Laura Valeri talks about her short story collection Safe In Your Head

Today I’m lucky to have the brilliant writer Laura Valeri visiting my blog.  I’m excited to share some of her work because it’s just stunning.

A few years ago, I attended a Salvador Dali exhibit at the High Museum.  I remember the feeling of transcendence that I had experienced while viewing his work— a giddy, lightening in the heart, a breathlessness  Later that afternoon, Laura sent me one of her short stories. Her writing was so sensual, so musical and vivid, that I experienced the same sensation reading her work as when I stood before the Dali masterpieces.

I merely tell stories, Laura creates art.

Laura Valeri has an MFA in creative writing from Florida International University and an MFA in Fiction with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (University of Iowa).  Her most recent title is Safe in Your Head (2013), a Stephen F. Austin Press prize winner, a linked story collection featuring stories, recipes and luck remedies for women during war time.


What do you believe is the overall concept connecting the short stories?

I wrote many of these stories before I started to see the pattern that was emerging, which had to do with the impossibility of attaining personal peace when you have grown up and lived through the devastation of war– and vice versa, the futility of hoping for a peaceful world when most of us struggle with even the simplest domestic connections.  Lao Tsu wrote a wonderful and well known poem about this that is sort of at the core of the thematic connections between the stories.

If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.

     — Lao Tzu (570-490 B.C.)

But in terms of structure there is a quiet backstory that powers the events in each of these short stories, one that doesn’t emerge distinctly until the novelette at the end of the book . The collection begins with an Italian family’s arrival to the New World, and here we’re introduced to two of the main characters of the novel: a mother and daughter.  In this first story, the ostensible motivation for this family’s emigration to the U.S.A.  hinges on the personal ambitions of the parents, particularly on the patriarch’s desire to gain recognition for his hard work.  This first story appears at first to introduce the typical immigrant’s dream, yet as the family tries to adapt, the result of this emigration turns more and more sinister.  The last image of this story expresses the family’s failed ambitions, but it also foreshadows a much darker story, the capitulation of which is the conclusion of the final novelette.

Each subsequent piece unveils another layer of causes for the family’s move.  We discover that their past was fraught not only with too many unfulfilled ambitions, but also with a very real and palpable danger: while war and revolution always plays a back role in the stories, it’s always there, a threatening, malevolent presence directing from behind the curtains the inevitable disappointments that await these people.

The mother in particular has the most tragic past: she is orphaned by father when she’s only a young girl.  She grows up having to bear the burden of her own mother’s unraveling as it is brought on by this tragedy, this on top of her own grief and confusion.  The unbearable psychological pressure she has to endure eventually chips away at any possibility of her ever realizing even the simplest of ambitions. But it doesn’t end there: her children cannot escape the cycle.  Just as the daughter once had to take on the burdens of her own mother’s inability to deal with tragedy, now her children must accept the burdens of hers.  I was very much aware of the cyclical nature of psychological violence, and that is why the stories are not in chronological order, but rather arranged in causal order.  Every short story is a world in itself, but the collection taken as a whole reveals another story altogether, one that could not be told in any other way, nor in any other order.

And another memory: skipping stones to scare away a thin stray dog, when the ground popped at her feet., turf spraying on her ankles, her clean white socks splattered with a shower of dirt. Pop. Pop. Pop.

“Corri, corri,” her nonno, Egisto shouts. He swoops her up in his arms and hurries down the hill, still crying, run, run, as if forgetting that her legs are wrapped around his waist, already, her weight in his arms slowing them down. Behind them, men in uniform load their guns and fire, fear ripping open her chest with the muted popping of their weapons. She hears the click right before the earth explodes again around Egisto’s feet. Excerpted from “Bad Luck”


Why did you decide to research your maternal grandfather? Why do you think this man, whom you’ve never met, had such an impact in your own life?

