In his genial account of a solitary road trip across the US, Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck muses that there are some journeys that are never over. He tells of a man he knew in boyhood, in Salinas, California who had once been to Honolulu. Steinbeck said, years later you could see him rocking on his front porch, mentally still in Honolulu. For me, that place was Venice. My initial month-long stay in Venice has, in some ways, never ended. Venice rooted itself in my imagination forever.
I first went to Venice on the bounty of the advance for my first novel, a time in my life so heady that the seed of promise seemed to me to be the full-blown blossom of assurance. Moreover, this was back in that halcyon era when publishers gave the author the whole sum at once. (Over the last twenty or so years, publishers divvy up the advance in threes: one-third on signing, one-third on final acceptance of the manuscript and one-third on publication. This practice is not merely pissy and unkind, it is unjust. Why should the mega-corporation hold on to these sums when the money is so much wanted/needed by the poor author?) The check for the advance arrived. I took a picture of it before depositing. I bought presents for everyone. And Paola Rizzoli invited me to come to Venice.
Paola was pure Venetian, but she was also a grad student at Scripps Institute of Oceanography at UCSD with my husband, Jay McCreary. At the time she was married to a classical guitarist, Francesco Rizzoli who had come with her to California. They lived in a tiny apartment, and while Paola went to Scripps, Francesco practiced classical guitar. Jay McCreary was also a serious classical guitarist, and Paola played the violin so when they came to our apartment, people would stand in the alley below just to hear the music pouring out of our open windows. At the end of that year, they returned to Venice, where they split up. In September Paola returned to California alone. Paola and Jay and I remained close friends the whole time we were in grad school. (I was in Literature at UCSD.)
I lived in a state of Heightened Awareness
From the moment I set foot there, Venice left me dazzled. It was truly like stepping into the past. The past in Venice is everywhere present. The scientific institute where Paola worked was a palazzo on the Grand Canal and the water-level room sheltered a boat that had fought at Lepanto in 1571, the last naval battle that used oared vessels. Her apartment with its cool marble floors was between two sleepy canals, replete with the slosh and smell of green water, the calls of boatmen, the damp heat billowing in through the windows, the glow of stones in the afternoon light. Paola went to work every day and in my platform sandals I explored the city. The shudder of the vaparetto under my feet, musical voices in a lingo I could not understand, the competing orchestras in the Piazza San Marco, the dark churches and museums, the splashed-sunny piazzas, all created indelible magic. I first tasted basil risotto and thought I had ascended. I lived there in a state of what I can only call Heightened Awareness, every sense alive, tingling, awaiting the next new sensation, becoming a character in my own story.
Mid-August two other UCSD friends, Karen Shabetai and Nancy Hancock, who were traveling in Europe, came to Venice and the three of us spent a week exploring Florence and Rome. We returned to Paola’s apartment at night and as we crossed the small bridge, I stopped, awash in magic. An unseen classical guitarist somewhere nearby flawlessly rendered “Romanza,” a song Jay often played. The music counterpointed with the lisp of water in the canal. The moment could not have been more beautifully orchestrated if I had written it myself.
Ferragosto, which I heard as Fair Augusto, the image on a Roman coin
The title piece, in my first collection of stories, Fair Augusto takes place mostly in the Piazza San Marco on that purely Italian holiday, August 15th. All of Italy closes down—and has for thousands of years—for Ferragosto. I, speaking no Italian, heard this as two words, Fair Augusto, and conjured it somehow in my mind with a notion of a beautiful image on a long ago Roman coin.
As is my usual writing process, I wrote the novella “Fair Augusto” in a few days, and then revised for years. I had scant hope of publishing it because it was so long. A friend suggested I turn it into an actual novel and then I could more easily see it into print. I declined. The piece was exactly as long as it needed to be. Finally, I put “Fair Augusto” into a manuscript with twelve other stories.
Years passed. Truly, years.
I cannot now remember how I heard of Graywolf Press, a small, new outfit in Port Townsend, Washington. Perhaps it was in the pages of the Los Angeles Times for whom I was a frequent book reviewer. While I still lived in California, I sent my three hundred page manuscript to Graywolf’s founder and editor-in-chief, Scott Walker. (Along with the author’s usual obliquely groveling letter and the proverbial SASE so it could be returned to me when they rejected it.) They did not reject it. But neither did they accept it.
Years passed. Truly, years. In the midst of all else in my life, I often forgot about Fair Augusto, and then I’d remember, and write a note inquiring after my manuscript. I never heard back. During those years I moved to Washington state. One Saturday I took my kids on a day trip to Port Townsend and we found the address of Graywolf Press. We walked up and down in front of the building bestowing good vibes and Buddhist chants that included murmuring Fair Augusto, Fair Augusto. All to no avail.
Then, months later there came a note from Scott Walker. Words to the effect of: Sorry for the delay. I’ve been in Europe. I carried your manuscript in my backpack. I love it I want to publish it, oh, and it got lost for a while when we moved to Minneapolis. I always wondered if he read the title piece while he was in Venice, perhaps at a café, and if the Venice I evoked in that title story resonated for him as it did for me, the opening lines of the title story. “In that sunny afternoon hour when the restaurants are empty and expectant, the cafés are noisy and full. At a table in a steamy Venetian square, two Americans sit, looking uncomfortable and conspicuous while heat ripples around them, hovering under their umbrella, refracting upward from the golden, well-worn stones.”
“Fair Augusto and Other Stories” will be released by Paint Creek Press on June 20, 2023.