Stephanianna Lozito used fiction to process the complex emotions of her real-life family tragedy: her sister’s 2009 suicide. The resulting novel, We Turn to Face the Sun, debuted earlier this year and examines the dynamics of a close-knit Italian-American family from the point of view of two sisters. I spoke with Stephanianna about her approach to this close to home story and her experience with book coaches and self-publishing.
This book is dedicated to your sister Melissa. I’d love to hear about what inspired you to write this and what you chose or had to change about your real life experience.
I’d never written fiction before but when COVID started I was trying to have a renaissance. I wanted to explore more creative outlets. I started speaking Italian again and playing music again and then I started thinking about writing. I had always had an idea for the story of a person who went to the funerals of strangers. What was the psychological composition of someone who would do that? I also started to revisit my feelings about what happened to my sister – which was initially very memoirish. But then I saw the opportunity to combine the two ideas. I applied to the author accelerator program and worked with the book coach Jen Braaksma to shape what I’d started to write into something with a plot. Initially I was doing a lot of telling. I had to get out of my head and act like these people that I know so well were strangers to me so that I could describe them to a reader. Jen’s advice was to preserve the emotions that I had felt but “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.”
I’m glad that you brought up how your main character Jennifer starts going to strangers’ funerals after attending her own sister’s ceremony. You have an additional four deaths with unique circumstances and dynamics – how did you approach those funeral scenes?
I tried to think about what is the purpose of her being at each of these funeral, what can she learn and how could witnessing different circumstances changer her. I also wanted to demonstrate how death by mental illness is not always seen as sympathetically as death through physical illness is. With my own sister it was an undiagnosed mental illness. I also liked having one example of a much older person dying with hardly anyone at the ceremony and posing the question is it better to outlive everyone. There are so many different ways you might think about the concept of death. A lot of the questions that Jennifer has about death are similar to mine – I don’t know what happens, I fear it. So her coming to terms with her sister’s death is also in a lot of ways her coming to terms with the concept of death and the reality of death overall.
There’s an enormous family dynamic that you portray around growing up Italian in New Jersey and practicing Greek Orthodoxy. Tell me about which details were important for you to include to bring that setting and those cultural aspects to life.
This is a very New Jersey based book, the places are real, the people are meant to feel real. There’s two things from my own experience. First, I wanted to include Greek Orthodoxy because of the way death is treated. They lay the Greek icon on the casket and you go up and kiss it. It was terrifying for me as a kid, I went to so many funerals that were open casket. The person is there but they are not really there, so then as a kid you are thinking, where are they? Second was a concept of family. My experience growing up as an Italian in New Jersey, there’s an intense family bond of loyalty and closeness. We’re all in one place and even if we’re yelling at each other, we love each other. I wanted to build a world with the backdrop that I was familiar with.
As someone who’s gone through losing a loved one to suicide, what was important for you to include in this story?
Ever since my sister passed away, I’ve tried to raise as much money as I can for the American Society of Suicide Prevention because I think that there’s such a stigma around mental health. It can touch people no matter who they are. My sister was a beautiful, successful, amazingly fun, funny person when she was feeling good. Many people came to the funeral surprised about what had happened. I think it’s important to describe the confusion and the helplessness that people feel and also make sure that people know what resources are available.
This is self-published. Tell me about that choice and approach you took to release the book.
I am a person who functions really well with deadlines and feedback. Before the author accelerator program I felt like I was on my own just writing and writing and writing. My book coach and I had a couple of calls a month, she helped me with story, with character building, with developing scenes and building a logical framework for the story. She helped with a final manuscript review and connected me to Steph Spector, my copyeditor. After two years I felt like I had a product I could put out there in the end. I sent queries and also weighed the cost of hybrid publishing but in the end decided to go through the steps of self-publishing. I wanted my book out there. My professional background is in sales, I’m tenacious and I was confident I could promote the book myself. I like that I was able to retain control over my cover and my title.