A Skype visit to a book club – top 10 tips for authors and readers

Skype visit to book club (cropped)

Since the launch of That Summer in Puglia in March 2018, my events schedule has been somewhat intense (you’ll get a sense of it if you click on the Events page, here). However, until last week I had never had the experience of a Skype chat with a reading group.* With this post, I’d like to share what made it work, trusting it may be helpful to other authors and readers. Much of what I’ve learnt from the event I owe to my friend Alice and her fabulous book club colleagues, whose preparations were impressive. The group was warm, well organised, intellectually rigorous and wise – ‘visiting’ them was an absolute joy.

Around Alice’s table in Harvard, MA, sat 14 members of a 17-strong reading group (which makes it a relatively large one). I ‘sat’ at one end of the table… on a television screen: in actual fact, I was on the other side of the Atlantic, in the mountains to which I had escaped from London to write my second novel.

Book club in Harvard, MABook club in Harvard, MA - Skype conversation

Alice and I last saw each other twenty years ago, when we completed a Master’s degree together. This past autumn she read That Summer in Puglia and proposed it to her fellow book club members, who took up her suggestion. She contacted me after that, wondering whether I might be open to a Skype chat with the group. This was nearly two months before the eventual call; a few days before it, we tested the Skype connection. We also exchanged by email some questions about the novel.

Tip 1: contact the author a couple of months (or more) in advance. This will ensure: (1) a higher likelihood of finding a date convenient for the writer and for a large number of group members; and (2) ample time for all participants to have read the book

Tip 2: test the Skype connection and your equipment in good time. I discovered that I had to use a different computer from the one I normally carry, for better network reception and microphone quality

Tip 3: (for authors) if you’ve never done an ‘author visit via Skype’, starting with a group of which you know one member will ensure it doesn’t feel daunting in the least

Tip 4: exchanging questions in advance by email is helpful to the readers and the author. On the night, only some of these questions were expressly posed, as awareness of them meant they could be addressed in the flow of conversation, out of which spontaneous ones could (and did) then emerge. This made it possible to get rapidly into deep discussion.

There were some lovely surprises:

  • the call lasted an hour, but it felt much shorter. It was a real pleasure, and we covered a lot of ground
  • the technology and the human warmth, combined, made it feel as if we were all sitting in the same room
  • although participants were nearly 4,000 miles away, and the novel is set in Southern Italy, their understanding of, and engagement with, it erased that distance.

The group’s questions were insightful, their observations thoughtful and thought-provoking, ‘spilling’ from the world of the novel into the ones we inhabit. Someone asked whether the book could have had a setting other than Puglia, and the answer to that is, in many respects, no, but from another perspective, yes. In the story, Puglia provides the ‘framework’ which shapes and tests the protagonists; the region’s simultaneous bridging and clashing of contradictions – the result of its layers of history and cultures – are integral to the conflicts within and between my fictional characters. At the same time, those conflicts, those emotions, can and do arise at all longitudes and latitudes, though their specific triggers and expression may vary.

What other aspects made the event so pleasant and – dare I say it – meaningful for all of us? Here are some more pointers from the evening.

Tip 5: let all group members introduce themselves to the author at the outset. Putting names to faces, and in some cases mentioning something relevant about people’s backgrounds, helps establish a real, personal connection

Tip 6: to get the most out of the opportunity to discuss a book with its author, it’s well worth giving it attentive reading. It’s very much a case of ‘what you put in, you get out’ – insightful questions and observations are bound to elicit thoughtful responses: trust me, the author will be as genuinely intrigued as you are by the questions you pose

Tip 7: if cuisine plays an important role in the book, consider holding the discussion over a dinner which reflects it – it’s fun, immerses you further in the world of the novel, and makes the evening more memorable. Alice went to amazing lengths to cook or buy some of the Apulian dishes which appear in That Summer in Puglia. Another wonderful reading group I visited in London in October did the same (there, I could actually taste the orecchiette and the burrata).

In the novel, Puglia’s cuisine and wines feature for several reasons: they evoke vivid memories for the narrator; they connect characters and point to their evolution; they hint at truths the protagonists cannot face head-on; they are quiet carriers of centuries of embodied culture and history. For example, cartellate, the honey-dipped rosettes served in Puglia for Christmas, are identical to Crete’s xerotigana and to the diples of other parts of Greece, revealing the region’s Ancient Greek past; originally, they were offerings to the goddess Demeter, and, centuries later, to the Virgin Mary. These and other traces of Puglia’s multi-layered past are integral to the story, whose protagonist must ‘excavate’ layers of his personal history to be able to move on. (For more on the broader subject of why history in fiction matters, see here.)

