Jill Santopolo is an international best-selling author who writes sweeping love stories about decisions, regrets, second chances and how families influence the choices we make.
Her fourth novel, Stars in an Italian Sky moves from World War II in Italy, to today’s New York in a tender-hearted family saga.
Hi there. I’m your host, Julie Wheeler, and in Binge Reading today, Jill talks about how writing helps her understand her own life and why she believes books are essential, not just for our children, but for our human future.
Our Giveaway today is the Booksweeps Family Saga and Historical Fiction that was due to close today has been extended for a few more days.
I’m putting that up again, so you have a chance to enter and win that library of 50 plus historical and family saga books. Included in it is one of mine – Book Bundle #2 – actually two books, one full length mystery, Poisoned Legacy, (Book #1) and a New York Christmas novella, Tangled Destiny (Book #4).
The links for where to enter that giveaway can be found in the show notes for this episode on the website, www.thejoysofbinge reading.com, along with the other details, like Jill’s social media contacts and where the books that she recommends can be found as well.
And don’t forget if you enjoy the show, do leave a comment somewhere online. so others will find us too. Word of mouth is still by far the best recommendation.
Links to things mentioned in the interview
The Light We Lost, Jill Santopolo: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/32956365-the-light-we-lost
Philomel Penguin Children’s Imprint: https://www.penguin.com/philomel/
Same Time Next Summer: Annabel Monaghan: https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/62562931
Nora Goes Off Script: Annabel Monaghan: https://annabelmonaghan.com/nora-goes-off-script/
Carley Fortune: Meet Me At the Lake: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/61797464-meet-me-at-the-lake
The Favor: Adele Griffin: https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/63107458
Kristen Harmel, The Paris Daughter: https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/62327255
The Daydreams, Laura Hankin: https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/61913611
Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/58784475-tomorrow-and-tomorrow-and-tomorrow
Where to find Jill Santopolo Online
Introducing author Jill Santopolo
But now here’s Jill. Hello there, Jill, and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Jill Santopolo: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Jenny Wheeler: Now you are in New York and I’m a New Zealand, so it’s really fun to be able to make these connections. You’ve got the most amazing range of roles on your CV, which we probably will get into a little bit later on, but the real reason we are here today is to talk about your latest book Stars in an Italian Sky.
It’s your fourth novel and it’s a sweeping dual timeline romance that starts in Genoa in World War II and then moves quite quickly to New York in the 2020 ones. Is this the first one where you’ve had a truly historical aspect to your work?
Jill Santopolo: Yes, I think so. My first book, The Light We Lost, starts in 2001. By some definitions now people are calling that historical, which is crazy to me.
But this is the first one that feels truly – it’s set in 1946 – It’s post-war, it feels truly historical to me in a different sense.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, that’s right. All of your books are about heart searching decisions, about where to go in life, missed opportunities, and how families influence our choices. And I wondered what particularly appeals to you about this territory.
Love in all forms, not just romantic
Jill Santopolo: I feel like love in all its forms is what connects people. It connects us to our families, to our friends, to people we want to have relationships with. How we navigate those different loves in our life shapes how we live our lives and shapes our path.
I always find it interesting when those different loves bring us into conflict for various reasons, or, you the one you have loved turns out to be someone different than you thought they were.
There are so many different stories about how love relationships can change and the effect they have on us and the long term effects they have on us too.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, and there is quite often a family dynamic where the parents have a strong view about who their son or daughter should marry, and there’s that terrible tension for the younger generation as to whether they follow their heart or are obedient to the parents, isn’t there? That’s often a feature.
Jill Santopolo: Yes, absolutely. And I think every generation has a sort of different societal pressures than the generation before them. There is always that tension between an older and a younger generation.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, regardless of the culture. Now in this story, we alternate Giovanna, who’s a young woman working as a seamstress in Genoa during the war, and Cass, a marketer with a fashionable clothing company in New York, and the men in their lives. In Cass’s case, her grandmother came to the US after the war, a very common pattern in those years.
And I note you dedicate the book to your grandmother as well. And I did wonder, because there’s such a close sense of the way Italian families work, whether there was a personal link there for you.
Jill’s grandmother and other family all found a place
Jill Santopolo: My grandmother is truly one of my favorite people on the planet and always has been.
