L’America the Beautiful

By: Jeff Schwachter

Vineland author Joe Orazi talks about his recent novel.

Over the last few decades, Vineland’s Joe Orazi has been an advertising copywriter, acclaimed songwriter, a successful playwright and even had a gig, during the mid-1980s, as a staff writer for the ABC daytime TV series Ryan’s Hope. He’s been writing for decades, but it wasn’t until last year that he published his first book, L’America. A work of historical fiction, the book follows three families from Italy to America in the decades before World War II.

Orazi, who will be appearing at a book-signing event during Vineland’s Founder’s Day celebration on May 18 (noon to 3 p.m., at the Palace of Depression), spoke to Follow Local News about his novel. Here are excerpts from the interview.   

What prompted you to write this book?

I’ve always been interested in my Italian heritage, but little did I know that all those hours sitting at the feet of my grandparents and great aunts and uncles was preparing me for this. Then, in 2002, I was hired to write and associate-produce a documentary on Italian immigration, assimilation and the largely unknown events leading up to World War II. The research for that film, Prisoners Among Us (released in 2004), hooked me. The documentary was well received, but I wanted the history to be made more accessible. So, I decided to write a novel of historical fiction, using composites of my family and the folks we interviewed for the documentary. The history is absolutely accurate, but the characters are fictitious.

What is the story you wanted to tell in L’America?

I think it’s extremely important that we all understand what our ancestors endured to make a way ultimately for us to live the lives we do in America. Italians are often a stubborn and proud group. It is certainly true of many we interviewed for the doc. We had to use a crowbar to pry the stories out of them. But once we did, the details were inspiring. Many have no idea what they endured. It is my intention to change that.

It seems like this project was quite an undertaking—how long did it take you to write from conception to completion?

As I mentioned, the genesis was the documentary I started working on in 2002. But I began to research in earnest around 2006. Because of the mass amount of work to catalogue the history, the book took about 10 years. I’m very anal about historical accuracy, so when I’m writing about a pickpocket in Palermo, Sicily in 1915, for example, I had to be sure I knew what his booty was and the architecture and streets that were his harvest fields at the time.

Apart from its author, is there any Cumberland County connection to the book?

There is, in fact, in the documentary. It’s a true story about discrimination in Vineland in 1923. Italians had a speakeasy on Cherry Street (back then that area was known as “Guinea Town”). Many officials in that day (politicians, bankers, lawyers) were actually members of the KKK, who were determined to rid Vineland of the Italian population (or at least scare it). They decided to burn a cross on the lawn of the speakeasy. The Italians got word, hid in the bushes, and when the men marched down the street with their robes and hoods and torches, the guys ambushed them. It wasn’t pretty. Over the next several weeks, there was a curious epidemic of injuries among bankers, lawyers and politicians. They never bothered them again.

The book deals with immigration in the early 20th century. Immigration is a topic that’s been in the news a lot recently. Did you have any of that in mind when writing?

Honestly, I never intended it to be political. After all, when I began 10 years ago, immigration wasn’t the hot button it is today. However, I’m happy about the timing of the book’s release because it tells an unbiased, straightforward tale of immigration into this country during arguably the largest influx of Irish, Italians, Germans and Slavs. The medical and psychological evaluations on Ellis Island were extensive. They even built a multi-story psychopathic pavilion to house those the doctors felt were not ready to enter society. And, in 1924, the Johnson Reed Act, the Asian Exclusion Act and the Natural Origins Act were all signed into law by President Coolidge. It slowed all immigration to a near halt. Try doing those things today. But most people don’t know that because most people don’t study history.

What was your favorite part about writing/researching the book?

The actual research. It opened so many new things to me. In fact, it often changed the direction of the book. As I said, I’m pretty meticulous about historical accuracy. For example, I know more about sardine fishing in Monterey, California in the 1920s than most should ever know. But it adds so much texture to the story.

What did you hope to accomplish with the book?

Actually, a couple things: First, I want people to learn about their ancestors’ struggles. Maybe attitudes about their families and their country would be altered a bit. Second, and this sounds like the wide-eyed optimist I was when I was writing for theater and TV in the ’80s, I’d like to see someone pick this up as a TV miniseries. I’ve written a treatment for a six-parter. I think it’s time that our story be told. We don’t just own pizza joints and off people.

Are you planning to write another book, perhaps one that continues the stories of these three families?

I’m six chapters in on book two. Book one follows the three families from 1915 to 1927. Book two will continue their stories through 1946.