Not long after the success of her first novel, Danielle Trussoni’s life became a fairy tale, when she and her writer husband Nikolai moved their family to a magical 13th century fortress in the picture-perfect French village of Aubais. But what would soon transpire was anything but. Their marriage would quickly fall apart, and it wasn’t long before reality itself would come into question, and be put to the ultimate test. As the Overlook Hotel “was coming to life around [its guests],” in Stephen King’s The Shining, so does the fortress around Danielle and Nikolai. What results is two writers negotiating their love and sanity, each fighting to gain control of perhaps the greatest sorcery of all: story.
I understood that the stories we believe have power over us. They work into our bodies and minds and change us from inside out. What if one day these stories become something stronger, more real, than fairy tales?
The Fortress is a candid and powerful look into illusion and self-deception. It’s also a complete picture of love, from the first giddy glances over 80s New Wave records to the lingering pains of custody after the ink on the divorce papers has dried.
I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Danielle about her new memoir, the seductive pull of the south of France, the cult of marriage, and the redemptive power of l’amour.
The Rumpus: In addition to two memoirs, you’ve also written the bestselling Angelology series. What are some of the differences and challenges in writing memoir as opposed to fiction?
Danielle Trussoni: The most obvious difference between writing novels and memoirs is that my memoirs are true stories, and explore certain experiences I’ve lived, and thus operate within the boundaries of memory and fact. That said, I believe a good memoir should have all of the narrative elements of a novel: character development, dialogue, descriptive language, and metaphor. I wanted The Fortress to be as gripping as a thriller, while remaining brutally factual. This involved lots of self-verification—going back over dates, email messages, and asking other people to check my version of events—before publication.
In terms of style, I think the memoirist should have a novelist’s skill and all the elements of a novelist’s toolbox. When I read a memoir, I want to really, deeply experience what the author experienced. I want to see the characters and hear the way they speak and understand how they think. And so in that way, writing a memoir feels similar to writing a novel.
Rumpus: I came across a quote in your True Romantic column for The Rumpus where you mentioned that you wrote an entire draft of The Fortress before you realized you weren’t anywhere to be found in it’s pages. You said, “I was unable to see who I had been during my marriage. And if I couldn’t do that, was it any surprise that my relationship with the Magician failed?” I found this fascinating because your presence and voice are so fully realized in the final book…
Trussoni: Voice makes or breaks a memoir. It is the one overriding force that transforms a mundane list of personal experiences into a great memoir. But finding one’s voice—or creating a narrative voice that has the power to carry your story—is the hardest part. It’s something I found after many drafts, and only by going deeper into the story than I expected I could.
Rumpus: Do you believe writing to be an act of self-actualization? A way to figure out what you feel and who you are?
Trussoni: I taught myself to write in order to understand who I was and so yes, writing was an act of self-actualization in the beginning. My first book, Falling Through the Earth, is a memoir about my childhood, and my relationship with my father in particular. Writing that book was a way of defining myself, drawing lines in the sand, marking out who I was as opposed to who I used to be. That first book allowed me to look at my life intently, deeply, with the hope of finding clarity. After Falling, writing became a vocation, a daily practice, and an art that I work at with total engagement. If I’m not writing, I’m not fully living. It has become the essential element that defines who I am.
Rumpus: The Fortress is such an evocative, multilayered title. Not only is it the namesake of the actual fortress where you and Nikolai lived in Aubais, but it also suggests certain states of mind—defense, confinement, isolation—that can be found in a turbulent relationship. I’m wondering how the physical structure of the fortress itself may have mirrored the growing psychological distance in your marriage with Nikolai?
Trussoni: The metaphor of the fortress has haunted me for years, and is what ultimately brought me to write this book. For those who haven’t yet read the book, it follows my move from the US to the south of France. My husband and I lived in a 13th century fortress together, and it was there that our relationship unraveled in a tragic and terrifying way. This is the literal story line, the physical journey. But the underlying importance of this story lies in the ways that I—and all of us in one way or another—became entrapped in my dreams. We create an image of happiness and success and then we are beholden to it. We tell ourselves stories and sometimes these stories become so strong as to imprison us. Breaking free from our personal fortresses is a long, hard journey, but ultimately what allows one to grow.
Rumpus: For me, such a big part of The Fortress is about exactly what you’re describing, the dark side of stories. Stories used as a means of power, or control. I’m thinking of a number of Nikolai’s deceptions: the uncertainty with his visa, his claim of “forgetting” what had been agreed upon for Nico’s name, his denial of the incident with his student at Brown, his attempt to paint an unstable picture of you to his parents and friends, or how he tried to manipulate your own experience of certain events, like the night out at Silencio [David Lynch’s Parisian nightclub]. How difficult was it for you to navigate all the versions of the truth you were being given? Did you ever doubt your own comprehension? Did these experiences change how you view “fiction” vs “truth?”
Trussoni: The dark side, indeed. Sure, I questioned my perceptions all the time during my marriage. My husband was an ex-Buddhist monk who did not believe in an objective reality, and so the measure for truth with him was always hard to glean. I didn’t know the term during my marriage, but since the book was published, I’ve been told that the kind of systematic dismantling of another person’s hold on reality is classic gaslighting. At the time, I wanted the relationship to work, and justified all sorts of things I would not accept now. That’s l’amour: we willingly walk into the future blindfolded.
Nikolai is a writer of novels and memoir, like me. Questions of reality and creativity, truth and fiction, were part of the fabric of our relationship, so how could they not be part of the marriage and, by extension, story I’ve written? How powerful is the imagination in the creation of love? How willing are we to believe in the stories we create? Will we follow them to the end, even if that end is tragic?
