Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, October 11, 2001

"As kids, we gave each other nicknames. My brother's
was Goopy and mine was Hozy. I got mine through
a combination of 'Jose,' which is my given name,
Joseph, in Spanish, and the famous jazz drummer
Cozy Powell." --Hozy Rossi, Author

One quote leads
to a quirky first novel

"Appointment with Il Duce"
By Hozy Rossi (Welcome Rain Publishers, 224 pages, hardcover, $25)

By Gary C.W. Chun

"Some people wanted him to go into music rather than dentistry."

Hozy Rossi dutifully wrote that down in his notebook. At the time, he was a field interviewer for the University of Hawaii at Manoa's Center for Oral History, and the elderly woman he was interviewing made the curious comment. But as a developing writer, it was one of those offhand remarks he filed away in his subconscious, the genesis of a story idea, one he would nurture and develop through graduate school on the mainland.

"That one thing that woman said in the interview instantly attracted me. Music and dentistry is such an odd pairing, and creative instincts would usually be set aside in favor of a more practical route in life.


"So I started wondering what set of circumstances would lead someone from music to dentistry, and I used to play music, so I was attracted to the idea in that context. I also decided that I would make the story exotic and rich in humor."

Now, years later, Rossi returns to Honolulu the author of a well-received first novel filled with passion for both music and dentistry, "Appointment with Il Duce." He's here to read from his book today and tomorrow.

While the novel has been mentioned by critics as a difficult one to characterize, "the basic story is, it's about a young Italian boy who has a gift for playing the cello and, through a strange set of circumstances, becomes a dentist," he said by phone Monday from his San Francisco home.

Rossi sets his novel in the early days of Italian fascism under the rule of Mussolini, the "Il Duce" of the title. "I just found a connection between dentistry and fascism," he said with a small laugh, "this obsession with order and cleanliness. And Mussolini himself was a health fanatic, changing his clothes three, four times a day. He also played the violin."

The novel starts in the small Italian town of Cortenza, far removed from Rome and the tumultuous events surrounding Mussolini's rise to power. Cortenza is the home of Beppe Arpino, a fatherless boy who, under paternal eye of the local priest, develops into an excellent cellist. But the two also share a passion for teeth, and after the priest's mysterious death, fate nudges Beppe toward Naples and a career in dentistry.

As a student, Beppo is swept up in the politics, deceits and turmoil of the early years of fascism and becomes involved with the beautiful daughter of a Neapolitan art collector, falling in love with her after peering into her attractive mouth.

While "Appointment with Il Duce" just came out in July, Rossi has been published before, his poetry appearing in local anthologies such as Bamboo Ridge and University of Hawaii's Hawaii Review. Now 36 and an editor for, the Web site owned by the National Wildlife Federation, his all-important first novel was published by Welcome Rain Publishers, a young independent press based in New York. "They do a lot of translations, and because of their European connections, they usually get the North American rights of books originally published in Europe."

After graduating from UH, Rossi attended graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

"I started writing the book while I was there," he said, "with the rough sketch of the story done during the summer between my first and second year. By the time I had the requisite 100 pages done needed for my thesis for my MFA degree, it already had the voice, sensibility and outline."

Rossi went back to San Francisco after getting his MFA, but found it difficult to finish his book. "I had no writing schedule. I spent six months helping edit the PC Computing magazine, but I needed to cut back and go part time. I remembered meeting people in graduate school who were there eight to 10 years with really nothing to show, and I didn't want to be in that position.

"So I set a deadline for myself and finished the draft of the book in five months."

Rossi then placed a call to a visiting writer he med in a graduate program, Lynne Sharon Schwartz. "Lynne said that when I finished it to give her a ring, so I called and sent her the manuscript, trusting her judgment completely. She mailed it back with a light edit and said it was ready to go."

Schwartz helped him find a literary agent, and in the process of shopping the book around, he said, "One thing I've learned about the publishing industry is that a book either sells quickly for six figures because there's a bidding war for the rights to publish the book, or it takes six months to a year to sell to a smaller press and for a smaller advance."

With his book finally going to Welcome Rain Publishers, Rossi realized that "in going to a small publisher, there are no resources for editing, just proofreading. Plus there are small, modest expectations for a first-time writer, so my first press run was about 6-7,000 copies.

"I admit I have mixed feelings about not having my book go through an editor. In the past, I've idealized that kind of relationship between a writer and editor, something like the one between Ernest Hemingway and Max Perkins, where their correspondence was so rich in nuance that it was subsequently published.

"It's not a perfect book, but a satisfying one that stands on its own two feet. And I know I've gotten an opportunity not a lot of writers have. An editor at a large publishing house could've changed the sensibility of the book a bit, made it more popular, but it could've diluted the essence of my story."

Rossi is also fortunate that his book has garnered positive reviews from such papers as the Wall Street Journal, the Baltimore Sun, the New York Times Book Review and the Village Voice, and he has been featured as part of Barnes & Noble Booksellers' Discover Great New Writers program.

"The book is a little quirky, and reviews have mentioned, because of that, it evokes movies like 'Big Night' or anything with Roberto Benigni in it, I guess because of some of the book's farcical elements and it taking place in Italy.

"I never pictured it as being a cinematic book. It has a rich text and a definite rhythm that came from my initial interest in poetry. I had more of a preoccupation with how the words would fit together and, in moving to fiction, of having to produce a significant number of pages."

Rossi is eager to share his book with the people he grew up with. He and his brother had moved here in 1981 from Northern California to live with their widowed mother. "As kids we gave each other nicknames. My brother's was Goopy and mine was Hozy. I got mine through a combination of 'Jose,' which is my given name, Joseph, in Spanish, and the rock drummer Cozy Powell."

The Rossi brothers also made a bit of a name for themselves here on the music scene. "When I was 17, I started playing the drums for various bands like Mumbo Jumbo, reggae singer Maacho's band and, in my only claim to local fame, replaced Frank Orrall in the final lineup of Hat Makes the Man. Myself, my brother on bass and Beano Shots (David Sumida) on guitar, we all played behind Peter (Bond) and Marti (Kerton).

"I did music from 1982 to '86 and just stopped after moving out of the family house, since playing drums was more problematic."

Then it was time for Rossi to grow up and find a suitable major at UH to prepare him for the real world.

"I actually wanted to major in accounting!" he said. But the creative muse visited him again when he was a sophomore.

"I had to take some required English classes, and there was this one introductory class in poetry taught by John Unterecker. Jack was a frail man then, but you could tell he was excited by writing. And between his enthusiasm and Cathy Song's 'Picture Bride,' I knew wanted to be a writer. In fact, I used to read a poem or two from Cathy's book for a time every night before going to bed." (Rossi met Song during a 1991 workshop, and she was one of his references when he applied to grad school.)

The book he's working on will be more contemporary. "Right now, it involves people who do shoe repair," he said. "I seem to be working my way through the trades!"

In his own words

Author Hozy Rossi reads from his novel:

Today: 3 p.m. at Kuykendall Hall Room 410, University of Hawai'i at Manoa
Tomorrow: 8 p.m. tomorrow at Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Kahala Mall

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