Books are food for my soul! Pull up a beach chair and stick your toes in the sand as the Jersey surf rolls in and out, now open your book and let your imagination take you away.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Olive Branches Don't Grow On Trees by Grace Mattioli (Author Interview / Book Review)

Jersey Girl Book Reviews Virtual Book Tour Events welcomes Grace Mattioli, author of Olive Branches Don't Grow On Trees!

Author Interview

Welcome to Jersey Girl Book Reviews Grace!

How long have you been a writer?

I have been writing creatively in some form or another since I was ten years old.

Do you have a "day job," or is being an author your career?

I have been a librarian for over fifteen years and have been at the San Francisco Public Library for most of that time.

What inspired you to become a writer? Describe your journey as a writer.

I remember writing my first story when I was ten years old, but I am not sure I remember what inspired me to write it because I was a typical child in that I did things, like writing, spontaneously. I studied literature in college and through this study, I gained a firm foundation in the classics. After college I took several fiction writing and screenwriting classes. I wrote short stories and flash fiction and a screenplay. A couple of years ago I decided to write a novel and bought a wonderful book entitled The Nighttime Novelist that guided me through the process.

Please give a brief description/storyline about Olive Branches Don't Grow On Trees.

This is the story of a 23 year old woman and her journey to bring peace to her constantly feuding family by attempting to gather them all together for her brother’s high school graduation. She is simultaneously trying to settle down and find a career in which she can utilize her artistic talents as a painter. The story takes place in the present day in New Jersey.

What was the inspiration for this story?

My failed attempt to bring peace to my own constantly feuding family, and a desire to defy negative stereotypical conceptions about Italian-Americans.

How did it feel to have your first book published?

I felt proud, but more than that, I felt nervous about how people would respond to my book. I feel much more relaxed now as I have been embracing the fact that not everyone will like my book, and that is alright.

Do you write books for a specific genre?  

I’ve only written one book and some short stories, all of which have been contemporary fiction. I would love to write soft science fiction one day. 

What genres are your favorite?

My favorite genres are literary fiction and soft science fiction.

What are some of your favorite books that you have red and why?

I love everything by Flannery O’Connor as I believe her to be the greatest writer that ever lived. I also enjoy anything with good humor, such as A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. I also like books that have something to say about serious sociological issues such as Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

Do you have a special "spot/area" where you like to do your writing?

I like writing from a desk in my apartment that overlooks a beautiful view of hills and house tops.

How do you come up with the ideas that become the storyline for your books?

I like to begin with a theme. After I pick a theme, everything else falls into place. I knew that I wanted the theme of my current novel to be peace because this is something that I have always been impassioned about.

When you write, do you adhere to a strict work schedule, or do you write whenever the inspiration strikes?  

I adhere to a strict schedule but not in the sense of writing at a certain time. I set a certain quota of words that I must achieve each day. For my current novel, that quota was 400 words per day. Sometimes I would exceed my quota, but I was always sure to make the minimum each day. I would attempt to finish my words in the morning but sometimes would not be able to do them until night.

What aspects of storytelling do you like the best, and what aspects do you struggle with the most? 

I love when a beautiful line comes to me, or a great piece of dialogue. I also love creating dimensional characters that come off the page. I struggle with so much, but mostly with editing and I blame this struggle on the fact that I am not naturally a person with good attention to detail.

What are your favorite things to do when you are not writing?

I love spending quality time with my husband and my cats; watching quality (mostly BBC) television; being in nature; laughing and playing my mandolin.

What is/was the best piece of writing advice that you have received?

To stop waiting for my life to be perfect to start writing.

What is the most gratifying thing you feel or get as a writer?

The most gratifying thing that I have experienced so far has been the experience of having my characters do things without my prior knowledge of these actions. I had no idea that Silvia would decide to become an art teacher or that Cosmo would do a magic trick for Isabella at the reunion or that Donna would change her mind about the reunion. It felt so wonderful to have created characters that were so dimensional that they were truly alive and really came off the page.

How do you usually communicate with your readers/fans? 

