Looking into her own front porch

Author Ann Hood on grief, adventure, her Italian heritage and books that matter.

Author Ann Hood (photo credit: CATHERINE SEBASTIAN)
Author Ann Hood
Interviewing a writer as distinguished as Ann Hood, who was a guest at the 27th Jerusalem International Book Fair earlier this month, can be daunting. She is one of the most acclaimed writers of literary fiction currently working, and her latest novel, An Italian Wife, is a multi-generation Italian family saga that is as moving as it is gracefully written.
But sitting with Hood at a café in the First Station, the new home of the book fair, she just seems happy to be on vacation, eager to explore Israel on her first trip here. Hood has none of the attitude you might expect from a celebrated writer.
In fact, she used to be a flight attendant – what was then called a stewardess – for TWA from 1978 to 1986, not a common item on a serious writer’s resumé.
“Tel Aviv was the one of the coveted flights,” she recalls. “All my friends who got the trip would come back and they would do these great things... I was always on reserve [to fly], and I would get a call and say, ‘Is it Tel Aviv?’ and it was always, no, it’s Brussels or whatever, so I was never lucky enough to get here before.”
But although this is her first trip to Israel, Hood, a Rhode Island native, did manage to see a great deal of the world when she was a flight attendant.
“I always wanted to be a writer... I’m a firm believer that the best way to write is to read, that’s what I always tell people...
But then when I was getting ready to graduate, I thought, ‘What do I have to write about? My life has been so regular.’ I was inspired by Hemingway running with the bulls and Zelda Fitzgerald jumping into fountains, and I thought, ‘I need adventure.’ “Of course, as I matured as a writer and a person, I fell into the camp of Eudora Welty, the Southern writer, who said all you need to do is look into your own front porch. But I didn’t know that then, and my own front porch was pretty small.”
Hood used her downtime while working for the airline to write her first novel, Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine, which was published in 1987. The story of three women coming of age in the ’60s, the book began as a series of interconnected short stories.
Her latest book, An Italian Wife, also began as a series of short stories and, in a sense, came out of what she saw from her own porch. The novel chronicles the life of a woman, Josephine Rimaldi, born to a family of shepherds in a small town in southern Italy in 1874, who dies on her 100th birthday in the US. The book is told from not only from Josephine’s point of view, but from her children’s and grandchildren’s vantage point as well.
Hood, tall and fair, doesn’t immediately register as being of Italian descent, though her mother’s family is from Italy and her Italian-American heritage is a big part of who she is. An Italian Wife was inspired by stories of her own family, particularly her great-grandmother, who died when Hood was eight.
“I grew up with many generations of my family; it was really a gift. At the time, I didn’t realize it was, I wanted to live in Samantha from Bewitched’s house, but I got this immigrant house in this immigrant neighborhood,” she says. “When I looked out the window as a little girl, I saw the women in black carrying baskets they made themselves, filled with vegetables from the big community garden. It looked like Italy.”
Without necessarily intending to, she absorbed some of the family lore.
“All I wanted to do was kiss boys. [My relatives] would be telling stories and I would be tapping my foot, thinking, ‘This guy is picking me up in his Mustang, I wanna get out of here.’ As we get older, we think about our lives and who we are and our own identity issues, and I would think, ‘I wish I had listened more.’ I listened a lot, because we were strict Italians and you respected your elders, and you couldn’t get up from that table until they said you could, so I listened a lot – but not enough.”
To supplement her memories and inspire her writing, she turned to Italian literature, reading books by another book fair guest, Paolo Giordano, as well as works by Elena Ferrante, Maurizio De Giovanni and others.
In addition to her novels, Hood is known for a memoir, Comfort: A Journey Through Grief, about the death of Grace, her five-year-old daughter, from a virulent case of strep throat in 2002.
The book is extraordinarily moving and the first chapter, written as a dialogue of sorts between people spouting homilies about grief and healing and Hood detailing her actual experience of losing a child, is startlingly honest.
While the depiction of the rawness of her family’s grief is quite rare, she is also honest about the emotions that led her family to adopt a girl from China several years later – a process that was part of the inspiration for her novel The Red Thread, about women in China who give up daughters for adoption.
Asked what it was like to publish Comfort, Hood says she received an enormous number of emails from people who said her book helped them – so many that she set up a separate email account just for this purpose.
“I realized... it’s not that I’m the only one who has felt this, but most people who feel it aren’t writers, so they can’t articulate what they’re feeling. The message I was hearing [from readers] was, ‘Now, my mother understands what I feel,’ or ‘My husband understands,’ or ‘My child understands’ or ‘I’ve not been able to define or describe this grief’ – which convinced me that maybe if I connected [the essays on grief], perhaps it would help people.”
Readers of Comfort, An Italian Wife and her other books will be glad to know that Hood is well into her next book, a novel she has tentatively titled “The Book That Matters Most.” She’ll get back to work on it as soon as she gets home from Israel.