Bad Luck and Trouble: Talking with Helene Stapinski about MURDER IN MATERA

Mystery Month 2017Was Helene Stapinski’s great-grandmother a killer? In her latest book, Murder in Matera, a hybrid true crime story, memoir, and travelogue, the author endeavors to find out. For research, she traveled to her ancestors’ home in the Basilicata region of Southern Italy, where she attempted to wrest grisly details from unfriendly locals still haunted by centuries of poverty and exploitation. The end result is a riveting, vivid, and heartbreaking story that shows just how strongly past traumas linger.

I called Stapinski at home in Brooklyn to talk with her about her astonishing book.

EUGENIA WILLIAMSON: How do you write a true crime book about your own family?

HELENE STAPINSKI: I guess I’ve never written one not about my family. I used to investigate criminals and corrupt politicians and dirty lawyers and all kinds of people on a regular basis, and I use the same approach on family and myself. I went all out.

My first book [Five Finger Discount, 2001] was about family history we knew already; it was just a matter of tracking it down. I really didn’t believe all of my mother’s stories until I started researching that book, and it blew my mind because everything she told me was true. I was going to the newspaper file from the 20s, 30s, 50s, and 60s—from every era, basically—and my family did all these crimes and [had] police files as well. I was like, “Oh my god.” It was all true and then some.

This book was about just one story that had been told over and over again, but we really had nothing to go on. Going to the library in Jersey City and looking stuff up or talking to the Jersey City Police Department is nothing compared to having to go to Southern Italy. [That research] took ten years. The first big trip I took there with my family, which is the first quarter of the book, was so awful. I didn’t want to make it too awful in the writing because I didn’t want people to run away from the book, but it was just so difficult. No one would talk to me. The people who didn’t know the story would shun me, and those who did know the story wouldn’t tell me. It was so frustrating. In America, you go someplace and ask for something and they give it to you.

 

The whole enterprise seems so fraught, like a psychological minefield. How did you get over exposing yourself and your family history?

I was used to it. I had done so much research for my first book, and people accepted my family story. The worst part [of writing this book] was people not wanting to talk to me because they were embarrassed about it—not just embarrassed, but ashamed. That’s still there, you know. In America, we reinvent ourselves every generation. It’s not like that [in Basilicata]. You’ve got a bad relative, and it stays with you for centuries.

 

Helene Stapinski

Your book has so much shocking and terrible southern Italian history. Did you know about how awful it was going in? 

I studied in Siena when I was in college, so I knew northern Italy. While I was there, everybody was like, don’t go to the south. I didn’t pay much attention to what people were saying. I just assumed it was the same country. I was not prepared at all. I had no idea.

When I first went, the south was stuck somewhere in the ’50s and ’60s. It’s really progressed since then. Women are much more involved in stuff. When I first went, a woman walking around asking question was this foreign, alien being. It just wasn’t done. I went in totally blind and really learned a lot, not just historically, but to respect the culture more than I had been. The first time I went, I was this brash reporter just trying to get information. I learned over time to see where these people were coming from and to handle it a little better.

Those ten years [in between trips] gave me that time to do that. . . I read everything I possibly could, and it really did shine this light on what the culture was like: century after century, millennium after millennium of being put down.

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About the Author:

Eugenia Williamson is the Associate Editor of Digital Products at Booklist. She worked in bookstores for twelve years, reviews books for The Boston Globe, and writes about books, culture, and politics for several other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Genie.

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