Personal Becomes Universal Through Research

Guest Post by Novelist Donna D. Vitucci

Book cover

Donna Vitucci’s new novel, Salt of Patriots, published on Earth Day 2017.

The answer to my question, How long does it take to write a book? is fifteen for the novelist Donna Vitucci, who has just published Salt of Patriots after fifteen years of research, writing and revision. In this guest post, Vitucci describes what motivated her – and kept her going.

Origin of Salt

At my mother’s wake in the summer of 1999, the reminiscences we’d heard through the years got dragged out and enlivened by re-telling. The time all Uncle Bobby’s hair fell out when he was working at Fernald. The spills and inherent danger of any other kind of factory, but Fernald was processing uranium. A different kind of plant, in the early atomic days, in the 1950s.

Fernald closed after dust collectors failed in the 1980s and leaks into the Miami Aquifer hit the press. A class action lawsuit helped shutter the plant and place it on the Superfund Cleanup List. A Public Information Center was established as an aspect of remediation activities—eureka! I’d write my family Fernald stories infused with true and accessible information.

Research

To write it, I needed to understand it, and I’m no scientist. I dashed daily to the Information Center, reading and trying to understand what Fernald workers did. What were their jobs? What might Uncle Bob have done once he clocked in for 2nd shift? What made his hair fall out?

I read The Atomizers, the Fernald company newsletter. I studied processes the Fernald scientists developed, and the chemistry and metallurgy that had men in various buildings turn out uranium ingots or rods. I sought the secrets and security, the rumors in the community, how everybody had a relative or friend who worked there, or lost their acreage, or got sick or died. Newspaper articles on microfiche announced the building of the “new plant” and how it was going to bring hundreds of jobs—which it did. The nuclear industry was in its infancy. They were playing with dice and hoping for the best in beating the Russians.

Interviews

Uncle Bobby was my eyewitness, my conduit to the past, to the plant, to the human aspect. At the time, I’d envisioned the book completed and published to celebrate Fernald’s 50th anniversary—2001. I really had no idea.

I questioned Uncle Bob: “What about losing your hair?”

“That was nothing.” Same closed-mouth attitude from interviewees and others beholden to their government, their employer, and their own promises.

“Loose lips sink ships”—caution right there in The Atomizer. I don’t believe the workers were afraid. I believe they were patriotic. I believe they believed the government wouldn’t ask them to enter a dangerous work situation. And as long as a man was working he was doing the right best thing–echoing Uncle Bob and dozens of Fernald employees in their interview transcripts.

Striving for Authenticity

What did Uncle Bob do at Fernald, what it was like, what were his buddies like, did they understand the danger, and did they care? I took notes; I had a binder of industry and government papers I’d copied. I studied these like I’d be tested. Above all, I wanted to write with authenticity, and I knew it would be so hard. Till then, I’d only written stories that emerged from inside me. This story would have to be, on many counts, outside of me. I would immerse myself in research until I was busting with the Fernaldia I ingested.

Writing, Revisitng, Revising

A year and half later, nowhere near finished mourning my mother, and now her brother, Uncle Bob, was dying. Feed Materials, as I called the book, was where I poured this loss, revisiting my loved ones, revising them, and being among them, seeing them so clearly in memory and then freshly relevant in the stories where I cast them. No wonder it took me 15 years to complete. Writing this book kept them alive, and I didn’t want to lose them twice.

Donna VitucciDonna D. Vitucci is a life-long writer, and was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize in 2010. Her second novel, SALT OF PATRIOTS, shines light on the nuclear industry’s early days at the Feed Materials Production Center (FMPC) by focusing on ground level workers in this rural Ohio uranium processing plant. Characters and events are inspired by her uncles, who worked at the FMPC, and imagined from hundreds of true interviews conducted as part of lawsuit remediation activities in the 1990’s. Donna lives, works, and shares the best of urban living with her partner in the Historic Licking Riverside District of Covington, Kentucky.

Deborah Lee Luskin has been a regular contributor to Live to Write – Write to Live since 2011. She blogs weekly about Living in Place, Lessons from the Long Trail, Middle Age, and Vermonters By Choice at www.deborahleeluskin.com. Hope to see you there!

