Rosina Lippi is a former academic and tenured university professor. Since 2000 she spends her time haunting the intersection where history and storytelling meet, wallowing in 19th century newspapers, magazines, street maps, and academic historical research. And she never gets bored with any of it.
Under the pen name Sara Donati she is the author of the Wilderness series, six historical novels that follow the fortunes of the Bonner family in the vast forests in upstate New York, from about 1792-1825. Her newest novel about the Bonner family is The Gilded Hour. The new series jumps ahead past the destruction of the Civil War to follow Nathaniel and Elizabeth’s granddaughters into the twentieth century.
Under her own name Rosina writes contemporary novels (and academic work, for example here). The majority of her book reviews can be found at Goodreads; you can also find her on Facebook and Twitter (@RosinaLippi). She lives on Puget Sound with her husband, daughter, two elderly dogs and a rambunctious cat. Sara lives with Rosina and her family, but refuses to answer the phone, do windows or make herself useful in any way at all.
More than you probably wanted to know:
- I grew up in Chicago on the northwest side (Irving Park Road and Lincoln Avenue, or 3500 North/4000 West, for those in the know)
- Remember Looking for Mr. Goodbar? I lived in Sandburg Village near Rush Street for much of the Mr. Goodbar years.
- I am agnostic, or you can call me an infidel if that suits you better.
- Dogs are my favorite creatures; I have two of them and would probably have five if circumstances permitted.
- Other places I have lived include Boston, Princeton, Vorarlberg Austria, and Ann Arbor.
- I played cello in high school. Very badly.
- My husband is (a) a Brit and (b) a mathematician. I refer to him here as the Mathematician.
- My father’s parents came from Italy before there was an Ellis Island or even a Statue of Liberty. They were admitted through the Castle Garden on the Battery in New York city.
- On my mother’s side I can trace ancestors back to New Amsterdam in 1660, Massachusetts Bay Colony, colonial Rhode Island and Connecticut, and the the Delaware Water Gap. I am directly descended from men who fought in the French and Indian War, the Revolution, the War of 1812 and World War I.
- I am the first person in the family (on both sides) to get a B.A., M.A. and PhD.
- For much of my life I had a lot of unruly thick curly hair down to my hips. Menopause is a bitch.
- Politically I am left of left of left.
- I was in labor for three months. Really.
- If I had it all to do over again, I’d get a dual degree in linguistics and sociocultural anthropology.
- I taught at the university level for twelve years. My favorite subject to teach was introduction to linguistics.
- My favorite foods include white nectarines, Ranier cherries, scallops, bi bim bop, chicken piccata, bread and strong cheese, and chocolate (in particular, gianduja)
- I have over a million words in print with major publishers.
- I fall under the INTJ Meyers-Briggs category, which is true of less than two percent of the female population. I value understanding my role in the world at large, and try to be self-aware. The most important thing to INTJs is demonstrating their competence and making important things happen.
- My favorite Monty Python sketch is “The Argument Clinic.”
- I follow the careers of prominent Italian Americans with considerable interest. I like the Cuomos but I believe that Rudy Guliani, Alfonse D’Amato and Anthony Scalia should be put in a small, dark room together with only each other to talk to, until they learn some manners. This should be after Scalia is impeached for his participation in the treasonous ruling on the 2000 election.
- I am slowly turning into a small, round matronly Italian old lady; it’s my genetic fate, but I still am sad about it.
- When I was one month old, the movie The Invasion of the Body Snatchers premiered. A few months later, congress passed a joint resolution authorizing “In God We Trust” as the U.S. national motto and Eisenhower signed it. Coincidence? I think not. I also have doubts about the official stance on the Kennedy assassination.
On a less frivolous note
I was born and raised in Chicago. Some of my earliest memories are of the Lincoln Avenue neighborhood where I grew up above a photographer’s studio. The photographer, a man from Germany, filled the shop window next to our front door with black-and-white photographs of silver anniversary couples and chunky babies and brides with bubble hairdos. He tinted cheeks pink and eyes blue and added a string of pearls to a pretty neck now and then. Next to us was a barber, also from Germany. Even the corner tavern was German, but we weren’t. To this day I don’t know how we ended up in that neighborhood where you could buy marzipan and knackwurst.
In my family everything was about food. Every conversation was about food even when it was about something else. My mother was a waitress. My father was a cook in an Italian restaurant; he got up at four in the morning to do the marketing for the restaurant, which was half way across the city in Little Italy. When I was very little he would take me along sometimes to the Water Street Market. I remember the chickens in their cages, and the sides of beef hung up in a strange inverted forest, swinging silently.
We were not a religious family, but my younger sister and I went to a Catholic school, St. Benedict’s. I got an excellent education and I learned a lot about kindness and intolerance, the importance of community and its restrictions. I learned to trust, and not to. I learned to admire strong women. The sisters helped me survive some very hard times at home. They helped me get an American Field Service scholarship to Austria when I was seventeen. By that time my mother had died, my sisters had moved of the house, and my father was feeling the need to be on the road. I spent the summer in Austria and then went back on my own, the day after I graduated from high school. In retrospect, I think I wanted to be taken in by the community, to find or create a perfect family for myself. I went to teacher’s college in Vorarlberg and taught grade school. After two years I went home to Chicago.
