A Zany Slice of Italy – having crazy fun with memoir

Ivanka di Felice, born and raised in Toronto, Canada, fell in love with Italy and is now a ZanySliceItalywriter living in beautiful Tuscany. But from her bio, “She will assure you that it’s far less pretentious than it sounds. In her quest for happiness, she followed Nora Ephron’s advice: ‘Secret to life, marry an Italian.’” Ivanka has written A Zany Slice of Italy,  a delightfully charming and funny memoir made up of short stories about her “Italian Prince,” who was once Canadian, and his many traditional Italian relatives plus equally quirky friends and neighbors in Italy. Under the Tuscan sun you apparently become half baked. I am in love with this book! Here are a couple tidbits:

“The cantina is stocked with at least a year’s worth of food and wine, ready for any impending natural disaster, a world war, or a few typical Italian family dinners,” and later, “although we had just recently visited and returned with a car full of food, an Italian mother knows no bounds. I bring my overnight bag outside and find the car loaded to the brim. A virtual grocery store has once again taken over the trunk. The two chickens are in a little box next to the car.” (Ivanka’s favorite story is about the chickens and a policeman.)

“Giorgio has much to show us, and time is of the essence! Obstacles such as our extreme jet lag will not be allowed to get in his way… Sitting in the backseat, I soon realize I’ll be calmer if I look sideways, rather than straight ahead. In matters that relate to speeding oncoming traffic, it’s best to remain ignorant.”

Following are questions I asked her before reading much of the book, which I then devoured as though it were homemade pasta with zingy fresh tomato sauce. Ivanka includes a few recipes at the end of the book and I made a sloppy American version of the Pappa al Pomodoro (fresh tomato with drowned bread) soup to eat while reading. It was delicious!

  1. You have interesting and hilarious stories of adapting to another culture. Did you keep a journal? At what point did you decide to write your stories and did you intend from the start to publish for the public?

We first lived up in the hills of Abruzzo with no TV, no phone, and no internet. We decided to “spice things up” by buying an old second hand computer (from a fugitive it appears). With not much else to do I started writing short stories to send to update friends about our last known whereabouts. It was thanks to their encouragement and thanks to the advice of a wonderful agent in London that I began to polish up the stories and get them ready for book format.

Or, perhaps I subconsciously wrote so that when my husband and I dispute “facts” then I can refer to page xx of my book and say “well, according to my book….” Of course, if my book confirms that he was correct, then I say nothing and hope it will pass unnoticed.

  1. Did you write linear on a timeline, or scattered stories? Did you work from an outline? How long did it take to write your book?

The stories take place chronologically. As funny things would take place I would jot down notes (behind the backs of many a relative) and then later write a story based on these notes. It was a total of six years from the early beginnings typing on a possibly stolen computer to when I handed it over to my editor, Patti Waldygo, in early 2013.

  1. You’ve probably read or seen the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun.” I saw the movie, which is also about adapting and has funny moments. How is your book different, and was “Tuscan Sun” any sort of influence on your writing–maybe even something to avoid similarity to?

While on occasion I cannot help but mention the wonderful food, fashion, and people, my account of our year in Italy includes an unusual angle. Frances Mayes did not have what I have—relatives! Without them, this novel would fail to capture the realities and true essence of life here. Hence, while Frances Mayes was dining by candlelight, my glass candle holders were doubling as tomato holders; each one had a freshly picked tomato balanced on top, courtesy of my mother-in-law visiting.

I write humor and have chosen to write about the quirky situations and occasional mishaps that we have found ourselves in simply because they are funny. Plus, I wanted to avoid readers asking “Just how many more walks in glorious sunflower fields do you think us readers can take?”

  1. What does your husband and his family think about being in the limelight, for better or worse? What do your Italian neighbors think about this book? Did you use real names?

Prior to publishing, I had both my husband and my sister-in-law read the book to see if they felt anything should be taken out. They loved it as it is (whew!), and my mother-in-law, the real star of my book, is really good-natured and laughs out loud when I recount the stories to her. However, just in case, I think it best it never be translated into Italian, and I have put this disclaimer at the beginning of my book:  The story you are about to read is true, though some names have been changed to protect the innocent, namely the author.

  1. Your book is well-written and I like the cover. Can you tell us a little about your self-publishing journey? There’s a lot to learn about that.

