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Italy’s Uncomfortable Past: Francesca Melandri’s Writing Life interview
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I’ve hosted award-winning writers on this blog before – but never on the day that they received an award. Yet just today the fabulous Italian writer Francesca Melandri received the Book of the Year award from Elle magazine. And justly so. Her novel, “Eva dorme,” tackles the kinds of social issues that only the greatest fiction can handle. Written in Italian, it’s out already in German and soon will be published in French. I hope English-speakers will have a chance to read it in translation before long, because Francesca has shown us a side of Italian society that even few Italians like to acknowledge. As you’ll see, she examines a shameful period in recent Italian history with aspects to which American and British readers will relate in their own recent past, including the torture of prisoners and terrorism. She also portrays the story of a woman seeking a father, in a story that speaks to all of us, regardless of language. Here’s what she told me about her writing and the life she lives around it:

You’ve written in many different genres, including television and the novel. What are the most important differences in the actual process of writing?

I signed my first contract as a screenwriter when I was 19 and wrote something like 100 hours of tv-fiction since; I published one novel, last year, and I am writing the second. So, I am not sure I am equally qualified in the two genres. Having said that, the most obvious difference is the collective aspect of filmmaking and the very solitary act of writing literature. A screenplay does not exist until director, actors, photographer and the rest of the crew have turned it into a movie. Screenwriters can either resent or indulge in this lack of responsibility. Or be ambivalent about it, which makes for some interesting relationship issues with the director. A novel, instead, is your very own piece of work,  you are the only one responsible for the final result, you  are  both the captain and the ship. I always liked the teamwork aspect of screenwriting but since I started writing novels I can’t say I miss it - I guess this means I was more ambivalent than I realized. And oh, the pleasure of taking hours, days even, to find the perfect turn of a sentence. No film producer will ever allow such a waste of time.

How long did it take you to get your novel published?

It’s almost embarrassing, how fast it went. A common friend (also in the publishing industry) recommended my manuscript to Mondadori’s chief fiction editor.  Two days later he (the chief editor) phoned me saying he had read  the first 100 pages and asked me to please not sell it to other publishers until he was finished. This was a Thursday afternoon. I wish I could boast about the cool answer I gave him,“I can’t guarantee this, I have to consult with my agent” or the like. The truth is, I was left speechless. The following Monday at 9 am he did call me; he’d finished the book during the week end and wanted to publish it.  It’s the kind of story you’d never put in a script, it’s so tacky.

Would you recommend any books on writing?

I’ve read very few books of the sort. I enjoyed “On Writing” by Stephen King. It’s unpretentious, down-to-earth. King comes out as a very decent human being, surprisingly normal – well, at least until he discloses that, in order to able to write, he has to listen to heavy metal. I recently read a great book by Israeli master Abraham Yehoshua, it’s a series of interviews and conferences he held in Turin, Italy. I am not sure it’s been translated in English, the Italian title is “Il lettore allo specchio” (The reader at the mirror), it’s published by Einaudi.

What’s a typical writing day?

I am a working mom, I have two kids, a life partner, a house, Italian standards for cooking and eating (that means high). What all this means is that I have no schedules, no rituals, just one rule: write whenever you can if you can. You never know which family crisis/household need/unmissable-episode-in-the-development-of-the-adorable-careers-of-your-genetic-material shall happen next moment, requiring your attention and disrupting your concentration.

Tell us about your novel. And of course tell us why it’s so great?!

The backdrop of my novel “Eva dorme” (‘Eve sleeps’) is the 20th century history of  South Tyrol, a province in the far North of Italy inhabited by a  German-speaking ethnic minority. That’s where the Dolomites are. Hikers, skiers and climbers from all over the world visit it every year. Very few people, however, know about its turbulent history: the traumatic way in which it was torn away from its homeland Austria and given to Italy after World War 1; how Fascism occupied it and set about ‘italianizing’ it  (people were forbidden to speak German in public, for instance); the bloody years of terrorism and state repression in the 60’s. Quite a typical European story, you might say. The main difference with places like Ulster or Euzkadi is that the escalation of violence – which in the bloodiest years nobody imagined would end anytime soon – was defused in the early ‘70s by an enlightened political compromise between central State and local politicians. My main character Eva, a 40something woman in today’s prosperous South Tyrol, is the fatherless daughter of an unmarried woman - not an easy condition in the rural Alpine society of the 60’s. As a little child, Eva gets a taste of what it might mean to be loved by a father when her mother falls in love with Vito, a soldier sent - like many others - from Southern Italy to fight the terrorists. As an adult, in today’s complicated Italy, Eva takes a long train ride all the way down from the Alps to Calabria - the tip of the ‘boot’ - to find out what happened to the only man who ever treated her as a daughter. It’s basically a story about fathers, fatherless-ness, fatherlands and what identity means. And also about bewilderment: the bewilderment of a community coping with a collective trauma (losing the Homeland); of young men in uniform asked to shoot at and sometimes torture (that happened too) civilians with very un-Italian names like Gudrun or Günther; of a fatherless girl who as an adult asks herself whether the taste of fatherly love she was briefly granted was for real or just an illusion.