She is now 91 and a half, and she is amazing and strong and wonderful.
A lot of the way Cass feels about her grandmother in this book is how I feel about my grandmother. I’ve always thought about the way families are built on the generations before them, and the influence that a matriarch or a patriarch of a family has on successive generations of that family.
There’s so much that my grandmother gave to my mother, that my mother then gave to my sisters and myself that I can see her fingerprints on us now, and on the way we are raising our children.
There’s a lot of my love for her is in this book. But she did not come over from Italy.
This grandmother that I’m talking about is my mother’s mother. My father’s family, his father was the Italian piece.
So there’re actually a lot of nods to my grandfather whose name was Michele Vincenzo. Michael Vincent in the us but his name was Vincenzo so I pulled from his name and his mother was Giovanna so I pulled that name for that character, and his sister was Faustina and I used that name as well, so there are connections for me on both sides of the family in the book.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s beautiful. Yes. The book does require intricate plotting the two generations and the way that they finally interlink at the beginning. Those two people are not regarded as being any sort of blood relation at all, no connection. It’s gradually as the story unfolds that you see there are links between them.
It requires very intricate plotting and we always like to ask, are you one of those people who has it all down on paper before you begin, or do you just let the story unfold in front of you?
Plotter or pantser? ‘Somewhere in the middle’
Jill Santopolo: Okay. In the middle. So I definitely don’t have it all planned out. I think I’ve written books that way. I’ve written like work-for-hire books that way, where I just knew I had to knock this book out in a very short period of time and I needed to plot it because otherwise I was not going to be able to hit the deadline I was given.
But for these books, I write myself a large synopsis. Like a kind of summary of the story. If I were sitting here just telling you the story of the story and then I read that and I base what I write on that. But it’s really loose. The connections aren’t there.
The scene by scene isn’t there. It’s just I know that this happens and I know that this happens, and now I have to figure out how I get from here to there.
And for this book in particular, I wrote the two timelines at once. Like I was alternating as I was writing because I knew that there were things I wanted to drop in one timeline that would be relevant in another timeline or things in the later timeline that then you would find out about in the earlier timeline afterwards.
So I knew that there were things I wanted to do like that, so I wrote it alternating, but when I revised it, I pulled both timelines apart and revised them separately and then put them.
Jenny Wheeler: And the story unfolds actually chapter by chapter, I think almost alternating all the way through the book.
Sometimes there might be two or three in one go if there’s a particularly dramatic thing happening. But in general, you have what is happening in Genoa in the Second World War and post-war, and then you have what’s happening in New York and they alternate, don’t they?
Jill Santopolo: Yeah, for the most part until they come together.
The Light We Lost made an amazing debut
Jenny Wheeler: Your debut, novel… You’ve mentioned The Light We Lost was an amazing success for a debut author. You were a Reese Witherspoon Book Club Choice, and also, it’s been optioned for film. How was that for you, and how’s the movie or TV progressing? Is it underway?
Jill Santopolo: It was an incredibly mind-blowing experience, having The Light We Lost come out, and get chosen as a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick. It’s been licensed in 35 territories right now. It was one of those things where you have to live in the moment right now because this is a magical thing that might never happen again in your life.
You really need to appreciate this, because the responses were really wonderful. And the film so far? I feel like I got a crash course in movie production as this book has been optioned. So there have been a bunch of steps, and I know there are still a bunch more to go, but I have read a script that I think is wonderful.
I’m crossing my fingers.
Jenny Wheeler: Great. Had you written anything at all before The Light We Lost?
Jill Santopolo: I had written a whole bunch of children’s chapter books A series of 12 that were work-for-hires.
I basically auditioned to be the pen that writes the story that a publishing house came up with. I wrote two children’s mysteries that were an homage to my own childhood of loving mysteries.
And I wrote two Choose Your Own Romance books for teens. We called them the Follow Your Heart books.
In the same way that you could choose to go into the castle or go into the jungle or whatever, when you were reading a Choose You’re an Adventure book, it was like, do you want to talk to the lifeguard or do you want to talk to the guy selling ice cream on the beach?
I wrote those before I started writing books for adults.