In person or over the telephone if they are friends or family. In terms of readers, I communicate through Twitter, my Facebook fan page, or my website.

Is there anything in your book based on real life experiences or are they purely all from your imagination?

Many of the characters and situations were based on real life, while the plot of the story itself was purely from my imagination.

What authors have been your inspiration or influenced you to become a writer?

Flannery O’Connor for her strikingly vivid descriptions and unique metaphors; Douglas Adams for his dry, witty humor; Ernest Hemingway for his beautifully written prose; and Edward Abbey for his wonderful description of the Sonoran desert.

What is your definition of success as a writer?

A successful writer is one who continues to write every day, who thinks in terms of story, and who is constantly honing her skill.

Are you currently writing a new book? If yes, would you care to share a bit of it with us?

I have my next book planned but unfortunately have not been able to spend as much time writing it as I
would like. The theme of the book is greed. It is about a man who is poor in a monetary sense but rich in a spiritual sense. I want to focus on this particular theme as I believe greed to be the single most destructive thing in our world.

About The Author

Originally from New Jersey, I currently work as a librarian in San Francisco, where I live with my husband and two cats. I started writing when I was ten years old. I knew then that I wanted to be a writer; that I wanted to tell stories and make people laugh and cry and think; that I wanted to use words to paint pictures and make music.

In college, I studied English literature, and gravitated towards contemporary fiction. Some of my favorite and most influential authors include Flannery O’Connor, Hemingway, Edward Abbey and Douglas Adams. I love beautifully written prose and humorous fiction. I have taken several writing workshops, including some in fiction writing and screenwriting, and have written several short stories and some flash fiction which can be found on The Short Humour site: I always dreamed of writing a novel but was not sure I had it in me until recently. I thoroughly enjoyed writing Olive Branches Don't Grow On Trees and plan on starting my next novel very soon.


Book Review

Olive Branches Don't Grow On Trees by Grace Mattioli
Publisher: Grace Mattioli / Amazon Digital Services
Publication Date: July 10, 2012
Format: eBook - 213 pages / Kindle - 276 KB
Genre: Women's Fiction / Contemporary Fiction

BUY THE BOOK: Olive Branches Don't Grow On Trees

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the author in exchange for my honest review, and for hosting a virtual book event on my book review blog site.

Book Description:

Imagine you are asked to plan a gathering for a feuding family of six that has not been gathered together in over six years. Add to this the fact that the parents of this family are newly separated and that your own life is falling apart. This is the challenge that befalls 23 year old Silvia Greco when she is drafted into helping her mother plan a party for her younger brother’s high school graduation. She takes it on, and in doing so, must negotiate with each member of her family, appealing to their individual needs and interests, in order to get them to go. Through this process, she learns that peace is not something that is easily achieved or freely existing. It is something that needs to be created, cultivated and nurtured. In other words, she learns that “olive branches don’t grow on trees.”

This story is filled with insight, humor and lovable, quirky characters. The father, Frank, works as a judge in a local courthouse, and spends his spare time drinking, cooking food that no one eats and maintaining the most perfectly manicured yard in town. The mother, Donna, is a college professor, and is giving single life a go after spending almost all of her adult life with Frank. Angie, the eldest child, married rich and devastated her father by moving from south Jersey to north Jersey, which as far as Frank is concerned, might as well be another planet. Silvia’s older brother, Cosmo, is brilliant and great at everything he does, but is also a classic underachiever. Her younger brother, Vince, is bursting with energy and is on his way to save the world.

And then there is Silvia: Energetic, idealistic, and young, striving to bring her family together, while also struggling to settle down and find a career in which she may utilize her artistic talents. She is extremely independent as she can drive across the country and move from place to place alone. She is highly adaptable and does whatever she has to do to get by, whether that be working as a nude model for art schools or a candy store manager at a mall. Last but not least is Grandma Tucci, who Silvia loves fiercely. She has passed away years ago, but remains with Silvia in spirit, almost as if guiding her through her adventures in the lessons of life, love and peace.