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?

This is a tough one. There’s the incipit in Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities”, especially the third sentence: “There was a depression over the Atlantic. It was travelling eastward towards an area of high pressure over Russia and still showed no tendency to move northwards around it.  The isotherms and isotheres were fulfilling their functions” Ah, I love it! What are human dramas after all, as long as isotherms and isotheres go about fulfilling their functions...

Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?

This one is easy: Alice Munro. How, how does she do it?! I read and reread her books trying to capture a glimpse of the secret of her style, effortlessness, depth, gigantic understanding of the human condition. I am not an admirer of Alice Munro: I am a believer.

Your novel focuses on specific events in Italian history and, I understand, much of it is based on fact. How much research is involved in the book and how do you carry it out?

My book has a very political side to it, especially in the way it challenges Italy’s ingrained unwillingness to face the uncomfortable truths of its past. The terrible political, social, moral mess Italy is in nowadays has a lot to do, in my opinion, with a national identity very much based on denial. Also, the more I researched the more I found out links between the very local history of terrorism in South Tyrol and the wider picture of post-war Italy, especially the terrorist bloodbath of the 70’s and early ‘80s. This means I couldn’t risk making blunders on the facts, they were too controversial. Historical research had to be very thorough, and that’s how I tried to go about it.  On the other hand I am a novelist, not a historian, so history books were not enough for me and I felt I had to speak with real people. I interviewed many retired military men from Southern Italy who served in South Tyrol in those years; cooks and chefs in the then booming tourist industry  (Eva’s mother is a cook in a luxury hotel); old people in general who remembered those bloody times. Researching my book had a very moving, unforgettable side to it: all the German-speaking South Tyroleans who thanked me, an Italian, for showing an interest in their forgotten, unacknowledged story.  

Once you base something in a real historical period, do you feel limited as a writer in the things you can do with your characters?

Oh, but I love limitations! Writing about a character belonging to a world which is not my own is so interesting. You have these limitations given by the customs of time and place, and you set about exploring the possibilities.  Plus, this helps you find the bottom-line feelings we all human beings share, regardless of where or when we live. What can be more interesting than that?

What’s the best idea for marketing a book you can do yourself?

I guess a good start  is to write the best book you can, to the best of your abilities, then find the best possible publisher interested in it. After that – I suspect – things are no longer in your hands.

What’s your experience with being translated?

There’s a lot of ambivalence at being translated: it’s obviously a wonderful thing if your book crosses the national borders (even more so those of a minority language like Italian) but then  the final text will not and cannot be  in your control. You can check it in the languages you speak (I can’t thank enough my German and French translators for their aplomb when they got back from me manuscripts covered with scribbles), but at the end what you need is a leap of faith. Having said this, the first time I listened to my novel being read aloud in a foreign language I got goose bumps. It was like seeing your child being turned into, say, a Chinese, and yet still totally being the individual he’s always been.

Did you write unpublished novels or plays before you were actually published?

Somewhere in my hard disk there’s a collection of unpublished short stories. They’re in English because the years when I wrote them I was travelling in Asia most of the time and only rarely spoke Italian. I sent them to a handful of publishers, received four rejection slips, gave up (I know, four rejection slips are supposed to be too few to give up but still...). Shortly after that I had my first baby, priorities changed, time passed... Rereading them now I must say I am relieved they were never published. On the other hand, I’m happy I wrote them: they were an important stepping stone in developing my style. Which raises a question: can you develop your style in one language and then end up writing novels in another? Well, that’s what happened to me, but I’d be interested in the opinion of other bilingual writers.

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?

Being on a book tour is, in itself, a strange thing. Writers are supposed to be introspective people, undaunted by the years of loneliness needed to write a novel. Then, when the book is out, they are suddenly expected to turn into entertainers. That’s pretty strange, I find.

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?

Nothing would be weirder to write than my autobiography.