Tip 8: arrange for the reading group to be assembled 15-30 minutes before the Skype call, so that everyone may be settled before you connect with the author. This ensures: (1) that all participants (the writer included) can relax and concentrate on the conversation; and (2) that the time available for asking questions is used to the fullest

Tip 9: continue the conversation among reading group members after the Skype call is over. What did you appreciate most about it? Which of the author’s answers or other participants’ comments added a fresh perspective of particular value to you?

Tip 10: thank each other by email the next day (if you can, provide feedback). The Harvard group sent me emails and photos overnight, expressing their enjoyment and warm appreciation of the event – and all their reasons why. I enjoyed and appreciated our encounter no less than they did, and wrote back to say so.

My first experience of a ‘Skype visit’ to a book club has been tremendous, and one I’ll gladly repeat. I hope this post will be helpful to you – whether you’re a fellow author or a reader – and encourage you to give the experience a try.

 

* I’m here using the expressions ‘reading group’ and ‘book club’ interchangeably, reflecting their common usage. Neither is to be confused with a ‘book sales club’. 

Image credits:

That Summer in Puglia cover photo: © Salvo d’Avila; all rights reserved; reproduced with kind permission of the artist. Book cover graphic design: Edwin Smet.

Skype Chat Call video calls. Reproduced under free licence from Pixabay.

Photos of book club evening: courtesy of Alice and Mary Ann.

Orecchiette al pomodoro: photo by P. Turo, retouched by Al Mare, in Wikimedia Commons, reproduced under Creative Commons licence.

Burrata di Andria: photo by FM433, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence.

 

NIAF review of That Summer in Puglia

 

NIAF Ambassador Magazine WINTER 2018 p. 64

A review of That Summer in Puglia has just been published in the Winter 2018 edition of Ambassador Magazine, NIAF’s beautiful semi-annual publication. Washington-based NIAF – the National Italian American Foundation – is a key resource for the Italian American Community. It aims to preserve and promote the cultural heritage of Italian Americans, and to strengthen ties between the United States and Italy.

My thanks to NIAF and to Ambassador Magazine reviewer Kirsten Keppel for her fabulous piece on That Summer in Puglia.

Credits:

Article reproduced with kind permission of NIAF / Ambassador Magazine.

 

History in fiction – why it matters

Recently, Amy Sackville and I were invited to speak at the Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre on the topic of ‘Fiction and History’ with reference to our novels. Amy presented Painter to the King (Granta), where she brings to life Diego Velazequez and the Court of Philip IV of Spain; I spoke about That Summer in Puglia (Eyewear Publishing), to which layers of history and diverse cultures are integral.

The Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre is ‘the home of new writing, debate about literature and more’, so the questions from writer and lecturer Ardu Vakil, our interviewer, were duly stimulating. My thanks to Prof. Blake Morrison: it was an honour to be invited to Goldsmiths, having been there years ago as a Creative & Life Writing MA student, and a pleasure to see some of my former tutors, including Ardu. This blog post is in response to requests, on the night and subsequently, to make available online my own reflections on history in fiction.

Goldsmiths Writers' Centre flier

Why weave history into fiction? Because it does something which really matters: it raises awareness of the legacy of history in our present day and of the fact that history is narrative. Novels can alert readers to these two issues and their consequences in ways which imprint themselves in our minds more deeply than intellectual notions alone.

The past conditions our present everywhere, but there are places where this is more evident than in others. My native Puglia, the region located in the ‘heel’ of Italy, is one such place. Part of the Ancient Greek world since the Bronze Age, it was eventually conquered by the Romans. The Via Appia soon stretched all the way from Rome to the port city of Brundisium (modern Brindisi), carrying armies and goods to this natural ‘Gateway to the East’ (‘Porta d’Oriente’). A succession of conquerors followed: Byzantines, Berbers, Normans, Swabians, French, Venetians, Spaniards… Over the centuries, they left an abundance of visible traces. First-time visitors to Puglia today are astonished by the sight of Ancient Greek or Roman ruins side by side with Norman churches, Swabian castles, Anjou palaces, Venetian loggias, Baroque jewels, the idiosyncratic ‘trulli’, whitewashed kasbahs… As a child whose bedroom windows opened onto the 11th-century round church of St. John of the Sepulchre, built by the Normans (influenced by the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem) on top of a Roman house, I was conscious of walking daily where other children had walked for at least two-thousand years.