Book Excerpt:

                      CHAPTER ONE: THE SOUND OF NOISE

Silvia Greco knew that the silence would not last. There was not enough silence in her world, and there was definitely not enough of it since she had moved into her father’s house in New Jersey. She knew that her father, Frank, had taken a brief break from his current project of searching for a lost frying pan, and that he would be resuming his search any second with the clattering of pots and pans and slamming of cabinet doors. In the very short meantime, she enjoyed the sound of nothing as she sat waiting for her coffee to finish brewing as if it was all she had left in the world.

She sat at a square wooden kitchen table that took over the entire room. It looked good from a distance, but upon closer inspection revealed several nicks and scratches that had given it a memory of its own- a bad one. The table was bare except for an economy sized bottle of TUMS displayed in the middle like a centerpiece. She sat on a chair that was almost too big for her little body. A big girl misplaced inside a little girl’s body, she had a big voice, a big laugh, a big stride, a big Romanesque nose that sat proud beneath her big brown eyes. Her big head of hair was currently chopped in some crude style of uneven lengths, the color orange on the top and black at the bottom. Her hair style was not intended to be any sort of radical statement. It was just an expression of her current state of apathy. So was her attire— a paint covered T-shirt and worn out Levi jeans that hung on her like they were five sizes too big. She usually dressed in bright bold sixties styled clothing that showed her off to the world as a happy, animated, free spirit. Her hair was usually evenly colored and stylized to perfection. But even with her grungy clothes and her chopped hair, she was pretty. And her big nose seemed to add to her prettiness in a way. Angie, her older sister, urged her to get her big nose made smaller with simple surgery, but Silvia refused to do such a thing, as if in doing so, she would be rejecting her Grandma Tucci, who had the same big nose and whom she loved fiercely.

Her father’s nose was in perfect proportion to the rest of his face, which resembled an aged version of the young Marlon Brando. Despite a life time of working too hard, sleeping too little, drinking too much and smoking for the better half of his life, he still looked good. He had all of his hair and could sweep it from side to side depending on his mood. His physique looked like he worked out at a gym on a regular basis, but he had never set foot in one. The slight limp he developed from being maimed in a motorcycle accident in his teen years was barely perceptible through his gargantuan personality. This was also the case with his slovenly attire of mismatched outfits and shirts buttoned unevenly with one side hanging down further than the other.

He had returned from the bathroom and wasted no time getting on with his project with a renewed sense of urgency. He gallivanted around the kitchen like he was keeping beat to a polka song, searching for the lost pan while drinking and cooking something that smelled like an odd mixture of garlic and garbage left out in the rain. Silvia got up to get her coffee, careful not to get in her father’s way. As she poured some milk into her coffee, the container slid out of her hand. It was greasy. She imagined that Frank had previously touched it with his olive oiled hands.

“I knew you were going to do that,” said Frank who was suddenly standing over her shoulder. She wanted to say something like “Well maybe I wouldn’t have spilled it if you didn’t get your greasy hands all over it.” She said nothing. She just cleaned up the spill and sat down. She could tell Frank was really fishing for a fight this morning and would have fished deeper had he not been so preoccupied with finding the lost pan. So rather than fishing, he just continued on his quest, moving from one side of the kitchen to another like he was accomplishing great things. Banging steel against steel, wood against wood.

The noise, however abrasive and awful it was to Silvia, did serve the purpose of blocking her thoughts of yesterday, when she was fired from her job waiting tables in a Turkish cafe in downtown Philadelphia. She had overheard her boss say to the cook, “I’m going to have to close the place down if she works here another day!” And at hearing this, she marched into the kitchen and said, “I heard what you said Usef.” She spoke to him as though he was wrong for being concerned for the survival of his business. Although he was, like most people, much bigger than her, he hunched over and shrunk like a frightened monkey at her confrontation. “I’m sorry Silvia,” he said in his broken English, while looking down at the floor. And he really was sorry. Somewhere in the back of her head, she knew he was right. She was a coffee-spilling, plate-dropping wreck of a waitress who surprised herself the few times she got an order right.

