BY: Lindsay jamieson
Helene Stapinski is a best-selling author of three memoirs: Five Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History, which has been made into a documentary; Baby Plays Around: A Love Affair with Music; and her latest, Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy. Her essays have appeared in several anthologies, including Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up. Helene has written extensively for the New York Times, Travel & Leisure, Time magazine, the Washington Post, and dozens of other newspapers and blogs. She’s been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and The Today Show and has performed on the Moth’s main stage.
The Coachella Review recently sat down with Stapinski to discuss her impressive and unusual career trajectory and her obsession with her criminal family—featured first in Five Finger Discount, which revolves around her grandfather’s misdeeds in Jersey City, New Jersey, where Stapinski was raised, then again in Murder in Matera, in which she travels farther back in time to Basilicata, southern Italy, from where her great-great-grandmother immigrated after being involved in a murder.
THE COACHELLA REVIEW: Over the past several years, creative nonfiction has grown tremendously as a genre. What drew you to nonfiction instead of fiction?
HELENE STAPINSKI: Well I had been a reporter for quite a while before, so I was trained as a reporter and trained to tell the truth and to expose other people (laugh), and so, I applied to the nonfiction MFA program at Columbia because that’s what I did, right? I did take fiction classes, but every time I tried to write fiction, it would just come out as nonfiction (laugh), and so I just sort of gave up. I figured, why bother when I’ve got all these crazy stories? So it became a challenge to be as honest about me and my family as I was about other people ’cause I was always exposing other people in my reporting, but I felt I had these stories and why not put them out there? This was really the beginning of the whole memoir craze—it wasn’t really done that much yet—this was right after The Liar’s Club, by Mary Karr, came out—that was sort of the bible for the nonfiction writers at Columbia. This was over twenty years ago, and it was sort of a new form in a way. Not that people hadn’t written them before, but that whole craze was just starting, and I was trained as a reporter. And to me, writing creative nonfiction is a real challenge—fiction is hard because you have it make it up from scratch, but nonfiction is hard because you can’t make it up from scratch (laughs). It has to be real, it has to be from somewhere and you have to have the documentation, and that’s sort of the challenge for me. But that’s how I was trained, so it was just a natural extension of what I already did.
TCR: In your most recent book, Murder in Matera, you write more than just the story of Vita, your great-great-grandmother, who was accused of murder before immigrating to the United States. It’s also your decade-long personal odyssey as a reporter trying to uncover the truth (with two young children and your mother in tow) and how you imagined life must have been for Vita in the late 1800s. Those sections about Vita’s life are written in third person, include intimate details of her life, and read almost like fiction—how did you come up with this brilliant combination?
HS: I think it was just a matter of necessity, you know? I didn’t have enough to go on (laughs). I wasn’t there. There are no letters. There are no diaries. They were illiterate. All I had was the history and bits and pieces from the family and any documentation I found. And it really wasn’t enough, so it was kind of out of desperation to go the fiction route, but it was freeing in a way. And it sort of reflected my love of The Godfather II (laughs). That’s one of my favorite movies, and I think I had that in my head the whole time: I’m going to take you back in time, you know, like Vito Corleone went back, and show how it looked and how it smelled. I couldn’t do that through pure nonfiction. I just couldn’t do it. I really didn’t have enough information, so I used everything I did have at my disposal to write a fictionalization of it. And I was really worried about that. First of all, I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, because I hadn’t written fiction, and second, I was worried people would call me on it and be, like, this is a nonfiction book, what is this? But I spoke to my editor about it and she was totally into it and we just put a disclaimer in the book and that was it. I wanted Vita to come to life. I wanted readers to see her and hear her and there was really no other way to do that.
TCR: You write that your mother always told you the story of your great-great-grandmother Vita as a warning—she didn’t want you to end up like her, accused of murder and then murdered herself. Was that what ultimately drove you to spend a decade traveling to southern Italy, researching her life?
HS: Actually, I don’t mention this in the book, but the initial push was from my agent. I had written two books at that point, and I was, like, what am I going to do next? And my agent said, “Oh, why don’t you go to Italy and find that story about your great-great-grandmother?” It never even occurred to me really, but I said, “Oh, that’s a good idea.” So that’s why I wound up going with the family. But then I couldn’t find the story and I became obsessed. It became this crazy obsession with this person, Vita. Then falling in love with this place and seeing where my family came from… It was just this eye-opening, mind-blowing experience.
As a reporter, I always get the story. And to not find it, really kind of angered me, and it made me more invested in getting this information. I just kept going back. I’m stubborn, which I talk about in the book (laughs). That’s part of the genetic makeup. So not finding the facts only made me hungry for more. As I got more involved, I became more involved with her character and more involved in that life and what that would have been like and just seeing who she was.
TCR: Speaking of genetics, in Chapter One you write that “vengeance” is a family trait that could have been passed down to you. When you started researching the book, your children were little—were you afraid they might have inherited a criminal gene?
