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Monday, July 29, 2013

MOVERS and SHAKERS: Andrew Serra, Author and New York City Firefighter Captain Our Coverage Sponsored by Stribling and Associates

Andrew Serra

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Andrew Serra is a novelist whose interests in history, art, culture, and languages bridge the centuries from the Renaissance to today. His first book, The Battle for Our Souls, is a collection of poems including the title piece, which in the epic style of Ariosto and Tasso chronicles not the chivalric exploits of a mythical hero but the very real events surrounding the death of a firefighter on September 11th. In Serra's latest book, his debut novel entitled The Dead Florentines, the author intertwines the historic events of sixteenth-century Florence with the story of a young man beset by tragedy and intrigue. The young man finds both love and danger and discovers his only hope for survival is an unconventional Catholic priest.

Serra came to writing historical novels only lately and after a varied array of experiences and fields of study. With only a couple semesters of undergraduate studies completed, he left school to work full time as a truck driver. In 1997, Serra became a New York City police officer, with posts in the transit system and precincts on Staten Island before leaving to join the Fire Department the following year. For the past fifteen years he has worked in some of the busiest firehouses in the city in both Brooklyn and Manhattan. His career has included time spent in the Special Operations Command as a technical rescue worker in the aftermath of September 11th and promotions to lieutenant in 2004 and captain in 2010. He is presently stationed in SoHo.

In 2000, Serra decided to resume his education, finishing his bachelor's degree in Political Science at the College of Staten Island in 2003. He then went on to earn a master's degree in the same field from Brooklyn College in 2008. In the fall of 2007 he traveled to Italy for the first time. His trip across the Italian peninsula that year inspired Serra to both learn Italian and visit the country again. He started taking undergraduate courses in Italian language and literature in 2008 and continued through the graduate program, earning a second master's degree (in Italian) from Hunter College in the spring of 2011.

Having an academic background in both the social sciences and the literature of the Italian Renaissance provided Serra with a unique insight into the past. The Dead Florentines not only features colorful descriptions of the culture and day-to-day life of sixteenth-century Florence, but also explores the social, religious, and philosophical paradigms of the world the characters lived in. For the author, why things happened is as important as what happened.

The frontline experience in dealing with both the tragedies and elations of human emotions that Serra gained throughout his career inspires his subjects and characters. He attributes a certain timelessness to human emotions and enjoys using events of the past to address the themes of the human condition common to all ages.  We are absolutely thrilled to present Andrew Serra as our latest Mover and Shaker.  Peachy Deegan interviewed Andrew Serra for Whom You Know.

Peachy Deegan: What is your first writing memory?
Andrew Serra: When I was about six years old, someone gave me a blank-paged spiral bound book. I filled the pages with a story about Snoopy playing for the Yankees. I even illustrated it. I just recently rediscovered it in an old box. Funny how I hadn't thought about it in years, but seeing it brought back the memories clear as day.

How did you come up with the concept for your first book?
I had just finished an Introduction to Italian Literature class and was traveling through Italy on my honeymoon. I was inspired by the great Italian poets of the thirteenth through sixteenth centuries and wanted to find a way to give the same poetic sentiment to my own experiences. The Battle for Our Souls is my attempt to artistically chronicle a deeply personal episode.

How did you enjoy putting together a novel in contrast to poetry?
Writing fictional characters who lived centuries ago freed me to take them wherever my interests led. It even allowed me to have them interact with historical figures from the era whom I found interesting. It was a lot of fun in that regard.

What future books do you hope to author?
I'm currently working on a historical novel set in Paris during the French Revolution. Ideally, I'd like to write a series of historical novels, all set in different eras and cities. I love the role a great city plays in a story, almost like an overarching character itself, with its own personality!

How do you balance being a writer and being a firefighter?
It can be tough to plan time to write. I may think I'll get some writing done on my day off but then get home after a 24 hour shift exhausted and get very little done. Working a rotating schedule can have its advantages though--libraries are almost empty on weekday mornings!

What would surprise most people about being an author and being a firefighter?
I think whenever there is a job that is extremely physical, there can be a tendency to overlook creativity. I've worked with firefighters who were amazing painters or musicians for example. I think most firefighters are creative, even if they don't know it. From the tools we sometimes invent on the spot to our ever-changing tactics, firefighters are constantly being creative.