“Why were you still working there anyway after you moved in with Dad?” said her older brother, Cosmo, in an effort to console her when she called him up right after she had been fired. As usual, he was right. It had made some sense to continue her career as a bad waitress when she still lived in the city and the cafe was one block away from her place. But after she moved to Frank’s house, it made no sense at all. She remained at the cafe, however, because jobs were hard to come by. When she told this to Cosmo, he said that she would find another “dead-end” job before she knew it. His attempt at consolation, while sincere, made her feel worse. Much worse. She needed no reminder of the fact that she had worked exclusively at dead end jobs since graduating from the Art Institute of Philadelphia two years ago.

She crumbled into a hunched over position and sipped her coffee that tasted markedly bitter. Just as she was slipping into a comfortable state of misery, Frank said, “Don’t you have to be at work? It’s eleven o’clock. What happened? Did you get canned again?” She was about to speak, when he swiftly picked up a broom and began chasing a centipede that was speeding across the floor.

“Those god damn bugs run around here like they own the place!” he shouted as it disappeared under a cabinet. He then threw the broom back in its corner like he was angry at it. He picked up his half full drink, looked down like he was studying it, and in a quick second, he finished it off. His insensitive remark seemed to have been wiped clean from his mind. She would have normally laughed his comment off, knowing well that it was only his way of attempting to instigate a fight. But a number of factors, including fatigue and getting fired from her job yesterday, conspired together to cause her to react.

“Why don’t you have another drink,” she said facetiously.

He came alive like Frankenstein’s monster, eyes bulging, face reddening and screamed back, “Why don’t you get your stuff and get the fuck out of my house?!”

Her sarcastic response, “Because I know how much you’d miss me,” heightened her father’s anger, and his eyes bulged out so far they looked as if they might pop out of his head. He looked like he was about to start screaming in the scariest of all his angry voices. His screams could make the house’s walls vibrate. His voice was deep, guttural, heavy and carried long and far. So far, in fact, that she could still hear it no matter how far away she moved: Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Chicago, Tucson. Even when she took a summer backpacking trip through Europe, she could still hear his voice. She could tell by the look on his face that he was about to scream one of those vibrating-wall screams when his cell phone rang. He forcibly decomposed all that he could and walked quickly towards his phone, all the while still staring at Silvia, as if to say that that their little spat was not over yet. He answered the phone before the first ring ended and asked the caller if he had any information about the missing frying pan.

“How the hell should I know?” the voice on the phone said. “I don’t even live with you!” The person on the other end spoke almost as loud as Frank, and Silvia could hear every word very clearly, as if he was standing right there in the kitchen.

Frank did not bother apologizing for asking such an inappropriate question, nor did he ask his friend how he was doing. Rather, he just went right into his problems. He went through his usual list of complaints about his children— how Vince spoke two words a year to him, how Cosmo was a failure and how Angie broke his heart by moving to north Jersey. Silvia could tell that he was about to start in on her. But he glanced over and probably decided not to talk about her while she was sitting right there. So instead, he spoke about how all of his children’s shortcomings were the fault of Donna, his wife, for being from a family with “bad genes.”

When the voice on the phone asked about Donna, Frank walked into the other room so he could speak about his wife in private in his not-so-quiet, quiet voice. She had left him a little over one month ago. She had surprised herself and everyone around her by lasting as long as she did. Silvia suspected her mother would have left sooner, but had waited until her youngest child, Vince, was either out of the house or at least almost out of the house. She could hear Frank lying to the voice on the phone like he lied to everyone. She could hear him telling the voice that he and Donna just needed a little separation from each other, as if they had made some sort of mutual decision about how to proceed in their marriage. He walked back into the kitchen to freshen his drink and complained about the property taxes that would be due very soon. He ended his monologue of complaints with an expression he used frequently, “I can’t complain.”

