Mario Dell'Olio: Man of music and letters
Dr. Mario Dell’Olio’s life is a richly steeped in letters and notes. The author of several books, both self-published and traditionally-published, is also chair of the music department and ethics teacher at an independent school for girls in Manhattan, where he conducts the concert and chamber choirs.
Yet there is a third part to his harmony. Along with his Master of Music in Vocal Performance, he holds a Doctor of Sacred Music and a Master of Religious Education, and was a seminarian at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, Italy. His thoughts on religion, spirituality and their place in our lives are deeply considered and inform much of his work, as do his vast experiences. To read a work by Mario Dell’Olio is to understand ourselves perhaps a bit, perhaps considerably better than we had before cracking the spine. His newest work, Letters from Italy, arrives this week, and opens our conversation.
Welcome, Mario. Your new book, a creative nonfiction biography, launches today. How exciting! Please tell us about Letters from Italy and why you decided to write it.
My mother and father were always storytellers. Immigrants from southern Italy, they lived through the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini and World War II. Tales of their childhood in a little town on the Puglian coast begat images of a fishing village, families from different socio-economic classes, and love born out of chance.
Their romance began in 1950 when my uncle sent a photograph of his new fiancée to his brother in New York City. Orazio, my father, who was living in a one-bedroom apartment in Little Italy, spotted an attractive young woman in the photo. What ensued was two years of correspondence that eventually led to their first encounter in the town of Bisceglie, Bari.
In a very real way, their letters were a precursor to match.com of the 21st century. Married nearly sixty years at the time of my father’s death, theirs was a love story like no other I have known.
While many stories of Italian immigrants cover the third wave of immigration to the United States, this describes the postwar years through to present day. It describes a family desperate to assimilate into American society while maintaining their strong cultural heritage. Navigating the tumultuous 1960s to the new millennium, Orazio and Nicoletta did just that.
Shortly after his death, Nicoletta found letters she wrote to him so many decades before. Although she had saved many of his letters, she had no idea that he had done the same. Many years later, I asked my mother to read them to me. Sitting at the kitchen table, she began the journey back through time, accessing memories long forgotten.
As she read each letter to me, her tangential stories became the foundation of Letters from Italy. Her detailed descriptions of the dresses she wore and the family conflicts that arose placed me into scenes I had only imagined in movies. I could picture every corner of her little house, every street of her ancient city, and came to know my deceased grandparents for the first time. Orphaned at twelve years of age, the images that came alive through her oral history prompted me to write their story. In many ways, I believe I had no choice. I had to write their story.
For three years, I transcribed conversations about my parents’ clandestine romance, about life during the war, and starting anew in New York City. Delving into history books to place their journey in a timeline, I gained perspective as I contextualized each vignette. I learned how one tended a vineyard at the start of the twentieth century, what it was like for ordinary citizens under the regime of Mussolini, and about the post-war experience of immigrants in New York.
Framed by the letters my parents wrote to each other during 1950–1952, the oral history that I’ve heard since my childhood will become a story of enduring love. I describe the hardship of my grandparents during the third wave of immigration to the United States, post-war Italy, and the tumult of the 1960s. My hope is that the reader will come to know an idealistic young couple who fell in love, embarked on a bold journey, and grew old together.
You often write from personal experience. Some books are memoirs, and others are fictionalized. What drives you to write in this way?
My stories feature characters searching for deeper meaning in their life experiences. My life’s journey has been imbued with the lessons I’ve learned through overcoming challenges. I have always been an avid journaler, so reflecting on my life and experiences is natural. I then look outward to the world around me, trying to find deeper meaning in the actions of others. I wonder what motivates people to act as they do. What makes someone kind or another person rude? How did they become that way? I develop characters as I journey through life. So many seem to be composites of people I've met. In my opinion, the path to self-discovery yields the most exciting stories because we've all been there. But the way each of us gets there is as unique as every grain of sand.
Some of your books are self-published and some are traditionally published. Is it difficult to manage a hybrid authorial life? What are the benefits of each?
This is a difficult question to answer. I learned a great deal about what it takes to be an author while writing my two self-published books.
After sending out several query letters, I decided to get my voice out there. I had stories to tell, and I wanted people to read them. As an unknown or new author, it's difficult to break into the traditionally published world. The decision to self-publish was easy. I wanted to write, and self-publishing allowed me to get my stories out there immediately. The difficulty was getting my work noticed. Marketing remains the most significant challenge for me as a writer.
I was thrilled that independent publishing companies published New Men and Letters from Italy. Whether it is correct, it provided the external validation that I sought. Traditional publishing also opened the door to editorial reviews, which are nearly impossible to get on self-published books. It also freed me from the hours spent designing covers and formatting the text. However, smaller publishing houses rely a great deal on the author to market along with them.
Tell us a bit about Coming About. It’s a harrowing tale.
Coming About tells the tale of one of the most traumatic experiences in my life. Not one but two sailing expeditions tested my mettle and pushed me to my physical and emotional limits. Sailing to a Caribbean island seemed to be a dream come true. But it quickly turned into a nightmare. My husband and I nearly lost our lives on both journeys. During the years following our rescue, I was asked to tell the story over and over again. All the while, I wracked my brain as I desperately searched for a deeper meaning to our struggle. Coming About tells of our struggles as our lives hung in the balance and the profound change in my perspective on life.
And your other books?
Body and Soul and New Men are coming-of-age stories. The characters struggle with identity, first love, and sexuality. Ethical dilemmas are ubiquitous and happy endings are elusive. The battles abound between self-knowledge and faith in an institution that condemns them for being gay. New Men and Forbidden Rome is fiction based on actual events in a Roman seminary during the 1980s. In addition, there is a short story, Cappuccino, that develops those plots.
What are you working on now?
I am querying my fifth novel. Spanning four decades, Tilting Toward the Sun begins with the excitement and excess of the 1980s. A handsome sailor sweeps the main character off his feet. The enthusiasm of young love rocks his world. But when the ban on gays in the military rears its head, the officer must keep his secret or risk a dishonorable discharge. Following divergent paths, these young lovers face the tumultuous 1980s and 90s. Amidst the AIDS crisis, they navigate a world of fear and uncertainty as they seek not only to survive but to thrive. Tilting Toward the Sun is a journey of undying devotion and love through the decades. As youth turns to maturity, they grapple with life’s challenges reaching for the elusive happily ever after.
And now, I'm trying to come up with ideas for my next novel!
How do you balance your busy life as a choir conductor and teacher with writing?
I have a very full teaching load with four sections of ethics and two choirs. So I do most of my writing during my summer break. I can usually write my first and second drafts in July and August. The rest of the editing lasts through the academic year. Weekends are the only times I get to write.
Where can we find your work, and where can we find you on social media?
Thank you so much, Mario. All the best.