Well, it goes very much with what I explained about the underlying story that is the glue for all the other stories: my grandfather was a war hero. He had joined the anti-fascist movement when his brother was tragically tortured by the then just budding Mussolini regime, and he swore his life’s purpose to ending fascism.  His noble resolve is what endeared him not only to my grandmother and mother, but also to a significant portion of the men and women of his hometown.  It’s really quite an experience to be the relative of a hero — it’s a huge source of pride, but it’s also a strange albatross of humongous expectations.  My grandfather died at a young age, ironically, after the war ended. Those relatives who witnessed his funeral said the entire city of Piombino poured out on the streets to honor him.  My mother was only eleven. I have many early childhood memories of these stories about my grandfather, how he was not only a war hero but also a welterweight boxer, and a steel mill operator, etc.  It was hard to see behind the gloss in which he lived: the privilege of dying young is that you become a saint in the eyes of anyone who remembers you, and my grandfather had the additional blessing that he’d won a relatively important welterweight title and that he’d personally helped a good number of people in his home town.   My mother and grandmother adored him, and though I never met him, I always felt the importance of his presence whenever my relatives talked about him.  As I grew older I began to look to the past to understand who I am — I think I’m not unique in this.  While I never had any doubt or confusion as to the difficulties  my grandfather’s death caused my grandmother and my mother, for a very long time I hadn’t really considered how he had also influenced mine and my sibling’s life, both in positive and negative ways.

The post-war was a difficult time for women, but it was especially difficult for women in small towns who grew up without a father’s protection.  My grandmother was hyper aware of this and she was maybe too protective towards my mother, and maybe also too diligent in reminding my mother that she wasn’t like other girls, that, for example, she had to worry about maintaining her own reputation because if anyone ever decided to ruin her, they could do so without any trouble since there was no father to defend her honor. In those days in small town Italy those kinds of misogynist attitudes were fairly normal: girls had to have fathers and older brothers to be considered “reputable,” and already my grandfather’s trouble with the fascists had already landed him in jail a couple of times not helping my mother’s reputation.  If my mother had grown up with a father in the kind of social environment that my mother grew up with during the post war, she would have had a very different life. Possibly, she might have married a man other than my father.  I am almost certain now in retrospect that she probably wouldn’t have agreed to move to America either.  But she was orphaned by father, and so not only did she had to adapt to a much more restricted, much more vulnerable social situation, probably craving stability and safety to an unnatural degree: she also developed a conflicted sense of admiration for the opposite gender, something between hero-worship and total dependency.  And of course this caused her many problems because she is and has always been a strong-willed and astute woman, and these feelings  led her to live a highly conflicted internal life.

There was also something else about my grandfather’s life that is worth mentioning.  I remember that one of my relatives told me that although my father had officially died as a result of a freak motorcycle accident, that it was likely he’d been murdered.  I can’t remember who told me this, only that he or she was a close member of the family. Neither my mother nor my brother and sister remember this rumor, and yet I must have heard this when I was very young because it’s something that’s been in my conscious memory ever since I can remember.

This is an interesting and also lucky memory for me — at least in terms of my literary ambitions — because for years I had always dismissed the possibility of my grandfather’s murder as being just another of those aggrandizing myths that my relatives used to honor the memory of my grandfather.  And yet it intrigued me.  I could not forget it.  I think some part of me wanted it to be true: I wanted the story of my hero grandfather and his tragic early death to transcend the banality of a freak accident, a stupid, avoidable death that occurred long after the war had been fought.  But I couldn’t think of any reason why anyone would want to kill a steel mill worker in a small Italian town, especially after the war ended and after Mussolini’s regime had been toppled.

 Later, much, much later, I found out that there could have been many reasons why somebody would have wanted him dead, why they might have gone as far as staging a very strange accident, one that, from the beginning, even in the days of my staunchest skepticism, held, in any case, unexplainable elements.  I began to research Italy in the 1950’s, and particularly Piombino, and I found out… well, I think that this will be material for another story.  I was already almost finished with the collection when I uncovered the most convincing clues that my grandfather may have, in fact, been murdered, but the novelette still gave me ample room to sketch in what are the most important facts.  There is no way to prove this definitively now, and it’s so long ago that I don’t see any compelling reason to traumatize the family with a serious investigation. But in terms of the fiction, and in terms of understanding the cycle of violence, of the psychological rape that happens to people, especially women, during wartime, my grandfather’s death took on huge importance, one much larger than even his life of devotion to a worthy cause.  I saw that his decision to join the anti-fascist movement as being the event upon which everything in my family’s life hinged.  His decision, and his eventual death, is what brought us all to America decades later.  As I worked through the sequence of the stories, I knew that the death of the grandfather’s death, however banal, however obscure, was nonetheless a catalystic event in the life of all the other characters: but when I collected the last pieces of my research and finished the novelette, his death took all the more importance. That is why ultimately I decided to dedicate the book to him.  I hope, wherever he may be now, that it may make up at least a little bit for the untimely and violent way in which he had to exit the world.