HS: That was definitely a part of it. I would say earlier on, when my kids were little, it was more of a concern because they weren’t fully formed yet, and I wasn’t sure how they would turn out. I have cousins who went down a bad road, you know, or went to jail, and you hope that it’s nurture versus nature. I mean, I know really nice people who have rotten kids (laughs). And it’s, like, how does that happen? You do all you can and your kid is not a nice kid. Maybe not a murderer, but sometimes they are. And so when they were very little I was really worried. Because like I said in the book, they would look at me and I would see a flash of someone from the family I didn’t like (laughs), so if there’s a physical manifestation, is there a nonphysical manifestation as well? As they got older, and as I got further into the book, it became less of a concern because it was obvious they weren’t going to be murders; they were okay. And whether that was just a roll of the dice or genetics or because of the way I raised them—maybe a combination of two—we don’t know, but at the end of the day, they’re okay.
TCR: And the environment plays a role too.
HS: Right, exactly. ’Cause Jersey City, or Basilicata, either one, they were rough places, and so to survive, you had to resort to stuff like that. You know, you had to steal pears, and that leads to other stuff. Yes, definitely the environment and not just the nurture, you’re right, just the place that you’re in has a lot to do with the formation of your personality. So they were lucky they grew up in brownstone Brooklyn.
TCR: You’ve written almost exclusively about your family, even in many of your magazine and newspaper articles. Each story is equally riveting, whether it’s your Jersey City history or the essay about your daughter’s Instagram account you published in December in the New York Times. Do you think your family is uniquely interesting, or do you have a uniquely interesting way of telling stories?
HS: I think it’s a combination. I think part of it is I do have an interesting family and I’m blessed with these stories, I mean, part of growing up was awful because I had crazy people in my family trying to kill us and stuff, but it gave me great material. So that’s my inheritance. I talk about that in Five Finger Discount. You know, I didn’t get china or silver or anything—I got left these stories. So that cannot be discounted—five finger discounted (laughs). The other thing is you have to be able to tell a good story. If I had that material and I couldn’t write, what the hell’s the difference, you know what I mean? It wouldn’t have mattered what material I had. So, you have to be talented as well, and that’s passed down. My mom wrote when she was younger, and I’m sure all of these people, which I talk about in the book, were storytellers. I’m sure Vita was a storyteller. Stories didn’t get passed down for no reason. They weren’t writing them, but they were telling them. I think it’s definitely a combination. I think if you do have a talent for writing, you can take almost anything and make it an interesting story if you tell it right.
TCR: Since you write nonfiction and your name is always on the cover or byline, how has your family reacted to these less-than-flattering stories? What is your response to their criticism?
HS: The latest book I didn’t get too much flack for. My first book, Five Finger Discount, was the one that really pissed people off, particularly in my hometown. In Jersey City, people are still mad at me. I just tell the truth, and if you can’t deal with that, I’m sorry—go write your own book. That’s how I feel. I didn’t write anything that wasn’t true, and I think I sort of gently approached things in Five Finger Discount and I have a big love for my family, especially my immediate family, and for Jersey City as well, and I think that came through. A lot of the people who hated the book never even read it. Which is really funny. There was this whole contingency of people in Jersey City who were boycotting it without having even read it.
And the way that I approached it helped. I interviewed everybody in my family, so they were part of the process. It wasn’t like I was just writing about them—they gave me their memories. And then once I finished it, I gave it to all the people who were close to me in galleys, not just my immediate family, but also my uncle, my aunt, all the major players in the story. Of course, those who were dead, I couldn’t give it to (laughs), but anybody who was close to me, I gave it to them, and none of them gave me a hard time. The only people who gave me a hard time weren’t in the book and were always a problem and they didn’t like it to begin with. It’s really interesting when you do something like this—the people you’re close to get closer and the people you didn’t like to begin with, they’re worse. So, there were no surprises. And I was used to getting backlash from being a reporter. I was happy nobody I really loved gave me a hard time.
TCR: How does that affect your writing process?
HS: There’s definitely a little bit of hedging here and there. There are some stories I didn’t tell that were just too awful, you know. I can’t go into them. But there’s definitely stuff I haven’t touched on. Believe it or not, I held a few back (laughs). There were so many stories to choose from, that to hold back a couple wasn’t a problem. I generally just go and write. I don’t think, Oh, should I write this? I just write it. And then you can always edit it back once you have it down.
I think the reader knows if you’re holding back. They can sense it. You have to just put it out there. Something has to be at risk. I always give that advice when I teach writing: just do it and then if you want to edit something back you can.
TCR: You’ve been able to carve out a really nice career for yourself, writing memoirs, contributing to so many prestigious publications and always with your distinct voice. You reviewed The Sopranos Sessions by Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall for the Washington Post and opened with your experience watching The Sopranos as a former Jersey City native. You’ve combined personal essay with journalism in this really unique way and created a nice niche for yourself. How did you do that?
HS: I don’t think that a lot of people do it, or do it well. Because the people who are reporters—and they’re good reporters—but a lot of the time they can’t write. And then you’ve got people who are good writers, but they’ve never been a reporter. I can really do both well, and that’s what I’ve tried to do and it comes naturally. The reporting buffers the personal, and the personal brings up the reporting, I think. That’s been my talent in my books and in the stories, too.