Jill Santopolo; Inspired by children’s books
Jenny Wheeler: Well, that’s interesting because now one of your main roles when you are not writing for your own stories is for the publisher Philomel an Imprint of Penguin Young Readers, and you’ve edited any now critically acclaimed, award-winning and best-selling books for children, cooperating with names like Chelsea Clinton and Kamala Harris.
Tell us a little bit about that work now.
Jill Santopolo: I really believe that children’s books have the ability to affect the future and affect the future of society.
And there are so many remarkable people, including Chelsea, including Kamala, who I think can empower young readers to really make a difference in the world, to see things differently, think about themselves differently.
I get such joy out of working with these people to bring stories to kids, bring their messages to kids, and hope that it helps kids feel more confident and more empowered to realize their dreams and make a difference and do what they want to do and be who they are and be a wonderful, contributing part of their community.
Jenny Wheeler: There’s a lot of concern expressed these days about how children aren’t reading and even adults as well, actually. I’ve had a lot of authors say to me since Covid, they’re reading, even if they were passionate readers, has been greatly disturbed and they find concentration on the written word, harder.
What’s your take on all of that?
Humans connect with story telling
Jill Santopolo: I think people will always love stories and gravitate towards stories. And whether those stories are in books or on television or in songs or in a million other places, I think hearing stories and telling stories is how we as humans connect with each other and also process everything that’s going on.
And I think sometimes books are hard to focus on if there’s so much else going on in the world.
But I also think that when you can escape into a book or a movie or a music album, you really do go to a different place and you can understand and think about things differently because you come away with a different perspective.
Jenny Wheeler: You obviously wouldn’t be hard ine about the idea of audiobooks. Anything that encourages stories?
Jill Santopolo: Absolutely. I love audio books. I actually recorded my first three audio books myself. Which was wonderful. I didn’t do the last one because my Italian is not great and someone really needed to sound good there.
I love audiobooks and I’m a huge fan of audiobooks.
I’m also a huge fan of e-books. I’m a huge fan of print books. I’m a huge fan of any sort of way that people can get those stories.
Jenny Wheeler: Many of the authors we talk to have written stories when they’re relatively young, but I think your story of the first book you wrote probably takes first prize. Tell us about your first book.
Jill Santopolo: Writing her first book at three years old
Jill Santopolo: Just to give background on this, my mother before she retired was an elementary school teacher. So we did a lot of projects at home. And I wanted to, when I was three years old, I wanted to write a book. She told me that I should tell her the story and she was going to write it down, and then I was going to illustrate it.
I wrote a book called Stacey the Cat, about a magical cat who, if you pat her, turns you into a mat.
I’m not sure really where the idea came from other than the fact that a lot of the words rhyme. So maybe I was just learning about rhymes.
That might have been it. But my mom wrote the words to the story that I dictated to her and then I illustrated them.
And then she brought them to work to put them through the lamination machine , and so then I had the only copy and I have still got it here.
Jenny Wheeler: Gorgeous. Turning away from the books to looking at your wider career. You’ve got so much happening with all the various roles we haven’t mentioned. You’re on a lot of academic committees and other organizations that promote children’s literature as well as having these very best-selling books and a young daughter.
How do you manage not to get overwhelmed with everything you’ve got there?
Jill Santopolo: Oh, I do get overwhelmed for sure. But I think tiny steps has always been the way that I have gotten through any project and any challenge. For writing, for example, when I was in graduate school, we had to write 50 pages a month and. My friends and I would bet each other how many pages we could write a day or a week.
Writing essential way to understand the world
And, by breaking it into these tiny little bits and saying I could write three pages today. Of course I can write three pages today. That’s not a big deal. You write three pages a day for long enough and you’ve hit your target, and I feel that way too. I mean, I have lots of lists, but it’s things like, Okay.
I know I need to sign my daughter up for a bunch of programs for the summer. I can sign her up for one today that’s easy, and then sign her up for one every day in a few days. I’ve signed her up for all the things she needs to get signed up for, so that’s really been my attitude always about things and I think it’s helped me juggle a lot without feeling like I’m juggling a lot.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes.
Jill Santopolo: There are definitely points where I get entirely overwhelmed and I’m doing triage and just trying to get the things that actually need to get done.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. Writing must be an absolutely essential part of life for you because otherwise I would understand if at your age and stage of life with a young child, you might think, oh, well give it another 10 years when she’s at school. What is it that made it feel essential that you had to have, particularly these adult novels, as part of your life?
