Barbara Garlaschelli and Nicoletta Vallorani: The Pleasure od Writing – part two

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 can read the first part here: PART ONE


Between the various themes that are fundamental for Barbara, there are relationships, always present even when she deals with noir and, often as the engine of the plot. You are very careful withof relations, of the psychological consequences, of the odd dynamics that could take place in life. We are not just talking about love relationships or bonds of marriage, even if there are plenty of them, but also dynamics between mother and daughter, rather than relations between friends etc. What is the reason of this strong interest and sharp attention toward relationships in general?

B.G. I think it’s linked to what Nicoletta was saying, even though it doesn’t seem like it. I’m way more claustrophobic, focused on family relationships. I believe that the way we relate with one another, the “culture of the family”, the dynamics of a country, are strictly related to what we can find in the world. In Non ti voglio più vicino (I do not want you close anymore) there are two ways, two parallel worlds: the first world with a real war – the second world war, and the second, with a war among family members. I think these two realities are strictly related. I found myself reading a book entitled Dissolvenze (Fade out) that is about the body, another crucial point on which I focus a lot. And one of these essays, I don’t remember the author, talked exactly about this relationship that moves among people, and then about the relationship that links together the whole world. If that is the culture, an important and current example could be the male supremacy over wome.nOn how I write it, I would describe a family, and then reflect the story of the family in with the relation to the wider world. So for me, things are strictly related. Also, maybe for the fact of me being in a wheelchair, I’m steadier than most people, and I have developed a particular ability of observing situations. I’m very interested in some of the dynamics that work around me. This is the reason why I’m really fascinated with the relationships that occur inside a family, because I also believe that they’re replicated in the rest of the world. I’d rather write about certain stories than others, but I really think that the link is always there. The Italian family isn’t an island in the middle of the ocean, even though it has a different culture, even though everything is different. Human relationships are still there, there are values, there are fundamental themes that belong to everybody and that should put us all together, even though they often divide us.


Remaining on relationships and on difficult ones, one of the themes mostly analyzed by Nicoletta is the one about misunderstood and mistreated childhood. Now we get to Cordelia, where we find a little girl that through colours tries to understand herself. One day she decides to run away from home and to live a really particular experience; the book has just been re-printed by Prospero Editore.

N.V. There’s a thing about motherhood that I always end up analyzing, without even wanting to, and I do this in almost in every story I write. More or less visible, it jumps out in a lot of different ways, and it is the main point in two of my novels: the first one is Cordelia and the second one is Le madri cattive (Bad mothers), a story I won’t tell right now. Cordelia is another creature created by Luigi Bernardi, the book came out with Flaccovio Editore and Luigi worked there at the time. It is a particular genre because it’s not a noir nor a police novel, nor science fiction, nor a teen novel; this book is what in Italy we call “Literature”, with capital L, whatever it means; in France they call it “white literature”, in England “mainstream”. This Literature answers to my personal need of analyzing the relationship between a mother and a daughter in a particular context, like in the city of Milan. I had both of my daughters here and if any of you live in Milan, you must know what it means having both a job and a family life in this urban context, how the quality of life is. When my daughters were little, I’d seen a lot of kids perfectly cared for in a practical way. They had everything, but they were completely abandoned with their own emotions by mothers and fathers who didn’t have enough time, not enough energy, not enough will, and often also not enough perception of what it was happening. This isn’t my case, because both the man of my life and I work a lot, but we share duties, so that our daughters haven’t felt abandoned when they were little. Anyway, I tried to tell the story of this little girl, Cordelia, from her point of view. Even though the story isn’t written in first person, the dominant point of you is the one of this little eight-year-old girl, who one day decides to skip school; a kid that lives in a family of this kind, where the father is a completely absent figure and the mother hasn’t really got to the point of really loving this girl, she always thought the kid was weird and she hasn’t really taken care of her ever. Cordelia has a complicated relationship with words, she doesn’t talk a lot and she feels like words betray her every time, also because she’s like her mother, words are boxes for which she doesn’t have a key. After her grandfather’s death, the one who had introduced to her the language of colors, Cordelia decides to start a journey through Milan, skipping school without her mother knowing it, and she starts looking for her own color; it’s a journey through the city.

