An interview with two writers such as Barbara Garlaschelli and Nicoletta Vallorani is a real pleasure; and when they are together, they reveal the best of themselves, as you will find out as you read on. . We met them in Brescia, during the final evening of the traveling literary festival Libri In Movimento, where we met at the Caffè Letterario Primo Piano.
You have debuted in the same year, 1993 …
Barbara Garlaschelli: We have been blessed with the possibility to start publishing in the early nineties, when the publishing market was very different from the present one; working with my colleagues was also pleasurable, something that nowadays is very rare. So many things have changed in the publishing industry.
Nicoletta Vallorani: In my opinion this problem is significant. We work well together, and in the past this was very simple and apparently collective. We work well together also because we have the same way of relating to the publishers. Maybe this way isn’t very diplomatic, maybe we are too direct and maybe a little bit too stubborn; however we enjoy it a lot.
Is it complicated to collaborate?
B.G. Working together is easy, even if we are very different in terms of our writing style, and this is a good thing, you know. Being both in love with literature, we have quite similar tastes, but our individual way of writing is very different. Nevertheless, we manage to blend very well and we absolutely trust each other; therefore, if one of us tells to the other “this doesn’t work properly” there is no further discussion, we change it. Actually, we have never had an actual discussion, except in peaceful ways. We really miss it, that’s why we’ll start working together again soon.
Do you come from similar experiences?
B.G. Well, actually we had two different experiences. I have been more faithful to a publisher, it has always been Frassinelli, and I am still part of the Mondadori group for this specific reason. Then I chose to publish a lot of works with small publishers because Nicoletta and I really love supporting small publishers. This is why when I have particular works, for example my last one, Ballate controvento (Ballads against the wind), I chose to release them with small publishers.
N.V. I am more unstable compared to her. I could be an enciclopedia, so if you have any questions regarding different publishers, I think I can talk about all of them because I worked with most of them. On the one hand, because I think I have a bad attitude, I am not diplomatic at all, so when it seems to me that the publisher isn’t doing a good job, I am usually not very good at mediating and this is a weakness of mine. For writers it has always been very important to do what Babara did: looking for a publisher with whom you can build a trustful relationship. In my case, there have been different factors in play: not having a good character, and also the fact that I have had another person of influence in my life and my professional upbringing (other than Tecla Dozio, my dear friend).This was Luigi Bernardi. He is probably the best publisher that Italian publishing industry has ever had. I was born with him, in the sense that I published my first serious novel with him, and my first noir which happened to be my second novel. I then followed him with the numerous editors he has worked with. I wanted to keep working with Luigi, because I always learned so much with him, and he was one of those editors who would read a novel and say, “this works, this doesn’t, fix that thing there”, and you could see the work would be dealt with properly.
Are you referring to Dentro la notte e ciao (Within the night and bye)?
N.V. Yes, my first novel that was released with him was edited by “Granata Press”; it was my second novel because technically, as you were saying, my first was released with Urania. Dentro la notte e ciao was my first novel structured in a literary way. Luigi was a unique figure in the Italian publishing scene and he left way too early. He had already been excluded some time ago, and I changed a fair number of publishers because I was following him. It is a mistake though, if there are any aspiring writers here and someone is eager to accept this advice, I believe it is way more important to look for a section with a publisher that can represent you.
B.G. It’s a pity that in the publishing industry everything has changed. Moreover Frassinelli and the other publishers I worked with aren’t working anymore, and no one knows who to have working relationships with anymore. This could actually be a problem.
N.V. It’s true, publishing industry has changed; the readers’ universe has changed too, but less compared to the publisher’s one. In my opinion the readers’ universe has changed as a consequence of a publishing industry that hasn’t been capable of making brave choices. Anyway, before being published, a book must have a selling security margin, the guarantee of a minimum number of copies necessary to cover the expenses, with some rare exceptions. For example “The recipes of Cannavacciuolo”, “Totti’s jokes” are published anyway, but I have to tell you I was a little surprised when I saw the recipes by Cannavacciuolo published by Einaudi.
