PIEDMONT -- Aspiring authors are often advised to "write what they know," but for his debut novel, David La Piana chose a different path, using "First Generation" to investigate and better understand something he didn't know.
When his father died nine years ago at the age of 89, the Piedmont resident realized he would never have the chance to fully understand his father or why he turned out the way he did. Though kind, his father was not very communicative, and La Piana always felt he didn't know who he was. Since a true memoir was not possible, La Piana wrote his book as fiction.
In the story, the author went back in time to his grandparents generation, and then moved forward to his parents and his own. In that way, he came up with the idea of calling the novel "First Generation."
"Every generation is a first generation because there's something new we're doing," La Piana said. "But there are also these themes I found that pass from generation to generation. In this family, it's themes of enduring violence, desperation and poverty but also making some steps forward."
"First Generation" follows the survival of these three generations of an immigrant family, the grandparents escaping a desperate life in Sicily in the 1920s and immigrating to the United States; the father as a young soldier fighting in World War II, and the teenager rebelling in a Chicano barrio in Los Angeles in the late 1960s. The gritty, compelling story alternates between the three narrators; focusing on the boy growing up, interspersed with slowly revealing his father's experience fighting in North Africa and the background of the grandparents, who live with the family.
"It's kind of a fish-out-of-water story because this Sicilian family ends up living in East Los Angeles where they're the only Italians," La Piana said. "How do they fit in? Actually quite well."
As far as life in East Los Angeles goes, the author did "write what he knows" since he was raised in Pico Rivera by his parents of Sicilian descent, and grew up on those streets.
"I grew up in a very similar situation to this character's, so the whole fish-out-of-water thing is true," he said. "But my whole father's generation is completely made up because I had to invent that."
To write about his father's generation, La Piana, an avid World War II history buff, researched the campaign in North Africa. He chose to write about a venue that few people know much about, specifically the Battle of Kasserine Pass, a major defeat for the United States, and placed the father figure in this terrible situation.
La Piana hopes readers will use the book's message of how generations of families repeat the themes of their lives, making modest improvements, to think about and trace their own families. Also important are the broad use of the term "family," which La Piana uses to include friends and the families in the neighborhood.
"How friends can sustain you," he said. "They're the people closest to you when you're a teenager; some of them are terrible influences, but they are loyal, and you love them."
The founder of La Piana Consulting, a national firm that works with philanthropy and nonprofits, is no stranger to the writing process, having written six nonfiction books that deal with management and strategies for nonprofit organizations. With fiction, the process was more painful but equally satisfying, especially in finding a way to make the story work.
"First Generation" is a tie-in to the rest of the author's life and a way for people to understand the path he has chosen, to work in the field of social justice. And while it did not help to better understand his father, it did bring a positive result.
"Writing 'First Generation' helped me to be more at peace with who he was and with our relationship," he said. "I was able to recognize that he did everything he could, given who he was."
David La Piana's "First Generation," published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, is available for $8.99 from www.amazon.com.