Of course, that is exactly what we’re all doing, physically or metaphorically, everywhere – but most places don’t bring us face to face with that realisation. Puglia has the power to do this also in slightly less obvious ways, and so my novel highlights the ‘living traces’ of diverse people and cultures in the region: the inhabitants’ physical appearance, which surprises foreigners; the mixture of languages which flowed into the local dialect; the cuisine; fairy tales which blend Greek myth with historical fact; proverbs where ancient gods and Christianity meet… I might write a future post about exactly how these traces appear in That Summer in Puglia. In the meantime, these sketchier references are here to help illustrate my answer to the wider question of why history in fiction – including, but not restricting ourselves to, historical fiction – matters.

Some awareness of how dynamically history still impacts the present is salutary for at least two reasons. First, it highlights positive aspects to be grateful for and exposes toxic ones. Second, by reminding us of the transience of life, it has high ‘existential value’: it awakens in us the instinct to make our existence meaningful; and the realisation that we’re tiny drops in the flow of humanity encourages empathy towards others not merely across time but across geographies. At the very least, it’s a spur to seeking to understand our world better and to take responsibility for daily actions. At its best, it pre-empts dangerous Othering. Umberto Eco’s Inventing the Enemy offers a memorable discussion of why intellectual awareness and courage are essential to countering the instinct to invent an enemy in the process of identity formation (individual as much as national).

Equally salutary – particularly when nationalism is experiencing a resurgence at all longitudes – is the recognition that history is narrative. All history is incomplete: the most scrupulous historians, committed to seeking the truth, are not exempt from the imperative to select the dots to connect; they have to sift through the facts and the personalities of the past in order to determine which to include or exclude. Even the most consciously unbiased will do that from a point of view inevitably tinged with the unconscious bias of their time and of other factors. And even the most balanced account can only be partial, a cross-section of reality. Think of the fils rouges running through your own life: they all tell true stories, but each thread can connect only certain aspects of your existence.

Omissions and distortions can have tragic consequences, especially when they’re wilful. That’s true both for societies and individuals and whether the narrative in question is the history of a nation or of a person. The story of Tommaso, the protagonist of That Summer in Puglia, is that of a man who unwittingly misinterprets and distorts past and present at great cost to himself and others, until the complexity of the truth catches up with him and presents him with a choice.

The link between the words ‘history’ and ‘story’ reminds us that both are narratives. The distinction between them in the English language is relatively recent: it first appears only around the late fifteenth century. In some other tongues – for example Italian (storia), French (histoire) and German (Geschichte) – one term still describes both. Layers of history – and different versions of them – shape national as well as personal identities; they give rise to frameworks of beliefs and of normative behaviour. I’m intrigued by how history with a capital ‘h’ affects personal histories as well as our own times. I’ve explored some of these intersections in my first novel and will explore others in my second one, a story set in late sixteenth-century Southern Italy. I hope That Summer In Puglia shows how layers of history and of diverse cultures account for my native region’s deep-rooted contradictions, which give rise to its intense beauty but also to conflicts between and within my protagonists; ultimately, their task is that of ‘connecting the fragments’.

512px-Vaso_di_Talos_particolare
Vase of Talos, Jatta Museum, Ruvo di Puglia

The word ‘history’ comes to us via the ancient Greek but derives from the proto-Indo-European ‘weid’ for ‘to see’, the root for the words ‘wisdom’ and ‘vision’. It strikes me as one of those cases in which etymology transmits a timeless truth: while knowledge and wisdom are different things, seeking ‘to see clearly’ is integral to acquiring some degree of wisdom. To ‘see clearly’ is always a challenge though, not least as it requires viewing things from multiple perspectives. An education which stresses the value of the arts and humanities encourages that, by training us to open-mindedness, empathy and critical thinking. Historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has argued the case (full text here) particularly effectively: ‘Never assume that the humanities are an optional extra, a bit of leisure-time fun, alongside the real hard-nosed human business of science, medicine or engineering. Without hard and creative thinking in the humanities, the human society in which you and I find ourselves may well go mad. Look around you at the world in which we live, and try to prove me wrong.’ Fiction and non-fiction are cornerstones of the arts and humanities.