Thank you. I was fortunate to find a wonderful editor and great cover designer. The cover is based on a chapter from my book. I sent Joe Shepherd the chapter, a picture of our car, and a picture of David and me—his imagination did the rest.

Dorie Simmonds, an agent in London, gave me suggestions on how to improve my book. I followed them and she took me on as a client in 2013. Dorie worked really hard on my behalf, however due to the abundance of travel memoirs it was hard to find a publisher. In the meantime, I had read up on self-publishing and decided that instead of waiting I would try to self-publish. Dorie was understanding and wished me the best. Even though my book was edited and ready to go, I soon realized how handy it may have been to have a publisher – I spent hours looking for a cover designer, for formatters for the e-book version and print version, getting ISBNs, trying to figure out U.S. taxation issues, etc., etc. And it never ends! You then have to advertise, promote, etc. In order to be successful you need to invest a lot of time (and money, sigh!)

(Marie Lavender’s “Writing in the Modern Age” blog has a great article by Ivanka explaining editing in “22 Ways Most Authors Need an Editor” – Authors, please read!)

  1. Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about writing or publishing? I hear you are working on another book.

Find your style and stick with it so that writing is enjoyable. Not everyone will appreciate your book but at least you are doing what you enjoy, and there will be many that do appreciate it. While no author likes getting bad reviews, it is good to remember the story about the Man, the Boy and the Donkey – no matter what you write you cannot please everyone!

Also, it is extremely important to invest in a good editor—one whose style matches yours. I sent out my story “Stranieri Giusti” (The Right Type of Foreigners) to five editors and asked for a sample edit. The story came back essentially the same, but the editor I chose had a style that just merged with mine. She had a perfect balance of fixing grammatical errors and tweaking while letting what she calls my “unique humorous voice” still come through.

Yes, I am working on my next book for our “adventures” never seem to end! ;)

* * * * *

Thank you, Ivanka! I think you have done everything right and are on your way to being a best seller, at least in my books.  :)

Find A Zany Slice of Italy on Amazon US or Amazon UK. I fell in love with the description and was not disappointed. I highly recommend this book so that you, too, can laugh and love those Italian relatives (and bask in the glow of sunflowers). Think about injecting a little humor in your life writing!

ivanka fur

Posted in book reviews, book talk, heritage, memoir writing | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Is your memoir worth the time to write?

“Worth the time to write?” I repeated—raising my voice into a question—when a man said Denis Ledouxto me at a conference where I was speaking that most people didn’t have a memoir that was worth their time to write. “Not only is every life worth writing about,” I countered, “but the writing of a memoir is a healing and developmental process for the writer. There is something in the telling of a tale that produces satisfaction and resolution and often growth.”

“I don’t know about the healing,” he said, “but I do know that most people haven’t done anything interesting enough to write about, let alone have someone else read it.”

“I don’t think children and grandchildren feel that way,” I answered. “I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t happy to have a memoir by a father or mother.”

“Well, okay,” he conceded, “but who else is interested?”

“First of all, the size of the audience is not what makes the writing of a memoir significant. There is worth in the telling itself.”

An Important Point

While there continues to be an insatiable hunger to know about one’s family and culture, the man’s commentary, of course, held an important point for you—for any of us—to consider. If you have not led a momentous life, are the stories you have to share worth the time to write them?—speak them, yes, because sharing a memoir is a meaningful way one generation transmits stories to another. But, writing them is so much more difficult—is the sacrifice of time and energy really worth it for you?

Let me repeat: it is appropriate to write stories solely for a family or other small readership. There is nothing “wrong” or not worthwhile with a small, familial audience. The value of any piece of writing is not measured by how many people—total numbers—have read it. This emphasis on size is a spin-off of the commercialization of worth. It is a result of the creation and promotion of the “superstar” in our culture.

The worth of a memoir is better measured by the inherent value to the writer and to its selected audience—whether that is your family or the world. The act of writing will change you and your relationship to your life. Writing is significant in itself.

“Writers, if they are worthy of that jealous designation, do not write for other writers. They write to give reality to experience.”

