This morning at Caffe la Posta in Castiglion Fiorentino, as I was trying to read the Italian newspaper, I ran into professor Giuseppe Alpini. He asked me how the book is coming.
Oh, you didn’t know I’m writing a book?
I am writing a book called The Split-Second Forever. It is about how sudden decisions change lives for years and sometimes generations.
The idea for the book came in the early morning darkness in June 2015, when I awoke at the Residence Le Santucce in Castiglion Fiorentino after a very vivid dream. I felt in the room with me a nurturing and reassuring presence whose form I could almost make out in the darkness. It is a very hard thing to describe, but I felt that the spirit of the place was communicating with me. At that time I had no idea that we might move to Italy, but the very next month my wife Norma and I decided to sell our San Francisco house and move to Castiglion Fiorentino.
By November we had sold the house and were staying at Le Santucce, the renovated medieval convent where we had been holding writing workshops. I began writing about Le Santucce, the family who live there, the man who rebuilt it, and the conditions under which it had been destroyed.
It was destroyed by American bombers on December 19, 1943. Over seventy people in the town were killed in the bombing. Such are the tragic things of war, and such is the tragic history of Italy’s involvement in World War II.
In order to tell the story of Le Santucce I interviewed many people, and the theme of split-second decisions began to take form. Mirella Raffaelli, matriarch of the family, told me how she met her husband to be on a train from Orvieto to Milan in a very romantic way, through a split-second decision. I then thought of her son-in-law Alfeo, who decided to transform the pile of rubble left from World War II into the beautiful place now known as Residence Le Santucce. I then thought of the decision my wife Norma and I made in the summer of 2015 to sell our house in San Francisco and move to Castiglion Fiorentino, where the Tanganelli family cared for us and helped us make a new life in Italy.
I thought of the many decisions, germinated in an instant, that have shaped lives for generations. I thought of how that feeling of rightness comes over one, and of the struggle to determine if that feeling of rightness is a genuine harbinger of good fortune or if it is, as from time to time happens, a sinister delusion. Is it the voice of God, of one’s conscience, or some hidden desire twisted into an apparently divine presentiment?
I interviewed people and studied Italian history and pored over Renaissance manuscripts and slept and dreamed and imagined and studied. I wrote to scholars and writers. I wrote to Tobias Jones. I enlisted the help of a brilliant local translator. I interviewed everyone I could. I did not yet see a clear narrative arc. All I knew was that I wanted to write a book about the rebuilding of Le Santucce, how it came about and why.
Unless you are a writer or a worker in the publishing business you may not know that to publish a nonfiction book it is customary to first create a proposal and submit it to an agent. This is a process akin to slicing off thin strips of your own skin and boiling it, only more painful and not as interesting. Nevertheless authors around the world do this every day. When I had been writing for almost two years I turned to the task of pitching the book. In the course of that I visited a writers conference in Florence in the spring of 2018 and there I met an agent, a kind, practical man of taste, humor and intelligence, who looked at my writing and exclaimed, “This is beautiful. You are a beautiful writer!” I sensed what was coming, having been in the business a long time. After reading it in wonder, shaking his head, his parting words were, “But what’s the payoff?”
These words echoed in my head for months. I took notes, played with titles, made word clouds, sketched, dreamed, read histories of medieval convents and building techniques, histories of Fascism and Tuscan families, of Florence, of the Renaissance, of churches and agriculture. I prayed for some kind of narrative arc to come and asked myself why I wanted so much to tell these disparate stories–two beautiful twins on a train from Orvieto to Milan in May 1952, American bomber pilots in December 1943, a man deciding to turn a pile of rubble into a beautiful building in June 1990, our decision to sell our house and move to Castiglion Fiorentino in July 2015.
I realized that what connected them was that in each case, with a paucity of concrete information, with a great many unknowns, someone made a snap decision that changed lives for years or generations. The results were not always positive. For instance, on December 19, 1943, a pilot made a decision, having been unable to strike the primary target because of bad weather and poor visibility, to release thousands of tons of bombs over the medieval Tuscan hill town of Castiglion Fiorentino, killing over seventy men, women and children. On the other hand, a young woman on a train in 1952 decided to ask the soldier she had been flirting with to please mail a stack of postcards for her as he stepped down off the train in Bologna, leading to a marriage and children and the eventual rebuilding of Le Santucce.
So that is what I am writing about, and as Professor Alpini inquired about progress on the book I told him it was going slowly. Not the writing! I hastened to add. The writing is going great. It’s the selling. It’s the creating of a pitch and the sending of the pitch to agents and the waiting for a response.
That seems to be taking forever. But I sense that somewhere, someone will make a split-second decision that will change my life forever.