Most novelists – I, for one – don’t write to a theme. Rather, a cluster of them tends to reveal itself only in the course of writing, and sometimes only afterwards. It’s in the nature of creative work that this remains true even when we set out to explore a specific issue. Historical novels can show powerfully how the past still affects the present. They can foreground microhistory, which is arguably as significant for our everyday as who won which battle (with some notable exceptions). They can convey people’s acceptance as givens, in their time, of rules and customs we find abhorrent, prompting us to query widespread present-day attitudes future generations will decry. They pose the question: how would you have behaved in those circumstances? The temporal distance inherent in historical novels (to varying degrees which impact the defamiliarization effect) can make it easier for us as readers to discern and engage with aspects of our own reality.

Researching the lives of ordinary people in sixteenth-century Southern Italy threw up surprises for me, such as the incidence of slavery, and the deep roots – immemorial by then – of a misogyny we’re still struggling against. The greatest challenge for me as I write my second novel is to resist all temptation to project a twenty-first century worldview onto characters from another era. As the great Carlo Ginzburg recently said in a Warburg Institute lecture: ‘history and anthropology are located forms of knowledge’, so we have to strive against unconscious bias, by listening to, and respecting, ‘the voices of the people at the time’.

That doesn’t mean that imagination plays no part in historical fiction – on the contrary. For example, my second novel is inspired by true events, but gaps in the documentary evidence call for a high degree of conjecture. My response to the challenge includes inventing protagonists who interact with real-life historical ones. They are far from being arbitrary inventions, though: rather, they’re fictional human beings who give voice to countless numbers of their contemporaries who actually experienced the situations and dilemmas they face in the story.

Is it worth all the research, all the emotional and imaginative effort to inhabit a consciousness located in a very different world, all the meticulous assembling of pieces of an incomplete puzzle? I think it is: fiction has the power to capture and communicate the narrative truth of fragments of the past – and so to illuminate the present.

Image credits:

Flier for ‘History and Fiction’ event: courtesy of Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre.

Scavi di Egnazia, Via Traiana 01, by Sailko. Reproduced under a CC license. For information about the Egnazia Archaeological Park, see the website http://www.egnazia.eu/en/itinerario-topografico/

Chiesa di Santa Croce, by Laibniz, Reproduced under GNU and CC licences.

San Giovanni al Sepolcro and View of Ostuni, by the author.

Particolare del vaso di Talos, by Forzaruvo94. Reproduced under a CC licence.

Festival della Letteratura di Viaggio

It was a pleasure and an honour to discuss That Summer in Puglia at the 11th Festival della Letteratura di Viaggio (Rome, 20 – 23 September 2018).

R. Caputo, V. Vescina, T. Giartosio, C. Solito - (1)
Levante italiano: Rino Caputo, Valeria Vescina, Tommaso Giartosio, Carlos Solito

The festival’s name suggests a focus on travel literature but its remit defies narrow definitions. It showcases different ways of narrating places and cultures: journalism, travel memoir, fiction, photography, music, television, comics, anthropology, history, politics, philosophy… It’s promoted and hosted by the Società Geografica Italiana (founded in 1867, it’s Italy’s equivalent of the Royal Geographical Society, for those of you in the UK) in the historic grounds of its headquarters, Villa Celimontana.  Journalist and photographer Antonio Politano (La Repubblica, National Geographic and much more) is the Artistic Director. Writer and broadcaster Tommaso Giartosio (author of several books, journalist and presenter of Rai Radio Tre’s literary programme, ‘Fahrenheit’) co-ordinates the talks and interviews the speakers.

The festival’s byword being ‘openness’, its atmosphere is at once relaxed and challenging. The juxtaposition of some sessions emphasises the relevance and reach of world events. An example? In their presentation of Otto Giorni in Niger (Baldini + Castoldi) a memoir of days with the UNHCR in refugee camps in Niger, acclaimed authors Edoardo Albinati and Francesca D’Aloja spoke of how the experience affected their perspectives on issues ranging from degrees of hospitality and generosity, to the wisdom of young mothers whose babies were born of rape; their talk was followed by the award of the festival’s Navicella d’Oro Prize to Aboubakar Soumahoro, trade unionist, for his work against racism and the exploitation of migrants in Italy, and to Antonio Marchesi, President of Amnesty International Italy.