                                                                        —Archibald Macleish

Action Steps

  1. For whom do you want to write your stories? This is your audience. The answer could be as varied as: for my family; for parents of Down Syndrome children; for men who are about to retire; for women who love judo. Describe them, their needs and their interests in some detail.
  2. Why do you want to write for these people? In what way, do you need for them to hear your stories? In what way, do they need to hear your stories? Again, write lengthy responses.
  3. Write about the immortality writing will bring you as your memoir and family history live on into future generations long after you are gone. Is this important and comforting to you?
  4. Place your writing from this exercise in a three-ring binder.

* * * * *

Denis Ledoux is the author, most recently, of How to Start to Write Your Memoir which is Book One in the seven-part Memoir Network Writing Series. This post is adapted from that e-book. Also in publication is Don’t Let Writer’s Block Stop You. A complete list of publications is available. To be placed on an alert list, send an email.

How to Start to Write Your Memoir

Memoir Network Writing Series

 Don’t Let Writer’s Block Stop You

Posted in lifewriting | Tagged | 13 Comments

Color printing and good food for your memoir

My mom-in-law is known for her soul-satisfying Southern cooking. If I lived closer to her, I’d gain a lot of weight but probably be less stressed thanks to all those endorphins she brings to the table. She also has some fascinating stories from her childhood growing up on a farm in the Tennessee countryside during the 1940s and 50s. She’s seen the advent of electricity, indoor plumbing, and automobiles. She’s picked cotton by hand. I had to get all these stories down on paper to save for generations, and why not save those recipes, too.

Last summer I published her book of stories and recipes, also photos of food, farm, and even farm crops since most kids these days have no idea what okra flowers or purple-hull pea pods look like. I’m glad my own kids have helped harvest the crops from my in-laws’ current big vegetable gardens. Stooping in the heat and buzzing insects to pull potatoes out of the dirt and snapping a giant pile of green beans to ready them for canning are meaningful life experiences in my books. Don’t take for granted where your food comes from, and appreciate those farm laborers.

I had the book printed for family only through Lulu.com since I only needed about 20 copies. Lulu did a fine job on the color interior!  I scanned old photos, including some faded b&w ones, at 300 dpi and used high-resolution digital photos taken with my decent-quality Nikon Coolpix. Lulu’s color printing is not meant to make glossy, pro-photography, coffee-table style books or color-illustrated children’s books, but is just fine for family books with smaller size photos or art. The price was right, too. The 36-page paperback, 8.5” x 11” size, was about $18 each. Can’t beat that for color printing. I uploaded a photo taken in my in-laws’ kitchen for the cover and used a free Lulu cover template. Note from my last post, Far-reaching Effects of Family Stories, that Theresa had trouble with Lulu’s printing of her b&w photos. I’ve never had trouble with that before, but that’s something to take into consideration – and always get a print proof copy to head off any problems.

We are thrilled to have Grandma’s cool stories and those recipes saved. Even if we never make some of those rich recipes, they are of historical and cultural interest. Food was a big part of farm life. Homemade boiled custard, mmm. Farming sure has changed over the years. If you’ve got farm stories in your family, write them down to save. Even if you don’t have Grandma’s recipes, you can still write about the food. Tell what you do know and let the younger generations taste it in their hearts and minds.

PS: I enjoyed Carol Bodensteiner’s memoir of farm life back in the day, Growing Up Country: Memoir of an Iowa Farm Girl.

Farm Lifewriting



Posted in capturing memories, grandparents, heritage | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

The far-reaching effects of family stories

I received a wonderful thank-you letter from someone who discovered this website and was inspired and encouraged to go forward in publishing her own book of family history and stories Theresa's bookusing Lulu.com. Theresa’s book is beautiful! She used a free Lulu template and her own photos for the cover. She created the book to honor and memorialize her Irish immigrant grandparents. She turned her own memories and the information she discovered from researching into a nice story and then followed that with the individual stories told to her by elder living relatives. She included old photos, copies of some genealogical documents such as immigration and census records, and some copies of old handwritten letters which she typed up content or summaries of to add below them. She even included a few of her grandmother’s recipes.

Theresa’s goal was “to document and share with family members and my grandchildren so that they would also benefit from this wonderful history,” but something interesting happened. I will let her tell this story.