It’s a novel that I really loved a lot, because it turns something into reality that mothers never confess, mostly Italian mothers; this something is that there are moments in which you hate your kids, you wish you never had them. Telling this story really helped me coping with this feeling that I had, and I’m sure I’m not alone. This phase of life had been there, even though now that my daughters are older I have a great relationship with them; we are a normal family, everything is good. The other aspect of the novel is trying to get into the head of a little girl who can’t get out of the bubble where her mother put her, so that any word she says her mother takes it in the wrong way. I’ll finish by telling you a funny story: mostly for the fact that the novel is about an eight-year-old, about words and colors, so since we live in a commercial reality where you read the back of a book and suddenly know everything about it, when the book was uploaded on IBS, at the end of the novel they wrote “for children up to 14 years old”: to have them try suicide, I guess! It’s been curious that they thought it was a kid`s novel, that’s what I mean.


Barbara, there’s a fundamental difference, I think, between Nicoletta and you: you change characters every time, while Nicoletta sticks to them for a while, then she abandons them and adopts some others. She writes indipendent stories too, but you do it every time, maybe because you like the writing, maybe because…

B.G. No, it’s because I find serial characters extremely boring…

N.V. All but mine!

B.G. All but yours (laughs). No, I get bored writing about them, so I don’t really care. There are usual themes, such as the one about family, usually disturbed families, disturbed people, where I recognize myself a lot. There’s cynicism, but also a lot of emotional partecipation, a lot of pietas. I think that human beings really need it, looking at us from the outside we look a little dishevelled. So no, simply because I don’t like it, I wouldn’t be able to do it. First of all because I have no memory, so I should write a framework and I hate frameworks. It’s rare for me to fall in love with a character, also someone else’s, I really like changing stories, changing characters.


Nicoletta, instead, sometimes she grows fond on them, then she gets bored and changes character. This is the case of DR, the case of aunt Spazzini, the detective of her third novel, who comes back, it is the case of the characters of SUR, it is also the case of some characters that reappear in the Allegroni team in teen novels.

N.V. Yes, actually I don’t ever get bored, sometimes I grow fond on some character, but the responsibility for continuity is mostly a decision of the editors, not mine. With Zoe Libra, who had been the luckiest character, at the end of the third book I was actually sick of her and so I had her die. The editor, though, told me “no, let’s put her in a coma so that she can always come back to life”. And in fact there has been a fourth novel where Zoe Libra somehow comes back to life, the atmosphere of the novel allowed it. Actually it’s more exact to say that I grow fond of places, of settings. For example, in the fourth novel I loved the idea of writing about this peripheral Milan, really funny, where different ethnic groups live together, bringing up their irony in contrast with an economically difficult context. The same thing happened with the science fiction novel Il cuore finto di DR (DR’s fake heart): I liked a Milan that only had two shots, but that was somehow represented again with Eva; a depiction of a Milan of the future: I like to imagine how it will be, even after many years. Characters are just an accessory. For example, the one thing I had more fun doing was going from Eva to the following novel which isn’t out yet, the use of the same characters but with a change of equilibrium among them: the secondary character then becomes the protagonist and conquers the story. This is a nice trick. I need it; I grow fond on the characters, but I mostly need them because I don’t want to leave that context, which is real and imaginary at the same time.

B.G. A really important difference between Nicoletta and me is the speed of writing: I’m really really slow, I write way less, while once in a while she calls me and she’s like “I’m almost done with a novel”. You begun with it a month ago! It takes me ages to write anything, I think her speed is unbelievable.

N.V. It’s different, because when I start writing a novel I write under dictation, I mean, the story has to be ready in my head or it doesn’t even exist.