Aboubakar Soumahoro and Tommaso Giartosio (1)
Aboubakar Soumahoro and Tommaso Giartosio
E. Albinati, T. Giartosio, F. d'Aloja - (1)
Edoardo Albinati, Tommaso Giartosio and Francesca d’Aloja

The novels presented at the festival tend to be connected by a strong sense of place. The session ‘Levante Italiano’ or ‘Italian Levant’, involved a discussion of three works set in Puglia: Omar Di Monopoli’s Uomini e Cani (Adelphi), Carlos Solito’s Sciamenesciá (Elliot) and my That Summer in Puglia (Eyewear). Rino Caputo, Professor of Italian Literature at Tor Vergata, University of Rome, put them in the historical context of literature from Puglia-born writers, highlighting the similarities and differences vis a vis the experience of earlier Sicilian authors. Tommaso Giartosio pointed to the strong thread connecting our individual visions of Puglia, despite our three widely differing styles: namely, the region’s contradictions, rooted in history, which still shape its present and our imaginations.

R. Caputo, V. Vescina, T. Giartosio, C. Solito, O. Di Monopoli - (2)
Rino Caputo, Valeria Vescina, Tommaso Giartosio, Carlos Solito and Omar Di Monopoli in ‘Levante italiano’

 

That Summer in Puglia in Ostuni

Francesco Dimitri and Valeria Vescina - LR 1
With fellow-writer Francesco Dimitri, my interviewer

Yesterday’s event in Ostuni was very special: after a journey begun in Oxford, my protagonist Tommaso “came home” to the beautiful city through which he and Anna “walk”.

I have lots of people to thank for the success of this bilingual presentation to an audience consisting, in fairly equal parts, of Italian and native-English speakers:

  • The authorities who took the initiative of offering a literary event for both an Italian public and the sizeable Anglophone community resident in and around Ostuni. My thanks to Mayor Gianfranco Coppola, City Councillor Antonella Palmisano and Director of Museums Michele Conte, who gave the welcome addresses, and to their wonderful team, especially City Library Director Francesca Garziano and Press Officer Paola Loparco
  • Francesco, Paola and Ilaria Casanova of the Bottega del Libro bookshop, whose support at the event and in the weeks leading up to it was precious
  • Last but certainly not least, my wonderful interviewer Francesco Dimitri, another Apulian author living and working in London. Francesco writes in both Italian and English. His most recent titles include To Read Aloud and The Book of Hidden Things (which is set in Puglia) and he collaborates with The School of Life. I can’t wait for his That Sense of Wonder, which is due out in November 2018.

Francesco and I translated – from English into Italian and vice versa – everything we discussed. We had wondered how well this would work and were delighted to hear that people loved it and that many of them actively enjoyed the challenge of trying to understand what was being said in the other language before hearing the translation into their own tongue.

Bookshop window

Francesco’s questions were insightful and stimulating, and those from the audience showed warm engagement with the novel. As always, it was so lovely, afterwards, to meet those present, to hear their thoughts on the book and to learn of their backgrounds.

Image credits:

Photos © author.

Images of City of Ostuni’s poster and of Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno by the respective sources.

 

 

Italian, English, or both?

Publicity material for the talk - from the City of Ostuni

The City of Ostuni, where That Summer in Puglia is set, will host a presentation of the novel on the 31st of August in the magical surroundings of The Bishops’ Garden (Il Giardino dei Vescovi) of the Diocese’s Museum (Museo Diocesano).

Several things make this talk special for me: it feels as if my fictional protagonist, Tommaso, has ‘come home’; the venue opens onto the square through which he and his great love, Anna, ‘walk’ and where they ‘sit’ on the steps of the historic Cathedral; I’ve known and loved Ostuni all my life; and… the talk will be in English and Italian, something made possible by my wonderful interviewer, fellow-author Francesco Dimitri (To Read Aloud and The Book of Hidden Things, which is also set in Puglia), another Apulian living in the UK.

What could be more appropriate for this book than a bilingual presentation in Ostuni? A work of fiction written in English (my literary mother-tongue) and set in London and Puglia by a dual-nationality author will be discussed with an Italian- and an English-speaking public. I was so pleased that the Mayor, his team and the President of the Museo Diocesano were keen to organise an event of potential interest to the sizeable Anglophone local community.

Past and future presentations of the book include some with a notably bicultural angle: That Summer in Puglia had its debut at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival on Italian Day, which showcases Italian literature and culture; the Italian Cultural Institute in London hosted a discussion focused on the cross-cultural aspects of the novel and of the writing process; and one of my upcoming talks – for the Book to the Future Festival at the University of Birmingham – will be specifically on multilingualism and multiculturalism with reference to That Summer in Puglia.

