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Trigiani's Southern comfort

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NEW YORK -- The Adriana Trigiani who answers the door to her brick town house in Greenwich Village is not the same Adriana Trigiani who, when promoting her novels, blows into bookstores like a force of nature.

When she's "on," she's larger than life, making people laugh with her self-deprecating humor.

The at-home Trigiani, looking comfortable in jeans and T-shirt, her trademark curly hair piled high on her head, is more low-key.

She still exudes the warmth, humor and generosity that cause readers to consider her more like a sister or a friend than a best-selling author. She sends gifts to their babies, mails birthday cards, calls those with health problems. And she's ready to talk seriously about her latest projects.

One of the reigning queens of women's fiction, she has had six best sellers in six years. Trigiani, 46, has completed her seventh novel, Home to Big Stone Gap (Random House, $25.95), out today. She's even more excited about the movie version of her debut novel, Big Stone Gap, published in 2000. Filming is scheduled to begin in the spring.

Big Stone Gap takes place in the town of the same name nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia, where Trigiani grew up. The home she shares with her husband, Tim Stephenson, lighting designer for Late Show With David Letterman, and daughter Lucia, 4, is nothing like the rustic homes in Big Stone Gap. It's more reminiscent of the decor described in two of her city-centric novels, Lucia, Lucia and Rococo. The high-ceilinged rooms are decorated in warm shades of pink, rose and gold, and the couches and chairs have that relax-and-put-your-feet-up feeling despite the rich fabrics that cover them.

Big Stone Gap begins the story of Ave Maria Mulligan, who at 35 is the Appalachian town's official spinster and pharmacist. She has spent too much time reading and not enough time sorting out her life. In this town, everybody's love life, or lack of it, is everybody else's business. The plot focuses on the revelation of a family secret and the transformation of Ave's life from quiet desperation and loneliness to self-discovery and lasting love.

Big Cherry Holler and Milk Glass Moon are the second and third books in the series. In Home to Big Stone Gap, Ave, who has moved into middle age, struggles to come to terms with her teenage daughter's marriage and wonders what the future holds for herself and her husband, Jack.

Taking charge of the movie

Trigiani is the rare novelist who also has written the screenplay for her book and will direct the movie. Her tight control over the story's jump to the big screen is part of her determination to tell the story in her own way.

"If I had sold the film rights, it would have been just another romantic comedy with dramatic elements. It would have been less authentic," she says. "It's a way to show the world what I really see in the story and what I think is important about the landscape and the people."

Big Stone Gap itself experienced a bit of notoriety before Trigiani's first book. While visiting the town in 1978, actress Elizabeth Taylor was hospitalized after choking on a chicken bone at a campaign event with her then-husband, Senate candidate John Warner. A fictionalized version of the incident takes place in Trigiani's book and also will occur in the movie.

Big Stone Gap will be produced by Storefront Pictures, which was founded by Susan Cartsonis. She produced What Women Want, starring Mel Gibson, and Where the Heart Is, featuring Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd and Sally Field.

Cartsonis says it will share "the Southern sense of humor and Southern sense of community" found in such movies as Steel Magnolias and Fried Green Tomatoes. Trigiani expects to hear soon whether the actress she wants to play Ave Maria will commit.

"In my mind, I need an actress that can embody the deep loneliness of Ave's story and then, the real deep connections she makes." The actress, whom Trigiani won't name, is in "the pantheon, the top 10, however you define it. It's someone I've handpicked and have all along said, 'This is the woman.'"

The musical score will be created by Trigiani's close friend Rosanne Cash, whom she calls her "honorary sister."

Cartsonis is supporting Trigiani's dreams for the movie. "We want the spirit of the movie to be in sync with the book, and the creative heart and creative center of that is Adriana. I want to make sure the script is true to the book, especially because the book is so beloved."

Starting a prolific career

Success as a popular author was a long time coming for Trigiani, but her involvement in the arts always has been center stage. After graduating from Saint Mary's College in South Bend, Ind., where she majored in theater, she moved to New York, supported herself with temp jobs and started a comedy troupe, The Outcasts. The all-female group performed on the cabaret circuit for seven years beginning in 1982.

She eventually wrote for television shows, including A Different World and The Cosby Show. In 1996, she wrote and directed an award-winning documentary, Queens of the Big Time, about life in Roseto, Pa., the town where she was born.

Trigiani co-wrote a cookbook, Cooking With My Sisters, with her sister Mary. She also has written the screenplay for Lucia, Lucia, for which film rights have been optioned, and she's developing a half-hour pilot for a comedy series for NBC based on her novel Rococo, about a flamboyant New Jersey interior decorator and his over-the-top friends and family.

In an effort to reach out to reading groups, she's working on a DVD in which she talks about her books and takes readers on a tour of Greenwich Village, where Lucia, Lucia takes place. When completed, it will be available free on her website,

She also has begun writing a three-part series she describes as an intergenerational family saga that takes place in Greenwich Village. She expects the first book to be published in spring 2008.

Bonding with her readers

Trigiani says she's not driven by success, fame or fortune. "What drives me is the ferocious delight I get from the written word. That's what turns me on in every way."

That doesn't mean she's timid about noting her accomplishments. She is an indefatigable self-promoter who has been known to walk into a bookstore, autograph all the copies of her books and then phone the publisher if she thinks the store's stock needs replenishing. She has energetically courted book clubs across the country.

"Book clubs have made my career 100%. Those girls, and men too, spread the word about my books. I have them to thank."

The success of her books rests, in part, on their appeal to different generations.

Karen LoCastro, 43, of New York, has read Trigiani's books, and her book club -- her mother also is a member -- has discussed all of them. She hosted a dinner for her club that Trigiani attended.

"She writes so dead-on about traditions and how people act. And I can just see so many people I know in her characters."

Jessica Gleason, 27, a New Yorker who learned about Trigiani's books from her mother, says, "They are written for women but not too much in the chick-lit vein. The characters do fall in love and get married, but there's a depth to the female characters, and that's attractive to young women readers."

When Teresa Bennett heard Trigiani's book tour for Home to Big Stone Gap was not going to include stops in Georgia, she let Trigiani know she was disappointed. Trigiani asked for a list of the members in Bennett's book club in Dalton, and she is sending personalized book plates to all of them.

Trigiani says she can't do enough for her fans.

"The people who read my books make it possible for me to be an artist. If I could paint their houses, I would. I have friends who laugh and say you're like Joan Crawford, who used to write to all her fans in longhand."

She estimates she has visited either by phone or in person with more than a thousand book clubs since Big Stone Gap was published. It's not unusual for her to spend her evenings in her pajamas, folding laundry, talking to her fans for hours through a headset.

Novelist and friend John Searles, who has toured with her, says her love for her fans is always evident.

"Adri stops and talks to everyone and hugs everyone. She looks at baby pictures and shows her own pictures. It doesn't seem to be as much about the business of selling a book as it is about connecting with other people."

Those connections are part of the reason 2.6 million copies of her books are in print in the USA.

Despite her varied projects, she promises to return to her beloved Big Stone Gap series.

"There's a lot more to write about Big Stone Gap," she says. "I want to find out what happens till the end of Ave's life. I want to take her to the finish line and maybe the world beyond."

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© Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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