It’s fascinating terrain for a writer. And this was precisely why I was conscientious when writing this book. I went back and verified my story many times with various people. I used legal documents from the divorce, as well as email messages and letters. I wanted to make sure that I had the facts correct. But while the facts of the story were of primary importance, it was the emotional authenticity of my experience that became crucial to me while writing The Fortress. This is my story, told from my singular perspective. I think the intensity of this inward gaze will allow readers to go inward as well.
Rumpus: Did you always know you were going to one day write about your marriage with Nikolai?
Trussoni: No, I never expected that I would. In fact, after Falling Through the Earth, I told myself that I would not write a second memoir.
Rumpus: I have to ask, do you know if Nikolai has read your memoir?
Trussoni: I’m not sure if he’s read it. I sent him an email earlier this year, letting him know that the book would be published. He didn’t ask for a copy.
Rumpus: Not long after you arrived in Bulgaria, you discovered you were pregnant with your daughter Nico, and spent a lonely and harrowing time in a rundown Bulgarian hospital where you didn’t speak the language. How mentally challenging was this period of time for you? I can absolutely relate to wanting so badly to believe in a fairy tale version of things that it becomes hard to see what’s actually going on…
Trussoni: The memoir touches on parts of that experience, but I could write an entire book about the years I spent in Bulgaria. The short version is that it was very stressful being in Bulgaria, partially because I hadn’t expected to be there for long. I arrived, learned first that I was pregnant and then learned that Nikolai had visa problems that prohibited him from reentering the United States. I ended up staying in Bulgaria for three years. But even through that period of time, I found ways to be optimistic about my marriage. Things weren’t going well, but I projected myself into the future, believing that what was wrong with my marriage was temporary, and could be fixed. After a number of years of this, it became clear that I couldn’t fix something that was toxic, and that I needed to leave.
Which brings me to one of the central points I try to make in The Fortress: don’t stay in a bad situation—whether it is a relationship or a job—out of fear of failure. It’s not a failure to walk away and choose to be happy. It takes a lot of courage.
Rumpus: Escapism is a recurrent idea throughout. I’m wondering if you could talk a little about how growing up in Wisconsin may have shaped your longing for escape? Books also contain this longing… there’s a great line where you say reading allowed you to become “a character in some other story than my own.”
Trussoni: I’m sure that growing up in the Midwest played a role in my chronic escapism. In fact, before I lived in France, I lived in Japan, England, and—as discussed—Bulgaria. I was determined to experience other places and cultures, particularly because I had the perception that I’d been cut off from these experiences as a child.
Travel was one way of escaping, but reading satisfied that urge as well. The line you mention describes how I felt during one of the most tense parts of my memoir, but I have pretty much always felt that way about reading. I discovered the world, and language, through books.
Writing grew out of the pleasure of escape. My novels are very much outside of my personal experience. That is why I love writing fiction. It allows me to leave my existence and inhabit other lives.
Rumpus: France seems to tie into this idea, too. It seems to hold a particular kind of spell on Americans especially. And you do a wonderful job of bringing the seductive, lushness of the south of France—its natural beauty, its people, its culture—to life. How does the romantic ideal of France differ from the France you experienced day-to-day? Does that spell go away? On the surface, to an outsider, it might have seemed like you and Nikolai had a kind of “idyllic” life in paradise, and yet beneath it there’s all this distress…
Trussoni: It WAS idyllic. When we were planning to move, I chose a place that had all of the qualities of my ‘dream home.’ It was all planned and orchestrated. And that is the irony of the situation: a bad relationship is doomed even in paradise.
I live in New York now, and miss France quite a bit. Of course, the reality of living in a small village in the south of France was very different than the fantasy I had of living in France. Over the years I spent there, that fantasy was worn away and I found a more realistic version of France than the one I began with. I wouldn’t say the spell ever goes away, but transforms. Now that I understand French culture more intimately, and speak fluent French, I have a different, more solid, relationship to the country.
Rumpus: Speaking of spells, there’s a supernatural element in the book as well. There are ghosts, Tibetan death mantras, and Nikolai even calls upon “black magic” as a means to get inside your head. I’m curious to know more about your thoughts and beliefs with this.
Trussoni: There is an element of The Shining in the book, actually: writers going mad in a big haunted building. But seriously, the supernatural elements were not supernatural to me at the time. I believed that the mantras, the curses, the threats, etc., were real. It seems totally incredible to me now, a kind of magical thinking that was certainly part of the trauma of the situation. It seems to me now that I was a member of a cult. Maybe that is what marriage is: Two people creating a cult together.
Nikolai was interested in mysticism, both in his life and in his writing. He was a true believer in magic, and had ‘magical objects’ that he used frequently. Throughout our relationship, that was part of his identity, and over time I just accepted this as part of the package.
Rumpus: As you began to get physically sicker in the divorce, did it feel as though this magic was becoming real?
Trussoni: Whether magic or not, I believed he had some kind of power over me. This belief actually made that power real. Once I stepped away from the relationship, I was able to see how culpable I was in the situation. I created a labyrinth, then I got lost in it.
Rumpus: You mention several times of a belief in the redemptive power of love. Has your understanding of love changed over time? In the title you call The Fortress “a love story”…
Trussoni: I see The Fortress as a love story in the true sense: it follows the relationship from the beginning all the way to the end. I recreate the excitement of first meeting Nikolai and then bring the reader along for my journey of discovery. Yes, of course, my perceptions about love have changed. I hope they never stop changing. When we are no longer capable of love, we are no longer alive.
Author photograph © Tod Ramos.