Launch: Suzanne Hoffman’s Angel of Alta Langa

INTERVIEW BY ANNE EASTER SMITH

Suzanne’s Hoffman’s debut novel, Angel of Alta Langa is the saga of three women of Piemonte, Italy—Cornelia, a wealthy widow who risks everything to bring meaning back into her life; Sara, a farm girl whose mission to serve humanity transforms her into a fearless battlefield nurse; and Doretta, a city girl, the daughter of a prominent Jewish banker. In ordinary times, their lives would not have crossed, but this is Italy under Mussolini’s maniacal vision. The women join the resistance and their lives and fates are intertwined forever.

After publishing your Labor of Love non-fiction book about the wine families of the Piemonte, why did you make the leap to a novel set in Mussolini’s Italy?  

Very simple. When I was learning all those stories from 2003 onwards of the wine families, there were so many gems in their stories. I was particularly drawn to the grandmother of one of my families, who was my inspiration for Cornelia Bottero.

You were a lawyer before you started writing. How did that lend itself to tackling a non-fiction and fiction book?

When my husband and I moved to Colorado from Zurich, where I was an in-house counsel, I wasn’t ready to go solo. In 2012, I pitched a column idea to the local paper to write behind the scenes stories of local restaurants, and they gave me carte blanche with a word budget. The irony was I hated writing in school! I started in premed and avoided the writing classes. The column got to be so popular, I told my husband I think I am ready to write that novel.

What was it about the period you chose (1930s and 1940s) that spoke to you?

I undertook research in Italy for my first (non-fiction) book  Labor of Love: Wine Families of Piemonte. The more I interviewed the families for Labor of Love, the more I found stories about their involvement in World War II, but most didn’t want to talk about it then. Angel of Alta Langa arose from what I had learned in researching and writing Labor of Love. When I later went back to research for Angel of Alta Langa, they were ready to talk about their experiences. A few of the women were inspirations for the book, but all my main characters are fictional. I was particularly interested in the Nazi occupation of Italy.

Angel of Alta Langa is a long book (the story is around 500 pages). Did you set out to write one that long? And did your editor make you cut any of it?

It was supposed to be a simple book with one protagonist to start with, but it grew and grew, and now I have enough for a prequel and two sequels—four in all! I self-published but I had three amazing women to help me along the way: a developmental editor, a copy editor and a proof-reader. The first draft was too long, but my copy editor, who really loved the characters and plot, did some surgical amputation, which was so painful at first—it felt like surgery without anesthesia. I had that problem about writing between non-fiction and fiction and she helped with keeping up the pace, because I tended to want to include so much more history.

Most of today’s historical fiction uses close personal or first-person, but you were not afraid to jump around with multiple points of view.

(Laughs) I went with my gut. Not being a creative-writing student, I didn’t feel constrained. Every one of my characters had something to offer. I just hope I was consistent! It did take me a couple of chapters to get into the rhythm. Oh, and Doretta (one of the three main female characters) wasn’t even in my outline—she came out of the blue!

Who was your most challenging character?

Baldo, my villain, was the most difficult. Not the least of this challenge was because I have never thought or felt anything that he did or said. I had never written dialogue until this book, and when I had to write the anti-Semitic dialogue by him in Chapter 7, I had to tone him down a bit. He wasn’t born anti-Semitic; he was a product of the time and his surroundings. My husband is Israeli American. I wanted him and my step-children to understand that I wasn’t anti-Semitic—it was my character talking. From an emotional, personal standpoint it was hard to write those things. I didn’t want him to be a villain from central casting, and my copy editor had a very good eye in the continuity of his character. We wanted to make sure he was carefully developed and that he wasn’t one-dimensional.

Although you have visited Piemonte many times, how did you do your specific research into pre-World War II and the Occupation?

There is very little information about the Piemontese during the Occupation. The interlibrary system was down in Vail when I started researching, so thanks to Amazon—I bought so many books—the internet, JSTOR, and the Jewish Virtual Library, I was able to draw information from all over the world. My favorite resources were Beppe Fenoglio’s Johnny the Partisan and Caroline Moorehead’s A House in the Mountains: The Women Who Liberated Italy from Fascism. Benovolence and Betrayal by Alexander Stille was also an important resource.

Have you been back to visit some of the places where you placed your characters?

I have been hundreds of times to Asili, but never as the creator of a family living there. Going back afterwards was very emotional for me—especially in the capella (chapel). I am so lucky to be able to stay with one of the wine families when I go—the Grasso family of Barbaresco.

What is the last great book you read?

Code Name Helene by Ariel Lawhon, the story of the New Zealand World War II resistance worker, Nancy Wake, in France. When I read the book, I discovered Doretta was so much like Nancy Wake, but without the potty mouth.

 

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