Brigid Pasulka’s The Sun and Other Stars (Simon & Schuster) revolves around San Benedetto, a fictional spot on the Italian Riviera that has all the hallmarks of small town Italian life: There are judging nuns, gossiping elderly grandparents sipping wine on porches, butchers, shop owners, and barkeeps, and, at the center of it all, there is soccer. Every facet of this town reflects the local love for Azzurro, the national Italian team. As the town fights over the future of the team, which is embroiled in a bribery scandal, everyone also rediscovers soccer on the local pitch in a tournament hosted by Azzurro’s star player, who is hiding from the paparazzi. It’s on the town’s field that the novel comes to life with detailed, gripping play-by-play. What The Art of Fielding did for college baseball, The Sun and Other Stars succeeds in doing for pickup soccer.
We got Brigid Pasulka on the phone to discuss her love of Italy, scandals, and what Americans can learn from the world’s most popular sport.
Soccer is at the center of the book. Did you play?
I grew up in a rural area – in central Illinois – and I played pickup football, baseball, tennis, basketball, ice skating, hockey all the time. I played every sport growing up – except for soccer. But I don’t think you can write a book about Italy without soccer. The father of the family I babysat for in Italy, he introduced me to all the players in town, and to the Italians’ love of soccer.
If you don’t play, how did you so compellingly detail the process of the main character, Etto, as he learned the game?
As Etto started to appreciate soccer, I know the part of him that doesn’t understand. I don’t really understand watching sports, but after writing this book – where a lot of my research was watching YouTube from people who passionately put together these collections – I understand that now. And I know the feeling of running and when your whole body opens up to the world. I think a lot of people feel there’s a spiritual connection with playing sports. There’s a creative connection – I would write, go for a run, and inevitably things would surface in my head.
What drew you to Italy?
I was only in Italy for the summer. I studied Italian on my own (I was kind of a language nerd), and quit my job and ended up on the Riviera. The town in the book is based on Alassio, Italy, where I stayed for a year. A lot of the minor details — the droughts, the festivals, the way they would watch the World Cup – came from my time there.
Why did you make the main Italian star in the book, Yuri Fil, Ukranian?
I was at this orphanage in Ukraine where they play a lot of pickup soccer, and I saw this guy wearing this jacket that said ’82 Italia. I asked him, ‘What happened in 1982 in Italy?’ He gave me a look like I was crazy and quickly told me about the World Cup in 1982. That conversation was a big inspiration for the book, and that man’s name was Yuri Fil. But I don’t make these decisions logically. When I got to the point where I knew there would be a Yuri Fil, I guess I just wanted someone to be an outsider like Etto was.
Was the Italian scandal that drives much of the book based on any reality?
I did base it loosely on a scandal – but there are scandals happening all the time. I address the idea of right and wrong in a lot of different places in the book. You could even call it sin and redemption and judging other people, and it gets very murky in life as it does in soccer scandals. Also, that’s a primary source of cynicism in this world. The line between right and wrong is blurred so much that people who do the wrong thing are not necessarily punished and there isn’t justice, and that creates a lot of cynicism.
Now that you’ve finished your book, do you plan on playing soccer?
It was one of my greatest regrets while writing this book – that I had never played in high school. I signed up for a soccer league, that is, just before I found out I was pregnant.