* * * * *

I had a wonderful and unexpected gift from doing this book, too. I had ordered about 50 copies to give to cousins and relations. My intention was never to market this book as it was a private and personal story. However, I found that only a handful of my first cousins were really interested in the subject or even the process to complete the project. Of course, there are just times in one’s life when we are interested in family history and also there are usually only a few family historians who really value the information. I don’t think it was my writing, but just the subject matter. Interesting, too, is that we all see “our family” history through a different lens.

Last spring, newly retired, my husband and I took a transatlantic cruise from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, that ended in South Hampton, England. At the last minute I made arrangements to meet my cousin Margaret in London . We had met over 40 years ago when she visited my grandmother one summer. We were never in contact again but somehow reconnected and it was like we knew each other. She shared to me that the love of her mother and my grandmother from their modest cottage in Donegal was present at our table. We both shared tears, laughter and much love that day in our memories.

Upon returning home, I sent Margaret one of the books. She wrote to me that she got home from work and didn’t take her coat off but sat and read and cried reading the book! She loved the stories! Margaret quickly spoke to her relations and the book was purchased online from Lulu  from my relations  living all over the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Australia. They all bought the book and we have opened an active dialogue about our mutual family history.

These are all descendants of my grandmother’s siblings and even her parents descendants. There are many relations that I truly never knew at all. My grandmother was one of nine children with only her sister emigrating to America. She has also been deceased since 1977 so many family connections were lost. This past October my husband and I traveled again and we went to Scotland and Ireland. These trips were filled with meeting and enjoying family members all over. The book, Our Family, was really my entry to my family history and now a living history that is a fantastic treasure to me.

I have made friendships with my relations that will last forever. When we visited Ireland and the family homestead we were given the grand tour of places that we would never have had access to or even known about. Relations from England flew to Ireland to ensure that we would see our family history! These were cousins who I never knew or ever met. The book was my introduction to them and led them to invite me into their lives and to uncover and celebrate our family history. I want to thank you again for your inspiration and encouragement as it really made a difference to me to complete my project! Blessings!

* * * * *

Congratulations, Theresa! You have received many blessings thanks to your book!

Note:  Theresa did have some issues with Lulu.com’s printing. The copies printed in the UK were great, but the US batches of copies she ordered sometimes had problems with how the photos looked. Theresa said Lulu did replace the bad copies with good ones at no charge, but this is something to watch for. Last spring I published through Lulu copies of my mother-in-law’s stories and recipes, including old b&w and new color photos and they turned out perfect (color interior!), so who knows what’s going on. It always pays to get a proof copy in print – do not depend on an electronic copy (e-copy).

Theresa's book2

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

I’m still here!

Good thing I don’t make New Year resolutions. I’ve been too busy to even think about that – too busy since my last post in November. My advice for the new year is don’t join too many organizations, and if you do, for heavens sake don’t be on all their boards; learn how to say no and not give in; and don’t let your daughters have big weddings. Also, a little glass of Limoncello on ice, sipped slowly, has a wonderful calming effect.

I hope to be back soon to blogging. My next post will feature the joys, sorrows, and surprises of publishing your family stories.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

National Life Writing Month: Turning Memories into Memoirs

Yes, November is National Life Writing Month. That gets short shrift compared to NaNoWriMo. During this National Novel Writing Month, so you’ll find writers around the world sequestering themselves or hanging out at libraries or coffee shops, typing away at their novels, trying to make the 50,000 word count by the end of the month. That’s only about 200 draft book-pages, but that’s a good start. Life writers can do their version of NaNoWriMo by focusing hard on writing their nonfiction stories.

The Thanksgiving holiday can interfere with NaNoWriMo people, but it is a boon to life writers who can interview family at gatherings and enjoy looking at photos and sharing and comparing stories. Our stories capture history and culture, but also important life lessons. How did we cope with problems or bad experiences? Writing our stories can give us insight into our own selves. What do our life experiences teach us about ourselves? Denis Ledoux, in his book Turning Memories into Memoirs, says our stories have power. “If they are preserved, they can offer meaning and direction for your children and grandchildren—just as they can for you.”

Turning-Memories-Into-MemoirsI find plenty of people who know they have great family stories but are intimidated at the thought of writing them down. They aren’t writers, they don’t know how to start, they feel the project is too big, they don’t have time to figure it all out. Turning Memories into Memoirs is an overview that encourages those on the edge who feel inadequate in their writing skills. It breaks down the process of life story writing so it is not so overwhelming. Denis’s book is based on his years of leading workshops and will help any new writer gather and organize information and learn how to put it all together. Memoir does not have to be one giant story, but can be a series of short stories—much more manageable.

