Here’s the article Christina Höfferer and I wrote back in May for the Italian Insider. Shortly after we had handed our Katherine Wilson Interview to the editor, Christina noticed that another similar article had been published some days later instead. A colleague had done a book review of Only in Naples by Katherine Wilson and the paper decided to publish it before ours. How could an editor commission two of the seemingly same pieces? At first glance, it did indeed seem awkward, but then I realized that the fellow journalist had really just done an insightful book review full of praise.
On the other hand, our article was an in-house interview with the author. Although they could seem like the same thing, they were completely different. After asking the editor about the incident, he clarified that he chose the book review as a first publication to initially introduce readers to the book and capture public interest, while he was saving the interview for a slightly later date to give audiences a behind the scenes look at the person who wrote the book. Tricks of the trade.
In the end, a while has passed but the article has finally been printed. Apparently, the paper’s editor decided not the publish an online version but feature it for the June print issue due out tomorrow in newsstands around the capital. Attached, is the link: Insider45.lowres.
For those who have trouble with the link, please see the article as it was published.
Katherine Wilson Talks to the Italian Insider
by Florence Brock and Christina Hoefferer
Italian Insider – The translation of your title can be interpreted in two ways in Italian: literally or as a derogatory remark about Naples (depending on the intonation applied). Was it your intention to play with the title and leave the reader in doubt about how you feel?
Katherine Wilson – Personally, I interpret ‘Only in Naples’ in the sense that only in Naples you can find that particular magic, those colors and the chaos, but in a positive way. There is a sort of surprising humanity in Neapolitan people. That’s a very interesting question though because, for the Italian edition, they said: “Whatever we put in the title, we cannot write the word Naples because no one will buy the book.” Naples for Italians conjures up images of Camorra, corruption, dirt and disorganization. For me, it has mostly, if not exclusively, positive connotations.
Italian Insider – How did you find the title?
Katherine Wilson – The book was first called “The Mother-in-law Cure” because so much of it was about my mother-in-law. Then, various publishing houses I presented it to said the word mother-in-law conjured up negative connotations. Nobody was going to buy the book and yet I had really written a book about Naples and about my mother-in-law. Both do have negative connotations, but I like to think that it is a positive book. With “Only In Naples” as the title and “Lessons in Food and Famiglia from my Italian Mother-in-law” as the subtitle, I think we captured what the book is about. The Italian title will be Sale, Cuore, Amore.
Italian Insider – Your experience has been wonderful, but everyone suffers when they change. How have you suffered?
Katherine Wilson – I have missed my girlfriends, my sister and my cousins a lot. The female solidarity you get with women of your own culture has always been important to me and that’s something I have not found as easily here in Italy. We Americans are terrible in our directness. Sharing inner conflicts, struggles and fears is a part of getting to know someone. In Italy, always having to worry about ‘fare una bella figura’ (being appropriate and not looking bad in the eyes of others) is hard. I found myself spilling my personal stuff and when someone would say: “Oh, veramente, interessante…” I remember thinking: over shared!
Italian Insider – But you made friends with your mother-in-law. How did that come about?
Katherine Wilson – She taught me so much about accepting myself and about accepting other people without judging and without rationalizing too much. In the book, I talk about ‘carnale’, about this sort of visceral Italian way of connecting; it goes deep. It’s about not intellectualizing too much, but accepting and loving in an immediate, physical way, which was not a part of my growing up.
Italian Insider – So, how did you make the decision to go to Naples? What brought you there?
Katherine Wilson – I think a lot of it had to do with everyone telling me not to and so it made me very curious. I wanted an experience abroad; that is what everyone in my family did and what people in college did. I have always loved Italy because my great-grandfather was from Calabria. I wanted to go to Italy before coming back and starting my real life, getting a job, going to graduate school and doing what I was supposed to do. Everyone said: “You should go to Tuscany.” Then, I met the Consul General of the American Consulate in Naples at a dinner and he said: “You can come to Naples and do an unpaid internship.” So I thought: well, that’s a big city and it would be a great way to get a taste of real Italian life, but when I started talking about it to people everyone said: “Don’t go; it’s dirty and it’s dangerous.” I had spent a lot of time doing what people expected me to do, so I thought: it’s time to change!
Italian Insider – Were you looking for adventure?
Katherine Wilson – Yes, I was looking for adventure and for surprises. I was looking for people who were completely different from me and from the culture that I was living in which was not making me happy.
Italian Insider – It’s easy to understand how an American can get ‘caught up’ or ‘wrapped up’ in such an intense reality. Considering how you were feeling and the love for this family, why on Earth did you get married in the U.S.A.? It doesn’t seem logical for you to haul such a deep-rooted and traditional family over to the United States and insist they follow American customs (like forced tux rentals and a no-pasta reception) when you surely would have loved following the local rituals. Or wouldn’t you have?
