Guest Blogger: Rita Schiano

When I was a child, I used to dread Sunday mornings. Each week as I headed downstairs from my bedroom, I’d hear the r-r-i-i-p-p of newsprint, a sound that, to my ears, was equivalent to fingernails on a chalkboard. The culprit? My grandmother….and she wasn’t tearing out money-saving coupons. Oh no. Grandma was ripping the latest listing of spelling bee words. And no sooner would “ ‘morning, Grandma” escape my lips, she’d hand that list to me and my weekly task would promptly begin. I had to look up the words in the dictionary, learn their meaning, pronunciation and correct spelling, and then use each word in a sentence during the week.

While that once dreaded exercise led to my love of words, the next three events spawned my writing career. The first occurred at age five when I got my library card (and I’ve never been without one since); my second was my first typewriter, a green Tom Thumb (a gift from Santa), at age six. And at age ten, my favorite television show, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., was cancelled — driving me to write my own spy adventures featuring April Dancer and Mark Slade.

After college, I moved to New York City and landed a job as an acquisitions editor, and eventually became the VP of Book Operations for that publishing company. After several years, I grew weary of the NYC of the mid-1980s (a city sullied by crack cocaine and horrific homelessness, despite Reagan’s assertion he saw no homeless people during his visit to NYC) and moved to New England where I opened an Italian-Japanese restaurant. One of my customers, Ruth Wells, (author of A to Zen and Farmer and the Poor God) suggested I take a stab at writing again. She thought the stories of my childhood were interesting and threatened to use them if I did not.

I began writing, short stories at first, and with Ruth’s encouragement, I sent them to a quarterly, and had a few published. One short story evolved into my first novel, Sweet Bitter Love, which was published by Rising Tide Press in 1997. Upon selling my restaurant in 2000, I decided to pursue a profession as a freelance writer.

In 2001, while researching the online archives of my hometown newspaper for a client, I made a keying error—a simple mistake that led me down a path I’d been avoiding most of my life; on a journey inside the world of my father, killed gangland-style more than two decades ago.

I wasn’t inspired as much as I was ‘led’ to writing this book. I began writing Painting the Invisible Man as a non-fiction, thinking I could take a journalistic approach to exploring my father’s murder and the truths of this man. When I had about 60-70 pages written I gave them to my partner, Michelle, to read. I trusted that she would be honest. She was.

She told me that the writing was lacking emotion. I remember her saying, ”There’s very little in here about you. None of the childhood stories you’ve shared with me about your childhood, the crazy things you did as a kid. Nothing about your parents’ relationship and the effect of your father’s way of life on their marriage. Why are you not writing any of that?”

I didn’t know why…at least not consciously. But as I thought about Michelle’s comments, I realized that in order to paint a true portrait of my father, I needed to paint a family portrait…and a self-portrait, as well.

I continued writing the story as non-fiction, yet I was struggling to reach my creative stream. My childhood memories, and emotions attached to them, had been sealed for far too many years. Hard as I tried, I could not tap that well.

Being a fiction writer, I understood the freedom that fiction affords. Whenever I began a new story, I awaited that moment when my fictional characters would take hold and begin to speak to me, to tell me their story. It’s a magical moment; it’s the point when my characters begin to breathe on their own. I knew that fiction would offer me the freedom I needed to explore the story with emotional honesty; to explore family issues and family secrets openly while protecting, to some degree, my family’s privacy. Since much of the story takes place during my childhood, I knew I, too, would have to re-create scenes and merge memory with imagination to bring some events to life. And after the A Million Little Pieces debacle, I did not want to risk being “Frey-ed.”

For writers thinking about exploring their personal stories, I will say this. Exploring one’s personal story is a highly emotional journey. I had to think about — and write honestly about — parts of my life I was not too proud of. Yet, in the end, what I learned about myself turned a painful journey into a joyful life.


Rita Schiano is the author Painting the Invisible Man and Sweet Bitter Love. She can be visited at or Rita will be stopping by this week to answer any questions you have for her. She’s also giving away a copy of Painting the Invisible Man to a random commenter. The winner will be chosen on Thursday, April 23 around 5 pm PST.