Adriana Trigiani: Queen of the big time

Adriana Trigiani's tales of small-town Appalachian life have been instant bestsellers. She talks to Christina Patterson about faith, fans - and Chinese face-reading
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"The most useful book I ever read taught me how to read faces," says Ave Maria Mulligan in Big Stone Gap (Pocket Books, £6.99), the first novel in Adriana Trigiani's bestselling trilogy of small-town Southern life. "Even dimples have meaning", according to this ancient Chinese art, and Ave Maria, who has them, can expect "something wonderful" to happen when she turns 35. It does, of course. After years as the town spinster, she finds love. No great fan of mass-market fiction, even I found myself reaching for the tissues.

Among the questions I have prepared for my meeting with this Italian-American writer turned phenomenon is one along the lines of: "You don't really believe this face-reading nonsense, do you?" But first, I am sucked into a whirlwind. Trigiani has just flown in from New York, but you would think she was springing into action after a particularly refreshing break. She is, in every sense of the word, big: big hair, big eyes, big mouth, a perfect, purple Cupid's bow, and a substantial, curvaceous form draped in a huge, black, glittery velvet jacket. She's beautiful, too, a magnetic, mesmerising presence who instantly, mysteriously, makes you want to smile. "You have very interesting bone structure," she booms, gazing at me while I gaze at her. "Your nose, and the set of your jaw."

Ten minutes later, I am reeling. Before I've had a chance to say much more than "hello", I have had my entire personality presented to me, lock, stock and barrel. The accumulation of detail takes my breath away. I'm reluctant, now, to get off the subject of me, but force myself back into interview mode. So where did she learn this stuff, I ask, swiftly ditching my question about belief. "I met a lady at the boarding house where I lived," Trigiani says. "She was trained by a Chinese master. She had the books, the sacred books, and she taught me everything. For two years. And then when I went to write a book, I thought, what a great way to describe people, because that's how I look at people. When you come into a room," she adds unnecessarily, "I read your face."

The face-reading was, she says, part of a wider spiritual search. Already a practising Catholic, she decided in her twenties that she was going to "investigate under every rock" and "live in the world with my emotions and not with a sense of reserve. I'm not afraid of anything," she adds. "I believe that you have to wake up every day with the expectation that you may not make it. I do think this is a classroom." Moments later, we are deep into a discourse on faith, politics, war, the bomb and mothers in Britain, Italy, America and Iraq. "OK, that's a heavy thing," she grins, when she finally draws breath. "Now I'm going to have a cappuccino."

It's hard to believe that this fast-talking, wisecracking, warm-hearted woman is anything other than a New Yorker, but New York is only her adopted home. Trigiani grew up in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, the setting (and title) of her first book. She moved to New York after college in Indiana and spent her twenties writing for theatre and television. "For somebody in this profession, I have a very strange background," she confesses, "in that I grew up in the mountains, a Catholic, and went to a women's college. It's just kind of weird," she says in the hybrid New York drawl that makes all of this even more difficult to believe. "But I can", she offers, slipping instantly into pure Southern belle and switching to half her previous pace, "go raht back to it and slow it down and it's Big Stone Gap. I have a good ear," she adds. "That's all a writer is. I listen to your cadence, I take it in, I find the story that matches you and then I build characters and a world around it."

Big Stone Gap started life as a screenplay and has now come full circle. After seeing a documentary that Trigiani made about her father's home town, called Queens of the Big Time (also the title of her fifth book, published here in September), a film company in New York offered to do the next one. She wrote the screenplay and showed it to a friend who was a literary agent. "I think this is a novel," her friend said, changing Trigiani's life and simultaneously catapulting her into the big time. Cut free from the shackles of TV - network bosses "always messing with my stuff" and the challenge of working only with dialogue - she had a ball. "It was a relief for me to describe things," she reveals in a voice that has swung back to pure New York. "I got so tired of having to winnow it down. I like to really explore."

The book opens with an image of reading that most women will find irresistible: a pot of coffee, a dozen of "Vernie Crabtree's killer chocolate-chip cookies" and a good book. It is, says the narrator and protagonist, Ave Maria, "all I will need for the rainy weekend rolling in". It is also very much like the experience of reading an Adriana Trigiani: a cosy sanctuary from the world where you can laugh and cry and be swept along on the crest of a storytelling wave of spectacular sweetness. Ave Maria finds skeletons in the family closet, humiliations and disappointment, but she also finds warm friendships and love, in the form of the ruggedly silent Jack Mac. It's heartwarming stuff, reminiscent in tone, if not setting, of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City.

