Saturday, January 29, 2011

12 reasons why I can’t sleep at night (Italian-English)

Da quando è nato mio figlio due anni e mezzo fa, sono perennemente assonnata. Ma ultimamente, appena infilatami nel letto al buio, ho difficoltà ad addormentarmi. Vi spiego perché:

Since my son was born two and half years ago, I’m perpetually sleepy. But lately, as soon as I get into bed in the dark, I have trouble falling asleep. I’ll explain why:

1. Le chiappe indolenzite. So benissimo che è sconsigliato fare attivatà fisica prima di andare a letto, ma durante il giorno ho così pochi minuti liberi da dedicare alla ciclette. Di sera, quei venti minuti in cui schiaccio il piede ferocemente sul pedale, sudo come un orso in una sauna e sbuffo soffocando un dolore da doglie a furia di pedalare tutto il tempo in salita – per non sprecare tempo prezioso – è l’unico momento di vera pace in tutta la mia giornata. Altroché bagno caldo con un libro!

1. My sore butt. I’m well aware that they advise against engaging in physical activity before going to bed, but during the day I have so very little free time to devote to the exercycle. In the evening, those twenty minutes when I ferociously pump the pedals, sweating like a bear in a sauna and panting as I stifle pain as bad as labor itself from pedalling the whole time uphill (to not waste precious time) – this is the only moment of true peace throughout my whole day. Who needs a hot bath and a book?

2. I rumori. Mio marito che russa. Il gatto che si spulcia. Mio figlio che ride nel sonno.

2. The noise. My husband snoring. The cat defleaing herself. My son laughing in his sleep.

3. Fantasia #1. Dicono che, per realizzare i tuoi sogni, devi farti un’immagine mentale di ciò che desideri ottenere nel futuro. Allora mi vedo seduta nell’ufficio del revisore della casa editrice che pubblicherà il mio libro. Ascolto e prendo appunti sui cambiamenti che vuole fare: cambiare il titolo e anche il nome del protagonista, tagliare cento pagine. Scrivo e accenno di sì col capo, tanto ad oppormi ci penso dopo che abbiamo firmato il contratto.

3. Fantasy #1. They say that to make your dreams come true, you should visualize what you want in the future. So I see myself seated in the office of the editor whose publishing house is going to publish my manuscript. I’m listening and taking notes on the changes she wants to make: change the title and the name of the main character too, cut out a hundred pages. I’m writing and nodding: there will be time to object once we’ve signed the contract.

4. La preoccupazione di aver lasciato aperto il finestrino della macchina. O lasciato spalancato il portellone posteriore.

4. Worrying about whether I’ve left a window open in the car. Or left the hatchback up.

5. Fantasia #2. Questa fantasia è inerente alla prima, ma non è per questo meno rilevante. Ha a che fare col mio aspetto fisico, nel suddetto ufficio. Sono sempre io, con tutte le mie ben meritate rughe, ma per carità almeno con qualche lentiggine in meno. Indosso il mio vestito nero di cotone – casual ma non troppo – quello con le tasche per nascondere fazzoletti e salatini di emergenza. Poi ho i capelli per una volta alla perfezione: lucenti, folti e pettinati come se avessi appena fatto la messa in piega. O messo una parrucca.

5. Fantasy #2. This fantasy is part of the first, but is no less important in itself. It has to do with my appearance in the aforementioned office. I still look like me, with all my well-deserved wrinkles, but for heaven’s sake please with a few less freckles. I’m wearing my black cotton dress – casual but not too casual – the one with the pockets to hide emergency tissues and crackers. My hair is for once perfect: shiny, thick and brushed as if I’d just been to the hairdressers’. Or put on a wig.

6. Il dubbio se il pannolino di mio figlio durerà fino al mattino.

6. Doubting whether my son’s diaper will make it through the night.

7. Fantasia #3. Sempre nel solito ufficio, con i capelli stupendi, sono incinta di quattro o cinque mesi. Tirato su dal pancione, il vestito nero svela un po’ troppa coscia, ma che me ne importa. Non si può criticare una donna incinta, tanto meno dirle di cestinare cento pagine del suo capolavoro.

7. Fantasy #3. Still in the same old office, with great hair, I’m pregnant by about four or five months. Pulled up by my belly, my black dress is showing a bit too much leg, but who cares. Nobody can criticize a pregnant lady, much less tell her to toss out a hundred pages of her masterpiece.