“Only One Thing To Do” – Guest Post by novelist Donna D. Vitucci

Only One Thing To Do

Donna D. Vitucci, a widely published short story writer whose first novel, At Bobby Trivette's Grave was published in June.

Donna D. Vitucci, author.

Hemingway wrote to Fitzgerald, his friend and competitor: “You just have to go on when it is worst and most helpless—there is only one thing to do with a novel and that is to go straight on through to the end of the damned thing.”

The size and breadth of a book overwhelms me –the writing of it. Writing the novel’s like taking medicine, in doses. I think of each chapter as a short story or a scene: one dose, just manage one swallow. Complete this, make this one piece entire and the best it can be and don’t fret over, don’t even think about what comes after. Self-trickery is the way I keep ahead of self-doubt. I certainly do not know the ending, and most times not even the why of the story. I look at the world, note circumstance and instances, I attribute reason where none exists.

Vitucci finds inspiration in the "the damp knuckled heart of all families" and childhood.

Vitucci finds inspiration in the “the damp knuckled heart of all families” and childhood.

I am disturbed by girls taken—Elizabeth Smart and others like her, here in my community a girl named Paige Johnson, who has never been found. The plaguing questions: why why, where are they, who would take them? I walk backwards to the trouble. It doesn’t need to be true, it’s not detective work, it’s less discovery and more burrowing into motive. I can’t see where I’m headed, till I arrive. Who could do such a thing, and how did they feel? Troubled, undoubtedly, and that trouble emerges via voice, voice of a character, a character in a situation, the more desperate and thornier the better.

Once I wrote a story called The Underneath. Touchpoint for the setting, the scene, the tension, the horror was the cellar of my childhood. Stuff under and behind, buried, covered up, secrets– the damp knuckled heart of all families. I regularly dig up my basement, excavate my childhood, assign motives to adults from my youth for the inexplicable things they did. I look and I can’t not see story.

Mommy sewed our baby doll pajamas, our school picture day outfits, our Easter dresses. She snapped thread with her teeth. She wielded pinking shears. Pinking shears. Does anyone else even know what they are?

This is the insular world of a character, a young girl, stewed in her family broth. She walked around with Catholicism for spine instead of backbone, with litanies of saints and church Latin as right and left hands. I thought everyone was Catholic. At school, at Brownies, on our street, the kids I played with and their families, we all attended Mass at the same church. What? You don’t know Mass, or Jesus Christ Our Savior? Can it be that others also don’t know the gut-trench of Lenten sacrifice or special intention Thursdays, or the Infant of Prague’s varied coat colors and the guilt-blessing of being chosen to change the clothes on that Jesus-boy-doll?

How to populate the world of the novel? Build from the inside out, from imagination and experience, history and supposing, initiating in that voice of that character, that one child, that one stolen girl. Hemingway called it the great “what if.” Follow the undoing, find that dropped spool, the bobbin losing its thread. There you have it. Story could, literally, be under your feet.

I loved the language of this heartbreaker, and how it is so rooted in place.

I loved the language of this heartbreaker, and how it is so rooted in place. – DLL

 

Donna Vitucci is Development Director of Covington Ladies Home, the only free-standing personal care home exclusively for older adult women in Northern Kentucky. She is a life-long writer, and was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize in 2010. Her stories have appeared in dozens of print and online journals, including Kentucky Review, Gargoyle, Hinchas de Poesia, Forge Literary Journal, Prick of the Spindle, Southern Women’s Review, The Butter, and Change Seven. Her novel, AT BOBBY TRIVETTE’S GRAVE , a coming of age story set in Kentucky, was released in June 2016 by Rebel ePublishers.

Donna’s second novel, SALT OF PATRIOTS, will be published in 2017.

At the US-Canadian border on Day 25.

Deb’s still smiling after hiking 275 miles in 25 days from Massachusetts to Canada on Vermont’s Long Trail.

Currently, Deborah Lee Luskin posts Lessons From the Long Trail about her thru-hike from Massachusetts to Canada over the spine of the Green Mountains. Twenty-five days living outdoors, overcoming obstacles (aka mountains, rocks, mud, streams and sore feet), has changed her outlook on life and helped clarify her goals, most of which have to do with advancing issues through narrative; telling stories to create change.