Over the past decade, Christopher Castellani—artistic director of Grub Street in Boston, one of the country’s largest literary centers—has written a trio of novels about an Italian immigrant family, the Grassos, a family much like his own. Beginning with his first novel, A Kiss for Maddalena (Algonquin, 2003), winner of a Massachusetts Book Award and a Top Ten BookSense pick; then The Saint of Lost Things (Algonquin, 2005), long-listed for the IMPAC/Dublin Award; and now All This Talk of Love, set for release in February by Algonquin, he has traced the lives of Antonio and Maddalena Grasso, from their roots in a small village in Italy to Delaware. At the same time, he has been working on Grub Street, changing it to keep pace with the shifts roiling the publishing world.
Castellani’s books, which can each be read as stand-alones, cover three generations of the Grasso clan and are mostly told from the viewpoint of the son, Frankie. Castellani, like Frankie, was the only one of his nearly 100 Delaware relatives to move more than two hours from home. It’s not that the books are autobiographical per se, but they have the ring of truth. “There are elements that are real,” said Castellani. “[There are] snippets of conversations and themes that come from personal experience. Sometimes I can’t remember what is real and what isn’t.”
Perhaps the greatest similarities between the Castellanis and the Grassos is the way they interact with each other. “That is my family in a nutshell,” said Castellani. “We’re constantly arguing, criticizing, and talking about each other. We’re so drawn to each other, passionately invested in each other. We fiercely love each other.” It’s not unusual to see his parents at his book events, or for him to visit them at least once a month.
Castellani’s fans can be equally passionate. Stan Hynds, book buyer at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt., counted himself among them, even before the first Grasso book came out. “He’s the kind of guy you like immediately,” said Hynds, who met Castellani at a pre-pub pizza party at the store. “We were predisposed to like A Kiss for Maddalena. We loved it.” Since then, Northshire has hosted Castellani to do readings from each of his books. But Hynds regards the new one, All This Talk of Love, as “the best.” He called the novel “mature and assured.”
While Castellani followed the popular dictum, “Write what you know,” he says an additional impetus for All This Talk of Love came from Dorothy Allison, who advised, “Write to your fears.” In this case, it was his anxiety that his mother—whose sisters died of Alzheimer’s—would also succumb to the disease. In the novel, though, Castellani changes most of the details. “One of the things I always tell my students is, if you’re going to write about something that happened to you, change [the details] to force yourself to use your imagination. If it occurred in 1995, make it 2005 or 1885.”
If Castellani looked to his personal life for inspiration, he found a different kind of assistance at his day job. Grub Street helps writers with craft, a subject Castellani teaches there and at other colleges, including the M.F.A. program at Warren Wilson College. But increasingly, with the rising popularity of self-publishing, blogging, and social media, Grub Street has tried to give its students other tools to get their books out. This fall, Castellani turned student, as one of 16 writers with a 2013 book who beta tested a pilot program at Grub Street called Launch Lab. The program is designed to help writers take an active role in the marketing and publicity of their books. For him, it was about “learning who you are as a writer.” He came away realizing that he doesn’t have to pull himself in so many directions by being on social media constantly. Rather than focusing on Twitter, he’s decided that it will be a better, and more effective, use of his time for him to reach out to Italian-American groups.
Algonquin’s support of the trade paperback original includes a 12-city tour with stops in New York; Cincinnati, Ohio; Milwaukee, Wis.; Denver; and San Diego, Calif.