Last Saturday, 3 December, we had the first in a series of creative-writing workshops at the Literaturhaus Zentralschweiz (‘lit.z’). Based in the historic Rosenburg in beautiful Stans, lit.z is Central Switzerland’s literature hub, offering a lively, high-calibre programme in the cantons of Lucerne, Nidwalden, Obwalden, Schwyz, Uri and Zug.
Dating back to the 14th century, the Rosenburg was restructured first during the Renaissance and again during the Baroque period. Its fortunes waned in the 19th and 20th centuries, until in 1969 the Canton of Nidwalden, the municipality of Stans and the Nidwalden Historical Society established the Höfli Foundation to acquire and restore this gem of Switzerland’s historical heritage.
Lit.z regularly hosts authors’ readings in various languages and runs workshops for adults as well as kids. The Rosenburg Writers workshops are the first to be taught in English. The initiative reflects a wish to address Switzerland’s sizeable international community and to draw together like-minded people.
It’s an honour for me to teach this series. The creative-writing workshops at the Rosenburg are taking place on three Saturdays: 3 December 2022 (Characterisation), 14 January (Plot Structure and Story Development) and 18 March 2023 (Sense of Place). The sessions are for anyone with an intermediate-to-advanced level of English, not just for native-English speakers.
I’ve structured the workshops in such a way as to address a wide variety of needs, by offering material and exercises which meet participants where they’re at. The group on 3 December was wonderful. Attendees ranged from beginners to professional authors. We had a stimulating and fun day. Swiss, American, German and Belgian participants of different ages got along really well and contributed great questions and insights throughout. They had come from all over Switzerland: Basel, St Gallen, Bern, Freiburg… and Central Switzerland! Lunch in the Wirtschaft zur Rosenburg on the ground floor of the building was delicious and an opportunity to get to know each other better and enjoy lively conversation.
Want to learn more and book your place on one of the workshops? Head over to the lit.z website here.
Mariann Bühler of lit.z (photos reproduced with her kind permission) and Valeria Vescina.
The July 2019 edition of the European Literature Network‘s #Riveting Reviews is out today. My review is of Veronica Raimo’s “The Girl at the Door” (4th Estate). Bold stylistic choices give a sharp edge to this novel. This is unsettling, thought-provoking work.
The Girl at the Door is in tune with the concerns of the #MeToo movement, but Raimo began writing the novel years before its rise. The book is relevant also to other burning issues. It highlights the question of the failure to see clearly and to seek dialogue not only at a personal level but at a societal one, especially in the age of social media, when views of history and the present seem to polarise around extremes.
This is a book which challenges you to work hard and which amply rewards you for it: a gripping read in its own right, and fiction that enhances our engagement with the world. Highly recommended.
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.
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).
Orecchiette al pomodoro – photo by P. Turo
Burrata di Andria – photo by FM433
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’.
Recently the European Literature Network published The Swiss Riveter, a compendium of writing about contemporary fiction, poetry and memoir from Switzerland. It contains essays on Swiss literature’s richness and diversity, as well as reviews and extracts, including an exclusive English excerpt of Peter Stamm’s The Gentle Indifference of the World (to be published this year in Michael Hoffman’s translation) and an essay by Swiss-British writer Alain de Botton.
My review of Pascale Kramer’s Autopsy of a Father (Bellevue Literary Press, 2017) appears on pp. 56-57. Kramer won the Grand Prix Suisse de Littérature in 2017 for her oeuvre. Autopsy of a Father is a powerful novel for our times: it tackles xenophobia, racism and nationalism. You can access the review here.
The European Literature Network promotes literature in translation. The Swiss Riveter was produced with support from Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council, the Embassy of Switzerland in the UK, Arts Council England and ELit Literature House Europe. Sections of it are now available also in digital form here.
This is the fifth of the European Literature Network’s Riveters. The first was devoted to literature from Poland, on the occasion of the 2017 London Book Fair’s Polish focus. The second, on literature from Russia, coincided with ELNet’s Russian events at the British Library. In The Nordic Riveter of October 2017, five countries were represented: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. The fourth covered the Baltics, the focus of the 2018 London Book Fair.
The Polish Riveter
The Russian Riveter
The Nordic Riveter
The Baltics Riveter
Images courtesy of The European Literature Network.
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.
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.
Brindisi, church of St. John of the Sepulchre, with view of access to Roman domus underneath
The Appia Traiana in Egnazia
Ostuni – Old Town
Lecce – Basilica of Santa Croce
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’ remindsus 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’.
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.
Flier for ‘History and Fiction’ event: courtesy of Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre.
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.
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.
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”.
Poster produced by the City of Ostuni
Article in La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno
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.
Mayor Gianfranco Coppola’s welcome address
Address by Museum President Michele Conte
Assessore Antonella Palmisano’s address
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.
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.
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.