Longtime followers of Scribbles on Cocktail Napkins will recognize this face. Dan Alatorre has been a great friend to the site from day one. Dan and I first “met” in June, 2015. I use the term met loosely, because we didn’t actually meet face-to-face until a year later, when he invited me to attend the Florida Writers Conference with fellow out-of-towner, Allison Maruska.
Our paths first crossed in an online critique group. At the time, he was looking for feedback on his WIP, Poggibonsi. What the hell is a Poggibonsi, you may ask? It’s the name of a city in Central Italy. It’s also the title of Dan Alatorre’s incredibly funny, sexy, and surprisingly heart-warming novel.
Dan’s book pulled me in the moment I opened chapter one. It’s about a man who takes his family on a work trip to Italy where things go terribly wrong. And, while it would be fair to categorize the book as a romantic comedy, the story is so much more than that. It made me laugh out loud. It made me cry. And sometimes . . . it made me really, really mad. Just like in life, Dan’s characters aren’t perfect. They’re crafted with flaws. They make bad decisions—intentionally and unintentionally—that sometimes lead to comedic disaster, and eventually end up at a deeper understanding of the oftentimes fickle glue needed to bind relationships together.
Having followed the journey of this novel from first draft to completion, I am especially excited to interview my good friend and critique partner Dan Alatorre here, and share his novel with all of you.
Hi Dan! Welcome to Scribbles.
Good grief, after a buildup like that, I can only fuck things up. We should end here. Thanks! Goodnight!
Umm, get back here. You live in Florida, right? How did you get the idea to write a novel set in Europe?
We were going to Italy on a vacation and I kept thinking, wow, this is such a great opportunity! Who gets to sit among the hills of Tuscany on the piazza of a beautiful Tuscan villa and write while gazing over fields of lavender and grapes and olive trees? People dream about that but nobody gets to do it, right? So I was going around Tuscany (I’m gonna drop the word “Tuscany” in as much as possible because Tuscany is amazing and I was in Tuscany) and we went to Rome and Venice, and I kept thinking, “There’s a story here, there’s a story here…” But I was forcing it, you know? I was trying to find a perfect, gift-wrapped box of inspiration instead of letting it find me, letting it come to me. And after the two weeks, I was a little sad because lightning didn’t strike and plop the Great American Novel – already written – into my hands. Dammit. I was gonna have to work for it.
You were on vacation with your family? Does anyone ever ask you if the story parallels your real-life experiences? The main character’s immediate family members both have names similar to your own family’s names.
We were on vacation and we had at that time a four-year-old (who’s now seven), so a lot of the stuff that happens to the family in the story actually happened to us. There are a few scenes like when the wife tries to start a romantic fire in the fireplace and gets soot all over herself, but looks cute because it’s on her nose – that happened. Filling the villa full of smoke because we didn’t get the flue open, that happened.
So there are a few real things because sometimes using real things makes the story more real. Other things didn’t happen. The cheating DID NOT happen, of course, and one other important distinction: the wife in the story starts out as a busy professional and kinda becomes pretty unlikable. My wife is a sweetheart. (She has to be if she puts up with me, right? We’ve been happily married for almost 25 years for a reason.) People should not think what the wife in the story does is anything my wife would do. I even put in a note – a disclaimer, probably – that whatever a situation called for, I thought about what my wife would do and had the wife in the story do the opposite. I used names that were similar to ours, but the similarities end there. The story is fiction. Hope I’m not bursting any bubbles by saying that. I don’t think people think Stephen King is a psychopath when he writes about one. But he is kinda creepy, so maybe he is a psycho…
Anyway, one thing to guard against – here’s a tip, new authors: “real” is also kinda dull. When you only write what really happened, it tends to reads as a bit on the boring side because most of us aren’t leading Indiana Jones type lifestyles. Readers want an escape, so you must give them one. You can draw on your experiences, but you must amplify the drama for some real life situation to make it into your story.
How would you describe the main character, Mike?