8. Un pizzico di fame.

8. Feeling a tad hungry.

9. La soddisfazione un po’ compiaciuta di aver letto diciasette pagine di un romanzo mentre sbuffavo sulla ciclette, per di più in italiano! (Cioè leggevo in italiano: sbuffavo in inglese.) E la gioia di aver imparato un termine nuovo, nappe. Utilissimo.

9. The somewhat smug satisfaction of having read seventeen pages of a novel while panting on the exercycle, what’s more in Italian! (That is, I was reading in Italian: the panting was in English.) And the joy of having learned a new word: "nappe" (tassels). Ever so useful.

10. Lo spazio sempre più ristretto nel letto. L’alluce di mio marito che mi fa la digitopressione sul polpaccio. Il gatto che mi ruba il cuscino. Mio figlio che stiracchia le gambe sulla mia pancia.

10. The ever-shrinking room in the bed. My husband’s big toe performing acupressure on my calf. The cat stealing my pillow. My son stretching his legs out onto my belly.

11. Un’idea geniale che mi balena in mente: quella di scrivere un articolo di blog in italiano! E perché no? Oltre ad essere un buon esercizio per me, ho anche alcuni lettori italiani, e poi tanti amici e parenti che stanno imparando l’italiano! Anche a questa tarda ora ho la pelle d’oca solo a pensare alle straordinarie potenzialità didattiche…sarà un difetto professionale.

11. A brilliant idea pops into my head: I should write a blog post in Italian! Besides being good practice for me, I also have some Italian readers and a whole bunch of friends and family members who are learning Italian! Even at this very late hour, I get goosebumps merely thinking about the extraordinary teaching potential…probably a professional deformity.

12. L’idea ancora più geniale di alzarmi a scrivere sul blog. In italiano. In pigiama. Alle undici di sera. Mangiando pasta avanzata. In bocca al lupo!

12. The even more brilliant idea to get up to write on my blog. In Italian. In my pyjamas. At eleven at night. Eating leftover pasta. Good luck!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Spoiler alert

There comes a time when a wannabe writer is forced to write a synopsis of their manuscript. Literary agents have a right to know, after all, how the book you’re pitching starts, develops and ends. But to those agents who ask for one at the very first stage of the querying process, I feel like asking, “You haven’t even read Chapter One yet. Do you really want me to spoil the ending for you?”

It’s a scary word, “synopsis”. It sounds like a painful infection ultimately requiring invasive surgery (a “synopsectomy”?). I’ve personally been afflicted by it numerous times over the last four years and am still quite prone to pangs of angst and flare-ups of inadequacy.

The main problem I’ve had with writing (and rewriting) my synopsis is the near-impossible task of summarizing 464 pages into one. I’m a naturally verbose person. In my everyday life, I make a concerted effort to curb this flaw. So when my husband asks, “Babe, did you buy milk?” I try to simply breathe deeply and say, “Yes.” And not, “Yes, at least I think I did. Yeah, yeah, I’ve already put it in the fridge! Oh, what am I saying? Silly me, I’ve just pulled it out. You see, I’m about to make pancakes. Do you want some pancakes? Or did you just want some milk in your tea?”

Also, trying to summarize my cinderblock-sized book feels like trying to sum up a twenty-year relationship. There are all those memories, all those emotions: how could I possibly leave any of them out? In my case, the matter is even more complicated by the fact that my book is about a relationship. And it’s not easy to boil down to one page a love story which feels as intricate and momentous as the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.

It doesn’t help that advice on how to write a good synopsis reads like a manual on how to set up your DVD player:

Step 1: Start with a “hook”, on the Set-up Menu. Without a hook, this device will not run.

Step 2: Introduce your characters, programming them with their correct motivations, conflicts and goals. For help at any time, press the Help Menu button. (Warning: characters without motivations, conflicts and goals may not appear on your screen.)

Step 3: Proceed to the Chapters Menu. Select body paragraphs to highlight the main points of the story in chronological order. Exceeding the five-selection limit may cause mild electrocution. Press OK.

Step 4: Return to the Chapters Menu. While holding the forward button down with one hand, use the other to arrange each chapter into the desired Action-Reaction-Decision sequence.
 
