How and why did you decide to become a teacher and writer?
From elementary school and beyond, I was subconsciously evaluating many wonderful teachers who were impacting my life. I wanted to follow in their footsteps. The teachers of history and English nurtured my love for the written and spoken word. Colleagues and students inspired me to become a better teacher and writer. My admiration for teachers has no limit. They’re the unsung heroes of our country.
Was there someone in particular who was key?
Actually, there were two teachers whom I had in high school. Ms. Margaret Mac Ardle was an elderly high school English teacher. She was a sassy lady who at first seemed somewhat intimidating. I realized that she really cared and tried to help me in every way. We spent time together at lunchtime or after school working on vocabulary and my writing. I often invented excuses just to be with her. She read my short story and had the class critique it. My classmate’s comments were all positive, and with their affirmation my confidence in my ability to write effectively was enhanced. I had always found the study of history fascinating. Ms. Mary Alexovits, my teacher of American history had a tremendous impact on me. She was young, attractive, bright, asked probing questions, and stimulated her students to excel. I was normally a backbencher so to speak but not in her class. I sat in the first desk front and center. She was terrific.
Did you have a mentor?
I was fortunate to have Dr. Leonard Covello as a mentor. I met him in the mid-sixties while seeking advice and help with my doctoral dissertation. That first meeting at his apartment was amazing. He made me feel as though we were longtime friends. We subsequently did become close friends. Covello was an outstanding educator, community leader, social theoretician, reformer and visionary. As principal of Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem he came to the realization that Italian parents were left untouched and outside the life of the school. He created the community-centered school concept applicable to all ethnic groups. He demonstrated that an understanding of the cultural background and the lifestyle of the child is basic to the establishment of worthwhile and meaningful educational programs. If this sounds familiar, one must remember, he advocated these precepts and successfully put them into practice in the 30’s and 40’s. His book The Social Background of the Italo-American School Child was a groundbreaking exposition of the community school concept. He championed educational opportunities for Italian, Puerto Rican, and Black children. Covello was ahead of his time in so many ways. Our discussions at my home were so stimulating that I found it difficult to fall asleep when he left. At the age of 85, he left the United States for Sicily to work with Danilo Dolci, an educator and social reformer. Covello applied the programs he had pioneered in the United States to Italy. At the age of 90 he was working in a senior citizen center in Messina. He wrote me and concluded his letter, “Today a man raises his hands towards the skies in a yearning for peace; tomorrow another man will stretch out his hands; some day all men will stretch out their hands; that day we shall all be brothers.”
What writers do you particularly admire?
The starting point for me is Shakespeare. He is a constant reminder of how inadequate I am as a writer. His mastery of the written and spoken words endures through the ages. Shakespeare’s stagecraft is pure genius. I admire writers of fiction and nonfiction for their craft. I gravitate to writers who challenge me to think anew. For those who write fiction I particularly love Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Philip Roth and Don DeLillo. Dickens’s literary style is a mixture of fantasy and realism. He skillfully satirized aristocratic pretensions and snobbery. There is much of his personal life in David Copperfield. Arguably Twain might be considered the father of American literature. His use of everyday colloquial language in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were major accomplishments. In my mind Roth is both provocative and irreverent. I particularly liked The Human Stain and The Plot Against America. The latter volume presents an alternate history for the reader to contemplate. DeLillo sentences soar and his use of language are unequaled among contemporary novelists. Underworld is a marvelous read. As far as historians are concerned I particularly admire Martin Gilbert, Renzo De Felice, James McPherson, Doris Kearns Goodwin. Each of them go about their research with the historian’s eye for detail and allow their subjects to spring to life.
What abilities or qualities does it take to be an author?
Observational skills are essential along with curiosity and imagination. Writing is hard work and a singular undertaking. It requires discipline and intense concentration. I have good and bad days while writing. But I love the joy of not only the process but the voyage of discovery. The love of learning and the excitement of discovery drives me onward.
Do you find research boring or tedious?
I tell some of my university students the excitement of going to an archive and discovering or uncovering “a nugget,” perhaps a document that wasn’t uncovered by anyone else. That admission at first leaves students a bit bewildered until I explain, ” I view myself as a history- detective.” Many students came to understand and adopt that approach to their own research.
What fascinates you about the study of history?
The human drama of history. I’m fascinated by the what if’s. For instance, there were several separate attempts on Hitler’s life. Would history have been altered had one of them succeeded? Then there is the question: What would I have done in a particular situation? As an example consider the World War II era. Would I have risked my own life during World War II, that of my wife and children to save a Jew, partisan or a POW? From afar separated by many decades, in the comfort of one’s home the answer might be a quick yes. Think again.
Can events turn on miscalculation or errors in judgment?