Barbara, you have started publishing with a narrative shape that we from Inkroci like very much, the shape of the short story, alternating richer stories with lethal flash narrations that almost seemed like macabre jokes. Every now and then another volume similar to this genre is published, that in a certain way recalls some of your Facebook productions.
B.G. The Facebook ones are more akin to my first book that is now published by Todaro, although it was initially published by Marcos y Marcos. Then, when Marcos y Marcos’ rights expired, Tecla Dozio wanted to republish it along with some new tales. Let’s say that the writing forms I love the most and that are closest to me are tales and short novels. Now I’ve just discovered what I define a “ballad”, it isn’t definable as poetry, it’s more synthetic. Yesterday I was talking to a writer, to whom I was saying that I think I’m one of the few authors of whom publishers usually say “please can you write more?”, because usually they ask authors to cut out some parts. It could be that it’s a little more physically tiring for me to write, therefore the bond between writing and physicality, which I feel is profoundly true and concerns every writer, probably has a greater effect on me. And because I am fatigued, I try to be as concise as I can. I am terrific at it, I actually enjoy it a lot. I am convinced there are the right words to express everything, in fact, if there is a precise word, it’s useless to use another five. Furthermore, I enjoy the short novel form very much, and I am very happy to have published the ballads that were released last 31st May.It was a big surprise to me when I read them, I always like to compliment myself. I am not that self- centred though, even if I am compared to Nicoletta. Every once in a while I do short courses for self-confidence. There are times when, and this is quite serious, you have to re- read what you wrote because you have to correct yourself, and there are those times when you just say“Oh I am just so good at this!” (laugh) I am very satisfied in myself as a person, as a writer, as a woman, and there are many that don’t like me that much because of this.
Nicoletta, as we said before, you started as a translator. Your debut took place almost as a bet with Stefano Di Marino and Marzio Tosello: you participated in the Urania prize and won with Cuore finto di DR (DR’s fake heart) and some years later again with it’s sequelDream Box
N.V. It has been so much fun. Actually I arrived in Milan as a teacher, and like many I worked the first year and not the second. Therefore I started translating and Marzio Tosello, whom I met during a conference for the launch of Urania, was providing me these books for me to translate. I don’t know if it still works this way nowadays (I don’t translate for Urania anymore), but back then it served as a great writing school for me, besides the fact that I was the only woman since they were sci-fi books.
B.G. Well, you have been the first woman to win a fantasy prize, let’s have a round of applause.
N.V. As I was saying, I was translating for Urania that published once a week, then once every fifteen days, therefore we needed to have a stockpile of novels that were mostly foreign. For me it was most important to find a job; I will never be able to thank Marzio enough for giving me this opportunity, because that was maintaining me financially. They were fast translations, and it was a proper school for writing because at the time we didn’t have internet, so Mondadori would buy American books just by reading the back cover and maybe without checking the number of pages. It had to be around 200-250 pages for Urania, but very often the book to translate was around 400 pages; it was given to the translator and he was told, “here, translate, it must be around 200 pages”, it was a cut and knit thing. It happened I had to read a lot of garbage, but many great things too, and that’s why it seemed to me I had understood exactly how the Italian fantasy reader was. Then, my male friends, who would treat me particularly nicely, told me “It’s impossible for a female Italian writer to win the prize Urania with an Italian novel, maybe with a female main character!”. Well, if there’s a sign that says “no smoking area” I smoke all the time, if there isn’t one it doesn’t even cross my mind to smoke. Therefore, if you tell me, “this can’t be done” I will do it. I tried and I really enjoyed it. I won and everyone was very joyful about that, they also made a particular cover for my book. Even if the principal character of the story was a replicant, very tall, ugly, very masculineand always dressed up during the story, they made me a cover with a bear- naked barbarian with a big shot gun in her hand. Anyway it was amazing.