During the Q&A at the talks, I’m often asked whether I feel Italian or British. The question is valid and the answer is that for me it’s not an “either/or” but an “and”: I am both Italian and British, and more broadly European.

Acknowledgments:

Image of publicity material: courtesy of the Comune di Ostuni.

Special thanks to the Comune di Ostuni’s Press Officer, Paola Loparco, and to the Director of the Library, Francesca Garziano.

That Summer in Puglia – review in Radici Future Magazine

My thanks to Tiziana Sforza for her extensive coverage of That Summer in Puglia in her article for Radici Future Magazine. She includes intriguing facts about tourism and foreign property investment in Puglia and a discussion of books which offer insights into this beautiful Southern Italian region. Click here to read.

Un sincero grazie a Tiziana Sforza per la bella segnalazione di That Summer in Puglia nel suo articolo per Radici Future Magazine. Cliccare qui per leggere l’articolo.

Headline from Radici Future Magazine

Ostuni - view of the coast from the town walls - V. Vescina ©2017

 

Image credits:

Headline: from Radici Future Magazine.

View of the sea from Ostuni: ©2017 Valeria Vescina.

Art in fiction: ‘high’ and ‘low’ art?

Extract from Jane Davis's series on art in fiction
Extract from Jane Davis’s series on art in fiction

Jane Davis today continues her inspiring series on Art in Fiction with contributions from three guests: Kate Rigby, Jenny Harper and me. I’m grateful to Jane for her invitation. I’ve long been fascinated by the uses and effects of art in creative writing – my research into them goes back years and continues, and my own fiction incorporates arts and artefacts – so it’s always a joy to be able to share that interest with others. Click here to read the article.

My contribution to Jane’s article focuses on the topic of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art: how helpful do I personally find that distinction? What purposes do art and artefacts serve in my fiction, especially in That Summer in Puglia?  Kate Rigby considers the related question of ‘art snobbery’, widening its scope from the visual arts to novels, and explaining why she doesn’t like strict genre classifications. Jenny Harper illustrates art’s redemptive power with an extract from People We Love.

For other articles in Jane Davis’s series, click here.

Happy reading!

 

Writing as a second career?

A Haig-Davies, G Keegan, V Vescina (1)
Panel on career change, Sloan Summit 2018

Following the publication of my debut novel, That Summer in Puglia, I’m regularly asked how I made the transition from a career in management to one in writing. The question may come from a reader at a book signing or in a message via social media; those asking it typically work in a business role and tell me they’ve always loved to write.

This post is not an attempt at an exhaustive answer, which would defeat me. Instead, I hope it will provide some helpful points to consider. My reflections have been sparked by a recent event, the Sloan Summit at London Business School to celebrate 50 years of the Sloan MSc Programme there. At the Summit, leadership and change expert Alison Haig-Davies interviewed Gillian Keegan MP and me about our paths to career transformation. All three of us are graduates of the Sloan MSc in Management at London Business School (the course is also available at MIT and Stanford), though from different years. While my fellow speaker’s activity is not in the arts, the points below about self-knowledge, humility, serendipity, resilience and gratitude were vital to both of us, so I hope they’ll be valuable to others.

A Haig-Davies, G Keegan, V Vescina (2)
Alison Haig-Davies, Gillian Keegan MP, Valeria Vescina
  • Career or vocation?

With writing, are we talking of a career at all? Most published writers do not earn enough from their books for that to be their only activity. Many hold other jobs: as teachers and critics, for example, but also in very different areas. I write literary fiction and for me that has the compelling nature of the vocation. I’m also a literary and opera reviewer, a creative-writing teacher and a board member of an arts festival.

  • Self-knowledge

Consider what the true constants in your life are: the ones which feel ‘deeply you’. For me these include a combination of artistic creativity and structured thinking, and a lifelong love of the arts. My roles in management involved mostly strategy and organisational behaviour work (both disciplines require more creative thinking than many realise, and lots of writing); and I grew up in a family steeped in the arts (my mother an art historian, my father an art dealer), so they always remained an active passion.

