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Joanna Colangelo - an American with Polish-Italian roots - is the author of the novel "Storm." In her book, she tries to find answers...

Joanna Colangelo – an American with Polish-Italian roots – is the author of the novel “Storm.” In her book, she tries to find answers to the questions of what dying looks like and how we prepare for death in old age. However, “The Storm” is also a story about our choices and how we find meaning in death. The story presented in the pages of the novel is a philosophical journey that is thought-provoking, overwhelming and hopeful in equal measure.

Is “Storm” is your first book?
I have been writing for more than 20 years. My writings – essays articles and non-fiction stories – have been published in the Columbia University Journal of American Studies and a culture blog in The Huffington Post and No Depression/Americana magazine, among others. The Storm, however, is my first book.

Can you briefly describe what “The Storm” is about?
The Storm tells the story of Zosia, a 93-year-old woman living in New York City, who returns to her native Poland in December, after receiving a postcard from her niece, Teresa, who is planning to spend the holidays in southeastern Poland. Zosia spends her savings on a three-week trip across Poland to surprise Teresa in Zakopane for Christmas. She starts in Warsaw, travels to Krakow and two days before Christmas arrives in Zakopane, the town she left as an infant. On the eve of Teresa’s arrival, a strong winter storm breaks over the mountains and the roads to the town are closed. It becomes clear that Zosia’s niece will not make it to town for Christmas Eve. Zosia is faced with a decision: wait for the end of the storm and Teresa’s arrival or go into the cold and snowy mountains to perhaps see the Tatra Mountains for the last time in her life.

Why did you decide to write a book about dying?
I think “The Storm” is more than a book about dying – it’s also a story about our choices. As long as I can remember, I have always struggled with the philosophical and spiritual question of how people can find meaning and purpose in death in the same way we find meaning and purpose in our lives. I believe and hope that when it comes to the inevitability of death, we can choose how we understand it – and perhaps even choose how we approach it. In my book, I wanted to explore what death is for someone who subconsciously or consciously chooses how to experience it.

Why is the story set in Poland – is the location crucial, or could the events have taken place in any other country?
I think there are two main characters in “The Strom.” One is Zosia, the main character. The other is Poland itself – it’s the central point of the book. I wouldn’t set the plot in any other place for several reasons. First, the heroine is Polish, and the plot is driven by her return “home,” to Poland, at the end of her life. It was crucial for Zosia to return to the place she came from – and it always had to be Poland. When I first visited Poland, I felt like I had returned home, even though I had never been here before. When I got into the cab at the airport, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” was playing in Polish, and I immediately felt a sense of peace and familiarity in the country. Somehow Poland seemed poetic, beautiful, haunting and welcoming at the same time. Such a setting is ideal, for a book that deals with just such topics.

Is the main character based on someone you know?
Yes, the character of Zosia is based on my late grandmother. The book is fiction, but almost every aspect of Zosia, from her physical features to her personality and even some of the things the protagonist experiences in the book are based on my grandmother. She was a woman around whom it is possible – and worthwhile – to create a book. Fearless, loving life and always curious about the world.

Have you met your grandmother? What was the most important thing you learned from her?
I knew my grandmother very well. She lived near my family and was very present throughout my life. She had a strong character and was extremely proud to be Polish. She was funny, brilliant and had a great hunger for knowledge. I learned a lot from her, but if I had to choose the most important thing, I think it would be how to maintain dignity and strength in old age. My grandmother belonged to the so-called Greatest Generation, the generation of Americans born between 1910 and 1924. She died at the age of 97. I remember her saying that she never expected to grow old. Before the Greatest Generation, most people didn’t live to be 90, so she didn’t expect to watch her body slowly refuses to obay with age. How she lived through her final years – with poise and grace, never giving in to death and never fighting it either – is something I will always remember.

Is Poland an important part of your life? How close are you to your Polish roots – heritage, history and identity?
Poland is an extremely important part of my life and identity. I think this is the case for most Polish Americans. You can see this by how closely connected the Polish-American communities are – even today – in the United States. I’ve been to Poland many times – and I’m always happy when I go back there for an extended period of time. I feel as comfortable and “at home” in Poland as I do in the States. Certainly Polish art and culture influence my life (I wrote “The Storm” while listening to Chopin), but I think I am also influenced by the Polish mentality. There are things I have learned largely from my Polish family, Poles living in the States and also from in Poland. Faithfulness to one’s convictions, perseverance, and a quiet appreciation of joy and goodness wherever and whenever they exist – these, in my opinion, are a set of traits that can be described as “the Polish mentality,” and which I try to put into practice every day.