May 11, 2023
By Robin Lippincott
It is always cause for celebration when an alum of the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing’s MFA Program publishes a book, but I feel especially excited about the publication of Rosanna Staffa’s first novel, The War Ends at Four, by Regal House Publishing on May 10. The reason for my enthusiasm is not only because Rosanna was a mentee of mine (twice, in her second and third semesters), and after that, we became good friends, but also because of how much I love and admire this novel.
During those semesters together, Rosanna and I worked on what would eventually become The War Ends at Four, although what I saw then and what the novel became are two very different things: I believe that in the process of writing The War Ends at Four (which had been called Made in Italy), Rosanna Staffa found her voice.
After Rosanna’s novel was accepted for publication, she asked me to write a blurb. I was honored:
“There is a burnished glow to Rosanna Staffa’s gorgeous first novel, The War Ends at Four, which has the singularity of a fingerprint: no one else could have written it. But like Elizabeth Hardwick in her great novel Sleepless Nights (first published in 1979), Staffa’s writing has the luminous quality of a sensibility forged by time and experience, thought and feeling. Her prose is so packed with insight, delight, and—dare I say it?—wisdom, her metaphors, syntax, and word choices are so right, that one almost holds one’s breath as one reads, waiting for a wrong move. Exhale, reader; it never happens. This is a bravura performance.”
Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Rosanna a few questions, keeping our MFA students in mind as audience:
RL: Because I know you, I also know that The War Ends at Four is somewhat autobiographical. Could you talk about some of the challenges and/or rewards you experienced writing an autobiographical novel?
RS: Diane Arbus said that starting something new is like going on a blind date and I think this is particularly true for a narrative close to autobiography: there is excitement with a spike of dread. This was an important story for me to tell, which made me feel equally vulnerable and daring. Real life is messy. Everything comes alive, and uninvited visitors abound. Some are quirky and tender, some are fierce. I formed new shapes with characters and events when they needed a different setting, action, or personal traits to be effective, but emotions do not dim in their intensity or comply with adaptations. The writing process was demanding, as I wanted my readers to feel with me, with no filters.
Fiction often feels to me like being both the playwright and the actor onstage. It allows wearing a disguise, even if it’s an obvious one. The mask invites daring, and it’s liberating. But I think that both fiction and nonfiction demand an absolute emotional truth. The reader knows when the writer keeps a cautious distance from the necessary risk.
RL: These two questions may involve one answer—or not: I read earlier iterations of the novel and was astonished by the transformed and transcendent work you eventually arrived at. Could you talk about earlier drafts, and how you were able to make the great leap from what the novel was to what it is? I mentioned earlier that I believed you’d found your voice in the process of writing The War Ends at Four. Were you aware of this (as Virginia Woolf was, for example), and if so, can you describe something of that experience?
RS: The first drafts were messy and overwritten. I knew I was figuring out the characters, plot, and intentions. The story was explaining itself to me, digressing and fumbling. I occasionally heeded the temptation to rush to conclusions. I felt it was a necessary stage, but I grew restless and discouraged. The later drafts, when I slowly felt safer in the narrative, required that I test what to leave out, so as to enhance the emotional effect rather than diminishing it with overstating. It was an exacting process. I had too many characters vying for attention and every moment wanted its place in the sun. I worked hard to try to achieve the mighty power of subtext. I did not want to tell the readers how to feel, but rather have them recognize themselves in the protagonist’s emotions.
RL: I love and admire your novel so much, Rosanna, and the fact that English is not your first language makes it all the more astonishing to me. I know you’ve written about this elsewhere, but perhaps here, for our MFA students, you could address this issue.
RS: I am honored by this response from you, Robin, as you are a most exceptional writer and mentor. I think that all writers face the difficulty of having to translate what they think and feel into a written form that reflects it, but English and Italian have different rhythms and sensibility. I agree with Fellini that a different language is a different vision of life. In fact, I believe that I would have written a very different novel in Italian. It’s a ghost I indulge in imagining sometimes. Occasionally I feel too constrained while writing in a second language, like a piano player who has to use a flute, but there is an intense, chiseled beauty to English that I want to capture, and I like that the language I use daily retains an elusive quality. My mother’s voice never echoes in any English word. There is no emotional ambush to it. I always was and still am an avid reader, which is of great help. It is marvelous to be able to read my favorite writers in English, and know the exact words they thought, with their specific sounds and flavor. This pleasure kept alive a rush of interest even when I could not grasp in full a concept in English, and made me determined.
RL: As you know, I’m obsessed with titles and have frequently lectured on the topic, and the reason I’m obsessed is because I believe titles are extremely important. The War Ends at Four is a wonderful, intriguing title, and so much better than the more pedestrian Made in Italy. Could you talk about the two titles, perhaps others you might have considered, and also how you arrived at the novel’s ultimate title?
RS: I have been tormented by finding the precise title for this novel that would embody the narrative. I kept trying to sum up the story, which tells me I should have revisited the notes I took during your fabulous lecture. I have considered for way too long the title America Minore (lesser America) when I felt—or better, decided out of exasperation—that the novel was about where the protagonist chooses to live. One evening I revised a moment about the siblings playing war and I realized it was central. The writing became raw, crazy, and precise. It had a different color and sound. That’s when the final title asserted itself.
Robin Lippincott has been teaching in the Spalding MFA program since 2001. He is the author of Blue Territory: A Meditation on the Life and Art of Joan Mitchell and five other books. He recently moved to a country cottage outside Brattleboro, Vermont.