Saturday, December 14, 2019
When she was a young woman, Maria Giura fell in love with a Catholic priest. In her new memoir, Celibate, Giura writes about their complicated, angry relationship and how it led her to finally find her true calling.
Maria talked with Rose City reader about her memoir, her mother, and her favorite books and authors:
Your mother plays a big role in your life and in your new memoir Celibate. What was her reaction to you writing a memoir?
My mother was supportive of my writing a memoir; she’s had a very difficult time with it being published. She feels that I went into too much detail about our family, about my flaws, and, of course, about my relationship with a Catholic priest Father James Infanzi, which is at the center of the story. She doesn’t understand why I didn’t take a “lighter” touch. She’s an incredibly private person and feels very exposed that I exposed so much of myself. She was also disappointed to find out things about me that she didn’t know and was very worried about what certain people would think. In many ways, I broke the “code” held by southern Italians of her generation: you don’t speak, let alone publish, your and your family’s private business. However, the memoir has thankfully not become a cloud over our relationship. My mother doesn’t hold grudges. She feels her anger and then forgives and lets go. It’s one of the many reasons why she is the hero of this story and of my life.
As you point out in your answer to the first question, your memoir is a deeply personal account of your intimate relationship with a Catholic priest. Was it difficult to tell such a private story?
Very, especially in the first few years that I was writing the book (it took me more than twelve years to complete). I was stalling, afraid to show what I needed to show on the page, afraid of facing myself and of what my family and others would think. At some point, though, I consciously, or maybe subconsciously, decided that I was either going to “go for broke” or not write the book at all, meaning I was going to show the real me and the full mess I’d gotten myself into. If I could have written the book with a lighter touch—with less detail—and it still be good, I would have, but my writing mentor kept pushing me to make each sentence more true, more concrete, and in the end, that felt right to do—not at all easy, but right. I also think I was able to finish the book, because God and my mother had forgiven me, and I believed in their forgiveness. If I hadn’t experienced their mercy, it would have been even harder, and I don’t know if I would have been able to finish. With this said, three and half months before the memoir was due to be published, I got so afraid, I considered pulling the memoir from my publisher. It was a very brief thought but a very real one.
What did you learn from writing your book – either about the experiences you describe or the writing process – that most surprised you?
From writing about my experiences—especially my relationship with the priest—I learned that I had a lot more control over my circumstances than I thought I did, and that when it comes to adult relationships—barring abusive relationships—it generally does take two to tango. Neither partner is all right or all wrong; we all bring our emotional wounds from our youth into our relationships. I was not a victim of circumstance or even of God’s will. I had choices, but I didn’t feel that way at the time. I thought everything was happening to me. Writing the book—figuring out the real truth about my relationship with the priest but also with everyone else in the book, including my relationship with God—eventually helped me to grow up.
Writing the book taught me so much about the writing process, but the most important lesson I learned is that you can’t—and shouldn’t—wait for inspiration. I had to show up every day the way I do for my paid job. I had to put away the phone and resist email and internet and the dishes in the sink and be in the moment. This was a new challenge each day. It’s not as if I became proficient at it once and for all. In order for inspiration to “hit” and take root, I had to be quiet enough to accept it when it came my way, and the more in the moment I was, the more I could recognize it when it showed up. There’s a lot of romanticism around the notion of inspiration. It’s generally not romantic. You just have to sit down and do the work.
Did you consider turning your experience into fiction and writing the book as a novel?
Briefly. There are writers, who shape their non-fiction into fiction, and it turns out believable, real, and good, but I’m not skilled as a fiction writer. I tried, and it felt fake. I also tried writing in the third person to create distance, but it felt and sounded contrived. I think there is great value for readers when they know that what they’re reading actually happened to the author. If the author went through some harrowing experience (either because of her own doing or because of outside forces or because of both) and she made it out better than before, her storytelling can provide great hope. I think hope is one of the very best reasons out there to write and to read.
Can you recommend any other memoirs that deal with crises of faith, especially for women, with the honesty and forgiveness you put into yours?
Absolutely. Here are a few contemporary ones:
- Astonished, A Story of Healing and Finding Grace and Looking for Mary: (Or The Blessed Mother and Me) by Beverly Donofrio
- The Bread of Angels: A Journey to Love and Faith by Stephanie Saldaña
- Girl Meets God and Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis by Lauren Winner
- Limbo: A Memoir by A. Manette Ansay
- My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir by Colleen Carroll Campbell
- The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On by Dawn Eden
- Something Other Than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It by Jennifer Fulwiler
In addition to these, of course, are the classic spiritual autobiographies written by female
saints or soon-to-be-saints such as St. Therese of Lisieux’s Story of A Soul, St. Teresa of Avila’s autobiographies including The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, and Dorothy Day’s, The Long Loneliness. It might be easy to think that saints, because of their heroic holiness, did not have crises of faith, but in fact, it’s their ultimate triumph over those crises that (helped) makes them saints. I (can) learn so much from them.
Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by the authors you read?
Some of my favorite contemporary authors are Jo Ann Beard, A. Manette Ansay, Ed Beck, Bernard Cooper, Louise DeSalvo, Beverly Donofrio, Frank McCourt, Mario Puzo, Esmeralda Santiago, Betty Smith, Jeannette Walls. (Sorry that’s more than five…) I also read a good deal of poetry. In addition to the joy of reading it, it continues to teach me how to keep my prose vivid and taut.
Yes, my own writing is influenced by the authors I read, but not in a way that I can always quantify. I just know that I carry authors’ voices—the way they turn a phrase—in my head. I read a lovely sentence the other day in a New York Times article by Mary Pipher: “There is an amazing calculus in old age.” I love the idiosyncrasy of this sentence. I hope that it, and others like it, will help me to continue growing as a writer.
What kind of books do you like to read? What are you reading now?
I love biographies especially autobiographies and literary memoir. The more “real” the better. I also sometimes gravitate towards stories of loss. I’m reading actor Marianne Leone’s books Ma Speaks Up and Jesse: A Mother’s Story about how her son’s life and death transformed her. Her language is filled with pathos, elegance and juice.
I’m also reading Joseph Luzzi’s In A Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love. He uses Dante’s Divine Comedy as a companion through his own dark wood in the year following his pregnant wife’s death. His writing is beautiful.
Do you have any events coming up to promote your book?
I’m in the process of scheduling several events that will be posted on my Facebook and Instagram accounts. Follow me there!
I will also be doing readings from my first book What My Father Taught Me, a collection of memory poems published in 2018 by Bordighera Press, on the following dates and at the following venues:
- Bryant Park Poetry Series on March 17, 2020
- Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College on April 4, 2020
What’s next? What are you working on now?
I am working on my third book, which will be my second book of poetry. (As I mentioned above, my first is What My Father Taught Me about growing up Italian American Catholic from my earliest days as the daughter of immigrant parents and a workaholic father to my coming of age.) In this newest collection of poetry, I’m taking more risks than I did in my first and am open to experimenting with different styles and sounds. Now that I’ve published Celibate and have found peace, I feel freer and more comfortable to write poems about some of the same themes from the memoir but in poetic form.
Thank you Rose City Reader for this interview!
THANK YOU, MARIA!
CELIBATE IS OUT NOW FROM APPRENTICE HOUSE BOOKS. IT IS AVAILABLE ON LINE OR ASK YOUR LOCAL BOOK SELLER TO ORDER IT.