WESLEY CHAPEL — By day, Rita Ciresi is an English professor at the University of South Florida, directing the school's creative writing program. By night, she writes important new works of American fiction.
She's been at it for the past 15 years, and along the way has garnered such awards as the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction and the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Prize for the Novel.
Ciresi writes about modern-day women, liberated but longing for something a little beyond reach. She writes about human distress, relationships that are strained to the breaking point, and the challenges that accompany interfaith romances.
In one way or another, or several ways at once, Ciresi always writes about family.
The 48-year-old was born in the Little Italy section of New Haven, Conn., in 1960, and grew up with her mother, father and three older sisters. When she was in junior high, she borrowed a neighbor's copy of Pride and Prejudice and read it crouched by a "hissing radiator," as she puts it, "not far from where my father had a football game cranked up."
Jane Austen's "funny love story" worked its magic on her and she thought to herself, "I want to write something like this."
Ciresi's pursuit brought her to places she couldn't easily share with her Sicily-born father and her Italian-American mother, whose roots went back a very short time to Naples.
So Ciresi's childhood was split between the American world outside the house and the Italian-American world inside. Two cultures, two languages, and subject matter that has lasted a quarter century.
A lot of that two-world experience finds its way into Ciresi's 2001 work Sometimes I Dream in Italian, a sequence of related short stories in which she, one of her sisters and her mother — with occasional cameos by her father — all appear in fictionalized versions of themselves.
As the stories unfold, we discover a girl and later a young woman fixed on the business of growing up and out of an ethnic household and neighborhood. She is caught by all the good-girl rules and regulations imposed by her old-world parents, curious about boys and sex, and perilously balanced between a naturally rebellious nature and a strong Catholic training.
By the time Ciresi got around to trying her hand at a Jane Austen love story, it was the early 1980s. By then she had grown up enough to know that love stories in the modern age would have to be told in ways that would have shocked Austen.
The conflict Ciresi's characters face is trying to be new and free and modern while at the same time holding on to at least some of the old traditions and values and people they cannot help but love (and hate). The results are often heartbreaking — and searingly funny.
Ciresi learned her craft at Penn State, where she earned a Master of Fine Arts, and then taught at Hollins College in Roanoke, Va., for four years before signing on at USF in 1996. After 12 years on the job, Ciresi reports that she likes her students very much, especially their freshness and eagerness to learn the art of fiction.
In her classes on fiction writing, she emphasizes the importance of "breaking fiction down to its basic parts," she says, "and knowing the ending before you begin writing."
In her own case, the early thrashing around over a new novel's characters, plots and conflicts will take a couple of months or more. "Credibility is a big issue," she says.
Currently Ciresi is putting the final touches on a new novel, Teacher of the Year, and has begun a memoir of her life as a Girl Scout during the early 1970s.
The memoir was given a strong push this past summer, when Ciresi received a two-week grant to write by the Ragdale Foundation, an art colony in Lake Forest, Ill.