Jill Santopolo: You know, I think the way I exist in the world is I process everything through writing. I think I understand myself and my experiences better after I have written through them and written about them.
I always say that even if I weren’t trying to get my work published, I would probably still write stories.
Finding a routine that works on all sides
And I can tell if I haven’t written for a while that everything is starting to feel a little frenetic. And if I can sit down for an hour and get into a story, I come out much calmer.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. So where do you fit your writing in on your day?
Jill Santopolo: I haven’t quite settled on a specific time. There was a while where I would reserve one day a week or two days a week for writing, and other days I would edit. Recently I’ve tried to set apart like a number of an hour a day or a half hour a day, or just to get a little bit in bit by bit.
I think given my first choice, I would write probably for a few hours every morning before doing anything else, which isn’t always possible, but is a goal.
Jenny Wheeler: If there was one thing that you would see as the “ secret of your success” in your creative career, and it can be your writing and all your publishing, what would it be?
Jill Santopolo: That’s a great question. I think it would be not being afraid to be vulnerable, because I think a lot of my stories are connected to situations that I’ve been in, in which I have felt particularly vulnerable and have given that vulnerability to my characters, which I think connects with readers.
And also, allowing myself to be vulnerable and putting things out on the table when I’m editing too, and saying this may not be the easy way to, to do this, but this I think will be the most powerful way to do this.
And let’s talk about it. Yeah, I think vulnerability.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s a great answer because even publishing a book, you have to be vulnerable, don’t you?
Being a writer means being vulnerable
Jill Santopolo: Yeah, absolutely. Because you’re putting your, at least I, I’m putting, a lot of my heart on a page and then putting that page out in the world. And there are people who love it and people who say really unkind things about it too. And you just have to be willing to do that.
If you’re going to write and hope that the people who your story touches, whether it makes them feel less alone in something they’re going through or takes them away from a difficult time or whatever, that it’s worth it. That’s why I do it.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. We talked a little bit about this before we came on air, but your stories are romances and family sagas, and when you think about particularly the area of genre fiction and how publishers, in particular like writers to really focus on an identified viable niche.
What would you call your stories?
Jill Santopolo: I’ve always thought of them as love stories and love in all its forms, not just romantic love. The love of families, the love of friends and the love of lovers.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, that’s a great way to describe them. And it very much widens the idea of romance. I’ve noticed actually, there’s a real expansion in this part of the market. Stories that were once regarded as “romances” are now much wider in definition.
Jill Santopolo: Yes, I think that’s probably true. I think that there are the more traditional kinds of romances. What you think of when you think of a romance novel. But then I think that there are lots of stories about love that are out there.
Jenny Wheeler: Also, the aspect of the Second Chance romance, because that does come into your story as well. An older couple who are finding love and that’s very much something that seems to have blossomed a lot in the last few years.
What Jill Santopolo is reading now
Jill Santopolo: I think finding love at every age and there’s beauty in love no matter when you find it. and I think that’s an important thing to. continuously think about.
Jenny Wheeler: Turning to Jill as reader because this is the Binge Reading podcast.
A lot of our listeners love reading through authors back lists and moving on to the next book. Tell us about your own reading tastes. Maybe you don’t have much time at all for reading at the moment, but in the past, what has grabbed you and what are you reading at the moment if you have any time to do it?
Jill Santopolo: I love reading love stories, which I get a lot of from various. editors and publishers, oftentimes asking for blurbs or just sending it to me. And I literally this weekend finished Annabel Monaghan’s newest novel, which is called Same Time Next Summer.
I loved Nora Goes Off Script which was her first novel that came out last year.
This was her second, and I also absolutely love this one.
And before that, I read meet Me at the Lake by Carley Fortune, which is also the second one of hers that I loved.
And I think next up on my desk is The Favor by Adele Griffin, which I’m excited to read about as well.
I’ve heard some wonderful things and I also recently read The Daydreams by Laura Hankin, which is a wonderful book that is like it talk about genre jumping.
It’s like part love story, part mystery, part coming of age novel and a lot of fun with a lot of nineties an early two thousands pop music in it.
