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Graduate keeps ties with SMC

Megan O'Neil | Friday, March 3, 2006

On May 17, 2003, New York Times bestselling author and Saint Mary’s alumna Adriana Trigiani delivered a hilarious commencement address at the College. Titled “Guts, Blind Faith, and Sun Block,” it had graduates and their families rolling on the LeMans Hall Green.

“As of eight o’clock tomorrow morning [your parents] would like you to leave them alone … Your mothers have asked me to tell you that their homes are not storage bins. Please, when you move on, take your junk with you,” Trigiani joked.

The scene exemplified the warm relationship Trigiani has maintained with her alma mater since graduating in 1981 and moving on to a distinguished writing career.

“Adri has just been very, very generous [with Saint Mary’s students] and I think she is with her readers too,” English department chair Max Westler said.

After relocating from South Bend to New York City, Trigiani founded an all-female comedy troupe “The Outcasts” and later worked as a writer and producer for television shows such as “The Cosby Show,” “A Different World” and “City Kids.” Her 1996 documentary “Queens of the Big Time” won the Audience Award at the Hamptons Film Festival and toured internationally.

It was a screenplay called “Big Stone Gap,” however, that gave rise to Trigiani’s career as a well known novelist and made her a dorm room name at Saint Mary’s. In 2000 she published her first book, ‘Big Stone Gap,’ about a 30-something-year-old woman of Italian descent living in a Virginia mining town. Two more books based on the same character, “Big Cherry Holler” and “Milk Glass Moon,” followed, rounding out what is now known as the Big Stone Gap Trilogy. Her three most recent titles, “Lucia, Lucia,” “The Queen of the Big Time” and “Rococo” all made the New York Times bestsellers list and have been popular selections for book clubs across the country.

“It’s a big deal when you make the New York Times list because authors know it’s an impossible list to crack … It was very sweet the first time and since then, sweeter still,” Trigiani said.

After receiving it as a gift, junior Allison Beyer read “Big Stone Gap” unaware its author was a Saint Mary’s graduate. She enjoyed the book so much she went on to read “Big Cherry Holler” and “The Queen of the Big Time” – her favorite of the three.

“I just really liked the character development in [“The Queen of the Big Time”] and how [Trigiani] describes the relationships between the sisters,” Beyer said.

It made her excited and proud when she finally learned Trigiani was an alumna, Beyer said.

Trigiani’s novels are not confined to the private bookshelves of Saint Mary’s students, however, they are being utilized in literature classes at the College.

English professor Laura Haigwood included a work by the writer on one of her course’s syllabus for the third time this semester. Students are often able to relate to Trigiani’s Catholic, European-descendent characters, Haigwood said, and her books lend themselves to thoughtful discussion of women’s issues.

“I was surprised by how very much they enjoyed reading her,” Haigwood said. “Some people would say it was their favorite book [of the course].”

In addition to using her work to teach literary analysis, Haigwood said, she holds Trigiani up as an example for current students.

“I always mention that she is an alumna because I think it is important for our students to know what our graduates are doing,” Haigwood said.

Senior Clare Hoyt knew the name Trigiani before she enrolled at Saint Mary’s. Her mother was a classmate and friend of the author. She read several of Trigiani’s novels, one as part of class, and said she enjoys her writing style.

“I think it is very good for the school,” Hoyt said. “It just shows that people that go here can be very successful and it is a really good selling point.”

Trigiani’s books are a favorite at the Saint Mary’s bookstore, said bookkeeper Bob DeZenzo, with “Big Stone Gap” at the top of the list. Sales are particularly strong during alumnae weekends, DeZenzo said.

“I do a lot of touring and I meet a Saint Mary’s girl, or three or 10, at every stop,” Trigiani said. “The Saint Mary’s-Notre Dame community of [graduates has] been very kind to me, as well as their children.”

Prior to Saint Mary’s alumna Mary Campe’s 2003 graduation, she was not familiar with Trigiani’s novels. The novelist’s speech was so powerful, Campe said, that her grandmother ordered a copy of the graduation video.

“It touched everybody in the audience,” she said. “She did such a good job of [connecting to] not only the students, but with parents, grandparents and siblings.”

Campe promptly went out and purchased a copy of Trigiani’s “Big Stone Gap” and said she understands why the writer has been so successful.

Professors who taught Trigiani remember her as flamboyant and fun. Sister Jean Klene, who was mentioned by name in the 2003 commencement speech, said as a student Trigiani would wear bold flower print dresses and decorate her papers with drawings. When she spotted her across campus or in the dinning hall, Klene said, she would attract attention by hollering “My nun, my nun.”

“[As a student] I was an unsophisticated, high-energy ball of undirected fire, and luckily my professors took the talent underneath all that very seriously and gave me incredible opportunities,” Trigiani said.

Saint Mary’s affection for Trigiani is matched equally by her love for the College. In addition to her 2003 visit, she has returned to campus several times for book signings, DeZenzo said, and she is tentatively scheduled to attend alumnae weekend in June.

Further, the College is mentioned explicitly in Trigiani’s work. In “Milk Glass Moon,” the main character, Ave Maria, insists her daughter – set on attending architecture school at the University of Virginia – at least visit Saint Mary’s before making her final decision.

“I am very grateful to hear that my books are being read at my beloved College,” Trigiani said. “I am at the beginning of what I hope will be a long career in books so when I hear that my books are being used in the classroom, I want to holler, ‘No, wait, I’m getting better at this – promise!”

The writer has even gone so far as to employ recent Saint Mary’s graduates. Allison Roche, a 2005 alumna, currently works as Trigiani’s personal assistant in Manhattan.

“I love to hire Saint Mary’s women, and Notre Dame for that matter, because I know how well-trained and [well-read] graduates of these schools are – and you take work seriously, which is a must if you are going to work with me,” Trigiani said.

Trigiani lives in Greenwich Village with her husband, Tim Stephenson – an Emmy award winning lighting director for The Late Show – and three-year-old daughter, Lucia.

“Being a mother sobered me up,” she said. “I never worried about anything – really, I’m one of those people who is not afraid of anything.”

Westler, who described his former student as “the funniest women on the planet,” said any Saint Mary’s woman who contacts Trigiani can expect a timely response. He has no shame in dropping her name in class and said the College has a dependable friend in New York.

“When I think about Adri, I think as bad as some things are in the world, there are people like her trying to turn it around,” Westler said.