* Mike is a smart, hard working guy who land a dream assignment that might make him a partner in the firm. He’s been successful and he plays by the rules. He loves his family. But things get away from him and he ends up waaayyyyy over his head, and from there Mr. Cool becomes Mr. Bean.
I’ve heard it said that a good writer puts a little of themselves into every character. Did you find this was the case while writing Poggibonsi?
Well, if you write about stuff you have no clue about, you’ll sound like an idiot to people who do know. It’d be hard for me to write about being a teenage girl right now, right? But ask me in a few years and maybe I could tell you, because my daughter will be a teenager then. By taking real bits and pieces of real people – a lot of characters are amalgams, you know – you can come up with something really great.
Here’s an example. Sam in Poggibonsi is the MC’s assistant in the story. She is smart and witty and sarcastic. She teases her boss mercilessly but has his back 24/7. They are friends. Who wouldn’t want a relationship with their boss like that? As a result, she can say and do stuff that a real office co-worker can’t. But we’ve all had that funny co-worker, so by drawing on our real life experiences, we can take our real friend and make a great character.
So Sam is based on a few people. She’s got bits of former co-workers that went into her (gosh it sounds like I’m building a robot – the Sam 2000) and she’s got bits of personality from friends. She – because we writers get to stew over a great comeback or insult – she delivers punchlines in a staccato style we all wish we could do. And she’s vulnerable. She’s also me, to a degree. I can be a smart ass, so Sam is often that side of me. Mike is the more serious side of me. Maybe that’s why they get along so well. But make no mistake, Sam is also based on some real life friends.
I don’t think a writer can not put parts of themselves into their characters. You have to be able to write 3-dimensional characters, so you have to understand them; how do you understand them if you aren’t connecting and identifying? In Poggi, I have the 4-year-old daughter say and do things that readers totally believe and love, because I had a four-year-old and I knew what they were capable of. But it’s still my interpretation of what she was doing, with select moments pulled out and heightened and dramatized so she’s completely adorable.
Sam’s one-liners could make a grown man blush. How did you come up the stuff that comes out of her mouth? She had me on the floor.
As an author you get to set up the joke and deliver the punch line, and then you get to rewrite it if it doesn’t work. Real life people rarely get that opportunity if they aren’t stand up comedians. We had Sam make one joke that was hilarious, followed by another that was mediocre. The author gets to rearrange them so they build on each other and get funnier; the real life person doesn’t – so it’s partly in the editing and the setting of the stage.
Sam always knew her boss Mike respected and trusted her, so she said what most people would think, and she did it fearlessly.
The key word is fearless. She doesn’t hold back.
For example, to take the overseas flight, Mike had to get a physical, and the doctor did blood work and everything else, then left the test results on Mike’s answering machine. Because he heard the phone and internet connections were lousy in parts of central Italy, he gave Sam access to his voicemail and emails – figuring she’d keep him apprised of business stuff.
And of course, she gets the medical test results, and conveys them to him, Sam style:
“Hey, congratulations, Mike!
“What, that we made it to Italy in one piece?”
“No, that according to your doctor, your testosterone level is normal.”
“What?” I pressed the phone to my ear, lowering my voice. “How the hell would you know that?”
“You told me to check your voicemail for you, you told your doctor to leave your test results on your voicemail for you, and so I found that out. And now I’m telling you, which you also told me to do.”
I put my free hand to my forehead. “Well, that’s . . . none of your business.”
“I didn’t say it was. I’m just saying congratulations, you’re normal. Don’t they do testosterone tests when a guy has heart issues? Is there something you want tell me? Because if I need to start shopping for a new boss, I want a heads up.”
“Your job is safe. I am not having heart issues.” On the boat loading platform, I watched Mattie swipe her credit card through the ticket machine.
“Oh, man issues, huh?”
“What? No. That’s not even a thing.”
“Well, I figure if there are women issues there might be man issues. Other than addiction to ESPN and The Three Stooges.”
Mattie stared at the machine. No tickets came out.
“Sam, nobody older than the age of ten, or younger than the age of eighty, likes the Stooges. I think ‘man issues’ is a fancy way of saying ‘midlife crisis’ for bozos who can’t cut the mustard.”