Barbara, you wrote more than one play;one of these has recently been acted out in Spain, in Madrid. Let’s hope it will be represented somewhere else, too…

B.G. No, it won’t be represented anywhere else. It has been an amazing experience. The script for Sex & disabled people was born from one of my ideas. One day I started to post on Facebook, I love Facebook, so I use it a lot. I think it’s a nice way to communicate, on facebook were born a lot of beautiful ideas. I have I blog named Sdiario where I don’t write a lot, I publish other people’s creations. There are beautiful writings that wouldn’t find their editorial space, and I try to offer that little space and the little notority that I have to let those writings shine. I like this a lot. So one day I started to write posts naming them Sex and disabled people, which were sex lessons for disabled people. They had a great success; I found out with the third or fourth post that they had hundreds of shares. After that, la Stampa, Corriere della Sera called me, and it occurred to me that maybe it could have become something more. So I called an italian author, Alessandra Sarchi, she’s in a wheelchair as well, and I asked her if she would like to partecipate and write with me, even though I didn’t really know what yet. She accepted but said “I don’t know how to write to comic part” and I said “it’s okay, you do the poetic part and I’ll do the comic one”. So she wrote this kind of thing parallel to my “lessons”; we then asked one of our friends, a fantastic reader and musician whose name is Luca Garlaschelli. So out of the blue last year in Piacenza we performed this musical reading. Then Alessandra started to share it, she sent it to Luciana Litizzetto and she fell in love with it, so much that she wanted to meet us. She made director’s notes and then sent them to Laura Cuneo, who works at the Italian consulate in Spain. That’s how we got to Madrid. It’s been a fantastic experience that sadly came to an end, like every beautiful thing: there’s a moment when it starts and there’s the moment when it ends because people do other things. But it has been great, also because both Alessandra and I are in wheelchairs, and we were on the stage reading. The actual authors on wheelchairs wrote and talked about sex, and they were on the stage! I had a lot of fun, Luciana had a lot of fun, Alessandra maybe had a little less fun, each one of us is different. I’m the kind of person who’s all like “put me on the stage!”. Maybe I should be a comic actor instead of a writer, it’s been great. Maybe there will be something else like this from me.


Which thing is a hymn to life…

B.G. A hymn to life. Now I need to break some bone to Vallorani, so we can write something about disabled people together.

N.V. But if you see us dancing, I am the disabled for sure. I am not capable.

B.G. No doubt about this. But singing too…


A question about the work of a translator: Italo Calvino used to say “To translate is the real way to read a book”, do you agree?

N.V. No! It’s a good exercise, it’s interesting, it’s a challange. The harder the text, the more contemporary it is, which is a further element of complexity, the more time you spend finding an equivalence. Because translating is not a merely mechanic transcription and correspondence of words, we can all do that. Translating means rendering the sound of the text in another language. You need to be able to do it, without any explanation, without notes, you need to be able to let a reader of a different culture understand that that story has that specific meaning. In my case, I made two important experiences as a translator: the translation of I sotterranei (The Subterraneas) by Jack Kerouac, a little book I think you know, written in a language that was considered slang in the Sixties. It came out with Feltrinelli and the translator, I think it was Fernanda Pivano, it’s anonymous. Smart translator, she knew that it would have become ridiculous after some years, and that’s completely true! The writer of Meridiani decided to have it re-translated and he taught me to do it, because he said “I think you have the kind of writing that could, render the actual meaning of the story”. He chose me as a writer. He’s a now retired Americanist, Mario Corona. It was a brief work, seventy pages, but it took me ages. It was terrifying. Kerouac had been one of my myths, it was a big responsibility. But actually I’ve never been alone in it, because even if people don’t know it, the translator is often helped: there’s an editorial auditor who’s a real expert that corrects your work in a really important and useful way. The other interesting experience I had is the translation o Will Self, a contemporary English author who became famous for his re-writing of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, set at the end of the twentieth century: a really complex book. He is maybe the smartest among the British authors, I loved his book as a reader: translating it, though, destroyed it a bit, because you have to analyse it perfectly and sometimes you need to check the script because you don’t understand and you don’t know how to translate it, which is a little humiliating; the poetry of the text, even though you make it in another language, is partly lost. That’s why I say that reading a text is reading a text, while translating it is a different thing, way more complex, way more interesting, more helpful, but it’s a completely different thing from reading. Reading is passion, reading is let yourself be pulled in, reading is becoming the characters; as a translator you can’t become the characters, you need to be careful, more rational, because if you don’t do it, you risk ruining everything.