The war. The war did such things to us, if only I could tell you half of them. When my Giorgio finally came home, he was a ghost of the man he’s been, the veins of his temples pushing up from under his skin like scars. For years he’d wake us all up cursing in German, screaming a high pitched cry and pointing at things that weren’t there, swinging his head and rolling in bed trying to avoid the tanks in his head. Excerpted from “A Kiss for Heaven’s Sake”

 The history in your book combines very austere, fact-driven information with beautiful personal memories. The descriptions of the war are rich and vivid.  How did you research the historical parts?  Did you rely on narratives passed down or did you reconstruct the events from outside information?

One of the things that they teach us in the memoir classes I took for my first MFA  is that memory is unreliable.  And although much of what I knew about war had come to me from my grandmother’s stories, once I started to try to sketch out the settings and events, it became painfully clear that my grandmother’s and my relative’s memories were highly erratic. I became aware of anachronisms and paradoxes that are only apparent once you start trying to annotate everything. Some other things were just simply vague.  So, yes, I had to do research outside of my family’s collective memory. I read a number of witness accounts and oral histories from World War II, some journal articles (not many) and several newspaper accounts from the 1940’s and 1950’s.  I was in Italy when prime minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped and murdered, but I hadn’t known as much about the politics surrounding it as I do now that I have gone through several journal articles and books.  After that, it was just a matter of making sense of it all.  I’m writing fiction, not memoir, but some of the reports on tv and on the newspaper had to be reconstructed accurately if I could respect myself as a fiction writer. I think I did a pretty good job.

Memories seem fluid in the work, they weave between cold truth and sometimes odd folklore, i. g. a soldier digging up is dead lover.  I’m interested if you made a conscience decision of how you were going write about memories?

I’m not sure that anything I do related to creative writing is exactly conscious.  As you well know as a writer yourself, you can do as much planning and research as you want, but once you sit down to write it’s between you and the great Unknown.  What comes out of writing is always surprising. Memory is a tricky thing: I knew this sitting down. I knew that with so much relying on memory I had to embrace the unreliability not just of the narrators and of the accounts they were divulging, but of the structure of the memory itself. And of course the whole intent in writing this book was to make sense of the memories that I had, and of the memories that were passed down from previous generations before, stories that eventually became family myths.  You mention the story of the narrator dreaming of his dead lover: this was a story my grandmother told me.  When she told it, I could tell that she truly believed it: she wasn’t trying to trick me, or shock me, or proselytize to me.  Not only did she believe in the prophetic dreams and in the miracle, but also that she participated in it — for all I know it might have been an urban legend, but to my grandmother, it was a memory. To my grandmother, the relationship between the dead and the living was as much a certainty as war: and that is exactly what I was trying to convey through these narratives. I wanted the certainty of the narrators’ belief in the mystical to invest the narrative so that it would not matter whether what they said was real or not.  It was real to them.  I’ve also always really found a morbid fascination with the insistence of humans to believe in war.  War is the most absurd, surreal and unimaginable human phenomena, and yet no one ever questions the existence of war or its place in our world.  Why shouldn’t these characters believe in ghosts and apparitions and miracles?  It restores a certain order to the world, and also it establishes a balance between the horrific surrealism of war and their day-to-day existences.

Mara remembers things, not in chronology. It is if her father was cut loose from time and drifting like trash in the sea, billowing and gleaming with the reflected sunlight, moving further off shore with the currents, tossed and rolled by the crest of a wave. Excerpted from “Bad Luck”

Anyway, as I was telling you, when I woke up, I had a bad feeling about the dream. The dead don’t come to talking to you just complain about the weather. I never dream about my mother. When I do, its usually because something is about to happen.  Excerpted from “Ghost Story”

Why did you include recipes in your book? 

When I wrote Furniture, Joel, who as you know owns Cafe Gelatohhhh in Savannah, saw the reference to the focaccia recipe and he wanted to try to see if he could recreate the focaccia experience that I had as a child in Tuscany for which the character in my story so longs for.  The American version of focaccia is very soft and not so salty.  I remember a focaccia that was crispy and greasy and very salty and a delight to the taste buds.  He played around with the recipe awhile until we both together came up with a pretty good version (although it’s still not quite as good as the one in Tuscany).  By then I had sent my first edits back to SFA, but it just kind of came to me that we should include the recipe in the book. After that, we started to play around with all the stuff that was mentioned in the book, especially that tantalizing panini sandwich in The Things We Own Make Us Safe.

