How about this for continuous growth throughout one's lifetime? At age 72, Rosanna Staffa has just published her debut novel.
The Italy-born writer is jetting across the country on a national tour for "The War Ends at Four," which is named for a game she used to play as a child growing up in the hills near Venice.
"Italian narratives are often fragmented," Staffa said from the Edina home she shares with husband Peter Brosius and their golden retriever, Louie. "They ask questions and don't give answers. I think it comes from the experience of the war."
The war is a subtext that courses throughout the story. And the novel is her way of weaving a whole fabric from patches of a life on the move, Staffa said. She grew up in the physical and psychic wreckage of postwar Italy, the daughter of a businessman and a homemaker. Staffa often played in bombed-out buildings.
"My family didn't want to talk about war, so we kids would spy and tell each other stories we overheard because the parents didn't want to scare us," she said. But those stories became like a game of telephone as they were told, with kernels of truth told slant and with their own mythic invention.
Those stories also fired Staffa's imagination and set her on a path of becoming a translator and playwright. She moved as an adult to New York, then Los Angeles, Hawaii and finally Minneapolis, where she joined the Playwrights' Center and where her husband has run the Children's Theatre Company for 26 years.
In "War Ends," an Italian acupuncturist named Renata falls for a charming actor in Minneapolis. They marry but soon their relationship and her clinic business come under stress. On top of that, Renata's father is near death back in Milan. She takes a trip to see her dad and learns of the risks he took to survive the war. Inspired by his courage and fearlessness, Renata also takes risks to feed her heart and save her soul.
Staffa admits that the protagonist of "War Ends" is a thinly veiled version of herself. She, too, studied and earned certification in acupuncture. She, too, has the perspective of an outsider who wonders where she can truly call home.
"It's a good idea to make it fiction, so I could trick myself in telling things that I might not want to tell," said Staffa. "There's a very tight dance between fiction and nonfiction. You're still vulnerable and life is messy. Everything gets more intense when you speak of something that's close to you. The closer you get to a truth, the more intense it becomes."
Learning is not a chore but a pleasure, she said, a practice that can be sustained for as long as your mind is sharp. It also allowed Staffa to reinvent herself.
"When you're growing up in a small town, there's the constant fog but not much happens," she said. "But I was not bored, for I discovered the power of writing, the power of observation. And that can take you on adventures that last a lifetime."
Staffa said that when she was a child the family would suddenly up and go, moving from Naples to the Venetian Hills to Padua then Milan to follow her father's work. She learned not to attach herself too tightly to big-ticket possessions.
But she carries some small mementos. Staffa and her father used to play cards and solve crossword puzzles. She still has a deck from their favorite pastime. Most of all she cherishes the library of vignettes from her youth — stubborn remembrances that demand to be reckoned with.
"Memories are not polite, and emotions will find you in every language," said Staffa, who speaks five languages. "Some memories are the bad visitors. They barge in. They're hungry. They sit down and you say, 'But I didn't invite you.' 'Well, I'm staying a little.'"
"War Ends" comes from a similar deeply personal trigger. It was a photo of one of her old homes in Italy.
"The place is a little rundown and is, of course, not my home," said Staffa. "But I wanted to go back to the specific time and place that I remembered. And I wondered if the people there would talk to me and walk with me. And I found the best place to do that was within the covers of a book."
Staffa started working on "War Ends" years ago but finished it in a yearlong workshop at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis with Peter Geye, author of "The Ski Jumpers."
"It's hard to say which comes more to sparkling life in Rosanna Staffa's magnificent debut: the rich cast of characters, or the city of Milan they inhabit," Geye wrote in a blurb. "Papoozi, Tito, Renata, you'll feel you've lived and lost with them, and been found again. Their lives are beautiful, heartbreaking, unforgettable."
Staffa still loves writing for the theater — some of her plays have been aimed at youngsters, including the much produced "The Biggest Little House in the Forest" — but she likes the perspective that readers get from a novel.
"In theater, you go from outside in," said Staffa. "And the audience is part of the play. The novel is inside out. You have to open the doors, invite people in, let them find a little space inside my home where they can be comfortable and find themselves."
That comfort is something she has been searching for her whole life. She may have finally found a piece of it in her 70s, between two covers of her own making.