Arts August 4, 2008

The Writer’s Wife

Literary star falls through the earth, lands in Sun Valley

Danielle Trussoni was six when she decided to read her mother’s collection of Danielle Steel books. (The other choice was a set of encyclopedias.) Soon after, she decided she would be a writer, too. After all, she reasoned, she was also named Danielle.

And Danielle Trussoni did grow up to be a writer, overcoming an amazingly dysfunctional childhood and youth. And she far outshone the other Danielle with her first book. Her work, Falling Through the Earth: A Memoir, was critically acclaimed and was honored among The New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2006.

Her wrenching memoir details her experience growing up in Wisconsin with an alcoholic father, who was seriously damaged by his experiences in the Vietnam War. After his return to Wisconsin, he remained preoccupied with Vietnam, kept a skull and pictures of the dead enemy and told dreadful stories, usually on his way to being drunk. Eventually, he would be diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but too late to make him a kinder human. By then he was dying of cancer, in part due to exposure to Agent Orange.

As a husband, he was both unfaithful and unkind. As a father, he was hard, and insisted on hardness from his children. While gutting a doe he has shot in nearby woods, he notes she has milk and Danielle expresses concern about what will happen to her fawn. Her father’s dismissive reply: “If it’s strong, it will learn to feed itself.”

When her parents divorced and her mother brought in a new man, Danielle chose to move in with her father, whom she adored despite his quirks. To say she was in his care assumes too much. . . she was his sidekick . . . sitting with him for hours at his favorite bar, riding in his truck as he evaded law officers trying to nail him for drunk driving once more, hearing his intimate moments with woman after woman he brought home. That she grew up skipping school, almost entirely, and shoplifting and drinking and doing drugs seems a given. That she made it out of the mess, went to college and then won a scholarship to the prestigious Iowa Writers’ program is the surprise.

While at the University of Wisconsin, Danielle Trussoni took a course on Vietnam and the germ of her story began. To complete her understanding of the man she loved and sometimes hated, Trussoni, then 24, went to Vietnam where her father had served as a “tunnel rat,” cleaning out the booby-trapped tunnel systems where North Vietnamese soldiers had hidden.

By reading interviews after her book was published, we learn how the wild child Danielle became an acclaimed writer, a wife and mother, a teacher of writing, a cheerful and charming presence on various websites, a wit. She was saved and shaped by books, she acknowledges. It was a passion she was able to indulge by working for or hanging out with booksellers who let her read.

Now you may have a chance to see her in the Valley’s book stores, as she spends the summer as writer-in-residence in the Sun Valley Center for the Arts’ program. She’ll live upstairs in the old Ezra Pound House in Hailey. (As part of the program, she will teach a workshop in memoir writing June 11 to 15 and will read from her work June 12 at the Center.)

Though she has traveled the world, Trussoni, now 33, has not been to Sun Valley before. And while it’s a wonderful summer idyll for tourists and residents, she plans to leave her husband and two young children back East so that she can get some serious work done. She is married to the Bulgarian writer, Nikolai Grozni, whom she met while at Iowa. While she has worked on her memoir, he has already been a celebrated writer in Europe and up until the publication of her book, she says, she was “the writer’s wife.” Now she’s famous, too, and she anticipates he’ll earn major attention in the U.S. with his first English-language book due soon. >>>


Q) Could you review how you came to be the writer-in-residence at Sun Valley this summer?
A) I was contacted by Sun Valley and asked to be the writer-in-residence. I had heard of Sun Valley before, and had always admired it.

Q) What do you hope to accomplish during this time . . . do you have a work in progress you want to discuss?
A) I’m in the middle of a novel, and I hope to be able to work on it while at Sun Valley. The first draft is very hard for me. I have two small children at home, so I don’t have a lot of free time. I hope that my time in Sun Valley will give me the time and space to keep going.

Q) You’ll be teaching a class in memoir writing. Have you taught such a class before?

A) I’ve taught creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa (along with fiction and poetry writing in a Studio Creative Writing class) and at Boston University.