Katherine Wilson – I think I loved the idea of sharing good things about my background with the people I loved. When I talked about the United State in Naples, they were very curious, and I thought they had to ‘live’ a bit of it. I also have a mother from the South who is possibly the best party planner I have ever met, so I thought: I am far away. She can organize this whole thing and I can show up as the guest star. I am very glad I did it because the Neapolitans really enjoyed it and I was flattered that later people would contact me and say: “Can you give me some advice? I want to do what you did for your wedding.” So it was a bridge.
Italian Insider – For instance, can you think of one example?
Katherine Wilson – The bridesmaids dresses. They could not get over the fact that the bridesmaids were all wearing the same type of dress. And there was a rehearsal. If you go to a wedding in Naples, it’s beautiful but there is no Assistant Director telling people where they need to go and what they need to do.”
Italian Insider – If you were to go back to the U.S.A. and live, what wouldn’t you take back with you? What wouldn’t you take back, just because Americans wouldn’t understand?
Katherine Wilson – There are a couple of things that Americans have a lot of trouble with in the culture. One is the fact that Neapolitans often create their own version of reality, which isn’t always accurate. When my kids were little and we were in Napoli, I remember one saying: “Can I have a lollipop?” And I said: “No, you cannot have a lollipop, you are about to have dinner.” Then, the shopkeeper started saying: “There are no lollipops, we are all sold out.” When you’re a family living in Napoli, you have to figure out for yourself if something someone says is true or not. I remember was wondering whether to tell my daughter that the lollipop story was a total lie. I don’t think it’s healthy for children growing up. I also find that the resistance to change in Naples is what I admire in Americans. Americans are able to see if something works; if they like something they keep it. If not, they let it go. It’s what our whole country is based on: this is not working for me. Let’s try something else. Let’s move west.
Italian Insider – What do you do to unite the Naples and Washington ways of life? How do you bridge these two very different worlds?
Katherine Wilson – I always encourage the humor. When you find the comedy in situations, you find out that, in the end, we are all the same. There is no wrong and right. Let’s just find the love that is underneath all those ways of expressing ourselves.
Italian Insider – How did your family react to your writing about them?
Katherine Wilson – My mother-in-law loved it. My parents were a bit trickier about it because I used a lot of contrasts and I dramatized them to show the differences in cultures. They were happy about it because they considered it a success. My mother really was a good sport, but my father was angry that the book was not about him. He would have liked “Lessons in Food and Famiglia from my American Father”. But after he had read the book he said that he laughed a lot, so I was happy because all children want to make their parents laugh.
Italian Insider – Did you check the text before you had it published?
Katherine Wilson – I discussed it with my agent and with my editor at Random House, two women I respect. They both reassured me that there was a tone of love in it. Even the teasing comes across with an undercurrent of ‘I care about these people. I won’t use them’.
Italian Insider – Why did you write the book?
Katherine Wilson – I think the main reason was that I wanted to bring my American friends to Naples. I wanted them to visit Naples. And even when they came to Naples, there would be those cultural things they did not understand. Just think: my father still doesn’t see anything wrong about ordering Spaghetti a Vongole and accompanying the dish with a glass of orange juice. When he does, Italians at the table cringe.
Italian Insider – Your book is extremely well written. You really come to the point and the funny points are well told.
Katherine Wilson – Thank you, it is kind of an 18-hour ragù.
Italian Insider – In journalism, we say a good story is like an espresso: you have to bring it down to the essence. This is what we found in the book.
Katherine Wilson – I felt it was so therapeutic and redemptive to write. I thought: this is my story. This is what I am going say about my life without fear.
Italian Insider – Your book is more about cultural differences than descriptions of the city itself. It is very much a look at the Italian way of living inside the family and inside the home. You take your readers home with you. There is only one point where you talk about the miracle of San Gennaro and you go there alone saying you want to see it. Did you edit other parts of the city as well?
Katherine Wilson – I wanted to tell people how Naples and the Neapolitan culture transformed me. And the place where that happened was inside the home. Neapolitan culture is very much a matriarchy. The center of things is the home with the mother who is preparing food. Anything else is a bit peripheral. Even when I am there now, when I want to go out and do things in Naples there is an “Oh no, stai qua.” This reaction is somewhat protective. In Naples, I find there is a distrust of being ‘out there’. In my American background, we travelled all the time, so I think I needed the warm embrace of a kitchen.
Italian Insider – You also touch on a hard topic in your book: an eating disorder you suffered from while growing up back in the States, even though you talked about it in a very light way.
Katherine Wilson – When you say I touched on that topic lightly, I see I have taken my mother-in-law’s example, maybe not in ignoring problems all together, but not giving so much weight to them. I really believe I was cured by Italy. There had been this problem tormenting me for so many years, and then all of a sudden I found myself thinking: hey, it’s gone! It was a little bit magical. It was healing.