BackStory: Five Questions with Salena Casha
Author of This is not a story about my grandfather
What inspired you to write ‘This is not a story about my grandfather’?
I grew up hearing a piece of family lore related to my grandparents’ immigration to the US from Italy in the 1950s. It almost sounds absurd writing it now but, every time my grandfather talked about his last minute decision to abandon his trip to America that likely “saved his life but not his luggage” I thought it was like any other story I’d heard from them before: word-of-mouth and unverifiable like the tales my dad had of growing up next to the mob in Brooklyn and my mother had about dancing in a club when the Son of Sam killed someone outside in their car. As a kid, I thought about my grandparents’ move like it was a fairytale and never fact checked it or typed the following words into google: ship from Italy on the way to America sinks 1950s. And I didn’t look into it until a course I took this past summer with UCLA extension prompted us to write about something related to our family that was grounded in history. I cracked my knuckles, accepted the risk of finding out it had all been made up – my grandfather had a propensity to exaggerate – and punched a few words into the search engine. When I found that the whole incident had a wikipedia article, I was floored. There was even video footage of the news at the time on youtube complete with a trans-atlantic-accented reporter and black and white reals of the ship sinking below the waves.
It was real and I set down to tell a story that answered the question of what happened to my grandfather’s luggage when he left it that day. Off we went.
How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
I read a lot about the name of the boat and where it came from: the history of a 16th century Genoese admiral who served King Francis I of France and even fought alongside Pope Paul the III and the Maltese Knights in the holy wars. I researched about how the actual boat was constructed; it was an impressive luxury liner at the time with three swimming pools, steam turbines, and twin screws as well as multiple dining facilities and often described as “neither the largest nor the fastest but the most luxurious”. The boat itself, headed by a man named Captain Calamai, was a product of Italy’s faltering post-world war II economy. It was that economy in question that led many people, my grandparents included, to seek opportunities elsewhere and leave the ports of Naples and Gibraltar for better lives.
I read accounts from the news about the forty-six people who died, a combination of lives lost on impact, during the rescue, and in the actual sinking. I learned about the ships that came to rescue them and, in one particular case, the difficult decision a French liner captain had to make about joining the rescue at the cost of bankrupting the company he worked for. One thing I also found of interest were the consistent comparisons to the sinking of the Titanic. Even though far fewer lives were lost and many more survived as it hadn’t hit the Stockholm until they were just miles off Nantucket, it was fascinating, if a little dark, to read through the many factors that made the people on the Andrea Doria much easier to save due to proximity to land and how the impact actually happened as well as engineering improvements that enabled to ship to keep afloat as long as it did.
During this whole research process, there was nothing that disturbed me more than watching footage of the ocean slowly swallow the 29,000 ton maritime giant, and how, after it slipped beneath the surface, the water returned to stillness.
What is your favourite part of the writing process? Your least favourite?
When I start working on a new story, I find the first line and even paragraph are the words that come most naturally to me. I love reading about everything that grounds the story in the real world, in history and what I can steal from our pasts and the pasts of others to make it believable in my readers’ minds. I find beginnings and hooks to get the reader in come more easily to me than other aspects of the work (especially endings). The least favorite part for me is getting up the courage to sit down to write a full first draft because I tend to self-edit as I go which slows down the process. What helps with this for me is finding a great location and atmosphere to work on the piece (usually a brewery near my place in Cambridge that serves up coffee and kombucha as well as some epic IPAs alongside a solid rock playlist) and writing by hand to try and prevent spending twenty minutes on a single sentence in my first pass as much as possible.
What do you like most about writing flash?
I like how discerning you have to be with the words you choose to put in the piece, especially if you’re given a tight word requirement. I enjoy the challenge of trying to work within constraints of three-hundred or even one-hundred words and working through the mechanics of spinning sentences in so many different constructions and formats to convey a singular meaning. Flash really forces you to ask the question: do I really need this at the expense of not including this other really compelling element? What moves the story forward? What do I want the reader to be left with? I feel like the best flashes pack a punch in the last line and leave the readers wanting to do a quick read back through to see what they missed or to relive the feeling of wow, that ending didn’t come out of nowhere but I still felt it.
What do you think is the most challenging and/or rewarding aspect of writing historical flash?
You often need to make a decision of how loyal you’ll be to the history itself: what pieces you’ll steal directly from the past and what elements you’ll add that can still fit in directly with the work and time. You have to be heavily fact-based while allowing room for expression and experimentation. The most important part is earning your readers’ trust in your work’s authenticity. Once you establish what parts to include about the story that fits it into the historical context, you can answer the dramatic question you started with that moves the plot through its dramatic finish. Oftentimes, historical flash isn’t about retelling what we all know occurred. It’s bringing to life the humanity and every day decisions people had to make within the context of an event we all remember as bigger than ourselves. And that’s the real challenge, like it is in any piece of writing.
I think you can also argue that almost all flash is historical because if you’re not telling the reader where and how the story is set (within current day which then becomes history) or in the past, you’re not doing your job as a writer because you’re leaving out how the entire environment we live, the time we live in, subconsciously impacts the lives of our characters in a multitude of ways.
Salena Casha’s work has appeared in over 50 publications in the last decade. Her most recent work can be found on Levitate Magazine, Cerasus Magazine, Funny Pearls, and trampset. She survives New England winters on good beer and black coffee. Follow her on twitter @salaylay_c.