For example: ACTION – Tears streaming, the protagonist flushes her beloved goldfish down the toilet. REACTION – Miraculously, the fish swims against the current. DECISION – She makes the heartbreaking decision to reflush.

Failure to follow the Action-Reaction-Decision sequence may result in implosion of the device. When you are done, press OK. Then press 9 (just because).

Step 5: With the big toe of your right foot, press the End button to select your desired crisis and resolution of the story. (Note: endings without a gratifying resolution/reward may invalidate the entire plot.) (Warning: Do not under any circumstances press the Help Menu button during this process; doing so may delete all previous selections.)

Step 6: Return to the Set-up menu, press Cancel, then Reset. Start again from Step 1.

If only it were that easy! I have been through this painful process seven, ten, thirteen times and I have yet to find the Help Menu. Plus, I’m not completely satisfied with my synopsis. It’s still too long, though only by half a page. It’s a bit convoluted. And I feel battered and bruised from writing it. But at least I have a synopsis, one that I’m not too terribly ashamed of anymore.

SPOILER ALERT: Only read the following synopsis if you have previously read my book, or if you have no intention of ever reading my book, or if (like me) you have such a poor memory that you will not remember – by the time my book is finally published – that I spoiled the ending for you.




Synopsis

Lost in the Spanish Quarter, a Neapolitan memoir
by Heddi Rebecca Goodrich

“A few years back I made the worst mistake of my life,” begins an email from Italy, the veiled apology I’d given up waiting for. Catapulted, for a moment my heart falters, before pulling me back down into the labyrinth known as the Spanish Quarter.

When it all started five years ago, I was a different person. Rebecca I’ll call that inquisitive and wholehearted girl from Washington, D.C., who rooms with her fellow linguistics students in the Quartieri Spagnoli, the darkest ghetto in Italy’s most enigmatic city. Her home since a high school exchange program, Naples fills Rebecca up: she desires nothing more than to wander fearless through that bustling maze, soaking up the patchwork of sounds and smells and glimpsing slivers of the volcano between ancient buildings. Until one night at a party, when a stranger named Elio hands her a mixed tape. The first is a love song.

There’s something about Elio, a geology major from an illiterate farming family, a brilliant and lonesome chain smoker with big dreams. Invited casually into her circle of friends, he appears awestruck by Rebecca’s freedom and travel experience. She is intrigued by his unusual beauty, his lack of pretension, his first clumsy kiss. Falling headlong in love, she moves into Elio’s ghetto apartment, and they make plans to travel the world and one day get married. Like an old lover, Naples begins to feel like a stepping-stone to greater things.

But first she has to meet Elio’s elderly mother, who makes even the chickens run behind the farmhouse in a panic. His mother disapproves. But Rebecca denies defeat, making every effort to win her over, even after she is barred from the family table at Christmas. Undeterred and in love, she and Elio plough on towards graduation, when they will be free to live their lives together as they wish.

“Dear Elio,” I begin typing, admitting I’ve only survived our breakup by exiling myself to the bottom of the earth, New Zealand. From the misery of the farm, Elio mourns our lost future and struggles to understand why he sacrificed me. I urge him to move on, as I believe I have.

A falling ceiling and a Camorra shooting in their street fuel Elio’s distaste for Naples. However, Rebecca’s love for her adoptive city isn’t truly shaken until uncivilized New Year’s festivities send washing machines flying from balconies. The first earth tremor instills further fear, while Elio’s geological insight helps her see Mt Vesuvius for what it really is: a timebomb. The lovers find solace in their future far from all that.

When they return to the farm for the annual slaughtering of the pig, Elio’s mother threatens to take away his inheritance – the land – if he doesn’t leave Rebecca. Caving under the pressure, he becomes depressed and reticent. Rebecca fears that behind his inability to stand up to his mother is the “geological impossibility” that he no longer loves her. Elio insists that without Rebecca he is nothing, just a leaf blown about in the wind.

All our emails back and forth have piqued my old hunger for Naples. My upcoming plans to travel to Italy are met with high spirits. I’m surprised how relieved I feel to hear that Elio is unable to forget me. Our emails turn to giddy text messages as I move my way down the boot towards Naples.

