates when your own writing is published or otherwise acknowledged.

DV: I really just like splashing in the pond with my friends on Facebook.

I guess I resist tooting my own horn because I’m shy by nature. Self-promotion has always made me sweat. I’ve spent all my life being a good girl—that is, for the most part, seen and not heard. It’s a tough indoctrination to shed. I’m thrilled when people—friends & family, as well as strangers—read my work. And wow, when they comment on it, I am over the moon that they’ve taken part of their day to spend time with my characters. That’s probably the overriding reason I stay less visible: I don’t want to presuppose an interest or make anyone feel obligated to read me based on a Facebook announcement.

The ease and immediacy in posting a comment online, or jotting a message or an email has painted me, some say, as kind of a sassy chick. That’s Mouthy-Donna getting a little air time. A distinction I feel between the way I chat and remark online and my writing is that my fiction has been, for the most part, serious, full of intent, somber, no mockery. At least I hope readers don’t see mockery there.

LB: Let’s talk about your writing, which has a lovely dreamy, though substantial, quality to it. For example, in “Leo Moon,” a recent (Pushcart-nominated) story in Night Train, a young woman tries and fails to gain her boyfriend’s attention, as he focuses on working on his car. She wanders, coming upon another man who is riding a lawnmower. He stops, gives her his total attention and advises her that she is worthy of the complete love of one man, which he demonstrates to her. You move them skyward in the following description:

Mowers and automobiles were poor machines, but men and women had bodies worthy of heaven. The moon roughed their skin, the planets pulled their bones to the surface. A season of heat had raised up the grass, then scythed through with a blast that slayed most upright citizens.

This gorgeous poetic description sets the reader down gently, as the paragraph concludes “[s]he wanted to sleep inside the night, the sky, this man’s arms and thighs. He was a shell around the meat of a walnut, crevice and expansion holding every piece of her comfort.”

You are so effective in combining the ethereal with real detail. When she wakes in her boyfriend’s car in the morning, it is unclear whether the incident with the “lawnmower man” happened. Though readers often want answers, I felt that an answer would be beside the point. Is this what you intended and how do you conceive of and achieve this sort of outcome?

DV: Thank you for calling me lovely and dreamy—I mean my writing lovely and dreamy. I resist giving readers all the answers. I do want them to wonder a bit. This isn’t deliberate confusion on my part. But I like to explore the dream world, the what if and what the heart desires, where the real and the imagined intersect. I like to think imagining hard enough will make a thing so, that we can influence and cause shifts. It sounds spooky, but it’s all just dreaming. Or prayer. And possibility. I don’t want to ever eliminate possibility. How I achieve it, when I achieve it in my stories (and in those instances I feel so blessed, so very lucky), I don’t know how it happens. It occurs during the revising, reworking for character truth and tone and language? I don’t know. It’s that mystery of transforming base metal into gold. And once in a blue moon, language spills beauteous on the page on the first pass-through, and that is one rare gift.

LB: You have a very stunning and unusual way with language. How do you accomplish this?

DV: Thank you, again! I don’t know how to answer this other than to say it’s the way my mind works, how I interpret the world into words, um, a little off kilter, inverted sometimes,. Also, in my defense (?) I started out as a poet, and when I saw I couldn’t run with the best of the herd I employed the way I use language to tell story—which I do think suits me better, though I have, in the last year or so, begun writing some poems again. Poems that will never hold up to those composed by the likes of, say, Andrew Hudgins, Mary Oliver, W.S. Merwin, Franz Wright—these are the poets I admire. And I know I am nowhere near approaching the “transporting” they achieve.

LB: Knowing nothing about poetry, I’ll have to defer to your self-assessment, though I find it difficult to believe you can’t “run with the best of the herd.” I hope we’ll see some of that work soon.

On a related note, your hilarious piece, “A Secret,” which details your responses to various spam e-mails, recently ran online at Monkeybicycle. I have not had time to read your vast repertoire of published writing, but this is the only purely humorous piece of yours I have read. What motivated you to digress from your usual focus on complex language and relationships? And how on earth did you get a piece on spam published?

DV: Yes, that was whimsy writing for me, an exercise, something out of my usual dense comfort zone. Jessa Marsh (web editor for Monkeybicycle), bless her, was tickled by the piece, and I thank her for picking it up. It’s not likely I’ll do another like that. I’m pretty much a humorless writer.

