Helene Stapinski, a reporter from Jersey City, N.J., grew up knowing her Italian-American family held some dark secrets. Her curiosity about this murky background led her to write “Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History” in 2002. The story that had still gone untouched, though, involved her great-great-grandmother, Vita. According to family lore, Vita was a loose woman who had committed murder in southern Italy before fleeing to the United States with her children in the 1890s. In the recently released “Murder In Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy,” Stapinski details both Vita’s surprising story and her own journey to discovering it. Stapinski will read from her book Dec. 2 at 6 p.m. at I AM Books.
Q. When did you first hear the story of Vita’s involvement in a murder?
A. I’d heard it as a kid, from as far back as I can possibly remember. My first memory is my mother telling me the story, which is what the book opens with. It’s one of so many stories in my family, because I have all these criminals in my family. . . . I had sort of run away from Jersey City and gone to Columbia to the MFA program, and as I was getting assignments there, all these stories would sort of bubble up to the surface. My professors said, “You’ve got narrative nonfiction gold here. What are you doing? You need to write about this.’’
Q. You traveled to southern Italy, where Vita lived, several times to do research for your book. What was that like?
A. I didn’t really know what I was getting into. It was really difficult. I write for the [New York] Times, and in America, generally, getting [information you need] is more straightforward. Southern Italy is not like that. You can’t just walk in and demand information. They just walk away from you. It was really difficult not to crack; I had to go back four times over 10 years. . . . So I just kept going back, and the fourth time, I found it. I found a 600-page criminal file in Matera. It had everything I ever could have imagined in it.
Q. How did you feel when you finally found that evidence?
A. It was a huge relief. When I found [the case file], I didn’t cry immediately, but when I got back to my room that night, I just burst into tears. I had looked for so long and so hard, and I wasn’t sure it was even out there. There’s a scene in the book where I just lose it. Not just from relief, but partly grief, that this really did happen — there was this murder in my family. But the victim was not who I thought it was.
Q. Boston is also a city where old family ties are still felt in the present. What are your views now about how a family history can affect a person?
A. I think it really does still have an effect. It could be good or bad, though. Just because there were these criminals in my family it didn’t mean I was going to be a criminal. It shaped my destiny as far as what I was writing, though. In a way, I kind of had those stories stolen from me. It’s sort of not my family anymore. All those people are dead; the past is past. But I’ve reclaimed those stories. You could argue that I’ve taken them back and ran to the bank with them, which I think people would have done if they could have in past generations. I took it and made something of it.
Q. Do you feel a sense of kinship with Vita?
A. Absolutely. I actually used myself as a model for what she was thinking. I was writing these flashbacks and thinking, “What would she have thought about this?’’ Being a mom, having two kids, there are certain universal things that are going to crop up when you’re a mom. So I used my own feelings when trying to get her feelings across. She didn’t keep a diary; she didn’t write letters — they were illiterate — so all I’ve got are the facts. So I’ve used my own brain, my own heart, for what she was thinking and doing. I feel like she’s taken possession of me — I’m going to need an exorcist.Interview was edited and condensed. Kaitlyn Locke can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ke_locke.