So translating means somewhat betraying the text? Was the experience as a translator useful to you as a writer?

N.V. Yes, it’s been agreat training, because compared to literature it was a more rational step. Take Will Self as an example, he is an author I really love as a writer, I like the way he writes; approaching his technique to understand his strategies, to use him, especially in Dorian. After having enjoyed him so much as a reader was therefore useful to me: I understood a series of mechanisms in writing and I truly understood that the stuff they say about writing due to inspiration isn’t true. One writes because of his/her talent, might it be good or great one must possess it; there is also a job that must be learned (to be successful). For example, I learned the problems of interlacing of storylines, and the solutions to it. I am not able to do it spontaneously, same goes for the functional to the noir genre; I would actually tell you the assassin’s name in the first page. But one of my strengths is creating a character. It is rare that a writer is able to do everything remarkably.

B.G. I have done various works in translation. Amaze yourself, I am able to do everything remarkably. What can I do about it?


You mentioned the absence in Italy of written works concerning the reality of everyday life and the immigration issue. Is it different in English and U.S. literature?

N.V. Yes, absolutely. Need I say these are countries with different stories and different literary cultures: The United States have a very ancient narrative tradition with great narrators like Stephen King; it’s no surprise he was born there and developed his talent there. England, on the other hand, has a completely different story because it has had to deal with migration since the beginning of the 20th century with the decolonization process. It is also true that in France, where history has had a different route, there have been numerous writers that have felt the necessity of facing this particular matter. And last but not least, as arguable as it may be, is Michel Houellebecq’s novel Sottomissione (Submission), deals with the fear of Islam. In Italy we don’t have anything like it, if you go to a bookshop and see which are the bestselling books, I challenge you to find something that has a dedication, a commitment to the actual reality that goes beyond the relationship between a couple. There is nothing wrong with the relationship between a couple or with entertainment, I would just really like that there were something else too. If I look for Italian novels that deal with these kinds of matters, I will be able to find just Mazzantini and Catozzella: one I absolutely adored, the other one I hated. Those are the only two though.

B.G. Personally, the Madrid experience has been extremely interesting from a theatrical point of view. The night prior to our reading, we were invited to the Valle Inclán theatre to see a piece that dealt the theme of disability, by a Scottish troupe whom we’ll never be able to see in Italy. The story was about a woman without legs – I mean the actress didn’t have legs – who meets a man through a (online?) chat, and being it a chat he couldn’t know she was handicapped, and that’s how a misunderstanding arises between them. But the most astounding thing of it all, other than the fact that we will never see a work like this exhibited in Italy due to immediate censoring, was the way it was executed. There were Spanish subtitles and they were speaking in Scottish. I do understand English but I couldn’t pick up their accent at all; then there was a television screen on the set and a woman in it was translating for the deaf. It looked like something from another world. Everything seemed so incredibly simple: it was Madrid, not New York! In Italy not only will we never see this show, because it’s too much to handle… talking about disability and sex in this very explicit way… For example, this woman starts masturbating in a scene, not visually explicitly but it was very clear what she was doing: I was just picturing her in Italy and saying to myself imagine this woman, no one would ever put her on stage”. Compared to theirs we are always way behind, as if we have been sleeping.

N.V. I repeat, I don’t think the reader nor the habitat nor the author necessarily determine this kind of sleepiness. I believe that this act of courage should be done by the hands of the editors. If eventually, after an act of courage, it all results into failure then and only then will I say those who blame the readers are right: “a book of this kind would never sell, a book this brave, it would never sell because the reader would refuse it”. We’ll see.