Q) What’s the main thrust of such a class: How to tell if you have a memoir worth printing OR just learning how to manage what you have to tell?
A) I will be focusing on how to structure such a story. I’d also like to work with students on elements of voice, narrative tension, and dramatic arc in memoir. I believe that everyone has a unique and important perspective and that this utter individuality allows us to tell a distinct story. Memoir, in my opinion, allows one to create a new history of the self. It is surely one of the most personal forms. I think that publishing is really the last and least important stage of this process.

Q) You are a thoroughly Internet-modern writer, with your own website, contributions to various literary blogs, etc. Will you be writing about your Sun Valley experience while you are here?
A) It may seem like I’m a modern, Internet-savvy writer, but I really do not like to blog or to be writing about my day-to-day experiences. Even though my first book was a memoir, I am a very private person. I feel like I’m giving too much of myself away when I blog. Besides, the amount of energy it takes to create a piece of writing always overwhelms me, and I’d rather be working on a book than writing online. I’m quiet by nature, and so I will probably refrain from writing about my experience at Sun Valley (at least while I’m there!)

Q) Let’s discuss your big book, Falling Through the Earth. When did you start thinking about writing this book?
A) I started to think about this topic when I was in college. I took a class called “The Vietnam Wars” as a senior, and it was in this class that I really started to understand that my personal experiences with my father were really a part of a larger context, one that included millions of people all over the world. I interviewed my father about the tunnels for a term paper. The experience of taping these conversations was so emotional that I couldn’t stop thinking about how wonderful it would be to put my father’s experiences down on paper. Originally, I thought of the project as a sort of memorial to him and his time as a tunnel-rat. But as I began to experiment with form (I wrote about the tunnels in the short story form, as a novel, as historical nonfiction and then as a memoir), I realized that I was much more a part of the story than I had originally thought. When I allowed my experience to filter into the story, things really began to click.

Q) How did you manage to afford, at 24, to go to Vietnam?
A) What a great question. I was teaching English in Japan when I was 24, and my salary was enough that I could afford to fly to Vietnam. Vietnam is also very inexpensive, once you’re there, and that made the trip more affordable.

Q) Just after reading your book, I got a family-travel magazine with a feature on taking the kids to Vietnam. I found it rather creepy given what I’d just read. Would you consider that a prime spot to take your family?
A) You know, everyone has a different experience in Vietnam. My experience was one that was deeply colored by the emotional baggage I carried with me. I know people who have gone to Vietnam and have had a delightful vacation. I think that my experience is filled with menace because of my life before going to Vietnam. The Vietnamese people are really very lovely. I would highly recommend going.

Q) When I finished your book, I was left wondering, “How did she come out of that a writer, and not an inmate in a Wisconsin prison for women?” Then I read a sort of key explanation you wrote for a website in which you said that while you didn’t go to school much (instead you spent time drinking, taking drugs and pilfering at local stores), you also spent tons of time reading, hanging out in book stores, etc. Did you avoid that subject on purpose?
A) I did. I did not want this to be a book about how I became a writer. I wanted this to be a book about my experience with my father. If one goes through the book, every scene forms a triangle between me, my father and his war. This structure was very much something I imposed, and I was rigid in keeping it. The manuscript for Falling Through the Earth was originally much longer, but I cut a lot of scenes because I felt that they were extraneous. Some of those scenes involved my obsessive writing and reading; others involved my time at the University of Wisconsin, where I double majored in English and History and graduated Summa Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa. Leaving that world was where I made myself who I am, but my book had to be 100 percent about the world of my childhood.

Q) One more thing about that: One frustrated fan/blogger who interviewed you included your family photos on her report. Why didn’t you include pictures in your book?

A) I don’t think that literature needs photographs. If the language is visual, the reader will see what the writer is creating. I would never have included photos in this book. It just isn’t my style.

Q) Did reading make you want to be a writer? Did your own personal story make you a writer rather than a drive to write fiction?
A) Reading absolutely made me want to write. I’ve always been a huge reader, the kind of person who brings 20 books home from the library and stays in bed all day on Saturday. And my story did drive me to write, but that story took me to fiction and nonfiction equally. I think that memoir just happened to accommodate my story well. My next book will be a novel. Each story dictates its form.

