Varni strikes out in a new direction

Posted: Thursday, January 06, 2011

Roy Varni was 79 when he published his first book, but his output has still surpassed what some writers produce in a lifetime. The local author, now 84, recently published his second book and is knee-deep into a third.

Varni’s literary bent draws on a lifetime love of letter-writing, and on a pronounced interest in human dynamics, especially those that underpin historical events.

In conversation, the author pulls from a rich store of family stories, leaving the listener wanting to hear more: How his mother, raised in a hilltop village in Italy, was sent to work as a maid at age 9, subsisting mostly on chestnuts. How the tiny village of Varni, not far from his mother’s hometown, is so small that only two men now live there — and they don’t get along. How Varni himself made the trek to work in Juneau at the Upper Salmon Creek powerhouse in the 1970s by climbing 876 steps and then navigating a narrow and rail-less 2-mile flume, often by motorbike.

The latter provided the basis for Varni’s first book, “It Rains Murder Sometimes in Juneau,” a mystery that has the unusual distinction of being the only book sold at the checkout counter of Juneau’s A&P market (Varni knows the owner, Ben Williams).

For his second book, “Piccolino: The Little Partisan,” Varni also drew on family history, but in a very different way.

“Piccolino” is set during World War II in Varni’s ancestral village of Fascia, Italy, called Massimino in the book to avoid any mental associations with fascism. (Such connections are entirely false: “fascia” actually means bundle of hay, Varni explained, and the residents of the scenic hilltop town lean left, not right.) Though the setting itself taps a deep family connection — Varni’s father was born there and Varni still has cousins who live there — the story is not based on personal history. It is a fictionalized account of real events that took place during the end of the war.

The idea for the book was inspired by a dramatic true story his cousin told him while Varni was visiting Italy in 2000. It concerned a boy, nicknamed “Piccolino” (“Little One”), who was heavily involved in the Partisan Resistance Movement in Fascia, helping to fight against the occupying German forces. “Piccolino” weaves historical events with fiction, telling the story from the point of view of the young Italian resistance fighter as well as that of a German soldier.

“The story about the little boy, that’s the seed of the story,” Varni said. “That’s what made is so easy to write. When you’ve got a plot or main focus point, it’s easy to weave things around it. And as you write, you get another idea.”

Although Varni entered the Navy in the 1940s, he did not serve in the war, as he was still in the U.S. getting military training as a radio technician when it ended.

Varni drew on oral information and books from family members who still live in Italy to fill in the Italian side of the story, and traveled to Italy three times himself. For the German side, he had to rely on imagination and extensive research.

“The German part of the story is definitely almost all fiction. The Italian part of the story, there’s an awful lot of truth to.”

Varni spent hours at the Juneau Library doing research, gathering details on German military equipment and political makeup.

The atrocities of that time come into the story when such events directly affect the characters — and there are some wrenching scenes. But the book is not overtly political. Rather, it points out brutalizing effects of war on all sides, and the lack of humanity — even between those with personal ties. It is a human drama, told on a personal level, and his characters are not given simplistic white and black hats. For example, the main German soldier, Anton Wolters, starts out as a heroic German before he devolves into a despicably cruel officer.

In some cases, Varni gives his characters the names of real people, a technique he also used in his first book.

“Elvio (Santori), for instance, who is the hero in this story, is named after my cousin Elvio in Genoa, who is the current mayor of Fascia,” he said.

There are also character connections between the first book and the second; the Santori and Wolter families appear in both. “Piccolino” also has a Juneau tie-in, as the narrators of the World War II story are based here, and, as in the first book, Varni throws in local details Juneau audiences will recognize.

“I try to put local flavor into all of my books,” he said.

Varni and his wife Alvina, who recently celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary, moved to Juneau with their son Andrew in 1971. They also have two daughters, Pam and Sharon, but the girls were grown by the time they came to Juneau. The Varnis first came to town while on vacation from their home in the San Francisco Bay Area in November 1970 — a trip that almost didn’t happen. Their first approach by plane was redirected to Anchorage due to inclement weather, and their second brought them back to where they started, in Seattle. On the third day they tried again and were richly rewarded for their patience.

“We came down the channel, if I remember right,” he said, “and it was the most beautiful scene I’d ever seen in my life. They’d had unlimited days of snow. And as we drove into town, I said to my wife, ‘This has got to be the place.’”

Varni, who had spent 25 years in transportation management, soon got the job at the powerhouse, and later took over the operations of Shaw Realty.

His only real preparation for this third or fourth career as a writer, he said, was his love of letter-writing.

“If I ever had any confrontations, they were mostly in letters — to either customers or political people or railroad officials.”

He’s now hard at work on his third book. Set in Juneau, it involves a young woman who attempts to flee her father’s Mafia empire in Italy, only to be tracked down by her father’s hit man. As with his characters in “Piccolino,” Varni gives the bad guys some depth.

“Even the hit man has a warm side.”

Though the characters are set, Varni said he’s hit a snag in the plot development. At 40,000 words in, he’s written himself into a corner.

“I’m really concerned about it. Every night as I lay in bed trying to go to sleep, I think, ’Come on, come on! Where’s that nugget that I need?’ And I’m not finding it yet.”

Also up in the air: The new book’s title.

“Temporarily — and none of my family thinks much of this title — it’s called ‘The Mafia? In Juneau?’”

Varni will sign copies of his newest release at Copy Express on Friday.

• Contact Amy Fletcher at amy.fletcher@juneauempire.com.



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