Readers see themselves in the story if you write it in a personal way. It touches them in a way that a straight journalism story wouldn’t. And again, it’s not calculated—I just tell my story. And when you’re honest, it resonates. They see themselves in it. That was incredible with the story in the New York Times about my daughter’s Instagram account—it went viral.
TCR: I’d like to backtrack—your first job out of NYU, where you received a degree in journalism, was as a reporter?
HS: I started at the Weekly News Paper in Hudson County, which was in Hoboken, the next town over. I actually don’t mention that in Five Finger Discount, but my first job was editing this thing called the Corporate Reporter, which was awful. It covered the Secaucus office parks. I had to write stories about people in terrible office buildings. I think it was seven different papers. It was Jersey City Reporter, Hoboken Reporter, the Weehawken Reporter, the Corporate Reporter, which is where I worked, the lowest on the totem pole, and a few other towns. We not only reported stories, but we had to edit them. We actually edited each other’s stories. We had to take the photos. Sometimes I printed the photos. We laid it all out. This is in the days before computer layout; we’d have to cut and paste, you know, with an X-ACTO knife. And sometimes I actually delivered it. So I really came in on the ground floor. I started pretty much at the very bottom, as far as you could go.
And then from there went to the Jersey Journal. I started as a police reporter, which was rough. I had to cover the police every day, and they were really hard to deal with in Jersey City. There was this desk sergeant and every time I went in to check the police blotter, I’d say, “Is anything happening today?” And he’d say, “Yeah, there was a rape. Why don’t you come in the back and I’ll tell you about it.” It was a terrible, terrible job. Then when they could see that I could write, they gave me my column.
It was called Hudson Beat. I was covering Hudson County, and I basically wrote about whatever I wanted, which was amazing. It was weekly. Every Tuesday it would come out, and my mother would call me really upset because my column was about some really controversial thing. She’d say, “Can’t you write about something nice for a change?” And I’d say, “I’m waiting for something nice to happen.” (Laughs.)
But I really went to town. I would call it like I saw it. I wrote about everything from politics to toxic waste to the Catholic Church—you name it. Whatever I saw, I’d just talk about it. And the backlash was tough. I got my column mailed to me wrapped around a maxi pad. It was nasty. No woman had ever written a column in that town. (Laughs.)
It was probably 90/91, so I was twenty-five. I was very young, but I have a strong opinion about everything. I really wanted to get the hell out of Jersey City, so I was kind of angry and that fueled the fire. And then I finally did leave. I went to Alaska. And then I got my MFA at Columbia and wrote my first book.
TCR: And now, after publishing three books and dozens of articles, you’re also teaching. How has that been and how has it informed your writing?
HS: I used to teach at Fordham University, but for the past couple of years I’ve been teaching at the school of the New York Times. It’s a precollege summer program, and it’s been great. I mean, writing is great. You’re in a room by yourself though, and you’re not talking to anybody most of the time, so it’s nice to get out into the world and really the best part of the world is young people, and they make me hopeful and less fearful for the future. I mean, I have kids, but your kids don’t talk to you all that much. But to actually engage with kids out in the world, it’s really refreshing. The kids who take these classes at the New York Times are ambitious, success-driven kids, so they’re really smart and… I mean I cried at the end of one of the sessions because these kids are so awesome. I feel like maybe the world’s not destined for destruction after all. I don’t know if it helps me write better. Maybe it does. Maybe it lifts my soul a little bit. But it’s just nice to be in the world and to be around young people. It definitely keeps you sane. And you really feel like you’re giving back. You know, if you do something for a number of years, you actually do become an expert at it. And when you’re a writer, nobody really tells you that, you just go on to the next project without thinking about it, but you actually do have wisdom to impart. And once you figure that out, you can teach. So, it’s actually kind of exciting.
TCR: What is your biggest advice to aspiring creative nonfiction writers?
HS: It’s sort of clichéd, but write what you know. I had been avoiding that when I was at Columbia. I was writing about Alaska. I had lived there for a year, so I knew it but not that well. And everybody was encouraging me to write about my family when I was there. We would get these assignments and I’d tell these stories, and everybody was, like, “Oh my God, this is incredible material. You have to write this.” And I was, like, “No, no, no. I don’t want to have anything to do with it. I’m escaping that.” But that was the gold. That was the narrative gold and once I started mining that, that became my road to success. You know it really is important to write what you know or what you’re passionate about. Write about what you love or what you hate even (laughs). But write something that you care about one way or the other because readers can tell.
Lindsay Jamieson grew up in Brooklyn, NY and received a degree in English from Vassar College. After working as a cameraperson on feature films, she relocated to Los Angeles, trading concrete for mountains and waves. She sold a feature screenplay to Davis Entertainment, was a contributing writer on Jed Weintraub’s feature film, THE F WORD, optioned scripts to CBS and producer Adam Merims, and published her first novel, Beautiful Girl with Paperlantern Lit, under a pen name, Lida James. She currently writes for several online publications, including City National Bank’s News&Insights, The Larchmont Buzz, The Coachella Review, and Posh Brood while obtaining an MFA at UC Riverside, raising two teens, and snowboarding whenever she can.