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The Citizen Recommends: The Sicilian Inheritance

In her new Philly novel, bestselling author and podcaster Jo Piazza explores a century-old murder, women’s strengths — and her own unresolved family mystery. Then, she turned it into a true crime podcast

The Citizen Recommends: The Sicilian Inheritance

In her new Philly novel, bestselling author and podcaster Jo Piazza explores a century-old murder, women’s strengths — and her own unresolved family mystery. Then, she turned it into a true crime podcast

We all have those family stories that start with a grain of truth and, through a series of generational whispers down the lane, warp into tall tales. For Philadelphia author and journalist Jo Piazza, that family story consists of a 100-year-old, head-scratching unsolved murder.

And what happens when a journalist/novelist/podcaster is faced with the news that her great-grandmother’s untimely death was actually a murder mystery waiting to be solved? She aims to crack it herself. First, by imagining what could have happened through a novel. Then, when the fictional world can’t seem to scratch the itch of curiosity, she shifts her energy into solving the mystery herself — journeying to the same small Sicilian town where it happened — and turning that true tale into a true crime podcast.

But Piazza’s book does more than solve a murder. The Sicilian Inheritance offers an empowering yet heartbreaking examination of what it’s like to be a woman carving space for herself in a male-dominated industry. No surprise to women readers: It’s hard and can be perilous. But, Piazza submits, it’s worth it, because along the journey are other women waiting to help shoulder the struggle and, through that support, you develop rich, mutually fulfilling relationships.

The Sicilian Inheritance offers an empowering yet heartbreaking examination of what it’s like to be a woman carving space for herself in a male-dominated industry. No surprise to women readers: It’s hard and can be perilous.

The novel follows Sara, a Philadelphia butcher-turned-restaurant owner, as she ditches her not-so-idyllic life in the city to make her late aunt’s wish come true: Go to Sicily, eat, pray, love and, oh yeah, one last thing … figure out who murdered her great-grandmother, Serafina. Through century-alternating chapters, we learn Serafina’s life story. Once an ambitious student, she must set her hopes aside when she becomes pregnant out of wedlock. That, alongside her moonlighting as a doctor, earns her enemies in her small Sicilian town.

Piazza, a Philly transplant, paints a picture of the city that locals will recognize with tender moments — from classic South Philly personalities, family trips to the Poconos, a nod to restaurant reviews by The Inquirer’s Craig Laban, and other Philly-centric moments. Piazza even teamed up with Cardenas Oil & Vinegar Taproom in the Italian Market to create a Sicilian Inheritance olive oil.

The Sicilian Inheritance marks Piazza’s 13th book. So far, her oeuvre includes nonfiction dissections of celebrity culture and an intimate look at the heroism of nuns. Her fiction spans political elections and toxic workout culture. We Are Not Like Them, co-authored with Christine Pride, explored an interracial friendship in Philadelphia tested by a police shooting and earned a spot on the Good Morning America Book Club.

Piazza, a podcasting veteran, reported and produced in 2020 The Citizen’s own Philly Under Fire, a solutions-oriented look at Philadelphia’s gun violence epidemic. She also helms the popular Under the Influence podcast, where she takes a critical look at social media and its effect on society.

Now Piazza has produced a companion podcast to her novel also titled The Sicilian Inheritance, that explores her great-grandmother Lorenza Marsala’s life and death. In it, Piazza scoops up her family of five and heads to Sicily for an immersive investigation into a century-old cold case, proving that sometimes, our family’s tall tales are stranger than fiction.

The Citizen caught up with Piazza just in time for The Sicilian Inheritance’s release on April 2. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

This is a book full of strong female characters pursuing trades in male-dominated fields — Sara as a butcher, and Serafina as a doctor. Can you talk a little bit about how female empowerment, and the growing pains that come with it, inform your characters’ journeys?

There’s a thread running through all of my books: Badass women against the world. My goal with this book was to write a delicious adventure that readers would love. But I also wanted to tell an important story about female ambition and women taking on jobs they’re not typically given: jobs like construction worker or butcher, like our main character Sara. And in the past, we have Serafina, who is a doctor — another job that was impossible for women to have back then. I wanted to sneak in this story about women’s ambition, agency and the importance of women supporting other women inside a twisty, turny, gorgeous adventure.

That your characters, Italian women in the early 1920s, carry on no differently than women in 2024 reminds us of the timelessness of female friendships.

Women, strong women and my female friendships are the backbone of my life. I wanted to highlight those. Male characters exist in this book and there is some spicy sex in it, but it’s the women who are the stars, and it’s the female friendships that shine. The female friendships that are the real love story of this book. When we don’t center that in fiction and culture, we make it seem like the only relationship that matters is your marriage. I think that’s detrimental to women and also to our marriage. Your husband can’t be all of your things. You need a village to support you in life.

At the same time, there’s a line that sticks out to me: “At the end of the day you’re on your own, girls, and you have to survive on your wits.” That feels like another thesis statement. You’ve got a book full of women often outsmarting the men around them to keep themselves safe and reach fulfillment.

