ome-based writer and correspondent Megan K. Williams says she’s had it much easier than most of the expatriate characters in her debut collection of short stories, “Saving Rome.” It would be natural to imagine that her adjustment to Rome life was as bumpy and eccentric a ride as those experienced by some of the protagonists in her book. But Williams, a Canadian, insists her domestic integration has been relatively tame, partly because her husband also knows what it’s like to be a “foreigner.”
Williams was still a teenager when Italy first appeared on her personal horizon. While most of her high school classmates in Toronto were flirting with guys from the neighborhood, Williams was falling in love with an Italian exchange student who spent three months with her family. Unlike many women who move to Italy with their newfound loves, Williams remained in Canada for years while her Florentine boyfriend returned to study with her at McGill University in Montreal. They married, lived in North America for several years, had two children and now spend most of their time in Rome, where her kids “speak English with an Italian accent.”
So where do the young expatriate mother who flips off a policeman, the lonely lesbian diplomat, and the jilted lover stranded in Rome come from? In nine stories that run the emotional gamut from funny to heartbreaking, Williams writes mostly about expatriates who are struggling with the sometimes unkind reality that chips away at their illusions of life in Rome.
But her book also examines personal challenges and adventures faced primarily by women who are “coming up against themselves,” says Williams. “You know, when you get to the age around 40, which I’m at right now, where you realize that you’re becoming an adult, with the understanding that illusions that you’ve had up until that point of your life of being able to be anything and to go in any direction come to an end, and it’s exacerbated by coming to a new city and having the dream of that city die. Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t wonderful things about the city and about the people and the culture, but they’re not the things that are necessarily advertised.
“To kind of make the city your own, you have to get past the publicity phase. Enjoy the beauty, but quit saying to yourself, ‘Oh, look where I am, ah, I’m just a gal from Canada; hey, look where I am.'”
When not writing short stories, Williams churns out articles, essays and documentaries on Italian life. Her broadcast pieces air regularly on Canada’s CBC and National Public Radio in the United States. She has written for the Toronto Globe and Mail, The South China Morning Post, Salon, and many other newspapers and magazines.
“Saving Rome,” stories by Megan K. Williams, published by Second Story Press in Toronto, is available through Amazon.com. Charmaine Wilkerson chatted with Williams in Rome.
“Saving Rome” has been billed as a book about the expatriate experience in Italy, but it’s about much more than that.
Obviously it gets pigeonholed as a book about expat women living in Rome. Which on one level it is. Rome is a character in these stories but these stories aren’t about Rome. They’re about relationships, really. But the nature of the book-selling industry is such that you need a kind of sexy angle that will put it above a collection of short stories about relationships. A lot of the stories are funny, but to me, there’s a kind of sad underbelly to many of them, too, which is about a kind of middle-aged sadness or the loneliness of being a foreigner. Motion is a story about the bittersweet nature of marriage, which is that, you know, it doesn’t answer all your questions and you don’t know where it’s going go, but you’ve just got to follow each positive sign as it comes.”
It seems as though this book is full insights into Italian life that you left on the cutting floor in editing your journalism.
A newspaper editor once said to me, “We want Mafia, quirky, and travel stories.” You know, “Aren’t those Italians funny, and aren’t they corrupt, and isn’t it beautiful.” Those tend to be the assignments. So what you try to do as a journalist, and what I tried to do in the book of short stories, was not to confirm those clichés. I mean, there’s some truth to them, but particularly if you’re writing as a foreigner I think it’s very important in the end to make the joke be on you. Because if you don’t, it’s very demeaning and disrespectful and dishonest. Because, let’s face it, you know, I’m the outsider here. So what I tried to do with these stories was to in some way reflect characters that aren’t able to integrate – which is really a failure on their part. I don’t mean to make them look bad, but again, particularly with the humorous stuff, the joke has to be on you, or the characters, it can’t be on the other people because it just comes across as making fun of them.
Which of the stories was the first to take shape?
Romeo Gone. [Editor’s note: The story concerns an elderly woman whose dog goes missing. The dog is found, but there’s a twist.] I started that one 10 years ago. I love that story but it’s a story that really divides people, because a lot of people hate it. They think it’s a cruel portrait of this woman but I love that character. It’s horrible what she does but it’s the only way she can survive. I did my undergraduate at McGill University, in Montreal, and I was one of these earnest female volunteers. I was with a woman and I walked her dog, so some of the details are from her. And then, two and a half years ago, there were all these D-Day celebrations in Italy, the 60th anniversary of the battle in Ortona. There were a lot of Canadians there. So I spent two days with these veterans. In the original draft of the short story, the woman had lost a brother but it wasn’t clear where; and then I thought, now wouldn’t it be interesting to connect these guys? It’s very different from the other stories, but it just gives you a different perspective, you know, a different age.
Is the short story more your voice?
Absolutely. It’s a different form. I love the short story. I grew up with Alice Munro, who’s Canadian. I grew up with Mavis Gallant, who’s a Canadian who writes expat fiction. These are the voices. It feels like a very Canadian tradition. I think in short stories. I go for walks and jogs and these stories, ideas, go through my head and I think, now how could I make this a novel? And I haven’t gotten there yet. I don’t know if I will.
I’d love to do another book of short stories, but if I want to be an economically-sustaining author, you can’t do it with short stories. It took Alice Munro 30 years to become Alice Munro, right? You can’t do it. You’ve gotta write novels.
Excerpt from the story “Home”
She grabbed a pair of underwear and some pants and dressed Luca again. Then she phoned Luigi.
“What’s up?” It was deadline time at the paper, the worst hour to call.
She whispered above the buzz. “There’s a problem.”
“There’s a carabiniere at the door.”
“Yes, he’s after me.” She laughed.
“I gave him the finger.”
“They’ve blocked off the parking because the American guy downstairs received some threat. The cop made me move the car.”
There was silence at the other end of the line.
“I’m thinking,” he said curtly. “How obviously did you give him the finger?”
“Oh, obviously. Yup, I’d say extremely obviously.”
“Merda. Why do you do these things?”
“Do you think I planned it? He had a rotten attitude. He didn’t laugh at Luca’s fart joke. I mean, come on. Lighten up.”
“Diana, carabinieri are permitted any attitude they want.”
“They’re absolutely permitted.”
There was a time not long after moving to Italy (though she didn’t want to think about that) when [Luigi] would have been delighted by her giving a cop the finger. He would have crowed about it at work, made it a much relied-upon classic of his party repertoire. His unpredictable, zany wife. Never a dull moment! Now she could barely walk into the room without feeling sudden oxygen depletion from the huge bracing breath he took.