LB: Do you have any writerly superstitions? (i.e. must write in same place or time, wearing same t-shirt, socks, tiara, etc?)

DV: I wish I had a tiara because I would absolutely wear it. No superstitions per se, but upon examination I do seem to spend a lot of fruitful writing time in my pajamas. I’ve grown out of that “room of one’s own” thing, and talismans and such. I can write most anywhere (and do), wearing anything or nothing, don’t need candles burning, can write with the radio or the TV on, people around, or not. I do, however, prefer quiet and coffee, or late in the day, a good glass of wine. In the pleasant months I seem to spend a good deal of time writing on the patio. Those are my preferences. But I’ve trained myself to rise above, so no one set of circumstances will stop me. This may be the result of writing while raising two boys.

LB: Do you incorporate any private jokes or references in your stories? You don’t have to tell. Yes, you do. Let’s compromise. One example?

DV: No private jokes. Plenty of details from my life and my observable world have been incorporated into stories, but nothing too blatant as to qualify for dig-elbow-in-the ribs, smirk smirk notice. At least I hope not. I want my stories to be seamless and each their own garment. That said, I have lifted a couple of my husband’s quirks and used them as elements of a character. For instance, the story “Paradise,” published in The Whitefish Review, opens with the husband scooping up dog shit from his grass and tossing it over the fence into the neighbor’s yard—that’s him. When he read it, he saw himself right away.

LB: When asked by DOGZPLOT for your resolutions for 2010, you said “[l]essen the grieving, amp up the dreaming, and not let it matter so much.” Would you say a little about this? How’s it going so far?

DV: I’m a nostalgic chick. I’m always gazing over my shoulder at the past. This informs my writing in some of the very best ways (when it’s all working right.) It also makes me homesick for my youth, my old neighborhood, for lost loves, children who have grown, for pets and promises and places and traditions that have faded. So that grieving is always there.

The dreaming, as you so graciously acknowledged earlier, is central to my writing and my process, so I say let it rain with the dreaming—more, more, more.

As for not letting it matter, well, I guess it must matter on some level or the writing that emerges won’t be true. But apart from writing, I would like to try to not feel so much, so deeply. Because a girl can get carried away, ya know?

Initially, it’s not going so great. But we’ve conquered January and half of February. I’m cutting myself some slack till June.

LB: June seems more than reasonable. So, again, I have not made my way through the Vitucci archives, but noticed that two recent pieces—“Sprain,” which appeared in November 2009 in Juked, and “Rupture,” an apparently unpublished piece you posted at Fictionaut (a site where writers read and comment on various pieces of writing and engage in writing-related discussions) included very distinct circus themes. What’s up with you and the circus?

DV: Doesn’t everybody love the circus? Okay, I know clowns are kind of creepy, and truly freak out a lot of people. But I have great memories of attending the circus with my mom and my sisters. I loved the Disney movie Toby Tyler. There’s an abandon and magic in that world of Big Top performance, and its gyspy-like life. The glitz. The utter terror of the trapeze. I mean, they travel on a train with exotic animals—what’s not to love there?

I can’t explain why circus-y elements are bubbling right now. I’ve learned to trust what my subconscious offers up, especially the oddities. Disjointed language, an uncommon voice, a theme or an image that on the surface doesn’t seem to follow the paragraphs that may already exist in a draft—I’ll let them flow. I’ll follow them. Sometimes I’ll push them further. Sometimes they gotta get snipped, but at least half the time they end up being what the piece needed. They hijack. They become the center around which the rest spins. But explaining why any of that happens—who knows?

LB: Do you have a writing group or trusted friends with whom you share work?

DV: I have a local writers group that meets monthly for dinner and to read/critique. My fellow members are awesome good friends. I also have a few trusted friends across the country on whom I foist my work, if they will have it. And vice versa.

How do you decide where to submit?

Twenty years ago when I seriously started submitting I reviewed the literary magazines cited at the backs of BASS and the Puschcart collections. I drew up my game plan targeting those. The first half of my credits list are all print pubs, like Meridian, Hawaii Review, Faultline, Natural Bridge, Mid-American Review. Publishing online, and more so submitting online, has really changed my approach to this angle of my career. I’m a cheapskate and I hate spending money on postage, okay? I consulted Duotrope for a while, but haven’t been to the site in a year or more. The more I read online, the more potential venues emerge. I find writers whose work I admire online and note where they’ve published or are getting published. It’s a nice little sleuthing kind of game. And an excellent way to avoid writing.