The next seven years I wandered from Chicago to Boston and New Jersey and back to Chicago. I managed to pull myself together, went back to school, and finished my undergraduate degree. In a fit of sudden clarity about what interested me –the political and social context of language — I went to graduate school at Princeton. It was a way to get to Austria again: I wrote my doctoral thesis on variation and change in the variety of Alemannic spoken in the villages where I had lived. To write the dissertation required extended fieldwork sessions in Vorarlberg just talking to people and recording them. In the process I learned more and more about storytelling. Even as I was analyzing vowels and looking at negation strategies, other lessons struck a different and deeper chord. I went home with enough language data for my dissertation and with a hundred stories humming in my head.
I met my husband (aka the Mathematician) in graduate school; we married; we had a daughter. I got my first academic faculty position at the University of Michigan and immersed myself in that for a good while. I published enough to get tenure after the usual agonies and intrigues. In 1997 I wrote English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States. Almost twenty years later it is still the standard work in the field. That research turned me into something of an activist in the area of language rights.
Through all of my early academic life, stories kept churning and turning in my subconscious. I started writing seriously when I was about thirty-two. Little by little my focus shifted to storytelling. Homestead was written over a five-year period and workshopped regularly with a group of women in Ann Arbor. Homestead grew out of my conviction that the quiet lives of women in an unfamiliar corner of the Alps were stories that I could not keep them to myself. These women lead hard lives, but they have such rich inner resources, and in the most important ways they are like women everywhere. And so I started with Laura’s story and the novel grew organically out of her broken wedding ring.
At the same time I was pursuing other stories. Into the Wilderness (under my pen name, Sara Donati) came into being because I wanted to read stories of the women on the New York frontier in the post revolutionary period. Since no one else seemed inclined to write those stories, I began to consider writing one after re-reading James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers. I suppose on some level I wanted to build on the legends that grew up around the real life character Daniel Boone, which of course served as Cooper’s model for Natty Bumppo.
I wasn’t so much interested in retelling the story of The Last of the Mohicans — that has been done often enough — but I was interested in Hawkeye’s later life. So I set out to do a few things: first, write a very loose retelling of The Pioneers (keeping some of the plot, some of the characters, and some of the themes, especially the environmental ones); second, to tell the story from the female perspective (Cooper was a fine storyteller, but he didn’t write women very well — they come across as idealized and two-dimensional); third, to put my own spin on the legend of the frontiersmen and women who populated the New-York frontier; fourth, to try my best not to contribute to the stereotypes rampant in literature about the Mohawk. I hoped to portray them as a people who survived in spite of great hardship. Because I wanted to put my own version on paper, I changed Hawkeye’s name yet again. Not Bumppo or Po or Boone, but Bonner. So I have a Dan’l Bonner and his son, Nathaniel Bonner. This was contrary to Cooper’s storyline for the Leatherstocking Tales, in which Hawkeye ends his days alone and disillusioned. I gave Hawkeye and Cora a son, Nathaniel, and I opened the story almost forty years after the fall of Fort William Henry.
Then I needed a female character to challenge Nathaniel and the wilderness both, a woman who would come to see the endless forest with new eyes. I was re-reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion (I try to reread all of Jane Austen every year) when I began to wonder about her characters. What would Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice have done, how would she have acted, if Darcy had decided to pursue his future in the wilderness of the newly formed United States? What if Captain Wentworth, upon marrying Anne Elliot and taking her away from her obnoxious Kellynch family, had said “let’s see what adventures await, let’s get out of this genteel country neighborhood setting?” What about Jane herself, if she hadn’t come down with the disease that killed her at such a terribly young age, what if she had been given the opportunity to travel away?
Jane Austen probably would not have given up her quiet home and family. But her characters, there was another issue. Thinking about them, eventually my Elizabeth Middleton took shape: a woman aware of the world and her role in it, and never quite resigned to either. She has some of Elizabeth Bennett’s insight, Anne Elliot’s curiosity about the world, Elinor Dashwood’s extreme rationality, her sister Marianne’s passion. But there is also a dash of Mary Bennett in Elizabeth: the book obsessed young woman understood by none of her family. Mary Bennett has always seemed to me the one female character in Pride and Prejudice who gives away some of Jane Austen’s own weaknesses. Austen is unable to show any kindness towards Mary, and I have always wondered why. Mary is exactly that kind of woman relegated to the corner who has always interested me in terms of fiction — both in Homestead and in the Wilderness novels.
I’m often asked why I write such different kinds of novels. There’s a subtext to this question, of course. People want to know how I feel about the fact that some reviewers call Into the Wilderness and Dawn on a Distant Shore “romance novels”.
It’s true that I don’t generally refer to them that way. I call them historical fiction or historical adventure (a lot of research goes into each one and a prime concern is making the era come to life); beyond that, I hope to keep the reader turning the pages, interested in the characters and the plot. There is a lot of plot; some of it has to do with a love story; if a love story is a “romance novel”, then it makes sense to call these novels romance. But the whole business of categorizing novels this way is a complicated one.
It is interesting to me that a love story written by a man will escape the romance label and the stigmatization that comes with it —The Bridges of Madison County comes to mind — no matter how well or how poorly it is written, while love stories written by women are automatically categorized. All of this seems to be to be part of a larger impulse to trivialize anything that might be seen as originating from, or of interest to, women. To my mind, a love story is of no less intrinsic value than a mystery or a coming-of age novel. I’d consider Pride and Prejudice, Taming of the Shrew, A Room with a View, and many other works of fiction I admire romances. It’s not the term I object to, but the underlying tone that comes along with it, which is dismissive and condescending. I will continue to write both novels that are more character driven and novels that are very plotted, because both kinds of story telling interest me and each is rewarding in its own way. A good story is my aim, and I see more than one way to get there.