The world generally is a patriarchal system. We know that Italian culture is very patriarchal and women were relegated to the roles of wife and mother. That is true for America at the turn of the 20th century as well. The unique thing that happened in Sicily 100 years ago is that 1 million men left for America to escape poverty and to try to build their fortunes in America, which left the women alone in the town. They took on men’s jobs many times. They learned to read, they learned to write, and they were buying and selling land. It was this interesting feminist moment for women because for the first time, they could do more than be a wife and a mother. That was empowering. I wanted to seize on that moment.

The word witch gets thrown around a lot for Serafina for being an unconventional woman. That likely would have been the same descriptor for Sara.

I wanted to play around with the word witch because it gets thrown around whenever we want to take women down a notch or, in many instances, to lock them up and kill them. Now we don’t use the word witches much, but we sure use the word bitch. Sara’s life is a mess, but it’s not a mess for the reasons that we typically see in commercial fiction.

“I vowed to set all of my books in Philadelphia from here on out. Sara starts her journey here in Philly, and I try to make Philly come alive before she goes to Sicily. I want to be able to celebrate this wonderful city that I think is the best city in America.” — Jo Piazza

She’s a mess because the world is unkind to women. She’s an ambitious chef who wants to open a great restaurant. And it’s nearly impossible to do that as a woman and a mother. I’ve talked to so many female chefs in this city that say it is so much exponentially harder for a woman to be a successful chef than it is for a man. Then you throw in motherhood, and it’s insane. You just can’t do it. And so Sara is a mess and she’s beaten down because it’s not easy to reach for your dreams and have ambition as someone who wants to be a mother in this world.

Here’s the real juicy part: This book is in part inspired by real-life family lore of a murder of your great-grandmother 100 years ago. Did you believe the lore yourself?

I didn’t. My family has been telling this story of my great-great grandmother’s murder in Sicily for more than a century. It’s a game of telephone. All we know is that she was murdered before she could come to America to join her husband. Everyone has created their version of the story. Many family members didn’t even know her name, to be honest. It was like they were using her story as a way to shape their own identity in a way. And hearing this, I was like, you don’t know any concrete facts. She could have just died of the flu. So I did not necessarily believe it, but I was fascinated by the one nugget of a story: What would it be like to be a woman left alone by your husband in Sicily to be on your own?

And now you’ve created a true time podcast also named The Sicilian Inheritance, chasing the truth about your great-grandmother’s death.

I am an incredibly thorough content creator. I am going to have to solve this murder. In the podcast, I go back to Sicily to solve a murder. To solve a murder, you need to dig through archives and court records and conduct interviews with the oldest people we could find. Now I believe it, the lore of my great-grandmother’s murder. We’ve got a lot of crazy bombshells. It’s a great companion to the book. I think it’s nice for people to enjoy both of them together.

So did you come back with more answers?

Spoiler-free, but I can tell you the bombshell from the second episode because I think it’s intriguing. I went to the comune in Sicily, which is the city hall there. They keep these huge books of birth, death and marriage in the city hall. They’re these roughly two-foot-tall cloth-bound books. I got to the book of death from 1916, which is the year that she died. Again, I was convinced she died of the freaking flu, but she’s not in the book. Then we realized there are two sections of the Book of Death. We’re in the one for natural causes, but the other section is for unnatural causes. There she is in the section of unnatural causes. It does not give a cause of death in the book of death. So now we’ve gotta do some more digging.

Cold cases are tough to crack. What pushes you to keep going?

My family has been telling her story for 100 years. They always talk about her death, but no one knows anything about her life or how she lived. If we do anything with this podcast, it’s finding out who she was. I want to know what her life was like in this small village in Sicily. I think since we live in a world where women’s stories are lost to history, it’s important for us to try to dig those up. That’s a big part of what this podcast is about. It’s telling the story of her life. We are a culture obsessed with dead women, and what if we were more obsessed with women’s lives? The world would be a better place.

A lot of writers write from what they know, but for obvious reasons, this is particularly close. You mention your family has passed this lore down from generation to generation. What does it mean to you that you could be the one to crack it?

My dad wanted to crack it. He passed away seven years ago, and it’s been fulfilling to be able to share the story that I think he wishes he could have done. I kind of feel like it had to be me. It had to be someone who is a storyteller and also a journalist. I feel like my generation was the last generation that was close enough to people who heard stories directly from the people who were there. We need to preserve those things now because stories don’t last forever. This podcast proves that. Memory is so fallible the whole time we’re going through it.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Even though the book is set in Sicily, it does feel like my most Philly book in a lot of ways. We Are Not Like Them is also set here, but this one feels very Philly. I lived in New York and San Francisco for a long time, and so many books are set in those cities. I vowed to set all of my books in Philadelphia from here on out. Sara starts her journey here in Philly, and I try to make Philly come alive before she goes to Sicily. I want to be able to celebrate this wonderful city that I think is the best city in America.

Find The Sicilian Inheritance online or at your favorite corner bookstore. Enjoy the first two episodes of the podcast on Apple Podcast, Audible or Spotify.


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