Who are some of the newer writers on the scene that have caught your attention? What do you like about them?

My two Heathers—Heather Fowler and Heather Austin; that kick-ass Kuzhali Manickavel; Michelle Reale. I enjoy all of their stories. I doubt they are “new up & comers.” They’re pretty damned polished and successful, IMO.

I read a charming piece in the latest web issue of The Literary Review by Jeff Hart, whom I’ve never seen nor read before, but I enjoyed it.

There are others I’ve read and enjoyed for awhile who are worth acknowledging. I adore Kim Chinquee. Her pieces are jewels—jewels I sometimes don’t thoroughly understand but jewels nonetheless. Re-reading, and working to gain clarity on a piece that challenges you is not a bad thing. I welcome that kind of reading.

Sometimes I think I gotta do quirky and tricky, and come up with some new slither in my work, and then I read the down to earth stories of Kathy Fish and I say: Girl, look, just be honest. It works. Her honesty works.

I’ve know Shellie Zacharia and her work for a long time and she always manages a fresh perspective while remaining true to her Shellie-hood.

Randall Brown’s Mad to Live collection is a favorite of mine, as is Stefanie Freele’s Strays. I also admire Gary Moshimer’s stories where I find them, which seems to be all over the web these days.

I am probably the least likely person to know who’s hot or new in the writing world. I don’t do nearly as much reading as most of my fellow writers out there, I mean those who have their fingers on the pulse of it, you know? I try to follow up on work discussed and admired and mentioned by friends whose own work I think a lot of—if it’s online. Otherwise I get a lot of my reading material from the library—which eliminates a whole hell of a lot of dizzy, shocking, marvelous, cutting edge, glittery work appearing in small press pubs and chapbooks and guerilla markets. I look at the list of books Matt Bell reads in one year, for instance, and I swoon. Overcome not only by the number of books, but all the titles and writers totally unknown to me. Maybe if I didn’t watch so much General Hospital, I’d have more time to inform myself.

LB: This question is courtesy of Ryan Bradley at Big Other: What’s in the trunk of your car?


DV: See? I’m so out of it I had to go online to check what Big Other was. Jumper cables, yoga mat, ice scraper, hidden spare tire. Very clean trunk. Later there will be groceries.

LB So would you say you’re a clean freak? Or a control freak? What do you think your car trunk says about you as a writer?

Clean freak—definitely not. The spare looking trunk is the influence of my husband, who insists on orderliness in the Vitucci car world. Perhaps what my trunk says about me as a writer is that I’ll follow the rules to a point, maybe to where the rule-following is observable. But where and what you can’t see—underneath, the hidden, the subversive, the goddamn I’ll do what want—runs more deeply in me than you want to know.

Orderliness? My office is like the outer ring of a nuclear hit. Chaos, mess, what were once stacks now sliding, slabs slid, treasures hid, things obliterating other things. A chair you cannot sit on; a desk that can’t be sat at. No flat surface for writing. Stuff abounds! Better don’t go in there. And I hate housekeeping, especially dusting. And this is readily apparent. Thank God no one around here’s allergic.

Control freak? Yeah. Kinda. Ask my kids—they’ll tell you: all over, oh yeah.

LB: Finally, in your photo that accompanies this interview, you appear to be singing karaoke. Were you, in fact, singing karaoke? If you were, what were you singing? If you were not, what would you have been singing?

DV: I have never sung karaoke. I was reading. If I were singing, I’d like to imagine I’d be belting out something sultry, like Norah Jones (again, that darker, gutsier me). More likely I would sing something upbeat by Josh Ritter. Maybe “Snow is Gone.”

LB: We’ll have to get you on a karaoke stage someday. I have a feeling it would be difficult to get you to yield the microphone.

Thank you so much for talking with me, Donna. You are, indeed, a lovely and dreamy princess.

9 responses to “Interview: Donna Vitucci’s Inner Princess

    • Excellent interview! And so true about Donna being such a kind and generous Facebook commenter. I hear you Donna about being brought up to be a “good girl”, seen and not heard. When, soon I hope, you have a collection out, you’ll have to fight that one! It’s not easy for writers to be salespeople too.


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