“Well, I’m gonna defer to you on that chief. But . . .”
“But? What? Was there more to the message?”
Mattie pounded on the ticket machine with both hands. A small crowd began to gather.
“Well,” Sam cleared her throat. “The doctor also asked if you wanted a Viagra prescription sent over to supplement the samples. So I am relaying that to you as well.”
“Oh, God.” I closed my eyes.
That fucking Jan.
“I’m sorry, Mike. I really didn’t want to know these things. Well, maybe a little.” She giggled. “Is there trouble in paradise? No lead in the pencil? Overcooked the spaghetti? But you’re in good shape. You run. Why can’t you raise the drawbridge?”
A few bus-boat employees rescued their ticket machine from my wife’s karate kicks. I turned around and hunched over the phone. “There’s nothing to know! There’s nothing wrong in, you know, that department!”
“Okay, okay. Don’t protest too much, Hamlet.”
“That’s . . .” I took a deep breath. “Listen, my doctor is crazy. She thought those pills might be necessary. But they’re not.”
“I completely believe you.”
From the dock, Mattie waved at me, tickets in hand, and the scheduled water taxi approaching. “The boat’s here. I have to go in a sec. Do I have any other messages that are of any importance?”
“Strangely, no. After that one I kinda lost interest. I haven’t gotten into your emails, though. Can’t wait to see what’s hiding in there. I’m thinking Swedish vacuum pump, gerbils . . . ”
So what’s the key to it? Finding something funny, and just pushing it as far as you can. Plus, listening to your friends who read it. Somebody else suggested gerbils and the Swedish vacuum pump, but it was funny so I added it. They get the assist.
She makes appearances in one or two of your other works, is that right? Did you have a hard time saying goodbye?
I am a big believer in No Sequels. Ideally, I want to do new things, not do the same thing over and over.
However, that doesn’t mean a character that audiences love shouldn’t make a reappearance. Sam steals the show in Poggibonsi, so I added her to the next story I was writing, The Water Castle. Because she’s away from her work environment, she’s even less restrained. I also have a story for her where she ends up being chased by the FBI in a case of mistaken identity, but that’s still in the kicking around stages right now.
I always have a hard time saying goodbye to characters. If they are written well, that should be the case. But it turns out that every time I open Poggibonsi, there she is. So I don’t have to say goodbye, I just have to open the book again.
Now, here’s a dilemma. If I change Sam’s name in The Water Castle to, say, Sara – it’s not Sam anymore, and it’s a new character. I think readers would say Sara’s a lot like Sam, and feel a little ripped off that it’s NOT Sam. On the other hand, if I don’t write Sam exactly as readers want Sam to be, I alienate them. The solution would be Sara, right? Then everybody wins. And maybe not have her name start with an S. Then I’d be praised for always writing these smart, funny women – when really they’re kinda the same one – and I could evolve and not worry about hurting readers feelings for making Sam different somehow.
There’s one part in Poggibonsi—I think you know which part I’m talking about—that had me laughing so hard I was crying. Was there ever any worry that you were going too far? I mean . . . really. Mike had a pretty rough night. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to give him a hug or a slap.
Oh, I ABSOLUTELY was worried I was going too far. Lots of time.
First, you have to take risks as a writer. Safe sucks. Safe is boring.
Second, although it’s just you at the keyboard, I wanted input from a few people to make sure that scene wasn’t too much. Without giving it away, Mike and his wife have a squabble, and when he tries to get romantic, she tells him to take care of it himself. Okay, so if we all understand what we’re talking about here, he takes things in hand and a funny scene happens.
I thought it was really funny, but I worried it might be offensive to readers. What do do?
Ask some other authors. Specifically, women, since odds are 80% of the time a romance is going to read by a woman, and that was the audience of Poggibonsi. Now, you can’t just email a friend and say hey, THIS happens – what do you think? They will think you’re crude and disgusting. They will stay away from you from then on and not return your calls.
Unless they are writers.
