Marco Rafalà - A Dark Secret Born Out of WWII
Marco Rafalà is a first-generation Sicilian American novelist, musician, and writer for award-winning tabletop role-playing games. He earned his MFA in Fiction from The New School and is a co-curator of the Guerrilla Lit Reading Series in New York City. Born in Middletown, Connecticut, he now lives in Brooklyn, New York. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review and LitHub. How Fires End is his debut novel. As our Author of the Day, he tells us all about it.
Please give us a short introduction to what How Fires End is about.
How Fires End is a Sicilian American family saga inspired by my father’s stories of his life in Sicily during and after the Second World War. In the novel, a vendetta and a curse follow two families from a small village in WWII Sicily to an Italian American community in Connecticut in the 1980s. The novel is told from multiple perspectives, beginning in Middletown, Connecticut with the story of a teenage boy named David and his immigrant father, Salvatore. When long-buried secrets come between them, the novel switches narrators, revealing the truth of what happened to Salvatore and his family in Sicily—and their eventual exile to America.
What inspired you to write about a dark secret born out of World War II?
This is a work of fiction but the setting and other elements are influenced by my own family history and the folklore of Melilli as told to me by my father. From these seeds, characters grew and a story began to take shape. In some places, I had to re-imagine family history and the history of Melilli to suit the needs of the novel—being careful to also protect that history where needed.
Why did you post WWII Sicily and 1980's Connecticut as the backdrop for your story?
I’m most interested in how poor and working-class people are swept up in larger than life events beyond their control. The stories about the Second World War that I grew up with were largely about its aftermath—from the Allied invasion of Sicily onward. I also saw the effects of that aftermath all around me. For example, each year, the Church of Saint Sebastian in Middletown, Connecticut, hosts a feast in honor of their patron saint, just as they do in Melilli. The faithful—called Nuri—dress in all white clothing with red sashes and run through the street barefoot (or in socks) carrying the statue of the saint and declaring their devotion. In Middletown, there was an older man who was always a Nuri, and he shouted the loudest and wept openly. When I asked my father why that man cried, my father said: “He lost everything in the war, and afterward he had only bad luck. Every year he asks the saint for help, to make life a little easier.”
So for me, the natural questions in writing about the Second World War were: What happens after the army sweeps through town and liberates you? What is left behind? How are you changed and how do you go on?
Tell us more about Salvatore Vassallo. What makes him tick?
There are three things that matter to Salvatore: his faith, his family, and his ability to care for those he loves. All his choices are driven by these three things—and little by little, he loses or is betrayed by each one. So, at each turn, the question is: how does he go on? How does he try to reclaim a piece of what he’s lost? In Sicily and in Connecticut, Salvatore spends a lot of time in his vegetable garden, hoping he’ll find the answer in the simple act of growing and caring for the plants that will sustain his family.
But he is deeply wounded by the trauma he carries from the war, so much so that his garden becomes a shield he can’t see beyond. He would never ask for help. He’s too reared in the culture of machismo. He would never think to go to a doctor or speak with a therapist. So the past just keeps bubbling up all around him: whether it’s his vendetta with Rocco or the ghosts of his brothers that follow him everywhere, even in the sanctuary of his garden.
Was there anything in particular, an incident or something you read, that made you want to tackle this?
The Italian journalist, Luigi Barzini once said: “Sicily is notoriously an astoundingly improbable island where outlandish and terrifying things happen every day, everywhere, to everyone as a matter of course, the kind of things novelists elsewhere have to invent with great labor and waste of time.”
I grew up listening to my father’s stories about his life in Melilli, Sicily. Despite all the pain and hardships there, the way my father talked about Melilli made it seem like a wonderful, almost magical place. I was fascinated with this village my father loved and missed so dearly.
I went to Melilli with my father for the first time in 2001—and that was when I really started writing the earliest pieces of what would later become this novel. The Sicilian and Sicilian American narrative is more than the mafia stories we see in film and television. I felt like it was important to give voice to some of those other stories—the stories of the people from Melilli who came to the United States for a better life and the people who stayed behind.
Are there any books or writers that have influenced your work?
More than any individual books, Italian Neorealist cinema-inspired my approach to this novel. Films like Rome Open City and The Bicycle Thief tell the stories of regular, everyday people whose lives were shaped by war on deeply personal levels. Rome Open City deals directly with the war, while The Bicycle Thief is about its aftermath, the hardships it brought. These films—shot in grainy black and white, starring mostly non-professional actors—didn’t gloss over the ugliness and heartbreak of war and economic hardship. And yet they also carried a quiet sense of hope for the future, looking to the children who would one day right the wrongs of the previous generation.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a new novel that came out of a line of dialogue in How Fires End. In Melilli, during the war, Salvatore’s father says to Vincenzo: “Soldiers came to our village last week. We prayed for help, and you know what happened? An American fell from the sky, pulled out of the clouds by the saint.” This line was also inspired by a story I heard from my father about a family in Melilli who helped hide an American paratrooper during the war. And so now I’m exploring where it takes me.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
Readers can check out my personal essay, When a Family Measures Time By Its Losses, on LitHub here https://lithub.com/when-a-family-measures-time-by-its-losses/
They can learn more about me and my work at my website: www.marcorafala.com
And they find me on Twitter or Instagram: