Prior to beginning the last portion of my interview with diDonato, I reserved a few moments to savor some more herbal teas. After some chitchat, the novelist brought me back to task. I reached down to my valise, pulled out, and unraveled my crumpled list of questions. I asked him about truth in writing. He said, “It can be true, even if it didn’t happen to us. I don’t know how a woman feels, yet I felt for my mother.” I didn’t ask, but thought he was alluding to his mother’s feelings after his father’s tragic death while on the job. Pietro continued, “The writer must feel and empathize deeply; empathy so great that it transcends the real truth, it becomes autonomous truth, and then it becomes literature. This is a struggle we all have, even Hemingway and Falkner. I know it.”
Despite my primitive tape recorder, Pietro noticed my scramble to copy every word. The man looked at me and paused. When he considered me up-to-speed, he continued, “I’m writing a book about Hemingway and myself. It’s a dangerous zone to sanity, this creativity with words. No other art medium has it. Every other medium you can grasp with your hands, you can feel the instruments and tools. The word is the word. You can’t grasp words and they have various meanings. It’s a strain on the spirit, conscious concept of your identity, and yourself. The prostitute has no problem. He is a politician and politicians deal with words and fake bibles. The creative writer has no bible.”
Amazed at this wizardry with words, I needed to probe further. I asked him how he’d developed that skill. diDonato simply said, “That can only come from a sense of imagery, since words don’t come first. They come after the image. What is a thought? A thought is an essential composition of images embodied by parts and components. The writer sees all parts. If I see all parts, it’s no problem to express it. Each part has a name, a word.”
I brought up his other books such as: Three Circles of Light, the Life of Mother Cabrini, the Penitent and This Woman. According to diDonato, This Woman was an obsessive novel about Pietro and his wife. He kept seeing her past. Three Circles of Light ends with the beginning of Christ in Concrete, and the Penitent is about Maria Goretti’s life.
Like a psychic, diDonato detected my open mouthed fascination about his writing religious books. He explained why he wrote them. He revealed, “Spiros Skouros wanted to do the life of Mother Cabrini. He was married to a woman deeply committed to Boys’ Town of Italy. She also loved Frances Cabrini. I was paid and then they decided not to do the movie. I had all the materials. It was fascinating material. Actually, it was the true story of Italian immigration complete with the formation of parishes and Italian neighborhoods. When the movie idea was abandoned, I wrote the book.”
Naturally, my interest in Maria Goretti was piqued. I recall gnashing my teeth in horror and rage when the Dominican nuns of my youth told me how the twelve-year old Goretti, fought off an attempted rape, and was viciously stabbed countless times. As I was about to reveal my limited knowledge of Maria Goretti, Pietro said that his wife read about Goretti and the attempted rape. She felt that Maria was a second St. Agnes. diDonato said, “The Passionist Fathers postulated her cause. I knew these priests in West Hoboken, New Jersey. I went to church there, and the story was relevant to me. The Passionist Fathers gave me so much material, including a letter to the Pope. I wrote an outline, and got a contract from Prentice Hall.”
I asked the novelist if he loved those that he wrote about. Pietro immediately shot back,” I can’t write about anything that I don’t love. I didn’t always, and I failed. I write best about women, sex, prostitutes, lovers, saints, natural sensuality, and not perversion.”
We exchanged ideas about ethnically exploitive writers. I sensed heat from simmering eyes, observed what I thought were semi-clenched fists, and noticed tightened brows. He stated quite firmly, “I hold every writer responsible for his actions. Constitutionally, this is a free society. The people keep themselves enslaved by remaining ethnic characters. It is their own choice. I’m sorry but aside from myself there are no serious Italian-American writers. They’re all clowns. They’re all flamboyant. They’re not serious.” Then he praised the writing talents of Gay Talese, yet felt disappointed when he felt (Talese) prostituted himself by writing, Honor Thy Father.
Pietro spoke about Italian-American writers in general. “Either they prostitute themselves in their prose, or are guilty of ridiculous affectations in poetry like Ciardi or Felinghetti. They are all poses. Is there an Italian-American writer equal in a sense to James Agee? He wrote Death in the Family and screenplays like African Queen. He put his heart and soul into his writing. He said, ‘This is real. This is me.'” Fante started off serious but didn’t grow like Saroyan. Saroyan started off good, but remained a child, and then became a clown.”
I pointed out that Mario Puzzo published an award winning novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim. It did not deliver a great deal of financial success. I wondered if The Godfather was needed for Mario Puzzo to reap the benefits of the commercial market. diDonato searched my eyes. Had I been in the boxing arena with him at that moment, it would have been my signal to hurdle the ropes and to run for my life. Pietro focused on me and said, “You have to analyze the masters and tell the truth. I don’t think that prostitution lies as much with the prostitutes as with the people who go for it in society. It’s the terrible herd of the masses. People don’t have values and spiritual stamina. The publisher is in business. He’s a leech. He gives people what they want. The publisher is in business to make money.” Pietro diDonato felt that the serious writer needed to take a moral stand. He said, “He cannot stand aloof. This is what the Italian has been loath to do since Sacco and Vanzetti. The Italian is individualistic and refuses to declare hinmself.”
Toward the end of the interview, I asked him how all that success, fame, and his move to Hollywood with its alluring movie stars affected the twenty-six year old diDonato. He said,” This has to be answered in two parts. Women are divinities to me. What else is there? Men are ridiculous, yet women remain superbly savage. They produce life. They are complicated, diversionary, and inspiring. Most successful writers move from one woman to the other. They fit in the context of moral grandeur. Women can be treated endlessly.”
I only met with Pietro a couple of times after that day. Each of those days and nights we conversed, I grew from our literary and social encounters. One evening, I drove him to a lecture hosted by the United Italian Americans for Progress. I was one of the group’s founders. When his inspiring presentation ended, and his applauding and admiring audience finally left him alone, I offered him an honorarium. He shook that check out of his hand as quickly as one would shake off an uninvited bumble bee from one’s grip. Judging by his face, my offer disappointed him. I apologized, drove him home, and spent the rest of my writing life in a failed attempt to emulate his unmatched writing skills.
F. Anthony D’Alessandro
Addendum: For more information on Pietro diDonato, contact the reference desk at Stony Brook University Library, in New York.