We writer types have to research all sorts of stuff. What color blood appears in the moonlight, how to dispose of a body in west Texas… all kinds of things. So we are used to people grabbing us on Messenger and saying, “Would you say decapitating another human being feels like slicing a gristly piece of ham?” We talk about that stuff. So when I had that scene in Poggi, I asked a few writer friends – ladies, specifically – and I set it up and asked if it was too much.
Bottom line: if it’s funny enough, you can do anything.
So the scene was a hit. And that became a governing rule. Another is, if it feels real enough and you put the emotion in, readers will willingly go along for the ride. They will laugh with your characters and cry with them, and thank you afterward. But it’s a lot of effort, and you really have to put your bare soul on the page. That’s another tip. Go there. Great writing isn’t safe.
The scene where Mike first meets Julietta takes up a whole chapter of the book. She and Mike don’t say a word to one another, but the sexual tension is off the charts.
This is a place where everyone has been in this situation and everyone can relate. Mike sees a pretty young lady on a train and he’s kinda checking her out, and she of course has no idea. But he’s not being rude, he’s a little mesmerized. And because we’ve all had a crush, we understand it. He takes in her every detail – but if she looks in his direction, he looks away. Out the window, oh what’s that on my phone – he can’t make eye contact.
We’ve all done that, but usually in grade school or just for a quick moment as adults. Here, he’s stuck on a train with her for a few hours, strangers in a cabin section, and he just can’t look away. He even feels bad about it. When she gets off the train and another guy checks her out, he feels ashamed about doing it himself.
Because we’ve all been there, we understand. But great stories are built on tension. I make him keep looking even though he knows he shouldn’t, and he keeps falling deeper and deeper into a trance over her, wondering all sorts of things about her like where she lives and what she does for a living – all over a stranger.
It’s a chance for any of us to be honest about having had a moment like that, and under the circumstances, he’s surprised he did. That’s a lot of tension.
Sorry that wasn’t really a question. I was just taking a moment to relive it.
It’s one of my favorite scenes.
*Clears throat* What was one of the hardest parts of writing the book? I remember talking to you about the scene where Mike has to explain to his daughter the reason why Mattie doesn’t want him at their home anymore.
Mike cheats on his wife and eventually she takes him back. The hardest part was figuring out why she’d do that. I was stumped. For two weeks, I was writing other scenes while trying to think of a reason for her to take him back. I wouldn’t. Nobody would!
Except… People do. Occasionally in the world, a spouse will cheat and the other one may take them back. Not always, but occasionally. So I knew it had happened; I just couldn’t find a way for my characters to get there – and they needed to. I wanted that happy ending. I watched Oprah episodes and Dr. Phil, and finally came up with a solution. That was the absolute hardest part of the book to write – as far as a plot problem.
As far as difficult scenes to write, it was when he has to explain to his daughter what he did. That scene, I cried into the keyboard imagining me having to explain something like that to my four-year-old daughter, and the kid not understanding, so he has to explain more but doesn’t really want to say what happened, and his little girl is sobbing and says, “Did you say you’re sorry? You always say we should apologize when we hurt somebody.” – stuff like that (I’m tearing up as I write this, dammit) having the Dad lessons thrown back in his face from his child, and realizing that he not only hurt his wife but his daughter, that was a biggie. That was hard to write. Painful to imagine.
I cry every time I read that scene. Every time.
I’ve had guys write me and say that was the hardest scene in the book to read because it was the most realistic.
As I mentioned above, we met when you recruited me to give feedback on Poggi while in its early stages. That was almost two years ago. What took so long to get the story to fans?
I had written a few books and published them, but as I worked with you and other writers I saw the need for my writing abilities to improve. I wanted to be a better writer, so I took the time to learn how to do that, to improve my craft.
The story is the same, but it’s much richer and much more immersing. Totally worth it. Poggi is the best story I have written, without a doubt. I’m a much better writer for having spent that time improving my skills.
What are your plans for the rest of the year? Can we expect any more releases from you?
Nope, I’m kicking back and goofing off.
Seriously (because I know you’re laughing at that answer) I’m trying to finish An Angel On Her Shoulder, a paranormal thriller, which is with beta readers right now, and also The Water Castle, a romance. Both are slated for release in 2017. Angel kicks ass. It’s really good – that was also revised during my Improve The Skills phase, and it is an amazing read now.