With mounting obligations on the farm, graduation doesn’t deliver the promised freedom. Their standstill becomes even more apparent as Rebecca’s friends one by one abandon the ghetto. Then Elio himself leaves for Rome to begin his compulsory civil service. There, they argue. Fervently denying that his mother is bribing him, Elio’s lung spontaneously collapses. A week in the hospital plunges him into deeper depression. Beset with fears of death and poverty, he runs for comfort to the family farm. Yet Rebecca still refuses to give up on him. Convinced he will snap out of his inertia and follow her to prove his love, Rebecca announces she is flying back to Washington. A devastated Elio vows to come as soon as he can get a passport.

Back in New Zealand, my first email to Elio is bursting with adolescent excitement over having seen my old friends, Naples…and him. Sensing too this might be our second chance, Elio books a ticket to Auckland. However, first he has to undergo minor surgery, a complication which plagues him once more with feelings of inadequacy and doom.

On her last night, roaming through the heart of the Spanish Quarter, Rebecca loses her bearings. Trapped between towering walls, she comes face to face with a vicious-looking dog. However, finding her way past the beast unharmed, she realizes then that the strength to make it on her own – stripped of both the city and Elio – had always been within her.

In his last email, Elio confesses that he can’t tear himself away from the land of his ancestors. I can see now that this is a repetition of the mistake he made years earlier. He hasn’t changed at all, but I have. By exploring the past, I have faced my fears. And a more visceral sense of belonging has grown within me: Naples is forever a part of who I am.

I don’t write back to Elio until a few years later, to tell him about my recent wedding and the book I’ve written about our story. Honored that I wish to include his emails, he can’t wait to read the book, adding he is still unable to overcome “that period, those people, you…" 

Friday, January 14, 2011

The magic plum

When the plum fell from our tree on the first of the year, I knew it was a good omen. Not because it was the first plum of the new year. Not because it was juicy and ripe and fell deliciously at my feet. Nothing of the kind. In fact, the plum was unappetizingly green and as hard as a golf ball and could have quite easily knocked me unconscious.

How could that possibly be a good omen, you ask? Because, my dear friend, our plum tree does not bear fruit. Apparently, there are male plum trees and female plum trees and somehow (though I can’t quite imagine it) the two have to mate in order for any little plums to be conceived. Our plum tree (or “tree-ess”, I’m not sure which) has always been unequivocally barren. Lots of grandiose branches and flashy leaves but, at the end of the day, not a single fruit in the six years we’ve lived in this house.

I think you’ll agree with me when I say that this little miracle plum which – excuse the pun – plummeted at my feet on January 1st is a clear sign that my manuscript will find a publisher this year. And if this connection is not blatantly obvious to you now, it will be very shortly.

Rewind for a moment to December last year. (It was so very long ago, I’m not sure you’ll remember.) December 2010 is when I came the closest I’ll probably ever get to having connections in the publishing business – my Italian playgroup friend’s daughter who works at the Auckland branch of Allen & Unwin, publishers of bestselling authors like Margaret Atwood. I was quietly handed a handwritten note with the details of who to contact, which I immediately memorized before proceeding to eat the note whole, lest it fall into the wrong hands. I do realize that this meager association is not in itself a portent of great things to come in the year 2011. In fact, I was determined to submit a few chapters to Mr. Allen and Mr. Unwin before the end of the year. But then a much more urgent flea infestation in our house put the submission on hold. At the time the critters seemed like a time-wasting distraction. But now I look back and see that the fleas were actually trying to help me. It’s as if they were trying to say, in their squeaky little voices, “Don’t submit in 2010! Wait till 2011!

But even after the plum dropped, I still didn’t immediately contact the publisher. We were celebrating the new year as a family and it didn’t feel like the right time to be doing work. But when would be the right day to approach the publisher otherwise known as the marvellous Alien Onion? It was essential that I choose the right day to use my one golden egg. Because I’m sure you’ll all agree with me here that most rejections occur because a writer has queried an agent or publisher on the wrong day.

Then one morning this week my toddler woke me from a deep dream, at which I began a version of the morning inner dialogue I usually have with myself:

“Ugh, what time is it?” 6:02 a.m.

“What day is today anyway?” Tuesday.

“What month are we in again?” January.

“What season is it?” Summer.

