Behind the Words: Rosanna Staffa

Posted by on May 16, 2014 in Uncategorized | 1 comment

Rosanna Staffa

Dante, Archangel Michael, a miscarriage –  all are part of Rosanna Staffa’s flash fiction piece “The Call.” This haunting story balances emotion with intellect, fear with love. It will remind you of the tenderness we feel for ourselves and others when life takes an unexpected turn.

 

 

You graduated with an MFA in fiction from Spalding University almost a year ago. Some people feel unmoored after graduation and others feel relieved to not have strict deadlines looming over their heads. Can you relate to either of these? What’s a typical writing day for you?

It feels like a continuum to me. I absorbed like a sponge while at Spalding University and worked with wonderful writers. I still have deadlines but now they come from magazines I submit my work to.

I guess I have a schedule but it is dictated by the time available to me, which varies. What spurs me on is the fear of not writing (Fear makes us all martial, wrote Emily Dickinson).When I get distracted I look at my narrative again. I feel it’s a way for the story to tell me I have not found its center, or lost it.

When I writeI need silence but I like to hear the sounds from the street, the ordinary filtering in. I look outside, hoping for the exquisite ambush of something unexpected that might subvert my perceptions. I love this passage I read recently:

The feeling again yesterday afternoon that the hour belonged to a previous, perhaps future, time, but was decidedly not ‘now.’ I was looking out of the window, at afternoon light on bushes, in an elation of melancholy, savoring one truth and another without fear or anxiety, at peace with myself. Then this deliciously strange feeling that time is nothing, or is my friend rather than my enemy.

–Guy Davenport, The Death of Picasso

 

You’re also a playwright and a novelist. What drew you to try flash fiction? What was the spark for this story?

This story began a bit like a hunger. I felt like a dog, digging for a bone. It was messy. Diane Arbus said that starting something is like going to a blind date and I love that: there is excitement with a spike of dread, and you’ll never know how it ends. The sensation I felt had a quality that called for a short, tight piece. I see Flash Fiction close to the visual arts: a painting and a photo tell a full story. I think of Van Gogh who wrote to his brother Theo in 1882: “My sketchbook shows that I try to catch things ‘in the act’ and of the decisive moment of Cartier Bresson.

 

The combination of complete sentences and fragments along with your use of semi-colons really capture the narrator’s state of mind during her miscarriage. How purposeful are you about structure in your work? How do you decide a story is “finished”?

For me there is a distinctive sound and rhythm to each piece. They are my compass. I strive to capture them exactly. Revising is the most important part of my writing. There is an unmistakable physical reaction when I get it right. When I lived in NY, I remember watching a dancer friend rehearse his performance pieces. I did not know what he was going for but when he got it, I saw it too. There is a physiological truth to feeling done.

 

The last paragraph is incredibly powerful with the invocation of the Archangel Michael, who is the Catholic patron saint of sickness among others. “Until the moment I dial, I am still pregnant. My uterus is bleeding. Not you, said the Archangel Michael.” What drew you to include a saint (and Dante) in a story about a woman suffering a miscarriage?

I imagined a woman alone in the dark, an open window. It evoked a classic painting of the Annunciation and I saw a harsh scenario of dis-Annunciation: not you. The symbolism of Dante’s Divina Commedia is a strong reference for an Italian, it starts with a soul facing loneliness and despair in mid life. I like that Dante is a man, it hints at a shiver of desire for the woman to distance herself from the miscarriage while she is experiencing it.

 

In your bio you describe yourself as “an Italian writer living in Minneapolis” and you recently wrote a blog post called “My Hyphenated Self” about this duality. I especially love this line from your post: “When I think of my goals as a writer, words are not what come to mind. It’s not a matter of choosing Italian or English.” Can you explain this more fully?

It’s about capturing the energy of the piece. Italian is more comfortable but there is a freeing quality to using English. Words in my native language are steeped in memory, and memory is not tidy nor polite. I think that words acquired from childhood resonate with a significance I am not fully aware of but I am deeply affected by. Writing in English is a bit of a mask, it frees me at the core.

 

You’re also a mom. Any advice for parents struggling to balance parenthood with writing?

I had to seize the moment. Being with a child draws a circle both magic and claustrophobic. I remember with elation the first time I realized my daughter had a dream and my son’s first joke (pretend sneezing) before having words to make me laugh. Having kids taught me to push through when tired and to be patient with myself, which I never was. A handful of artist friends had babies at the same time in LA and we created a weekly informal group. The babies rolled about on a quilt in the middle and we sat and talked about what we had read or seen. I believe I kept in touch with myself through this connection and by grabbing a book whenever I could. My husband remembers me reading novels I had no time for otherwise as bedtime story to our little one; I trusted that a baby a few weeks old just needed to hear my voice. My husband swears he heard me one night reading Ulysses to her.

 

It can be hard to use words like “ennui” without alienating your reader or sounding like a thesaurus, but it’s a great word choice in this piece. “The phone is in my hand. I watch it with ennui.” What authors have influenced your work? Any books you turn to for inspiration?

There is a melancholia and a slight detachment to the word ennui that I wanted in that moment in the story.

Inspiration to me is an imaginary dinner with artists I am attracted to: each one chips in a memory, a rhythm, a sense of form, a color.

The writers I love are too many but to name a few: Lydia Davis, Grace Paley, Franz Kafka, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Don DeLillo, James Salter, Virginia Woolf, W.G. Sebald, Elizabeth Hendricks, Renata Adler, Anne Carson, Francine Prose, Teju Cole… Often, rather than an author, it’s a particular novel or a passage that stays with me.

 

What are you currently reading? What are you working on these days?

I am reading Jenny Offill’s, Last Things and Dept. of Speculation, and the poetry of Ilya Kaminsky, Dancing in Odessa. They are utterly beautiful.

Right now a story is speaking to me, about my uncle who returned very damaged from Mauthausen, and his desire to see Venice.

I’m also working on connected stories about my experience living in China the Winter before Tian An Men Square. I had volunteered as an acupuncturist at a free detox clinic in LA and I was in Hangzhou for further training.

 

Kelly Morris is a recent transplant to Los Angeles. She holds an MFA from Spalding University, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Spry Literary Journal, Sundog Lit, and Red Savina Review. She blogs with three other writers at Literary Labors. When she’s not writing, Kelly can be found hanging out with her kids, who remain unconvinced that being a writer is actually a very cool job.

1 Comment

  1. Oh loved this interview with Rosanna. The language she uses just in talking about herself is beautiful and inspiring. Thank you for sharing some of your favorite authors and what you’re working on now.

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