Interview with Sally DiPaula, Author of Once Upon a Time in Baltimore

What advice would you give a new writer, someone just starting out?

Well, the obvious answer, and one I have heard the most, is to read a lot of books in the area in which you are writing. That makes a lot of sense, but I have to confess that I didn’t follow it with my YA mystery series. The only YA I have read in the last few years are crossover books, that is, books written for a YA audience but which appealed to adults so much that they made best seller lists in the Adult Fiction category. Examples are “The Life of Pi’” and “The Book Thief.”

But the main pieces of advice I would give is to take classes either on line or in person. I am lucky enough to have a writers center nearby that offers all types of courses for writers, and I have taken advantage of it, attending seminars in character development, writing dialogue, revising your novel and many others. To this I would add joining a writers group.

What is the most difficult part about writing for you?

The first draft. Many people find the revision process the hardest part of writing but for me, that part is easy if time-consuming once I have a first draft.

How do you do research for your books?

Reading and interviewing mainly but whatever is necessary. A case in point is “Once Upon a Time in Baltimore.” For that novel I visited the medical library of the National Institutes of Health, where I found a very helpful librarian; interviewed a friend who owns a Ford Model A; stood quietly in a corner of a restaurant kitchen watching the staff cope with lunch-time orders; and visited a typical Baltimore row house to better describe the home of one of the main characters. My YA murder mystery takes place on an Italian cargo ship in the early 1960s. For that, I toured several ships and interviewed a retired captain of an American freighter of that era.

How many books have you written? Which is your favorite?

Two and a half. One is already published and one is almost ready to be submitted. The half is the sequel to “Once Upon a Time in Baltimore.” I have about 50,000 words of the first draft written but there is a lot more to do before I get to the revision stage. I think I will wait until I have written more books before I pick a favorite.

What was the inspiration for the story?

For “Once Upon a Time in Baltimore,” it was something that happened that my mother told me about when she and my father were dating. He was Italian-American and she was Irish-American, which in the 20s and 30s was almost considered a mixed marriage. They had had an argument and, to make up, my father had brought her an Easter egg on Easter morning. However, her mother wouldn’t let my mother eat it because my grandmother thought it might be poisoned. According to my grandfather, that was something an Italian would be likely to do if he was angry. That incident gave me the whole idea of writing about a relationship between two people of what, back then, were very different cultures.

Tell us about the process for coming up with the cover.

That took a while but I enjoyed it. My first suggestion was to have a picture of a chaise lounge on the cover because a chaise lounge is significant in the book. The cover I got back was of a ruby red velvet piece of furniture that would have looked right at home in a Parisian brothel. Then I suggested a photo of a building in Baltimore. That didn’t work because the building looked like it could be in any town. Next—this was my husband’s idea—I sent a photo of Mt Vernon Square that features Baltimore’s monument to George Washington and suggested that a couple walking towards it be added. We were almost there with the one they sent back. The only problem was the length of the female’s skirt, which was down to her ankles. The skirt problem was fixed, leaving only one more—the fact that the female was taller than the male. That was quickly fixed. Lots of readers have said they love the cover. So do I.

What is the future for the characters? Will there be a sequel?

The sequel, which I am working on now, involves the four grown children of the main characters of the first book. That, I hope, will be followed by a prequel about the immigrant father of the Italian character and the immigrant mother of the Irish one.

Do you write listening to music? If so, what music inspired or accompanied this current book?

Yes, I do. Sometimes I listened to music of the period I was writing about and sometimes just relaxing classical music.

Are you working on anything at the present you would like to share with your readers?

The sequel to “Once Upon a Time in Baltimore.” Once that first draft is finished, I will put it away for a while and start on the sequel to my YA mystery, “Captain Moretti’s Daughter.”

How many plot ideas are just waiting to be written? Can you tell us about one?

The sequel to “Captain Moretti’s Daughter” will mainly take place in Naples, Italy. There will be two connecting plots, both still very much in the embryo stage, but they will involve a young boy smuggled on the ship by his father and a stolen artifact from Pompei.

What was your dream job when you were younger?

I wanted to be an archeologist. There was something so appealing about mucking around in the dirt of a foreign country. I have never had a job anywhere near that dream.

What’s your favorite food?

Pizza! Second place is pasta, almost any kind.

Excerpts from Once Upon a Time in Baltimore

Excerpt #1

After a while, she hears heavy footsteps on the stairs, her father’s and Doctor Wick’s, but the doctor’s voice is too low for her to hear what he’s saying. Then they step outside, closing the front door behind them.

Despite her parents’ order, Annie’s curiosity drives her up the steps and to the room she shares with her two sisters. Slowly, she turns the handle and inches the door open. On the other side is her mother on her knees beside the bed, head bent, rosary beads passing through her fingers.

On the bed lies Mary Ellen. Annie can see that something is terribly wrong with her. Her lips and nose are blue, and she is gasping for breath. Dark stains, the same color as those on her mother’s apron, dot the sheet, which is pulled up to her neck.

When Annie cries out, her mother’s reaction is swift and silent. She jumps to her feet and crosses the room in two steps. One hand pushes Annie into the hall, the other slams the door in her face.

Two hours later, her sister is dead. Mary Ellen, who seemed fine the night before when Annie went to bed.

The next day, a white crepe is hanging from the lintel of the Finnerty house. Three days later, a black crepe is hanging next to it.

Excerpt #2

Vince stopped, turned to his son, and grabbed his arm. With something between a push and a pull, he thrust Vinnie into the kitchen.

“Tell your mother.”

Vinnie turned to his father. His face registered only one emotion—fear.

“Tell your mother,” Vince repeated. “Tell your mother what you’ve done.”

While she looked from her husband to her son and back again, Annie tried to imagine what her Vinnie could have done to upset his father so much. Whatever it was, Vinnie wasn’t saying.

“Well, if you won’t tell her, I will.” With that, Vince turned away from his son and walked up to his wife. He opened his mouth, but no words emerged. He took a deep breath and tried again. This time, the words did come out.

“Your son has joined the Marines.”

At first, she didn’t believe him. Vinnie in the Marines? Little Vinnie?  He’d never do that, leave college to go to war. And then she remembered ten-year-old Vinnie standing before the radio after World War II was declared, his legs apart, hands in fists on his hips, ready to fight the Japanese single-handedly.

When words did reach from her mind to her mouth, she was surprised by their stupidity.

“But he doesn’t weigh enough!”

She was wrong. Whatever the Marine weight and other physical requirements were, Vinnie met them. Enough to pass their recruiter training in South Carolina. Enough to be shipped out to California. Enough to be sent to Korea.

Like this article?

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Linkedin

Leave a comment