The book was an instant bestseller, winning Trigiani armies of fans across the US, including Whoopi Goldberg, who hailed it as "one of my all-time favourite novels" and Sarah Jessica Parker, who said she "couldn't put it down". It has even triggered Sex and the City-type bus tours of Big Stone Gap. "People ring my mother's bell," says Trigiani with a huge grin, "and when my father was alive they'd have people in for coffee." Is it true, I ask, that there's a real Jack Mac, who now gets mobbed? "There is a real Jack Mac," she tells me, "who everyone thinks I was in love with. I didn't know him; I just liked his name. But now he's like the sex symbol. The last I heard was that 40 women from a bus tour had him pinned against the wall of the Methodist church."

Trigiani is frequently greeted with cries of: "Ave, Ave!" - not prayers from the Catholic faithful, but pleas from her faithful fans. The plea, of course, is for this not to be fiction. "Well, I try to tell them," she explains, "but they want to believe it's true because if they really love it then they want to be friends with her." She is clearly tapping into an audience not overly familiar with the concept of fiction, an audience, in fact, that does not generally read. How, I ask her, at the risk of sounding like a therapist, does that make her feel?

"It feels amazing," she replies. "I don't take any of it for granted, not for one second, because I know how hard this is to catch with your public. I don't look at my public as a group; I look at them like individuals, so if a reader writes and says, 'I don't like this', or, 'This bit stinks', I take it to heart." She is on the phone to book groups three or four times a week. "My mother laughs," she adds, "because I was always on the phone when I was growing up and I'm always on the phone now." Doesn't she get tired of hearing the same old questions? "No," she replies firmly, "because I always hear something new. People tell you about their lives. That's my favourite thing. My story will bring that out for someone. It never gets dull. It just doesn't."

It isn't hard to see why the books have such a wide appeal. Ave Maria moves from spinsterhood to marriage, motherhood and the temptations of infidelity. She loses a son to leukemia and nearly loses her husband to a local woman with bleached-blond hair. She is an American Everywoman, both a mountain girl and, as an Italian-American, "a furriner". By the end of the third in the trilogy, Milk Glass Moon, her daughter is getting married. In terms of the average woman's experience, it's pretty much the whole caboodle.

Trigiani's most recent novel, Lucia, Lucia (Pocket Books, £6.99), published in paperback this week, moves into slightly different territory: the tale of a beautiful New York seamstress torn between her aspirations as a "career girl" and the traditions of her Italian family. She falls in love with an entrepreneur who turns out to be a con man, is jilted at the altar and is now a sad old lady in a mink coat. If Trigiani's publishers ever worried about the change in direction, they need not have done. Lucia, Lucia has sold by the truckload and is one of 10 books selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club. It is also, I'm surprised to hear, based on a true story. "I was living in an apartment block in New York," says Trigiani, "and she lived upstairs. It's given me a real insight into being old."

Adriana Trigiani now lives in the same apartment block as Michael Patrick King, chief writer and producer of Sex and the City. They are close friends who rely, in spite of the marked differences between their fictional worlds, on each other for critical feedback. Is she a fan of the Manolo Blahnik-wearing Manhattan quartet?

"I could never have written the series," she replies , "because I'm very private; you can even tell in my books, I'm very private about sex. I would never discuss my husband or sex with my girlfriends; we just wouldn't. In general terms, maybe, but never specifically, ever - it's not in me. But boy, did I enjoy watching it! I love those girls. And great writing! And when your best friend is a great writer, it's very inspiring. It makes you", she adds with a final flash of those perfect teeth, "a better writer."

Biography: Adriana Trigiani

Adriana Trigiani was born in Pennsylvania in 1964, the third of seven children, to Italian-American immigrants who kept up a strong connection to the homeland. Lured by a government programme offering grants to entrepreneurs, they moved to Big Stone Gap, Virginia, when she was five. Trigiani studied theatre at St Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana, and started working as a playwright while still at college. After moving to New York, she continued to write for theatre and made ends meet by working as a secretary, a nanny and a box-office assistant. In her late twenties, she moved into television, making documentaries and writing for The Cosby Show. Trigiani has published four novels in this country: Big Stone Gap, Big Cherry Holler, Milk Glass Moon and Lucia, Lucia (all Pocket Books). Her fifth, Queens of the Big Time, will be published in September. She has written the screenplay for the film of Big Stone Gap, which she will direct. Trigiani lives in New York with her husband, Tim, and daughter, Lucia.