Looking back down the tunnel of time…
Jenny Wheeler: That sounds fun. Looking down back the tunnel of time, if there was one thing about your creative career that you’d change, what would it be?
Jill Santopolo: That’s a great question. It took me six years approximately to get up the courage to show pages of The Light We Lost to anybody, and I think I would’ve tried to get myself the courage to do that sooner.
Jenny Wheeler: So did it take you more or less six years to write that first book?
Jill Santopolo: Yes.
Jenny Wheeler: I’m sure a lot of people would find that encouraging too.
Jill Santopolo: I also just read The Paris Daughter by Kristen Harmel, which is fantastic.
Jenny Wheeler: Now are all of these, they all sound as if they are in a similar range to the ones you write that they’re about love and family. Would that be a right expectation?
Jill Santopolo: Yes, I think so. And I think that’s because that’s what people send me. I mean, it’s been very rare these days that I go out and choose a book for myself because so many come to my house for me.
And they all sound so wonderful. The last book that I actually went to a bookstore to buy was Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin, which I also thought was phenomenal.
People talk about a book slump, but I feel like it’s the opposite. I’ve been on like a book high. I’ve read so many books that I’ve really enjoyed.
What is next for Jill Santopolo, author
Jenny Wheeler: Because people think they know your taste. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Jill Santopolo: Yes, I think so.
Jenny Wheeler: What’s next for Jill, the author, looking ahead in the next 12 months, what have you got on your desk in terms of your creative side of life?
Jill Santopolo: I have a new book that I’m working on that I’m still figuring out exactly how it’s going to work and what it’s going to be. I’m about, I guess 5,000 words in so still meandering in the first scene setting.
Jenny Wheeler: Have you done the synopsis already?
Jill Santopolo: Yes. I’ve done the synopsis and now I’m starting to find my footing. The synopsis to write the first few chapters and seeing how it goes.
Jenny Wheeler: Is it another dual timeline and has it got a historical aspect?
Jill Santopolo: It does not. It is a single timeline and it involves some characters that readers of mine may already know.
Jenny Wheeler: Oh, that sounds tantalizing.
Jill Santopolo: Yes.
Where to find Jill Santopolo online
Jenny Wheeler: That’s fun. Now the obvious question to round us up because we are out of time, do you enjoy interacting with your readers and where can they find you online or how do you like to interact with them?
Jill Santopolo: I do I love going to bookstores and actually meeting people in person and talking to them face to face I think is wonderful.
I also love, which I do all the time, Zooming into book clubs. And chatting with people about any questions they might have after reading my books. So that’s super fun.
And then also I am like basically parked on Twitter, but I don’t Tweet. I do Instagram a lot though, so if someone is looking for me, I’m on Instagram @Jill Santopolo. I also am on Facebook @JillSantopoloauthor. But I think if you. want everything that I post, it’s Instagram.
Jenny Wheeler: Great. Wonderful.
Jill Santopolo: I also have a website, jillsantopolo.com. If anybody wants just random information like about Stacey the cat.
Jenny Wheeler: Lovely. And just one last question. That was a little piquing mention about book clubs. If people wanted to ask you from a book club how’s the best way to approach that?
Jill Santopolo: Email me at jillsantopolo.com and let me know what book your book club is reading and when, approximately-ish you’re looking for a visit from me and we’ll figure it out.
Jenny Wheeler: Lovely look, Jill, thank you so much. You’ve been a delightful guest and it’s been wonderful talking.
Jill Santopolo: It’s been wonderful chatting with you. Thank you for all these questions.
Jenny Wheeler: Bye now.
If you enjoyed Jill you might also love…
Anita Abriel and The Italian Girl – WWII Spies. Love and Stolen Art
Next week on Binge Reading
A Kiwi historical epic inspired by Alex Haley’s Roots.
Kāwai: For Such A Time As This by respected New Zealand historian Monty Soutar.
A gripping story of life in pre-European Aotearoa that draws on decades of researching closely guarded oral histories stretching back hundreds of years,
The first in a planned trilogy of pre-colonial and post-colonial life in New Zealand.
Thank you. see you next week. remember if you enjoyed the show, leave a comment. So others will find us too.
Thanks for listening and happy reading.