Milwaukee author Jenny Benjamin talks debut novel
A lot of people who read Jenny Benjamin's new book, "This Most Amazing," ask her if she modeled her protagonist Dahlia Conti on herself. A Milwaukee-based poet originally from Illinois (like Benjamin), Dahlia is of Italian heritage (like Benjamin).
"And it's written in the first person," says Benjamin. But no, Dahlia is not her literary doppelganger. "Not more than all the other characters in the book. But yeah, Dahlia is very easy to connect to."
Dahlia has some experiences that Benjamin, presumably, cannot personally relate to. The poet travels to Italy to teach writing and begins to have dreams about Vincenzo Lupo, an 18th century deserter of Napoleon's army who lives in Villeta Barrea in the Italian province of L'Aquila. Homesick for her new love Jonas, Dahlia connects with Vincenzo, who is haunted by demons of his own, even though they are separated by centuries.
A former teacher at NOVA High School in Milwaukee, Benjamin now works as a freelance writer, and "This Most Amazing" is her debut novel. On Friday, May 17, Benjamin will visit Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., at 7 p.m. For more information, visit boswell.indiebound.com/upcoming-events.
OnMilwaukee.com: Where did the idea for this book come from? The idea that people can be connected across centuries?
Jenny Benjamin: I really think after having kids – just when you read genealogies or histories or just how the idea of DNA – I mean, we're coded and we have such similar codes to family members hundreds of years ago and even farther distant we are connected in this amazing way of DNA. It starts there. And then just taking some time to imagine your own philosophy and what you think about the soul or the spirit and things like that, if you do come back in another sense, or the recycling of that life.
OMC: What role did your Italian heritage play in the creation of "This Most Amazing"?
JB: Well, for years there was the family story of - similar to the Vincenzo line – my great-great grandfather was fighting in Napoleon's army and he just got sick of it and walked home. Which I loved. The town in Italy that is the main setting is my family's village, Villetta Barrea and I still have cousins there who I correspond with, and they own a restaurant, so there's a lot of similarities with that. So this idea of that family story, and you just hear it and hear it and hear it, and I played around with it for a number of years in poems and then it just kind of came together when I started thinking about the Dahlia line and how you can connect those two times.
OMC: That story was kind of connected to you the way Dahlia and Vincenzo are connected.
JB: Yeah, it's interesting. All fiction is based in reality. You're getting your ideas about characters – sometimes you'll see it, or it's a moment you pick up on. I know my grandparents came from Villetta Barrea; they married in this country but came through Ellis Island in the late 1900s. If I do genealogy someday, I'll have to go back to Villeta Barrea, but it was fun to just imagine it, too, and come up with my own story about it.
OMC: Jonas, Dahlia's artist boyfriend, lives in the "Third District" of Milwaukee, which is, of course, an allusion to the Third Ward, where Italian immigrants made such a mark. Was that intentional?
JB: Yeah! It was intentional, and I love the Third Ward and that rich history with the Italian community and the Italian Community Center. And then putting Jonas there, I just couldn't put him anywhere else. Because he's an artist and MIAD is there; I taught at MIAD for a while, some humanities classes, and yeah, I just couldn't – once I saw his loft and everything, I just couldn't put him anywhere else.
OMC: Did you have to do a lot of research for the completion of this novel?
JB: I did. I love that era. In my freelance writing I've done some passages for standardized tests on battle plans and what Napoleon did in Egypt. I mean, he was really an interesting person and the campaigns are just amazing to read about. But yes, I had a few core books I read. One was 'Delizia' by John Dickie – it's about the history of food in Italy, that was really a good one.
A couple – the Oxford histories, John Davis, general histories. And I did talk to (Italian scholar) Simonetta Milli Konewko (at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), so she was really great just to talk to a little bit. And then I found a book on the specific years in Italy that I was writing about, 1796 and 1797; the book was published in 1948, and it was really detailed. It had these little sketches and explained the situation and had these battle scenes – once I found the battle I wanted to depict I would focus on that. And then every time something came up and I would put something in Vincenzo's hand I would think, 'Can I put this in his hand?' and it's like, 'No, tin cans aren't invented yet! Can't do that.'
So that would lead to a line of research. So there were some core things and then (a process) of looking up – what kind of candles they have, what kind of trees are in that forest.
OMC: Is it hard to create a character that you pour so much of yourself into but then place in another century?
JB: He is such an alive character for me in my head that I think it wasn't. And then I just looked for entry points – he's male, so you would think that would be hard, but it really wasn't, because I just feel like I know him. And then you just think of, well, some things don't change. We all eat, we all sleep, we all have feelings, we all die. And even emotions, I think, don't change that much over time.
OMC: The concept of family looms very large in this piece, particularly in the Italian sense of the word. Dahlia is very close with her sister and father, and Vincenzo is very close with his brothers and devoted to his fathers.
JB: Yeah, it's a big deal. It's really important. If you're Italian, I mean, family's a big deal. So when I was creating the characters, and this is a very Italian family, obviously for Vincenzo but Dahlia (as well), they're in the contemporary time but they're very connected to Italy and that kind of thing, so those relationships had to be tight, they had to be very real life. It was kind of easy for me because my family's very similar. My dad, who died a few years ago, his family – just memories of my dad and his sister and his brother, going to my grandma's all the time, and these interactions were so valuable for me.
OMC: What's your writing process like?
JB: I'm an outliner and I'm not an outliner. I go back and forth. For this I did do a pretty tight outline to keep track of the timelines. But sometimes what I'm doing is I'm writing to a certain scene – I want to get to this line of dialogue or this scene, what things have to happen to be there? It's plotting out but then also thinking of character. There's a lot of things that are just written or research that I write about, that I compose on the computer, that you don't even put in the book.
It's just backstory so you can really understand the characters, to get to know them. I like to think of it as kind of a linear chaos. I know where I'm going but I'm very open to those serendipitous moments you don't expect. It's a great feeling - like 'Wow, I didn't know that was going to happen.'
OMC: Italian language and phrases punctuate both the prose and the dialogue. When you're writing in English but embellishing with another language, how do you know decide a passage is crying out for some Italian?
JB: It's kind of doing it by feel. I know that sounds really weird, but yeah, I think that I would just sense when it would do something to add it. It's just like coming up with an image or some metaphor or getting a beat on a dialogue point what the action is to describe the character, it was just kind of an organic thing. You want it to add to it, not to distract, and that's a balance.
OMC: Do you think of this novel as a kind of homage to your family and those ties to Italy and Villetta Barrea?
JB: It has turned into that. It really has. And especially as different family members have read it. And my mom especially – who is going to turn 80 – and my dad's gone and a lot of his siblings are gone. Only his youngest, my uncle Cesare (is alive), so that family is dying, and it's sad. So (my mom) was very young coming into this Italian family – she's not Italian – and she said 'Jenny, I feel so connected to them'. And that meant a lot to me. So it's turned into that.
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