Silvia thought that if Frank spent less time complaining and searching for lost kitchen utensils, he might notice the dilapidated condition of his house. The kitchen sink always leaked. The bathroom door handle fell off every time someone tried to open or close it. The floor creaked. The doors squeaked and hung on loose hinges from being slammed one too many times. The cracked paint struggled to cover the walls. The broken chandelier could fall any second. While the house was falling apart, Frank’s yard, in which he took great pride, was perfect. Not a bush out of place. Not one uneven blade of grass. All of the flowers and plants were lined up straight and were distanced apart from each other as if someone used a ruler to get them that way. His nice-looking red brick ranch style house sat on a pleasant tree lined street with other nice-looking houses with well-kept yards, though none were as well-kept as his own.

The house was on a street not far from the center of town and the town was not too far from Philadelphia, but not quite close enough to be considered a suburb. Frank would not set foot in the city even if it were five minutes away. To him, cities were nothing more than an added expense with their parking lots that cost ten dollars an hour and their expensive restaurants and shops full of useless, overpriced merchandise. He preferred the smallness of his own town with its practical shops and ample free parking. It was a real town too, the way towns used to be, with everything a person needed. It had a street that could have been named Main Street, with the same dress shop that had been there for over forty years; the same hardware shop for fifty years; the same grocery store for over sixty years; and the same bank that had been there for almost one hundred years.

Silvia loved the town in her own way. It was where she learned to ride a bike, where she had her first kiss from a boy, and where she spent long summer days with her grandma eating snow cones and playing hide-and-seek. She loved the town because it had an old-fashioned quality, like it had been slightly stuck in time. But the town began to feel too small and intimate after she had moved away for college. After she had lived and traveled in so many exciting, international cities, it felt boring and provincial. By then, the town was nothing more than a place where she did not belong, and she grew to resent it for making her into a misfit, a displaced person, and a girl without a hometown. It was around this same time that her home stopped being her home and started being her father’s house.

My Book Review:

Olive Branches Don't Grow On Trees is a poignant portrait of an extremely dysfunctional southern New Jersey Italian-American family, and the attempt by the middle daughter to bring the family together for a celebration in the hope that they could extend the olive branch and make peace with each other and become a family. Thoughtfully written in the third person narrative, the author weaves a tale that deals with the dynamics of a family with a history of dysfunction that has completely shattered and torn them apart. The focus of the story is on twenty-three year old middle daughter, Silvia Greco, who vacillates between wanting to unite the family and wanting to escape from the dysfunction once and for all. With her life in limbo and unsure of what to do with herself, Silvia accepts the challenge to bring her family together for one night, which is no easy feat, it becomes her main purpose, and along the way it will provide healing life lessons.

The author has created a strong cast of characters who are realistic and complex people with personalities and issues that the reader can relate to, because the Greco family could be anyone's family members. Frank is the alcoholic father who is a distinguished local judge, but who also has a tendency to go off on rages. Then there is Donna the mother, she is a part-time college professor who finally has left her marriage after suffering years under Frank's abusive behavior. Oldest daughter Angie is her father's favorite of the children, but she broke his heart when she married a Wall Street financial investor and moved to North Jersey. She has a distant relationship with her mother and has a strained relationship with younger brother Cosmo. Cosmo is the second born child, he is brilliant but rebellious, an underachiever who is seen as a failure in his father's eyes. Then we have our protagonist, Silvia, the classic middle child who is the peace keeper of the family, yet she was the hyper child that just couldn't settle down. Finally there is the baby of the family, eighteen year old Vince, the soon to be high school graduate who will be attending UC Berkeley. Vince was the easiest and most pleasant of the children, the perfect child in his mother's eyes. When you put all these different personalities together plus add in the ethnicity of being Italian-American, it is no wonder that there is so much dysfunction and combustible tension in the family. I found these characters to be quite intriguing, their individual complexities along with their dialogue and interactions made the storyline a powerful and compelling read.

Olive Branches Don't Grow On Trees is a story that will take the reader on an emotional roller coaster ride. The author weaves a tale that is a moving and realistic portrayal of a dysfunctional family with enough drama and humorous family situations that will keep the reader engaged and entertained, while providing a witty sense of humor and subtle messages of life lessons to extend the olive branch and learn to live, love and forgive.


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