Denis managed to cover all the bases, distilling the whole process down to its bones, leaving room in his short book for plenty of valuable tips, anecdotes, and examples of stories and writing technique. Of course he discusses the standard memoir issues of writing around and about painful memories and of what is the truth, whose truth is it, how much do you put in, and what if you don’t know the truth. He mentions a little about publishing, both for private use and public sales, then ends with a list of resources and an index.

I highly recommend Turning Memories into Memoirs to anyone wanting to cut through the fluff and learn more about the actual process of writing and writing well. Denis makes it easy. Brand new writers can feel success just getting their stories down on paper or can be inspired to polish them as brightly as they can with Denis’s explanations.

Do you have a family storyteller? What happens to the stories when he or she is gone? Don’t let them disappear! If no one has been telling stories, it’s time to start. Give your family a past to enjoy, let them feel a connection to history and their ancestors. Who are you, and where did you come from? The personalities and life journeys of one generation affect the next. Think about it. The day after Thanksgiving is the National Day of Listening. Especially if you’ve got a family gathering for the holiday, take the time to ask for stories, because if you don’t, you may never hear them.

I leave you with another comment from Denis’s book:

“Lifewriting is important. Believe in your stories enough to commit yourself—today, tomorrow, and the day after—to write them down for yourself, your family, and possibly the world.”

* * * * *

Denis Ledoux helps people write their memories. Take a look at his Memoir Writer’s Network website to find see the other books he’s written or to see the writing and publishing services he offers. Find helpful articles on his Memoir Writer’s Blog

Posted in book reviews, book talk, capturing memories, lifewriting, memoir writing, storytelling, writing, writing skills | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Remembering Pain: Bosnia memories

“Never forget. If we forget, it’s as though it never happened.” Unfortunately the words fit more than the Holocaust, the genocide of Jews in WWII. Humans continue to commit genocide without apology. Recently, I attended a screening of the new documentary Pretty Village by Kemal Pervanic, a survivor of the Omarska death camp in the Bosnian War of the 1990s. What a story he told at an event sponsored by the Bosnia Memory Project.

St. Louis has the largest Bosnian population outside of Bosnia, thanks to the influx of refugees from the Bosnian War where many thousands of Bosnians were abused, tortured, and massacred. Mr. Pervanic, who has gone back to his home village to visit what is left, says his Serbian former neighbors, friends, and school teachers have their reasons for participating in the atrocities and are tight-lipped and unrepentant. Some say, “We were the good guys, at least we didn’t kill you.” Only 50 of 800 villagers were left.

Sadly, history does repeat itself as too many people only look to their own future and could care less about others. There are many ways to justify the evil we do and many ways to twist a story. Still, the victims know the hope for the future lies in remembering. Someday, caring and peace-loving people may point and say, “Look what happened before when we turned away and did nothing.” Turn away and lose a bit of your own humanity. Interestingly, there is little physical difference between the Bosnian Muslims, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats; the Bosnians tended to be rather secular in their beliefs; and all three groups co-mingled well before the trouble started. What happened?

The stories behind the Bosnian War are complex, but can genocide ever be justified? Some of the Bosnians who fled during the war have returned to live among their former guards and torturers. Mr. Pervanic, who escaped to the UK and still lives there, says another war is in the wings because it was never over. However, he has started a program called “Most Mira,” or “Bridge of Peace,” a British and Bosnian nonprofit working with children in the Prijedor area of Bosnia “to encourage understanding and tolerance between young Bosnians of all ethnic backgrounds.” He also works to encourage fellow survivors of the war to speak up and tell their stories, to “take ownership of their pasts, because without history, you don’t exist. You were a part of the genocide story and need to keep the memory alive.” The Bosnian Memory Project, based in St. Louis, also encourages the telling of stories for the sake of history, to help in healing and reconciliation, and to share the culture and experiences of Bosnians.

A few published first-hand stories of the Bosnian War exist:

The Bosnia List by Kenan Trebincevic and Susan Shapiro

Bosnia List







Logavina Street by Barbara Demick

Logavina Street

Posted in heritage, history, war stories | Tagged , , | 1 Comment