You are tri-lingual.  Do you think that has any relevance when you are writing and how you think about words and sentences?

Yes, certainly.  I discovered this a long time ago.  Having been born mother tongue Italian has sometimes been an advantage when writing in English.  Italian, as Spanish, is a musical and rhythmic language, and I find that feeling the rhythm of sentences when I write is second nature to me.  I don’t really have to worry about it. I just know if a sentence feels wrong or if the arrangement of words is not the most musical.  On the other hand, speakers of romance languages are incredibly verbose, and I’m afraid that succinctness is not one of my virtues.

Babbo liked to shout at the TV. His vocabulary was simple: Goal! or, Ma che cazzo!

Mamma sensors his cursing, crying “Oh! Oh!Vittorio!”

She had the mouth of a port-town Tuscan, therefore, her curses were the most colorful, but only when she was angry. We could be “damned, ugly, rabid, assassin mutts,” or more modestly “without grace.” Our crumpled clothes looked like they’d been “wound tightly up the asshole of a dog.” Babbo’s secretary was “sausage casing.” But a standing ovation for the best curse of all went to my father on Christmas Day when we packed the car for a day trip to Torino, and it rained, and the battery died, and the Fiat did what Fiats do: it refused to recharge. So Babbo crashed his fists on the steering wheel and said, “That bastard baby Jesus was born today and he’s pissing on me in every color.” Excerpted from “Safe in Your Head”

How do ideas from short stories come to you? Do you have defined short story writing process?

It’s always kind of mystifying how short stories come to me.  Most of the time it’s in the form of an image, and most of the time, this image usually contains the ending.  But that’s not true of every story.  For example, when I sat down to write “Furniture” it was after a long period of frustration with writing.  I was trying to plan my stories ahead of time, and I felt emotionally and creatively exhausted from trying to do that.  So I decided that for a period of time I was just going to write focused on language.  I must have had some memory lurking in the back of my head, surely, when I began writing, but what I remember is that I had planned on not planning a story, but to simply focus on the sentence.  By the time I wrote the last image of the 80-year old ballerina skater in Central Park, I knew that I had found the story.

By contrast, “The Things We Own Make Us Safe,” which is about a little girl winning  an athletic competition almost by accident, came to me during meditation.  I do a basic form of Vipassana, which requires that you try not to engage your thoughts, but rather concentrate on your breath.  Obviously, I wasn’t succeeding, but I was relaxed enough that it suddenly occurred to me that I had a story.  That mix up at the athletic competition was something that had happened to me, but the thing is that there is a big difference between writing about what happened to you and writing a short story.  There has to be an angle. And I didn’t have that angle when I was in my “normal” conscious state.  Then, during meditation, I remembered  the picture that my coach took of the winning girl who was supposed to be me but wasn’t me, and because I was in a relaxed, meditative state, I had an insight about how it was meaningful, or rather, how that image of the wrong girl on the podium was exactly that: an image, something more evocative than the picture it describes.   From there, i began to see various thematic threads that I could weave into the event.  I then had my angle.  I think in that case I actually heard the ending in my head.  Sometimes that happens. Sometimes I hear the narrative voice very clearly. It’s not exactly like a hallucination.  It’s more like those experiences that everybody has of hearing an annoying tune in your head and not being able to stop it from playing.  That’s how the “voices” of narrative come to me: they are very clear and persistent, and I usually have no control over them.  But overall, I find that writing short stories is still an elusive and often maddening process. I don’t have a method. If I did, I probably would be more prolific.

Nonna’s real name is Lily, a fragrant flower, a sweet intoxication of yellows, but the children know her only as Nonna who every winter rides the train from Poimbino to Livorno, from Livorno to Milan, clutching a hard-skinned suitcase the color of grief that bumps against her weak knee while the yellows of her paisley dress twine about her large girth. Nonna of the light step, of the vigor of laughter, Nonna at the door, wrapped in a rush of hugs, a chiming of joyful cries. Excerpted from “Nonna”

You recently did a great deal of research on writing and creativity.  What did you learn that may have contradicted some of your long held beliefs about your own creative processes?