Yet, your writing styles were not very similar…
B.G. I am one that cuts, cuts, cuts whereas Nicoletta is verbose. In fact, when we correct each other she usually says “Barbara, write more” and, on the other hand, I say “Cut it”, and neither of us says “no, sorry this is how it is”. On the contrary, it’s fine.
N.V. , I agree, but this hair cut is awful on you!”-
B.G. I have to say one thing: given that Mrs Vallorani works at university, and actually it’s false that she isn’t a diplomatic person, when I need to write important e-mails, especially if negative, I tell her “Sorry, I need to write something”, I send her a draft and she writes it for me.
N.V. You don’t know how much emails changed my life. If I have to write an e-mail I’m incredible, I’m actually terrific.
You started with sci-fi and wrote many novels in this genre. Barbara has a more noir taste…
B.G. For sure I have a noir taste that I will never abandon, but I am actually eclectic, I’ve written various things that are very different from each other. I started with noir, then we both wrote for children, then I wrote a reportage on mental illness, then a book that has became a correspondence, and I gave it to a little publisher Ad est dell’equatore (At East of the equator). The book is called Lettere dall’orlo del mondo (Letters from the edge of the world). I explore new ways of writing because I am very curious about everything that concerns writing. I have written serious books too; when you see me I look like a jester, but if you read me, you can’t see any of that!
Nicoletta, you dedicated more time to childhood narrative. You also managed to include in your novels particular characters, maybe a little border line. I usually suggest these books to adults too, because they have relevant underlying messages. This is very rare for children’s books, in which many authors often think that an underlying message is not required at all.
N.V. Yes, I wrote many books for children and I enjoyed it very much and I still do when I have the chance. It was a wonderful adventure. It wasn’t properly a choice. I would have never thought of it if it hadn’t been proposed it to me. There was a very nice season with Salani in particular, right after I started writing Come una balena (As a whale), which I think had the most success, then I went on with La fatona (The big fairy) and then Il nome segreto della guerra (The secret name of war).All three books were thought for children. These are novels that were published in a series of books, a fact that is very significant considering Salani, because they didn’t really know where to allocate them age range-wise. The plot is perhaps simpler than the others novels I wrote, and this is good; I sometimes get stuck between ups and downs of my plots that makes them often too complex. This simplification maybe helps me understand different aspects of writing. This composition is slightly more linear and I believe it’s very stupid to think that it’s more appropriate to write to children as if they were little idiots. The quality of the writing remains absolutely the same. Moreover, I’ll tell you that when I found myself in schools to launch a kid’s book of mine, two particular things happened. Kids at elementary school or middle school had actually read the books, and they asked me questions to which it wasn’t always easy to answer back. I encountered very critical and competent attitudes, also pointing towards stylistic characteristics. However when I presented my books in high schools, It substantially was a lost hour, an hour in which teachers could stay in the corridors The kids hadn’t read anything of my work, they had no idea what I was talking about. However, I love writing for the young as much as I do for the adults. Maybe the problem that I question the most, about writing for childhood narratives, is that there must be an honest representation of reality, not entirely positive, but at least with an ending that allows the perspective of the possibility of changing the world. This is what I try to do in my classroom too; we should never kill hope, because if we write stories that kill it, being adult doesn’t have any sense, I think.
So, can storytelling change something? Can it at least change a point of view on reality?
N.V. I will not answer.
B.G. Yes, storytelling may change something. But I don’t know if it can happen in our country, since Italy hasn’t very strong readers. Italy has very weak readers, and this is dramatic. Everyone can notice that, we are in fact a reflection of this aspect. Culture in Italy, not just literature, seems something that you can do as an extra, as a hobby. On the other hand it is so true that literature can seem a threat, that in dictatorships books are burnt. I think literature can incite change, but what if no one is there to receive it? When I go to meet students in schools I often find myself discussing with the teachers. They are horrified because their students read Stephen King. At that point I say “if you manage to attract a child who reads Stephen King or comics, you would still have caught a reader.” But if you give him something hard and heavy like Dostoevskij, which I adore of course, that child would probably be a lost reader. So we need to let children read what they want to read, then we have scholar programs to meet, we have advice to give etc. but liberty of reading is behind liberty of the future. I believe that everything that is read is important and that it is fundamental that people come closer to it, without thinking that it’s mandatory. It’s true also there are many people who won’t ever like literature, and this is fine, you shouldn’t be forcing them. I am in that situation about sports; I don’t love it, there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s not anyone’s fault. But it is true that they need someone that could encourage them to get closer to the world of books. Definitely so, literature can change something.