(If you think I sound profoundly blonde here, try moving in midlife to the other hemisphere and you’ll see exactly what I mean.) But it took me turning on the computer to discover that the exact date was January 11, 2011. “Now that’s a good date,” I thought to myself, “11-1-11.” Like beautiful Roman numerals, those twiggy little '1's were calling out at me, “Today is the day to query Alien Onion!

However, scepticism crept in after dropping my toddler off at the babysitter’s, as I wandered semi-comatose through the aisles of the garden center searching for a bag of diatomaceous earth that I hoped would suffocate all the living fleas and their descendants. Was I even ready to query today, with my synopsis in the state it was in? Shouldn’t I spend a bit more time preparing? It wasn’t until the drive back home that my initial gut instinct was confirmed. Everywhere I looked, cars bore a 33 – my lucky number – in their license plates. That couldn’t have been a mere coincidence. Today had to be the day.

I hurriedly put together my email query, synopsis and the first two chapters of my memoir. As always, pressing the ‘send’ button was agonizingly painful. What if I’d misspelled 'synopsis'? Had I actually typed 'Alien Onion' by mistake? The angst was so terrible, the hope so acute, that I wanted to fall to the ground and pray.

But I’m not religious so instead I got up to make myself a cup of coffee. Oddly, on the kitchen table was a new pair of gardening gloves, still in their packaging. I couldn’t remember having bought them at the garden center. In fact, the receipt showed I hadn’t paid for any gloves. I panicked. Had I shoplifted them accidentally? Or had I mistakenly grabbed the previous customer’s purchase that she’d left on the counter? It wasn’t until I’d put them in my bag to return them to the store that I finally understood. The gloves were a sign that I did in fact need to put my hands together and pray.

So I dropped to my knees – it seemed the respectful thing to do – facing the garden and the plum tree. Even the fleas stopped to observe a minute of silence.

“Please,” I said, clasping my hands together, “I know I really shouldn’t be asking this. I mean, I already have running water and everything. And my son is so very good-looking I can hardly ask for more. But they say you have to ask the universe for what you want. So please, please, may Allen and Unwin please give my submission due consideration and not just throw it away. Please let this publisher be the right one. No, scratch that! Please let me find the right publisher this year for my manuscript. I don’t need to make money, it’s not about that. I just want to share my story with others. I don’t want to change the world, I just want to make other people feel something they haven’t felt before, that’s all. In hardcover. Please. Thank you.”

Later, when I went to the kitchen windowsill, I noticed that the plum, that stunted green golf-ball, had actually started to ripen. Now there was no further doubt in my mind that this was the auspicious beginning to a year of publishing success. The day in which I got an edible magic plum and a free pair of garden gloves. And if these aren’t good omens, I don’t know what are.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Words I wish we had in English

I love English, don’t you? Apart from being so gorgeously malleable, it also claims the richest vocabulary of all the world’s languages. However, there are a few tiny but rather painful gaps in the English language, which – in our humbly multilingual household – my husband and I choose to plaster up with a few borrowed words.

dimmi –Italian for, literally, “tell me”, but used more broadly to mean something like “I’m listening”, “I’m all ears” or “You have my attention, my dear, reveal to me your heart’s innermost desires.” After your daughter bowls into your study calling out, “Mom! Guess what?” you swivel away from the computer, look her lovingly in the eye and say, “Dimmi.” I’ve never found anything that even remotely resembles this delicate expression of love and attentiveness. Somehow “What?” doesn’t quite measure up.

fussel – German for an indeterminate bit of fluff hanging on one’s person (one’s clothes, hair or navel) and requiring immediately removal. A more comprehensive term than “fluff” itself, fussel can be, for example, a loose thread, a cat hair or even something organic like a burr. (And unlike fluff, fussel ceases to be such the very moment it is identified for what it really is.) The expression also differs from the Yiddish “schmutz” in that fussel is not inherently dirty; however, like with an unsightly schmutz, there is no peace for anyone in the room until it is safely removed and disposed of. Anthropologists speculate that fussel may have a significant social impact on human cultures: pointing out a person’s unnoticed fussel (“Ma’am, there’s a little something on your sleeve there…”) reinforces our sense of community and shared values.

