Where did you grow up and go to school?
I was born in Montclair, New Jersey. I went Paul VI High School in Clifton, New Jersey. For college, I went to Parsons School of Design in New York City. I also took some classes at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles.
How did you become interested in writing?
I was always interested in drawing and painting. I loved to tell stories as a young kid. After college, my passion turned into picture books and writing for TV.
What books did you like to read growing up?
I liked to read Roald Dahl. He was brilliant, snarky, and very intelligent. I also liked Beverly Cleary. She would write about everyday situations that were interesting and engaging.
What are your favorite Roald Dahl books?
“Danny Champion of the World,” “Matilda,” and “The BFG.”
Tell me about your book, “All the Way to America.”
The story is about my great-grandfather. He grew up in Sorrento, Italy. As a young man, he came to the United States. He settled in Manhattan. He met my great-grandmother in Manhattan and they had children.
My grandfather was the second oldest boy. Later, my grandfather moved to Staten Island, New York. He met my grandmother and they moved to New Jersey. I grew up in New Jersey and moved back to New York. It’s a weird circle!
Tell me about your Italian roots.
Both sides of my family come from Southern Italy. I grew up observing all the traditions and the delicious foods. Growing up in New Jersey, most of my classmates were Italian American.
Have you written other books about the Italian American experience?
No, I haven’t. I’d like to! I have some ideas for maybe a chapter book series. Many Americans have a negative view of Italian Americans. I would like to be able to make a contribution to undo that image. I think we get a bad reputation. Unfortunately, most Italian Americans are okay with the stereotype.
What other Italian authors do you admire?
I like Tomie dePaola. He wrote a blurb in the back of my book, “All the Way to America,” which was amazing.
Adriana Trigiani is also an amazing Italian writer!
She’s sweet. I saw her at the Columbus Day parade a few years ago. We’ve known each other for a long time. At that parade, I also met a distant cousin, Danny Aiello. He was in the movie “Moonstruck.”
How did you get published with a big publishing house?
My first book was published in 1993, which was a totally different time. It was easy to call an editor and pitch your idea to them. Children’s books weren’t that big of a deal back then. After the explosion of Harry Potter, things changed. I also got into the publishing world before the Internet, email, and social media. I was very fortunate in getting in the children’s book industry when it was a little bit easier.
How do you not get distracted by social media?
Who says I’m not distracted by social media? (laughs) I shut it off! I wake up early and I write in the morning. My head is clear and coffee is still in my system. I can’t have any distractions. I take a break mid-day. During that time, I answer emails and check Facebook and Instagram. In the afternoon, I do my illustrations.
I love that you write for TV, too!
Yes. I have a new animated series that was released a few weeks ago on Apple TV. It’s called “Doug Unplugs.” It’s based on a picture book that I wrote and illustrated.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a picture book called “The Longest Storm.” It’s supposed to come out in August or September. I’m still working on “Doug Unplugs” for Apple TV. I’m about to sign a multiple book contract for a series about women in different occupations. I just finished the illustrations for a picture book that I did not write. I’m working on a graphic novel book proposal.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I would say to produce as much content as you can. Just churn it out. When the time comes for you to speak to an editor or agent, you’ll have a nice backlog of work that you can show them. If an editor wants to start a relationship with you, they will build your career. They don’t want you to be a one hit wonder. They want someone to produce work on a regular basis. Once you start working, more ideas will start flowing.