And what about you Nicoletta? Have you changed your mind about answering the question?
N.V. I will answer but within some limits. This is something I really care about and that links up to my condition, it’s exactly what I do, I teach. This is only thing I am very good at, I strongly believe. I’m not sure if I can write but I am sure enough of being a good teacher. I have an example for you, it’s easier: I’ve been teaching a course of linguistic and cultural mediation for many years. My students have never studied classic subjects, but they had a study plan more direct to scientific subjects, and just to be clear, I’m not underlining this because of the quality. They haven’t a literary background and this fact means a lot; they also don’t have confidence with the habits of reading, the family usually telling them stories instead. This year, for example, I had to tell them the fairy tale of Barbablu, as they didn’t know it. I was very impressed by another fact. The class is made of 200 students and I have no individual relationship with them, so you can understand that our interactions depend only on personal charisma. This year a great number of them, students with no literary background, came to me, probably because I managed to choose the right books for them during the course, and asked me, “Miss, can you recommend us other book to read?”. So, let’s try to understand this fact. We always say “there are no strong readers in Italy, reading is not an established interest”. And this is quite fair, I need to say, but it’s not true that there are no readers, tout court, maybe this fragile passion is the result of our editorial and cultural policy, which is not very appropriate. I do what I do with my students because I’m totally determined, and not because I want to promote culture. Now let’s move to the second aspect. I teach English and American, therefore I’m dealing with different literatures; the books I give to my students to compare with the Italian ones are usually written in English. That literature history is very different, it’s happier and very much linked to reality, to the situations we are all facing everyday, even if they can be classed as sci-fi novels. It’s not a self-reported literature, even when we are talking about complex books, they are always facing problems and conflicts concerning reality. This year we’ve read A sangue freddo (In cold blood) by Truman Capote, which is not very simple. The students very totally impressed by the book. Now we have a problem concerning Italian writers; the ones that get to publish their books, because we have to consider that there are many of them who don’t have the chance to, are not facing reality, neither fundamental themes. We have a very delicate situation in Italy regarding immigrants in which we are stuck; Lampedusa, the costs of Sicily: how many novels or books or plays or movies do we have that are dealing with this situation? This morning I read that even Emmanuel Carrere has written about that and also Maylis di Kerangal wrote a book titled Lampedusa (Lampedusa). What about us? Margaret Mazzantini wrote a very nice collection of stories, Mare al mattino (Morning sea), a very good book; then Giuseppe Catozzella, and nobody else comes to my mind. What are we talking about when we tell stories? Why can’t we compromise ourselves a little more? Why don’t we take a position? Or if we did, why wern’t publishers brave enough to publish these books, even if they could be not very popular? Personally this is why I have problem publishing, but maybe I’m not such a good writer, whereas others could probably do so. Actually, the books that concern reality are not published; I propose them to my students for this reason.
These issues are instead very much present in your novels. They have always been, I’d say….
N.V. You know, there’s just one theme that is very important to me in this moment and that has always been of interest; personally I believe that if someone has gift for writing, small or big, anyway he/she builds a bridge.As Jeanette Winterson says, “writing is a tight rope between two worlds”. If I’m only talking about myself, what kind of bridge is it? I can hang myself with that rope, I don’t care about that kind of theme. After that, I do know that talking about literature can change the world, as Barbara and I usually do, it’s an utopia. But as another very important North-African philosopher said “ Yes, changing the world with literature is an utopia, but without it, nothing good has ever been done”.
Translation by Francesca Proni (edited by Amy Scarlett Holt)
END OF PART ONE
The second part in the next issue