mollica – Italian for the inner part of the bread. Italian tables become littered with cotton-wool-like mollica as the preferred hard crusts get consumed throughout the meal. Sometimes during the conversation, these gummy wads will end up rolled and moulded into little magic wands or perfect miniature globes. Needless to say, afterwards these off-white works of art are only good for feeding to the pigeons or soaking up the excess olive oil from your lips with a ladylike pat (works better than extra-absorbent paper towels). However, I can see why the word mollica may be a superfluous term for those of us who live in the Crustless Commonwealth of White Wonderbread, where bread is mollica.

scarpetta – Italian for the bread you use to clean your plate of its remaining sauce or juices. (Needless to say, the only part of the bread used for the scarpetta is the crust: eating the mollica as well would be far too fattening.) Performing the scarpetta is a compliment to Zia Mena that you loved her bolognese sauce too much to let a single drop go to waste. Not doing so is either a chilly insult or a clear sign that you are suffering from anorexia and will therefore need a double serving of sausages for your secondo.

whanau – Maori for extended family (note: the ‘wh’ is pronounced like an ‘f’). Don’t you feel that there’s something profoundly inadequate about starting a group email with “Dear family and friends”? Putting “family” first demeans some of our deepest and most fulfilling friendships. Furthermore, the word “friend” itself is used far too loosely these days, so that even the mechanic who cuts you a good deal on tires is “a friend of mine”. Whanau puts the dignity back in friendship by not distinguishing between family and close friends at all. In conversation with non-New Zealanders, however, I avoid using the term whanau for fear of being misunderstood. (“I thought you guys were best friends. What do you mean she’s your friend for now?”) Instead I revert to my pre-NZ term “my people”, despite the risk of being mistaken for a homeless Kurd.

earworm – the literal English translation of the German Ohrwurm, a piece of a song that gets stuck in your head and tortuously replays itself like a broken record. Studies have shown that people who suffer most from earworms are those prone to nervous tics and obsessive thoughts. Hence, earworms are so very very rare for me. If at the moment I’m singing the Oompa-Loompa song from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, it’s only because I really really like it. Oompa, Loompa, doom-pa-dee-da / If you’re not greedy, you will go far / You will live in happiness too / Like the Oompa Loompa doom-pa-dee do.

scugnizzo – Neapolitan for dirty, smart street kid, Napoli-style. This term may be used affectionately to describe your own kid on the days when he makes a getaway from you on your local beach only to strut back towards you a panicked minute later, prancing butt naked down a sidewalk lined with picnicking families, sporting a pigeon feather in his hair and a brushstroke of chocolate ice cream across his cheek. On closer inspection, you can see he has black (dog?) fur in one fist and a beer bottle cap in the other; his belly has three new mosquito bites and both knees are freshly grated. You look down at his blackened feet and scold him with relief, “You scugnizzo you!” Then, with a beguiling smile, he proceeds to pee on your foot. I assure you this has never happened to me.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

True or finto?

Here’s a good one.

Mamma Rita tells me that, towards the end of World War II, the people of her pasta-producing hometown of Gragnano saw a parade of American soldiers marching up the main street. Relieved, they cheered the men on from their balconies, which were draped with spaghetti like drying laundry. Then they realized they were the Germans.

That’s so good it should be in a book, don’t you think? Apparently it’s all true, down to the detail about the spaghetti over the railings, because that’s how the locals used to sun-dry their pastasciutta. And the world is positively overflowing with wonderful true stories like this – of misunderstandings, cataclysms, strokes of luck, inventions, love, deceit – infinitely more than there are sheets of paper to write them down on. Or gigabytes of cerebral memory to store them on. (In my case, I may be down to a mere nine or ten kilobytes.)

So why, with the staggering amount of stories available from all sorts of exotic settings, do writers need to write fiction at all? I won’t attempt to answer this many-tentacled giant-octopus of a question. But I will say that it’s a mystery to me how people write fiction in the first place. Think of all the plot intricacies and the weaving of themes, as well as the historical and scientific background research! Not to mention the development of the characters, which may require you to spend an entire day roleplaying your invented protagonist, saying the things they would say and even eating a restaurant meal that they might order.

