“I don’t even consider myself a writer,” Marina Viola told me over the phone in November, just weeks before she set off to Italy for another round of speaking engagements to promote her book, “Mio padre è stato anche Beppe Viola.”Despite her humble attitude, there’s no denying that Marina has earned her writer’s badge, at least in my mind. After all, she spent two years working on her memoir at home in Cambridge, finding time to write whenever she wasn’t occupied with her duties as a full-time mom of three, including caring for her eldest son, who has autism and Down Syndrome.
Marina’s memoir, however, focuses not on her motherhood, but rather on her childhood and, as the title suggests, her famous father. Beppe Viola was a sports journalist, author and songwriter, and a man who by all accounts exuded charisma. He was, as Marina describes him, part of the cultural fabric of Milan in the 1960s and 1970s, until his untimely death at the age of 42 in 1982.
Marina was only 14 years old at the time, and her father’s passing was what she describes as a “before-and-after” moment — an event that marks one’s life so deeply that one is unmistakably different after it. About three years ago, as Marina began to reflect on the before-and-after moments of her life, she sat down to write. The story that came out was not about the man people knew from TV but instead about the man she knew simply as papà.“We’re all surprised that after all these years he’s still so well remembered, but that part of him is always mentioned,” she explains. “You can see videos and you can hear interviews; you can read his books and have that part of him. In our family, he never talked about his work. For us, he was just Dad. You know, he’d just hang out. For other people, he was a public figure, but for me, he was just my dad, and I didn’t want that part to be forgotten.”
So Marina began to put down on paper everything she could remember about her father from the 14 years that she knew him. “I could see those images in my head like a little movie and I would just describe what I saw,” she says. “I was trying to make my readers be with me in that movie.”
As for the things she wasn’t sure of, she turned to family members and other people who knew her father for help in rounding out the story. As they shared memories of Beppe Viola’s private life and public persona, Marina learned a lot about who her father was during his life.
For example, he was known for his sense of humor and spontaneous spirit, but he was more than just a funnyman. “Behind it, there was very rigorous work and he took his job very, very seriously,” Marina says. “I always thought he was like that, but I never really knew until I talked to his former colleagues.”
For Marina, though, the good came with the bad, as she wanted to tell an honest, complete story about her father. For this reason, “Mio padre è stato anche Beppe Viola” includes details of his extramarital affair — something that Marina says was difficult for her to confront and would likely leave him feeling very “exposed” if he were alive today and could read the book.
“He messed up, like a lot of people have,” she explains, “but it’s never been talked about because all the good things he did were bigger. It actually made me feel good that he just wasn’t this big icon; there was a person with all this good and bad, like we all are. It made me feel like he was more human, more real.”
In addition to allowing her to connect with her father as a person rather than a persona, the writing process reminded Marina of the values that were important to him. “In some ways, he taught me lessons, even 30 years after his death,” she says, explaining that he was uninterested in celebrity and never felt he was owed something just because he was famous. “Be humble and be honest and do your job the best you can — they’re simple lessons but it was good to hear them.”
And perhaps that’s exactly why Marina, who has painted an intimate and honest portrait of her father, doesn’t feel comfortable calling herself a writer. Perhaps she truly is the daughter of Beppe Viola, after all.