Ellie Smart is a professional cliff diver, but not an adrenaline junkie. Riiiight. A native of...
ONCE UPON A TIME
My hometown of Rome, New York, was a close-knit community where almost everyone was Italian, Irish, or Polish and a Roman Catholic. Five hours away from New York City and the Statue of Liberty by train, the city was surrounded by dairy farms, with milk delivered to the insulated box on our back porch every day. The backbone of the local economy was Revere Copper and Brass. The company turned out tea kettles and ship hulls, earning Rome its “Copper City” nickname.
Spargo Wire and Rome Cable made more things out of metal. Griffiss Air Force Base kept us all safe, with the occasional sonic boom to prove it. Going to Goldberg’s or Nelson’s department stores with my grandmother was an Event, as was church on Sunday and sleepovers with my cousin.
The Fourth of July meant picnics. Christmas meant shopping downtown with my sisters and lunch at the Candyland Restaurant. We all shoveled snow before school on wintry mornings.
Rome was Mayberry, just colder and more Catholic.
BIT BY THE TRAVEL BUG
By the time I graduated high school, I was ready to explore the wider world. I headed off to college in the big city of Syracuse, an hour away. I took the train and saw the Statue of Liberty. I spent my junior year in Paris. Graduate school at the University of Virginia led to a job with the Central Intelligence Agency outside Washington, DC.
Through the years, every time I visited Rome the city had lost another round in the quality of life sweepstakes. New York state’s high taxes sucked up wages and jobs. The federal government shuttered the air base. Prolonged union strikes led to the closure of major manufacturers. A major facility for the disabled and mentally handicapped was turned into a prison. The commercial district was razed to build an exact replica of Fort Stanwix, but the expected influx of tourists never came.
OFF TO MEXICO
An assignment in Mexico brought unexpected reminders of my childhood. Despite the stress of the drug war that no one seemed to be winning, I embraced life there. In this mostly Catholic country, where family comes first, I rediscovered familiar rhythms and values.
In Mexico, family bonds were formed and strengthened in the kitchen, from preparing meals together to eating together. Community was built around a Catholic church tending its flock, not just with Sunday Mass, but with numerous opportunities to gather.
Not everything was instantly available; money was tight for most Mexicans. Necessity led to creativity, just like when I was growing up.
My past and present sparked together to make new energy, like flint striking steel to build a fire. I began to write fiction.
COMING HOME TO NEW YORK
Now with 10 books set in Mexico under my belt, I’m being tugged home. Not to present-day Rome, which is still struggling, but to the vibrant city where my grandparents built their family.
Bustling Rome, New York, of the early 20th century is the inspiration for fictional Lido, New York, in my forthcoming GALLIANO CLUB series. I’m writing through the lens of history but also through the eyes of my grandparents.
They got married in Rome, during the height of Prohibition. My grandfather played saxophone in the civic band. My grandmother’s nickname was Sheba, slang for a sexy girl.
None of the characters in the GALLIANO CLUB novels are directly based on either of my grandparents, but my memories of them make the books echo with authenticity.
Yet, if I’d never gone to Mexico, would I be writing fiction today?
If I’d never written books set in Mexico, would I have learned how to create a setting that pulls at a reader’s heartstrings?
I have come full circle, from New York to Mexico and back again.
All the way to Lido, New York, circa 1926.
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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.