I mean, where do these people find the energy? I have trouble rustling up the energy to get through my own day, let alone that of a fictitious character. (And that’s after two B-vitamin supplements and a double dose of caffeine.) But more importantly, why? Why go to all that trouble to shape a story and characters when you could just go to Texas to visit your Gramma Essie? All day long, in the screened-in porch over a glass of iced tea, she will tell you about her poor childhood in a one-room shack in Kansas and her doomed marriage to a grumpy ex-cowboy-turned-mailman, whose idea of physical affection was sticking the wet end of his cigar in your ear. What more do you need in a story? And you don’t even have to try to put yourself in your grandmother’s shoes in order to understand her character because, at the end of the day, you’ll be eating exactly what she’s eating for dinner: chicken-fried steak and limp green beans from a can, scientifically proven since the 1950s to be healthier than the fresh variety.

Beat that, fiction! Don’t get me wrong: novels have moved me deeply throughout my entire life. And I know it’s not about what you say, but how you say it. Yet still I can’t fight the nagging feeling that true stories, by their mere virtue of being real, are inherently superior to fictional stories. True stories actually happened to real people in the real world: how much more realistic can you get? How much more interesting can you get?

But people continue to write fiction. In every other aspect of life, if you make up stories and make them sound real, they call you a liar. And I don’t like to lie. I’m a terrible liar, predictably shifting my feet and evading eye contact even in the very kindest of white lies (“No, your new haircut brings out your eyes!”).

I didn’t think my two-year-old was worldly enough to lie until the toilet-training incident last week where he blamed the “big cacca” in his sandbox on a large red dog. Since then I feel the responsibility to pass on to my offspring the moral difference between what is true and what is not true. Besides, his handle on reality is tenuous enough as it is – isn’t it my job to show him the most basic realities of our world? Rain is wet. Monkeys eat bananas. Running naked down a concrete path may lead to more than a skinned knee.

I don’t want my son to think – as some of his children’s books might suggest – that ducks in real life wear gumboots or that an oven may eat the pizza you’ve just put inside it, if it gets too hungry. I don’t want him to think that mail trucks, miniature or otherwise, actually deliver raisins. I constantly find myself saying to him, “Not in real life,” “It’s just a game,” or even “It’s fake.” (“È finto.”) And if Italian had its own word for it – because I speak to my son only in Italian – I might even say, “It’s fiction.” Close enough: fiction and finto share the same Latin root (fingere – to shape, form, feign).

My son has enthusiastically embraced this habit of qualifying reality. Sometimes after jumping on my belly howling like an orangutan, he’ll look at me rather indulgently and explain (in Italian), “This – game,” or even “This – good game.” Once at the aquarium we passed by a display case of fake coral and algae. “Finto,” he pronounced.

Over Christmas, all this put me in a bind over Santa Claus. It wasn’t so hard when the greeting card arrived bearing a photo of his twin cousins sitting on Santa’s knee in the mall. “That’s not really Santa,” I said. “That’s a man dressed as Santa, with a really good fake beard – oh no, hold on, the beard is real!” But then when all he wanted to do was reread Twas the Night Before Christmas ten, eleven, twelve times, I began to fret. Should I tell him that reindeer can’t really pull a sleigh through the sky? That once you go down a chimney, it’s not that easy to get back up it again and to please not try this at home? That it’s not possible to visit all the world’s children in one night, especially those who live in chimney-free, snow-free indigent rural areas of Indonesia? I didn’t want to lie, but I didn’t want to spoil the magic either. Luckily, he didn’t ask.

Next Christmas, however, if my son asks whether Santa Claus is true or finto, I’ll be more prepared. “Honey,” I’ll say, “Santa Claus was in fact a real person, Nicholas of Myra, who lived in 4th-century Greece. He was such a generous man, leaving out surprise gifts for people: you know, like the way you leave little bread crusts in my shoes in the morning? And do you know why we hang a stocking from the fireplace? Well, that’s because once Saint Nicholas gave dowries to three poor sisters by secretly stuffing gold coins in the stockings they’d left out overnight to dry by the fire. Though some people say he threw a bag of gold through the chimney of their house – but I don’t know, that seems a bit unlikely if he could have just as easily thrown it through an open window. Anyway, because of Saint Nicholas, the girls didn’t have to become prostitutes. Gee, wasn’t that nice of him? If you want, the next time we travel to Italy I’ll take you to Bari to see his remains. You know, his skull and the rest of his bones. Would you like that, honey? Would you like to see the real Santa Claus?”