History is replete with examples. Let me cite just one. The Czarist-Romanovs were in power in an unbroken line from 1613 to 1917. With the onset of World War I, absolute monarchies were in their dying days. Increasingly peasant and worker classes demanded land and political reforms in Russia. Czar Nicholas, believing that Russian national interest was involved, led his country into a disastrous war in 1914. The severe strains of heavy losses and lack of munitions and food turned the nation against the Czar. In February 1917, to the surprise of the nation’s revolutionary leaders, a spontaneous and genuine revolution overthrew the monarchy. A “democratically” inclined provisional government was established and gained immediate nationwide acceptance. Alexander Kerensky was named prime minister with wide-ranging powers. But the mood of revolt which prevailed made it impossible for him to enforce the authority of the central government. Following a series of defeats, the army disintegrated. In November 1917 a small band of revolutionary Marxists promised peace, bread and land and the establishment of a worker’s dictatorship. In particular, the masses wanted an end to Russia’s participation in the war. Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov (alias Lenin), the leader of the Bolsheviks, returned from exile. He organized a coup that led to the establishment of the communist regime. I often wished I had the opportunity to meet Kerensky and ask him about his short time in power. My opportunity came when I met him in the sixties. I asked him, “What would you have done differently?” He looked me in the eye and admitted, ” I made two major mistakes. When Lenin returned to Russia from exile I should have slapped him in jail as he stepped off the train. I was too democratic. My second mistake was not taking my country out of World War I by reaching an agreement with the Western powers. Things would have been different in Russia.” Kerensky is a classic example of miscalculation and a fateful error in judgment.
How do you select your research projects?
I’m a political scientist and historian by training. The subjects for my books arise out of that fact. As a political scientist my specialties are American Politics and International Politics. My teaching and research interests crossover to American and European history with special concentration on immigration, the Italian-American experience and Italian History in the post unification era. That said, my interests are broad and my books build on previous research. I only embark on a project convinced that I can contribute something new and illuminating that will challenge the reader. There’s little doubt that my Italian-American heritage has been a major influence on my research.
What is your objective in approaching an historical or political subject?
The teacher in me never leaves me as a writer. There’s a difference between teaching and preaching. So it is in writing. I’m guided by E.B. White who wrote,” All writing slants the way the writer leans.” That said, writer beware. Say not that you found the truth, but a truth. Finally, I attempt to challenge the reader and myself to think anew.
Have you met people who took part in the events you write about?
I undertook in-depth interviews of a number of Italian Americans for my book Ethnic Alienation and then again for Old Bread, New Wine. The immigrants were ordinary but extraordinary people, they made history. I’ve met hundreds of them in my lifetime. They underscored what historian Oscar Handlin wrote, “Once I thought to write a history of the immigrant in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.” Handlin pinpointed a fundamental truth. I interviewed many of the partisans who took part in the armed resistance during World War II for my book on the Italian Resistance. One of things that struck me was the courage and audacity of my subjects. Let me cite just one example. Where did one partisan, a woman, have the courage to walk into a crowded hotel lobby filled with Nazis with an explosive device and gun hidden in her raincoat? She was going to plant an explosive device in the hotel. Her planned attack was aborted for a variety of reasons. As I mentioned earlier I’ve met Alexander Kerensky, Rosa Parks and other historical figures such as Norman Thomas, Mario Cuomo to name a few.
Do you visit the locations where events took place?
I make it a point to visit the precise locations where events took place. It’s important to see spatial relationships. I visited the site of the Ardeatine Massacre, a reprisal for the audacious and successful partisan attack against an SS unit in the center of Rome in 1944. I went to the actual location of that attack and reconstructed the events. It’s one thing to write about the Gestapo headquarters and prison in Rome. I went to the infamous Via Tasso and stood in the holding cells of the prison to understand what it was like to be a prisoner awaiting torture and cruel beatings. My onsite visits also took me to Berlin and Munich in 1962 and 2013 visiting prewar and wartime locations. While in Munich, I saw a sign indicating the distance from the city to Dachau. Its proximity to Munich reinforced my contention of the impossibility of ordinary Germans who claimed they didn’t know what was going on in the concentration camp at Dachau. That eventually led me to write an article Dachau’s Priests. Just a few years ago I made a moving onsite visit to Auschwitz to remember the victims and to fathom the unfathomable.
The titles of, Old Bread, New Wine, For Love and Country: The Italian Resistance; The American Paradox: Politics and Justice are intriguing. What do they mean?
The titles of my books are intended to capture the essence or overarching theme of the book. Old Bread, New Wine was inspired by Rose Basile Green, a dear friends sonnet whose opening lines states,” Italians here are like the flow of wine, The Primo Vino that ferments the grape; they brought the cup to toast the new land’s wine… “The immigrant (Old Bread) comes into a new land, and the sweetness (New Wine) and a new beginning, thus the title. The American Paradox: Politics and Justice expresses the clash of our ideal of an impartial judiciary that may give way to the intrusion of politics and political trials. For Love and Country: The Italian Resistance underscores the partisans love for Italy and their love for another.
Do you select a title before you began writing or during the process?
Sometimes the title for a book emerges as I write or it comes to me beforehand. Old Bread, New Wine came to me right away well before I started writing. On the other hand, I was completely at a loss for a title when writing For Love and Country. My wife, who had been involved in my research, immediately came up with it. A student offered Politics and Justice to my The American Paradox.
What are you currently writing? What are your future plans?
I’m working on a book set in Rome in 1943 during World War II. It’s nearing completion. In the future I will likely try something completely different. This may lead to a children’s book. I’ve regaled my daughter with stories of my youth. She has urged me to write a play or memoir. Some years ago I put aside my plan to write a novel. I may also revisit that project as well.
How long does it take you to complete a book from start to finish?
The research can take a number of years. If you are consulting sources here or abroad including archives and specialized libraries that must be factored in as well. The actual writing is another matter. My second book, Old Bread, New Wine was written in six months, and I took two full years to write For Love and Country.