I found a lot of interesting things about the biology of the creative process. I don’t think that I had any specific long-held belief before I did this research, but I did find a number of surprising things.  The reason I began researching creativity was because when I first started writing I was always so very immersed in the process that it was effortless and pleasurable.  Since graduate school it hasn’t been that.  The more I learned about creative writing the more difficult it has become to write.  I write a lot, but it’s seldom ever pleasurable anymore.  I don’t excuse procrastination under any circumstances, but I did wonder for a long time why I had to suffer so much stress as I was writing.  Most writers will tell you that writing is a matter of habit, that you don’t wait for inspiration, that being blocked is just an excuse, and that’s all fine and well, but I wasn’t making excuses for myself.  I was showing up to do my work. I had a down-to-earth attitude about writing being 99% perspiration and all that.  I just wanted to know why I couldn’t enjoy the process of it anymore, why it felt so stressful and agonizing.  I wanted to know if I could ever enjoy it again because if you can’t enjoy it, why do it? I discovered many amazing things about the reason why writing can become stressful to people. I discovered that block and writing-related anxieties are not just expressions of procrastination but expressions of other trauma, and in some cases, even of brain damage.

That expression, “brain damage” has such a negative connotation, but let me put it into more reasonable perspectives: a few years ago I began to notice that I was losing memory and had much more trouble focusing than ever before. I’m too young to be senile, yet I was having short memory blackouts, very scary. I don’t drink except socially and I don’t do drugs. I’m a very boring person that way.  Almost by accident my doctor discovered that I had almost no oxygen flowing in my blood while I slept. We did more tests and sure enough I was diagnosed with severe apnea: this is a condition where your body stops breathing while you’re sleeping and if it’s serious enough it can cause brain damage.  It’s reversible, but you have to know you have it.  I wasn’t the typical case and I didn’t have the typical symptoms until it was exacerbated to the point of memory blackouts.  After the final test results were in, my doctor told me that every time I went to sleep I had a 40% chance of never waking up again, or of having a stroke. She told me that while my body rested, in fact my brain  woke up on average once every 7 seconds.  In other words, although it seemed like I was asleep, I never actually got my brain to go into that brain state that is restful for sleep.  My case is actually quite severe, and it had been going on for years.  Now I’ve started a therapy to address this and the results are palpable. But going back to writing creatively: according to biologists and neuroscientists, one of the biggest causes of creative block is lack of sleep…. So I wondered how helpful is it for other writers to say to people who suffer from block to “just write”?  And for a while I was on the soap box about being more understanding about block.

I still believe that we should be more conscientious with advice to those who have creative dry spells, but there is more.  I learned through Dr. Joe Dispenza that our  emotional responses to recurring situations are wired in biologically.   It turns out, for example, that if a certain person has annoyed you consistently enough in the past, then all it takes for your brain to go into a fight or flight mode is to just think about that person. The thought of that person is enough to trigger the emotional response that your brain associates with being around that person because that response, in this example, anxiety or anger, is now wired in to your brain.  Similarly, then, I made the connection that if I stressed myself out once or twice while sitting down to write, I probably have wired my brain to associate a fight or flight response to even just the thought of writing creatively. With each time that I think of writing in a stressful way, I reinforce my anxiety with the process of writing.  Although I have enough willpower to sit down and write regardless of my stress, I am nonetheless reinforcing the agony of the process. The good news is that we can reprogram ourselves from having this happened. This was one of the greatest insights I gained from my research.  Now what I try to do is to make myself write something I know will cause me pleasure and no stress, for example, a blog post.  Since a blog post doesn’t get sent out to magazines or to professional evaluations, I can approach a blog post without stress, and I am noticing already that I am feeling more relaxed during the writing process.  Hopefully I will be able to rewire my brain patterns to feel enjoyment when I write rather than anxiety. I really want that because the process of writing is why I got into this art in the first place.

Thank you, Laura. In closing, I want to include one of my favorite passages from the book. 

Mara imagines it like this: Giorgio diving and diving again under the water, everything below shining with the promise of redemption, smooth, polished black stones, pieces of glass rendered dull by the patience of waves, the shiny skin of smelts – everything. Liliana, shivering alone, wet on the shore, watches him disappear below the surface of the sea, not knowing this is how it will be from now on, catching glimpses of him as his glimmering back breaks the surface and his head emerges, throwing back a tuft of drenched hair, he explodes a breath from his lungs, and then again, he dips below the surface, one with the swelling sea, the clouds, the inevitable chill of night.  Excerpted from “Bad Luck”

4 Replies to “Laura Valeri talks about her short story collection Safe In Your Head”

  1. I’m dead serious when I say that she reads like rich, fine chocolate. Pay attention to how she uses language and structure. It’s amazing and not a happy accident. She’s that good.

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