Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Meet Helene Stapinski (WSC ’87), Writer and Former NYU Bobcat

Helene StapinskiHelene Stapinski as NYU Bobcat
Helene Stapinski (WSC ’87), is the author of three memoirs, including the national best seller, Five-Finger Discount.  Her most recent book is Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family and Forgiveness in Southern Italy. Stapinski previously wrote the Works in Progress column for The New York Times and currently is a regular contributor across all sections of the newspaper. We sat down with her to find out about her experiences as an NYU student, the inspiration for her writing and her advice for incoming students.


What did you study at NYU and how did your education shape what you do now?

I studied magazine journalism. I learned all the basics at NYU and then used those skills and my clips at the Washington Square News and the Courier to get my first job at the Hudson Reporter, a weekly in Hoboken.

Helene Stapinski: her story continues
Helene Stapinski and fellow NYU classmates

Did you have a favorite place to hang out within the city-structured NYU campus?

I mostly hung out in the park when I had free time, but I didn't have much free time. I had several jobs and always one internship. I was a radio researcher at WPLJ, I had a work study job at Coles Sports Center, mostly working in the office, I was the school mascot (the Bobcat, which I wrote a story about years ago for the The New York Times sports section: Link to the article.), I worked at Musician magazine, several other magazines. I was in constant motion. My Coles friends and I would go to happy hour at VGs, a bar on the corner of Bleecker and Broadway. We also went to shows at the Bottom Line a lot. I miss that place. My favorite place to read was on the comfortable couches at the Coles center.


I loved reading “Go Ahead and Leave My Plagued City. Then Maybe We New Yorkers Can Stay,” your recent article in The Washington Post: Link to article. I felt your love for New York City and yearning for a city that once was––what inspired you to write this piece now?

I wanted to write the piece because of my kids. I feel like the New York City that was accessible to me won't be for them, unless things change.


What has been your biggest challenges with acclimating to life during this pandemic and during this time of social uprising?

The only difference between pandemic life and my normal life is having everyone at home with me. I always work at home in my pajamas, so that wasn't a big adjustment. It took a little while for us to all carve out our space and be able to share the house, but I loved having my kids at home with me. My son has since gone to his campus upstate. I miss him. As far as the protests go, I've been really torn and have wanted to march, but am afraid of catching the virus. I encouraged my kids to march -- with masks.



Helene Stapinski as an NYU student


What or who inspires you to write?

Everything around me is an inspiration. I'm easily annoyed, and get worked up pretty quickly, so there's always a topic for me out there in the world. My husband, Wendell Jamieson (Link to his work), is also a big inspiration. He has pushed me over the years to write my books and has been incredibly supportive. He's always the first one to read what I write and I always follow his edits. (Well, almost always. When I don't, the editor I'm working with always echoes what he has just said, so I've learned to listen to him!) When I was writing my first book, Five-Finger Discount, I didn't think it was any good and he yelled at me to send it out to agents. I would never have done it without him. When I teach writing, I tell students to marry the right person.


You have written 3 books and they cover many topics, but what would you say is the underlying theme or message that runs throughout all of them?

I don't think there's an underlying theme, but my style is always the same: stripped down and direct. I think communicating is more important than impressing the reader. And I think a lot of people appreciate that. I don't candy coat anything and try and keep it as real and as honest as possible. Most readers know when you're full of it. 


What was your experience like writing your last book, Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family and Forgiveness in Southern Italy?

My last book was an incredible journey, which I included as part of the narrative. It took me ten years to uncover a family murder in southern Italy. I had to go back again and again in search of criminal files, family members, etc. While researching the murder I uncovered this rough but beautiful place and discovered this feudal history I knew nothing about. (Feudal times continued into the 20th century in Southern Italy.) I wrote an op-ed about it for The New York Times. It's a history I think most Italian Americans don't know much about. Finding my family story was incredibly emotional and rewarding and healing. (That's where the  Forgiveness in the subtitle comes in) and totally turned what I thought I knew upside down.


What advice do you have for NYU students?

My advice is to burn the candle at both ends. That's a cliche but it's true. You can't be a writer until you've lived. I moved to Alaska, traveled the world, played in a rock band, did everything I was afraid of doing, and then lived to tell about it. That doesn't mean you should do stupid things. Just be bold. And brave. Edna St. Vincent Millay (I wrote my first book upstate at the Millay colony, and Millay lived not far from NYU), said it best:

My candle burns at both ends;
   It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
   It gives a lovely light!

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