Then, it’s not certain works like this aren’t in circulation here…

N.V. That’s right, I believe there are, the only problem is they’re not published. I don’t think I’m the only one who wishes for this kind of stuff. But we know some: in one of the literary buffets we organise as a cultural association we presented Deborah Gambetta’s book called L’argine (The shelter) which was refused by great editors and published only by a really small publishing house. It doesn’t express concerns regarding immigration but faces another problematic matter, that of the domestic violence, violence against women, and it is an amazing book! It’s not like it wasn’t offered to big publishing houses, it was proposed and rejected and only then was it published by Melville editions. Who’s ever heard of it?

B.G. We both try, Nicoletta and myself. At least I know I am a very faithful person when it comes to spotting a good writer, so whenever I can, I do everything in my possibilities to help out. This is truly a wonderful book.

N.V. The problem is there is a lack of cultural promotion and it’s been a while since the idea that culture is useless: it’s seems like it’s better if you don’t have any; for example, if someone is on television, they obviously are a public figure, visible, and they’re asked “What was the last book you’ve read?” and they answer “I can’t remember”. Once it would have been shameful to answer in that way, now it just seems normal. The prestige and value of a person who has answered in this particular manner is completely untamed. I don’t think it’s her and myself only that desire to read good books of a certain kind, I believe editors don’t publish them because they think they wouldn’t work. I know it’s a simplification, but I do think this is the reason.


Considering the publishing market, being a woman is a disadvantage, an advantage or is it absolutely insignificant?

B.G. Being a woman is never an advantage. In my opinion it’s a bit more tiring to be an author, the paradoxical side of it is that there are more women reading than man. Nevertheless, I never perceived this (disadvantage) personally. I can’t say “yes, it is a great disadvantage” but then again, being that the publishing world is like any other one, in which women strive a bit more than men, I think it’s the same way in this world. Another thing needs to be said, and it doesn’t honour us women at all, I’m talking about the editing scope, which reflects many others: very often we are not in solidarity. This might be because writers are narcissists, they are self-centred, and we are too. There is also this absence in our nature, it’s almost as if we were short sighted. I don’t know how it is in other countries but in Italy it’s inconceivable that working together could bring positive results.

N.V. I kind of agree with Barbara. Then, again if I think of my personal experience, I started working in sci-fi, which is mainly a male-oriented genre. I have to say, that is a rather poorly spread genre, almost a sect, and when I started writing there were very few women, but that was actually an upside for me, especially because I didn’t enter this whole context starting a feminist battle but instead interacting, as we would naturally do, as equals. In this sense, both of us aren’t women, we’re like two sailors; we have never been really feminine or feminists, but we both have a tendency towards a partial relationship: either you know how to write or you don’t, the fact you are a man or a woman isn’t of great relevance. I think that, generally, for writing and publishing, we have the same phenomenons that manifest in other scopes and working environments, like for example at university. Women start off extremely determined, they reach a certain position, but the directional ones are always in the hands of the men; we rarely reach the top, this also happens in publishing. As Barbara was saying, we tend to fatigue more. There actually is a variation throughout the literary genres. I wrote just one novel and it wouldn’t enter any category of genre, not even trying to force it. I inevitably couldn’t find ways to publish it. I just think that if I had been a promising male author, things would have been different.
Translation by Francesca Proni (edited by Amy Scarlett Holt)

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Heiko H. Caimi
Heiko H. Caimi, born in 1968, is a writer, screenwriter, poet and teacher of fiction writing. He has collaborated as an author with publishers Mondadori, Tranchida, Abrigliasciolta and others. He has taught at the Egea bookshop of Bocconi University in Milan and several other schools, libraries and associations in Italy and Switzerland. Since 2013 he has been editorial director of the literature magazine Inkroci. He is one of the founders and organizers of the traveling literary festival Libri in Movimento. He collaborates with the news magazine "InPrimis" keeping the column "Pages in a minute" and with the blog of the writer Barbara Garlaschelli "Sdiario". He published the novel "I predestinati" (The Predestined, Prospero, 2019) and edited the anthology of short stories "Oltre il confine. Storie di migrazione" (Over the border. Migration stories, Prospero, 2019).