The Water Castle is gonna have them crying by the boatload. It’s a romance for the ages. Pretty unforgettable.
I also have a Christmas story I need to finish, and an illustrated children’s book that’s ready. Plus I host a the Word Weaver Writing Contest where I personally give feedback to writers who enter a 3000 word submission in hope of getting big prizes, so there’ll be two more of those in 2017, and the start of the second year of Young Author’s Club at a nearby grade school.
Oh, and mowing the lawn. Gotta do that a few times, too.
Um… yeah, that’s about it.
That’s ambitious! Scribbles on Cocktail Napkins is a website geared largely to writers. What advice would you give fledgling word-slingers about to publish their first book?
What I usually see in new authors is a fear of being interesting.
They might make the bad guy and good guy have a sword fight, but they forget to feel the jolt of the metal-on-metal impact that sends a painful shock wave up your arm as the blades clash. They want to write a romance but they don’t explain the deep, black, bottomless abyss of pain that comes when she breaks his heart, and how it feels like the sun will never shine again even though it’s a crystal clear day outside.
They fear risking putting raw, real emotions on the page because of what someone might think.
All that stuff, that’s the interesting stuff readers are coming to the story to find. Give it to them, and be brave enough to write in a way that scares you a little.
Writers, find good writing partners (like I found in you), who’ll tell you what works and what doesn’t, and who are amazing writers in their own respect, but who will tell you the truth even if it’s hard to hear. That’s a real friend and co-conspirator, and they are worth their weight in gold. It has been my pleasure to get to know you, and I feel humbled to have been praised so highly be you so often. I feel like I have to go save people from burning buildings now, to be worthy of such adulation.
I want to take this opportunity to thank you, Dan. Getting to know you and seeing your story move from its infancy stages to final copy has been a nothing short of an absolute privilege. I am lucky to have met you, lucky to be part of Poggibonsi’s journey, and lucky to be seeing you again as PRESENTERS, in less than six months at this year’s Florida Writers Conference.
Can you believe we get to do this? I’m stoked. What a blast it’s gonna be!
Dan Alatorre is dedicated to helping other authors learn and grow in their craft. His website, DanAlatorre.com, is packed with tips and tricks for writing killer stories and building a strong social media presence. My advice to you? SUBSCRIBE. Sign up for his newsletters. Dan is a natural teacher who cares about making fledgling writers AUTHORS.
Praise for Poggibonsi:
Poggibonsi is disarmingly charming; a laugh-out-loud, bumbling romp through lust and love in central Italy. Alatorre captures the breathtaking romance of the novel’s namesake perfectly, peeling back each layer of story until all that remains is genuine, raw emotion. An outrageously funny, guilty pleasure of a read.
– J. A. Allen, Old Souls
“Funny, Sexy, Heartbreaking, Hilarious”
In Poggibonsi, Dan Alatorre tells a compelling and hilarious story while giving its serious and heartfelt themes fair treatment. Protagonist Mike Torino is a hard-working family man who is struggling in his marriage, and when temptation looms on a business trip in Italy, he can’t help but indulge. His winding and sometimes bumbling misadventure leads him on a journey that ends only when he discovers what is truly important to him.
Funny, sexy, and at times heartbreaking, Poggibonsi is much more than a riotous romp. It’s an exploration into what makes us human and drives us through life.
– Allison Maruska, The Fourth Descendant and Project Renovatio trilogy
“A well-written, imaginative treasure!”
Your “misadventures” were effectively showcased via humor. The sequence at (CAN’T TELL YOU) where Mike (ALSO CAN’T SAY) and the later sequence with (SORRY) was brilliantly inspired! Overall a well-written, imaginative treasure.
– Tracy Miller
“Many will go back and read it again simply because they enjoy smiling.”
This was fun. You have something very special here. I know that your audience will love it and many will go back and read it again simply because they enjoy smiling. A most entertaining experience.
– Annette Rochelle Aben, GO YOU