Italian Teen Learns Life Lessons in Suburban Los Angeles
An exclusive Authorlink interview
By Diane Slocum
Things That Happened Before the Earthquake, Chiara Barzini, Double Day – 15-year-old Eugenia is a reluctant immigrant when her independent movie producer father moves the family from Italy to Van Nuys, California. Set adrift in a land of strip malls, Eugenia is left to find her way mostly on her own. In her search for belonging, she finds Persian, Native American and geeky friends and especially Deva, a beautiful, ethereal will-of the-wisp who lives in Topanga Canyon. These relationships, plus sex, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, violence, a rave and ultimately, the unstable earth itself, form two turbulent years of her Americanization.
AUTHORLINK: I’m guessing that you knew your story would be bracketed by the 1992 riots and the 1994 earthquake. What else did you start with when you envisioned this story?
BARZINI: It was the feeling of a mood, a way to express the suburban malaise of the San Fernando Valley, that particular kind of estrangement, but also the impossible beauty that emerged amongst the flatness and sameness of Van Nuys. Also, the novel came to me with a very specific image: huge, disorienting ocean waves, wind, sharks: the opposite of the Mediterranean Sea.
AUTHORLINK: Did you experience the Van Nuys/Topanga Canyon culture of the 1990s or how did you research it? What attracted you to write about that location?
BARZINI: I did experience both Van Nuys and Topanga as a teenager. I researched those neighborhoods by returning to them as I was writing the novel. I spent significant time there, especially in Topanga (I quickly discovered Van Nuys had not changed much since I’d moved.) What always shocked me about Topanga was its accessibility from the Valley, the idea that you could take a left turn out of a shopping mall and in just a few minutes find yourself in a wholly different place. Sheep, pastures, and cattle instead of gas stations and parking lots. Topanga came to me as a revelation when I was a teenager, it saved me from a terrible depression with its magical ecosystem and light.
AUTHORLINK: When Eugenia was new to her school, few seemed to process that she was Italian, not Greek, French or something else. What do you think your book teaches us about the immigrant experience in America?
BARZINI: At the time I remember a widespread sense of ignorance for anything that wasn’t practically American. Latinos were all Mexican, Asians were all Chinese, Italians were interchangeable with any other European nation. Unfortunately, now this attitude has spread over to all Muslim-majority countries as well. What I did as a young person was explain things patiently, share the knowledge and culture without taking offence or taking things to heart. Start from the basics.
AUTHORLINK: How much did you know about Deva when you started writing about her? Did you know the role she would play in Eugenia’s life?
BARZINI: I knew she would live in Topanga and I knew she would be ungraspable like the Topanga light.
AUTHORLINK: Did you have other ideas for titles before Things that Happened Before the Earthquake? How did you come up with and decide on this one?
BARZINI: The original title was going to play with the earthquake term “Seismic Migration.” I explained what Seismic Migration was to a wonderful editor, Robin Desser, when I was telling her a bit about the book. I simplified it and said that Seismic Migration was “the thing that happens before an earthquake.” She looked at me and told me I had just found my title.
AUTHORLINK: You have a lot of other writing credits but this is your first published novel. How did you decide to write a novel and how was the experience different from your other work?
BARZINI: I wrote short experimental fiction as an escape from the narrative constraints of film structure. I wrote journalism because I’ve always loved research and needed a foot in reality. But I knew it was time to face a greater challenge and a different kind of language that would not be a reaction to something else.
AUTHORLINK: What advice can you give other writers struggling to sell their first short story, screenplay or novel?
BARZINI: I think with anything that involves writing, give yourself deadlines (even made up ones), get feedback from trusted friends and writers, stay in touch with the muse at all costs, and learn to hang out with rejection.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
BARZINI: I am working on a film in Italy and starting to gather research for my next novel which will be set in Los Angeles once again and will still be centered around immigration, but in a different time period.
|About the Author:|
Besides her debut novel,Chiara Barzini is the author of a story collection, Sister Stop Breathing, and many screenplays. Her film, Aianna, won numerous awards at the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for the Italian Golden Globes. She has contributed articles and fiction to a long list of publications from Harper’s, Vogue and Rolling Stone to Vice and The Coffin Factory.
About Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.