  • Humility

I’m one of countless people who have always read voraciously and ‘written well’. But I was conscious that there was much to learn, to be able to write novels: every profession takes years of study and practice. So I started out by attending a no-pressure creative writing course once a week for some months. The feedback was encouraging and I continued drafting short stories and taking part in a writing group. Eventually, I had a portfolio of fiction, on the strength of which I was admitted to the Goldsmiths MA in Creative & Life Writing. I felt that an MA was the most effective way for me to move up the learning curve. At that point I had no expectations about where it would lead – I embarked on it because I really loved writing stories and wanted to be able to communicate what I deeply care about to the best of my ability. I also trusted in the power of serendipity: you do your utmost to be good at what you’ve chosen and when opportunities present themselves you’ll be ready to embrace them.

  • Resilience

I accepted from the outset that it’s difficult to get traditionally published and that rejections of my manuscript were to be expected in the process of finding ‘a home’ for it – and that it was quite possible it wouldn’t. But even before then – in the course of writing the novel – I had to be open to others’ constructive criticism: being defensive about your work (whatever your field) doesn’t do much to improve it. I also assumed that writing the kind of literary novels I had in mind, and getting published, would take years – and it did.

  • Gratitude

The process I’ve described requires being sustained by others at different junctures and in a variety of ways. I’m sure that writers convinced of their own genius must exist somewhere – lucky them…! Most of us might instead give up along the way, were it not for the belief in us by those whose judgement we trust: in my case, a couple of friends well versed in literature and philosophy, tutors on the MA, fellow MA students… My writing group, composed of other Goldsmiths graduates, has been and is invaluable: we workshop our pieces in an atmosphere of mutual trust, and have become close friends. And what to say of the generosity of the writers and film director who endorsed the novel? And how about the friends and family whose support takes many forms? And the publisher who made the book ‘happen’? And the authors and journalists who compèred the debut events? This might give you a sense of how many people an author is grateful to and for…! At the same time, when you think about it, that holds true for most lives.

I hope the sharing of these thoughts will be helpful to you and to others you may know who are considering a new career – whether in writing or in other realms. To you all, my warmest wishes.

Valeria Vescina, Sloan Summit 2018
Valeria Vescina, Sloan Summit 2018, London Business School

Image credits:

Images courtesy of Sloan Summit 2018 and Mike Pearce of Mike Pearce Photography. Reproduced with kind permission.

That Summer in Puglia – views from the blog tour

That Summer in Puglia blog tour
That Summer in Puglia blog tour

What a delight the blog tour of That Summer in Puglia has been! All authors are a little apprehensive about how their book will be received, and I was no exception: ‘Will the reviewers like my novel?’ ‘Will they care for the aspects which I care most deeply about?’ ‘Will the characters and the places transport them…?’  The answers, happily, were yes, yes, yes…

I’m grateful to those who hosted a stop on the tour and to their fellow bloggers who made the reviews travel far and fast. Literary bloggers give freely of their time. No-one can mandate their emotional engagement or their final verdict. Their chief motivation? Love of reading, writing, learning and sharing. I’d like to thank them by selecting extracts from their reviews. But first, my thanks to Aimee Coveney and Helen McCusker of Bookollective for organising the tour and to Eyewear for publishing the book.

I hope the quotes from the tour will give you a flavour of the novel. You can read additional reviews here.

 

Jo Park kicked off on 17 May by hosting an extract from That Summer in Puglia on her Over the Rainbow Book Blog. A stop with a different blogger followed each day until 27 May.

Joy Corkery, Joyful Antidotes

“I have an absolutely great recommendation for you today, one that will melt your heart. […] This is a stunningly beautiful story, made even more wonderful by having Tommaso as the narrator. […] I cried, I rejoiced, I held my breath – and they are just some of the ways That Summer in Puglia hit me.”

Ann Marie Palladino, NYC-based Lit Wit Wine Dine

“Valeria Vescina writes beautifully. She creates an unbelievable sense of atmosphere and nostalgia. Her depictions of the landscape and architecture of Puglia have made me want to visit this region I’d heard little of but am now slightly obsessed with. […]

What I loved most about this book was that it was a very emotional read. Yes, it’s a love story but it’s so much more than a love story. It’s a reminder of how things can go so very wrong when we try so very hard to do right by those we love. It’s about communication and miscommunication and redemption. It’s about the expectations we have of our parents and those we have of our children. It’s about how we differ in our reactions to anger and grief. I could go on and on. In short, it’s about all of the things that make us fragile, vulnerable, human… […] A perfect book club choice. This book is an impressive debut and I’d certainly love to read more books by Valeria Vescina in the future.”

Karen Mace, Books and Me!