What or who has had the most influence on your pursuit of excellence?
I think back to my mom, whether it was helping us with school projects or shuttling us to practice after she worked all day, she always took so much pride in everything she did. She died at a young age and I've always felt that that was a reminder that life is short and we should put our best effort forward at every opportunity, you can never count on a second chance.

What are you proudest of and why?
My wife and daughter. My wife is my biggest supporter in my writing and having her by my side at the book launch was the best part of the night. My daughter, more than anyone in the world, can put a smile on my face no matter what kind of day I'm having.

What would you like to do professionally that you have not yet had the opportunity to do?
I was promoted to captain in 2010, but I only received a permanent station assignment as such in 2012. I'm proud of the company that I've had the honor to lead for over a year now, but it just so happens that no rookie firefighters (probies) have been assigned to my company in that time. I'm sure a probie will be assigned to my company at some point and I look forward to guiding a young firefighter through the beginning of his or her career. I still remember my first captain and how much I learned from him and would consider it an honor to pass on those same traditions.

What honors and awards have you received in your profession?
The Fire Department issues citations from time to time, my last citation was in 2010 for a successful CPR rescue.

What one word best describes you and why?
I guess 'tenacious.' I've always tried to not let setbacks discourage me and keep moving forward.

What is your favorite place to be in Manhattan?
It's a tie between along the river underneath the Brooklyn Bridge at sunrise (a throwback to my truck-driving days) and McSorley's (anytime of day).

What is your favorite shop in Manhattan?
Strand Books.

If you could hire anybody who would it be and why?
An IT tech, so I wouldn't have to have my three-year old daughter show me how to use an iPad.

What is your favorite drink?
If I'm thirsty and sweaty, an ice cold beer. If I'm eating pasta, a medium bodied red wine. If I'm relaxing, a single malt Scotch.

What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you at a cocktail party?
I once dozed off on a couch at a party and had a friend shake my shoulder to wake me. I was startled and knocked a full glass of cranberry cocktail out of his hand and all over myself--white shirt and all. At least, it was funny to everyone else at the party!

What is your favorite restaurant in Manhattan?
My favorite is always evolving. Right now it's Matisse on 2nd Avenue (seared foie gras, need I say more!).

What is your favorite Manhattan book or favorite character in Manhattan literature?
Forever, by Pete Hamill. His portrayal of Manhattan, from a small village on the island's southern tip to a metropolis, is riveting. Cormac O'Connor is a brilliantly compelling lead character.

Who would you like to be for a day and why?
Bill Gates, or any billionaire. I like to fantasize about all the good I could do, all the problems that could be solved if there were unlimited resources. I can't understand why anyone is hungry in a world where billionaires exist.

If you could have anything in Manhattan named after you what would it be and why?
A gelato flavor. Why? Because it's gelato!

What has been your best Manhattan athletic experience?
The Big Brothers/Big Sisters Race for the Kids.

What is your favorite thing to do in Manhattan that you can do nowhere else?
Walk to work! I know that walking isn't exclusively a Manhattan activity, but it was a lot less practical when I lived in Staten Island.

If you could have dinner with any person living or passed, who would it be and why? 
Abraham Lincoln. A true genius and from what I've read he was well known for his story telling and jokes, who better for a dinner companion.

What has been your best Manhattan art or music experience?
It's a tie between the 2001 Concert for New York at Madison Square Garden and seeing my future wife (shortly after we met) sing "I like big butts" on the karaoke stage at Planet Rose!

What do you personally do or what have you done to give back to the world?
Because I feel fortunate to live in a country where our most basic needs are usually a given, I feel organizations like Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders are very important. I've sponsored both for years.

What do you think is most underrated and overrated here?
Underrated--The Highline (a perfect quiet getaway if you go at the right time). Overrated--Times Square (only if you live here, if you're visiting then I guess it's pretty cool).

Other than Movers and Shakers of course, what is your favorite Whom You Know column and what do you like about it?
'Read This', since I like knowing some background info on an author and a book before reading it, I feel it enriches the experience.

Have you tried The Peachy Deegan yet and if not, why not?
I have just added it to my 'Must Do' list!  I think my wife would enjoy a date night!

What else should Whom You Know readers know about you?
I love cooking and finding new ingredients to add to old favorite recipes. And of course, what good would cooking be without finding the perfect wine to pair with it?

How would you like to be contacted by Whom You Know readers?

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