It has been a pleasure and an honour to share some reflections with friends of the Italian Cultural Institute, London. Faced with the heaviness of our times, I find it helpful to think of the lens offered by Italo Calvino’s concept of ‘lightness of thoughtfulness’, which has little in common with the habitual definition of lightness. Calvino is speaking of its value in literature, but, as invariably happens with the best of writing, it overcomes those boundaries and spills over into life by sparking trains of thought. Isn’t the written page, after all, a response to reality? So, here is the article for ICI London’s ‘Stay Safe’, a series which has brought the light of fellow authors’ questions and reflections to my days during the COVID-19 crisis. Mine is #46, so there are many more if you’d like to take a look.
Below is an image of the article. You can click here to read it on the website of the Italian Cultural Institute. The article features also in the anthology Stay Safe, an e-book published by the Institute and featuring 49 Italian and British writers, including Sandro Veronesi, Paolo Nelli, Hanif Kureishi and Boyd Tonkin.
From Italian Cultural Institute London Facebook page and website.
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.
It’s a pleasure to reblog, below, the Women Writers Network’s Favourite Reads of 2018. They’re recommendations of books authored by women, chosen by WWN founder members among the ones read in 2018. They’ve been collated and beautifully put together by our fellow network member Helen Taylor, author of “The Backstreets of Purgatory”. Thank you, Helen!
For those of you who may not know, I’m part of the Women Writers Network. We are a group of volunteers who run a Twitter account dedicated to supporting and promoting women writers. It is a brilliant place to discover new writers or to be reminded of old favourites, to share blog posts, writing tips, and get support on those days when you might be flagging.
Here, some of our founder members give their recommendations of their books of the year. Unlike most end of year lists, the books didn’t have to have been published in 2018. It means that some old favourites or the new discoveries that may have been published several years ago can get a mention too. Here are our recommendations (in alphabetical order by contributor).
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.
Riveting Reads: on Simonetta Agnello Hornby and Nicola Gardini
The European Literature Network champions international literature – if you aren’t already aware of its activity, do check out its website.
Every month, its Riveting Reviews section features reviews of (mainly) European literature – mostly of works recently translated into English. It also offers a Riveting Reads section, consisting of brief (only a few lines long) recommendations of a wider range of books, including fiction and non-fiction not yet available in English translation, as well as texts published years ago.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Images courtesy of Sloan Summit 2018 and Mike Pearce of Mike Pearce Photography. Reproduced with kind permission.
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.
Blackwell’s bookshelves at the Oxford Literary Festival
‘That Summer in Puglia’ on Blackwell’s Oxford Literary Festival display
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.