On the Trail of a Murder: Helene Stapinski on Research and Memoir

Helene Stapinksi grew up hearing about a murder.

A family murder, no less, a story her mother passed down about her great-great-grandmother Vita in order to scare young Stapinski into life on the straight and narrow.

Her family was based in Jersey City, New Jersey, and was one of “swindlers, bookies, embezzlers, and mobster-wannabes,” according to a page on her website, although her own mother managed to extricate herself from the crime life.

The same could not be said, allegedly, for Vita, the great-great-grandmother who brought the family to America and left rumors of a murder swirling in Italy.

"There were days, months, years, when I thought this book would never happen. And to hold it in my hands is pretty mind blowing now.”

It was the kind of story that captivated Stapinski, enough that she wrote a book, Murder in Matera, about her search to discover the truth about the murder, including whether it was even real.

The book begins with Stapinski’s mother telling her daughter about Vita, a story with a moral: “In the end [Vita] got hers,” Stapinski writes on the first page. “Boy, did she get hers.”

It was a tale passed down through the generations as a sort of crime-stopper, a warning to future generations that crime doesn’t pay.

But Stapinski, who began her career as a journalist working for The Jersey Journal, wanted to know more. She needed to know more. So she went on research trips to Italy.

Although she has written for publications as elite as The New York Times, Stapinski said in an interview that she considers Murder in Matera to be her greatest accomplishment to date.

“It was so hard to research and took so long to write,” she said. “But I think I got the goods and really pulled the whole thing off. There were days, months, years, when I thought this book would never happen. And to hold it in my hands is pretty mind blowing now.”

In fact, the book itself chronicles the disappointment of an early trip, when all Stapinski met was silence and stone faces.

Of course, she did concede later that it wasn’t a totally disappointing trip, mostly because of the amazing food she ate.

“When I was doing my research, particularly that first trip, and I couldn’t find anything, the food was a major consolation,” she said, going on to describe an amazing meal at a restaurant in Accettura: “Mushrooms picked seconds before, a ragu that had cooked for like two days, and cheese that was so fresh the goats were still sitting nearby. I remember thinking, ‘Blessed are the cheese makers.’ (I was a big Monty Python fan as a kid).”

Stapinski has been a writer and journalist for years, and knows firsthand how hard it can be to find success in publishing. Her advice to aspiring memoirists is to persevere.

“Just keep at it and find a good teacher,” she advised new writers. “Write all the time and get published in the lowliest of places because it will lead to the next better place and so on.”

That is exactly what Stapinski herself did in order to write Murder in Matera.

She took her two children and mother with her to Italy in 2004 in search of the murder, but was unable to find it; she wasn’t deterred, however, and attempted to write a story without that key ingredient.

That didn’t work.

So a few years later Stapinski returned for a second research trip, one that was much more successful. While she was overseas, an editor, Lisa DiMona, contacted her in hopes she would write a memoir based on a travel piece she had penned for the New York Times.

But then DiMona read Stapinski’s memoir Five-Finger Discount, which told of her family’s criminal past, and opened the door to writing about something different. The two met for lunch, and Stapinski said, “I was so jazzed by my trip and wanting to return to finish the research that I think I just carried her off with me in a way."

“I sent her pages of the back story and then I worked with her assistant Nora Long on polishing those up and then writing a proposal and within weeks, we had three people bidding on it.”

The catch?

She still hadn’t discovered whether or not the murder was real.

“I knew if it was out there, I would eventually find it,” Stapinski said. “I just wasn’t sure it was out there! I’m not sure what we would have done if it didn’t exist.”

Fortunately — or unfortunately, for the murdered party — Stapinski’s great-great-grandmother did, indeed, commit a murder, and the murderous tale is recounted in her memoir, along with the trials and tribulations of researching family scandals in small-town, tight-lipped Southern Italy.

Karis Rogerson

Column by Karis Rogerson

Karis Rogerson is a mid-20s aspiring author who lives in Brooklyn and works at a cafe—so totally that person they warn you about when you declare your English major. In addition to embracing the cliched nature of her life, she spends her days reading, binge-watching cop shows (Olivia Benson is her favorite character) and fangirling about all things literary, New York and selfie-related. You can find her other writing on her website and maybe someday you’ll be able to buy her novels.

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