Seeking New Perspectives. An Interview with Donna Florio.



Hello, Five South lit community! We are grateful to interview Donna Florio. Donna is a lifelong resident of Bank Street in New York, which is the subject of her debut, Growing Up Bank Street: A Greenwich Village Memoir.


Donna has worked as an opera singer, a TV producer, a Wall Street executive, and an educator and has backpacked worldwide. We sat down with Donna to talk about her many lives and her latest identity as a writer.


INTERVIEWER

You have lived in the same building on the same street for your entire life. Tell us what that experience has meant to you in terms of your identity as a person, and elaborate on how it became a consuming subject for your writing. Did you always feel your experience of living in the same community your whole life was a unique one?


FLORIO

At first, growing up on Bank Street, I thought Greenwich Village and my parents’ approach to life was normal because, of course, I didn’t know any other way to live. Our friends were gay, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and practiced a number of religions. Our home was open to anyone. The neighbors, Auntie Mame, and all were simply the people who lived here. We ran the gamut from movie stars to office workers to dockworkers. It was all of America; class, culture, politics, and all, in six blocks.


When I went to a high school that accepted students from all over NYC and got to know their more traditional neighborhoods, I started to understand how unusual Bank Street was. While I did (and still) enjoy visiting and exploring areas all over the city, I prefer to live in the Village. I now see that this is somewhat unique, although not as unusual as you might think. Some of us go elsewhere and forge new types of lives. I like doing that too. But, if I am going to remain in NYC, Bank Street is where I feel comfortable. And I enjoy the long perspective it gives me.


INTERVIEWER

You mentioned that living in New York and through the experience of 9/11 set off a groundswell within you that led you to write your memoir. Did writing the book help you find a vital closeness with your community after the tragedy of 9/11?


FLORIO

The closeness, as it is expressed in writing, was an evolution. Witnessing 9/11 up front basically sent my ability to think and reason down a black hole. During that hellish time, I felt trapped inside my own head, the last place I wanted to be. So, I interviewed Al, my next-door neighbor of many years, and wrote down what he told me. Then I started to think about Mrs. Swanson, a vaudeville dancer who had lived there before Al. And about Auntie Mame, my babysitter. Then I started doing research. Slowly, it worked to pull me back to life. As long as I thought of others and wrote about them, I got a break from the horrific mass murder I’d seen. That was how it started.


INTERVIEWER

Growing Up Bank Street has a lot of history woven into the fabric of the story. Talk to us about your research process. What sources were most helpful to you? How did you balance historical detail and storytelling?


FLORIO

As I discovered more about my neighbors, I wanted to know more about the events and politics that helped shape them into who they were. Newspaper archives were probably the most helpful resource. Both Caleb Carr’s novel The Alienist and E. L. Doctorow’s book, Ragtime, were my ideals. The blend of history and storyline in those two books is brilliant, and one should admire and try to emulate the best. As for finding the balance, that was where my excellent editors came in. I fell in love with extraneous details many times and needed to discard many, however fascinating they were because they made the stories meander too far off track.


INTERVIEWER

Your parents were opera singers, and you were a child performer. You’ve said that the discipline of being a performer, and learning music, informed your writing practice. What lessons did you learn from these formative experiences that may help other writers develop their practice?


FLORIO

As a child of performers, growing up onstage myself, I learned that most artistry is dull, hard work, with no one looking and a whole lot of mistakes being made. For every hour that an opera singer spends onstage, they go through perhaps 1,000 hours of lessons, practice, auditions, rehearsals. It is seriously not glamorous, and much of it is not the least bit fun. The translation I used as a writer was to keep myself in the damn chair for x-hours a day, even when what I was writing was dreck. I did not have to be in the mood. Mood was beside the point. Focus and attention, and disciplined habits are all that matters.


INTERVIEWER

Your path to publication for this book was not linear or “typical,” not that any author’s journey is! Can you share with us the events that led you to publication?


FLORIO

Serendipity played an especially large part in getting my book out there. My freelance editor, Andrea Chapin, knew a New York Times reporter, Constance Rosenblum, who was seeking subjects for articles about New Yorkers and their New York. Her article blew my modest hobby into the spotlight. I got an agent and a publisher.


INTERVIEWER

What is your advice to emerging writers who are working on a book-length manuscript?


FLORIO

I do best with concrete examples, and that may be true for others as well. Find a signature book (or books) that reads the way you want yours to. Analyze its strengths as well as the ways in which it could be improved.


INTERVIEWER

What advice do you have for writers at the stage of seeking representation for their work?


FLORIO

You want to be heard, but you also want to reach your target audience. For that, I think you need to be honest about your commercial potential. Analyze the market. See what is selling and why. Make a clear-eyed comparison between your voice and the market. My book was very different when it started: far more dark and complicated. As I wrote, I started to understand that, speaking only for my own writing, my best voice is relatively light. I still say what I wish to say but in one paragraph or one brief example. Not in an extended harangue. No one wanted to wade through it. There is a balance between being right and true to your voice and phrasing your work so that it is accessible. Everyone needs to find their own balance. I write many pieces that would never sell, but that’s OK. It all helps develop my most powerful voice, which is the entire point for writers.


INTERVIEWER

What is your general advice to emerging writers?


FLORIO

Join writer’s groups. If you cannot find one, go make one yourself. I did that several times by putting ads online and screening carefully. I placed ads for writing partners in places like The Village Voice and Craigslist. If someone sounded reasonable, I’d meet them in public and bring a writing sample. They did the same. We’d sit there and exchange views on each other’s writing and size each other up. I met some fellow aspiring writers I passed on to be sure but also met marvelous, talented people like Katherine Dykstra, whose book, What Happened to Paula, comes out this year. Hell, at this point, your partners can be scattered all over the world; you might not ever actually meet in person. Regardless, the more proactive you are about finding intelligent fellow writers/readers, and the more power you develop as you analyze their work, too, the better.


INTERVIEWER

What are you most excited about in publishing today?