“I found this to be a totally absorbing debut and loved spending time with the character Tommaso as he recounted the story of his life and loves to a PI who has tracked him down 30 years later. […] The attention to detail was exquisite and the sights and sounds are brought vividly to life through the pages. It had a lovely gentle feel to it throughout and I can’t wait to read more from this author in the future.”  

Claire Lyons, Mrs. Average Evaluates

This review is in video form.

“So carefully written and incredibly evocative… A very passionate book… Shakespearean mix-ups and misunderstandings and lack of communication…

…And it’s about youth, and about parenting, and about loss… It’s a super book. I’d love you to read this. It’s a beautiful, beautiful book.”

Amanda Duncan, My Bookish Blog Spot

“It was Tommaso that stole my heart…  Vescina’s writing is brimming full of emotion and tenderness.

The vibrancy of the town square, the winding backstreets, and Tommaso’s villa and its gardens, conjured up such vivid and vibrant images. I could almost smell the flowers in the beautiful gardens and my mouth watered at the descriptions of the amazing food cooked by Concetta. The whole setting was beautifully atmospheric and so befitting of this amazing love story…

I loved this novel. It had everything you want in a love story. It had passion, betrayal, grief, and loss but most of all it was about the capacity we have in all of us to forgive, to make amends and make the best of what life has to offer. […] A sumptuous, evocative and totally enthralling novel… It is just beautiful.”

Cathy Johnson, What Cathy Read Next

“As intense as the heat of an Italian summer. […] As Tommaso and Anna roam the maze of narrow streets that make up the Old Town of Ostuni, taking delight in small things and shared places, there are beautiful descriptions of the ancient town, full of light and shade.

That Summer in Puglia provides a devastating portrait of how love can, in a moment, turn to hate if fuelled by insecurity, jealousy and an inability to trust.  And how what often follows just as quickly is regret, guilt, despair and hopelessness. It also shows how a single action, even if done for what is thought are the right reasons, can have unintended and long-lasting consequences, but that sometimes there may be the opportunity to make reparation. The emotional power of Tommaso’s story and the effortless, flowing writing of Valeria Vescina are what will stay with me about That Summer in Puglia.”  

Eva Merckx, Novel Deelights

“The beautiful descriptions transported me straight there, from the olive trees to the scent of the flowers. […] At its heart, That Summer in Puglia is a love story but it’s so much more than that. It’s a relatable character study full of complexities that oozes atmosphere.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. The way we react to certain things in the heat of the moment can have a huge effect. It isn’t until later on, that we maybe think “I could have” or “I shouldn’t have”. As a nineteen year old boy, Tommaso makes some dubious decisions… Did he make the right choices? That’s up to you to find out when you read this novel.

With beautiful descriptions and well-developed rich characters, Valeria Vescina takes us on a moving journey through Tommaso’s life. That Summer in Puglia is a brilliantly written, poignant, thought-provoking character-driven story about young love, loss, grief, family and second chances. An absolutely wonderful debut.”

Susan Heads, The Book Trail

“It’s a tale touched with sadness and poignancy, tragedy and loss but also one of self-discovery and second chances…  At first sight, it’s a simple tale of boy meets girl, but pull back those layers and it’s so much more – Puglia plays its role in being a mix of old and new, white architecture and old town – mixing two worlds which seem separate but which on closer inspection are very similar. The writing was very lyrical, like an ode to a time gone by, a memory – and of course this story is told by the one person who can tell it all as it happened, or at least how he thinks it all took place…”

The Book Trail also features an interview with me on its Authors on Location section. They’re creating an online guide to the real-life places in the novel, too.

Linda Hill, Linda’s Book Bag

“Today I’m delighted to be celebrating That Summer in Puglia by bringing you an interview with Valeria…” 

Interview topics include: the perfect reader of That Summer in Puglia, books I’m reading, my writing habits, creative inspiration and future plans.

Danielle Nolan’s Books, Vertigo & Tea was the final stop on the tour, which it fittingly closed the way it had begun: with another extract from the novel.

I love hearing from readers, so do contact me with your personal responses to That Summer in Puglia. The Q&A section of my website contains resources for anyone curious to gain more insight into it.

The novel is available in bookshops throughout the UK, as well as online from Amazon and others in the UK and abroad.

 

 

Image credits:

Blog tour banner – courtesy of Bookollective

Photo with Rosie Goldsmith at Italian Cultural Institute launch of That Summer in Puglia – courtesy of Rosie Goldsmith

All other images – all rights reserved.