Q) Were you encouraged at school? Did you win a scholarship to Iowa?
A) I wasn’t encouraged in high school, but I loved reading so much that by the time I was 18, I knew that I wanted to go to college. Once I got into a university, I felt very much at home. And I did so well as an undergraduate that I did win a scholarship to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Q) You met your husband, Nikolai Grozni, at Iowa. And the two of you moved to Bulgaria, his home country. Can you give a bit more detail on that?
A) Nikolai was part of the International Writers Program at Iowa. We met and then moved to Sofia, Bulgaria (where he was born), and we lived there for three years. I wrote Falling Through the Earth in Sofia, and we had a daughter while we lived there.

Q) About your husband: If you Google him, you get stories about you, where he is mentioned. How is that for his ego? Is he competitive with you?
A) Nikolai has written three novels in Bulgarian, but these do not show up on Google or in English language search engines. When we lived in Sofia, Nikolai was a literary star and I was the “writer’s wife” who watched her husband on television. So my success over the past year has been wonderful for both of us. We both feel that we’re established in our respective countries. That may soon change, however; Nikolai has his first book in English coming out soon.

Q) About your book: How could you decide that Vietnam made the difference in how your father behaved, since he was rather rough and tumble from the beginning and had not been an ideal man before Vietnam?
A) This is a question I pondered quite a lot before I wrote my book. My father did have a difficult childhood, and he was a rough character before the war, but I believe that being a tunnel rat exasperated all of this. He brought home a human skull, and had terrible pictures of men he had killed, and had a very calloused view of what it meant to feel anything at all. These traits, I believe, developed after the war. I also compared my dad to his brothers and sisters who were not in intense combat and found that my father was very different than they were.

Q) I was so horrified by the chapter in which you kids are left with a young babysitter and a near-tragedy occurs. Like the cop on the scene says, “Who the heck is in charge of you kids?” I felt that way while you were pretty much left alone to raise yourself once you decided to live with your father. Your father wanted no forgiveness for how he behaved, but how did your mother handle the way you wrote about her throughout?
A) My mom was very upset when the book was published. I think that she thought that I was judging her, and that my book was a condemnation of her parenting. But after we talked about the book, and she understood that this was simply my perspective about what had happened many years ago, and that the childlike point of view was used to create an effect, she became more supportive of the book. She’s thrilled that the book has been successful.

Q) How are you as a parent determined to raise your own kids? How will you keep from passing down the obsession on weight and toughness you were raised with?
A) If anything, I am the permissive parent, the one that doesn’t ask for our kids to “be tough” or strong. I play it by ear, but I feel that I’m a very different person than my father was. I don’t have mental health issues such as PTSD and I have created a very positive family environment.

Q) I have a relative who was a Green Beret in Vietnam. I asked him if he thought the war could make you into a bad guy. He said, “Nah, a lot of guys had no problems.” Then later he told me he wished he hadn’t visited such physical punishment on his two boys, who are now grown: “It made them mean,” he said. Do you think we’ll have the same sort of generational trickle down from the Iraq war?
A) Absolutely, and it will be worse. The men and women who are in Iraq are in continual contact with insurgents, and they have been there more than one tour, for the most part. It is very sad to see history repeating itself this way.

Q) Did I read you are a Buddhist? You should feel at home here because the Dalai Lama was here in 2005 and there is a blessed prayer wheel here. Your husband went to BE a monk and is writing about that? What’s the connection?
A) I believe that mind is the only thing in the universe that was not created and cannot be destroyed, and that matter is a manifestation of mind. In that sense, I’m a Buddhist. I don’t meditate or practice any of the Buddhist rituals that some do, but I think that essentially I am a Buddhist. Nikolai lived in India for four years and studied at the Dalai Lama’s School for Buddhist Dialectics in Darmasala. We were both Buddhists before we met. I think that is one of the reasons we clicked.


This article appears in the Summer 2007 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.