An interview with the writer Italo Bonera (author of the books Ph0xGen!, I’m not like you – Io non sono come voi, and Heaven and Iron – Cielo e ferro) at the Primo Piano Literary Cafe in Brescia, in a meeting with the author organized by our magazine.
You didn’t make your writing debut early…
No, I didn’t. I was getting on in years when in 2003, because of – or thanks to – Paolo Frusca, a friend and fellow writer, I was dragged into this adventure. Paolo is fond of history, particularly of the Habsburg era; he has been living in Vienna for some time now, and we were keeping in touch by e-mail, randomly exchanging ideas and opinions. Out of the blue he began to compose a historical vision of how different Europe would be if World War I had been won by the Central Powers. It is a great idea, I commented. It would be good to use it as a base for some characters, as well as for a narrative and a secret, a mystery to pique the reader’s interest. And he wrote back to me: Yes, it’s true: we should do it together. I answered, none too confident: No, Paolo, I’m a photographer. I could never do this thing. Paolo began to write some chapters and I followed suit, and, in the mood of two people chatting in a bar, we started to jot down this narrative duet that became an alternative history novel, entitled Ph0xGen!. The title makes reference to phosgene, a gas that was used, unfortunately, on the front in World War I.
The novel was later published by Mondadori-Urania in the series Millemondi…
Yes. It was quite hard to get it published. Having no writing experience, Paolo and I started to sketch out the chapters randomly: the first, then the last, then one in the middle; one of us would have an idea and say to the other: no, we’ll cut out this; here we need another character. Three characters, for example, were merged into one. We had a whole range of very anarchic solutions. In the end we had a great quantity of material that we didn’t even know how to assemble. That’s why we have plenty of flashbacks and the sequence of the chapters was decided only at the end.
Incidentally, in this novel you also provide a very concise historical compendium of what happened in this alternative world after 1919…
We also used little tricks, like mentioning parts of a hypothetical encyclopaedia from 2046: the intention was to create an external point of view that would give a sense of perspective, as if the narrated events had happened who knows how long beforehand. An assembly of elements accompanies the whole narrative: letters, documents, a scientist’s diary. When we started looking for a publisher, I was sure that no one would publish our novel. Right enough, all those we contacted refused. We also asked a literary agency, that gave us an analysis of the text and some recommendations: but after thinking it over, we left the novel as it was. The Urania Prize was our last attempt. In fact, the uchronic narrative is considered a sub-genre of science fiction; at that time, in Italy, several alternative-history novels had been published. For example Luca Masali, who had won the prize with The biplanes of D’Annunzio – I biplani di D’Annunzio, or Mario Farneti, with The West – Occidente, which is a trilogy; and more recently Enrico Brizzi.
And so you entered your novel for the Urania Prize…
Yes, the prize-winning novel is published in Urania, a monthly magazine that has been going since the Fifties and is dedicated to science fiction. I remember Sergio Altieri called me. He is an extraordinary character, and at the time he was one of the heads of the Mondadori newsstand publications. Altieri is a great genre writer; he signs himself as ‘Alan D. Altieri’, and is considered “the Master of the Apocalypse” – and he is truly a Master. That day Altieri told me: I have two pieces of news for you, one good and one bad. What do you want to hear first? I answered: first give me the bad. He said: the bad news is that you have not won the Urania Prize. Then I asked him what the good news was. The good news is that even if you have not won, you are going to be published. So, even if we didn’t win the prize in 2006, a few years later, in 2010, Ph0xGen! was published, along with another of the shortlisted novels, in a Urania supplement, Millemondi, that comes out four times a year. Basically, it was like winning the prize!
This novel that no one wanted to publish has a special destiny, because it will soon be republished by another publisher…
A peculiar fate, you’re right. Paolo really wanted to have it published in German, so after a year and a half of searching, he found a Viennese publisher who started to translate it; they had done about half of it when… they closed down because of bankruptcy. We were already imagining presenting the book in Vienna or Frankfurt, but that’s what happened. Meanwhile, however, I had the idea of making a graphic novel version of it.
And it was at this stage that you contacted the School of Comics…
Yes, I showed Ph0xGen! to Riccardo Borsoni at the International School of Comics, who thought it over and said: I think there is enough material here to make a graphic novel. He gave it to the scriptwriter Christian Bisin, who from the almost 280 pages of the novel, managed to draw up a script of 115 boards. During the same period I met Master Angelo Bussacchini, illustrator and cartoonist, whom I found out was an elementary-school classmate of Paolo Frusca’s, and who agreed to do the artwork. A first draft of the boards is ready, and in my opinion it’s wonderful.
How does it feel to see your story represented and interpreted in the form of a comic?
It gives you great satisfaction, also because when we wrote the novel, we visualized it as if it were a movie. Actually the idea of making a comic book out of it came to us almost immediately. And to see it realized in this high quality has made us very happy.
Have you thought of turning your later works into comic books?
I would love to do a comic with both I’m not like you, and the nine stories of Heaven and Iron. But first let’s see how this first transposition works.
The story in the novel takes place in an alternative past …
The story of Ph0xGen! takes place in 2003, but in a different world from ours, and is lacking the technological progress triggered by World War II: there are airships and cars look like the ones in the 1950s. It is as if we were left behind a little, compared to the real 2003.
And many of the technologies that we know by their English name are in German, like the computer, which is called a Rechner.
Yes, because in that universe the world cultural supremacy is Austrian, not American.
The novel gives great importance to the context, the setting, but it is also very exciting…
Paolo and I are always very careful about how we build the stories, trying to give the reader the desire to find out what awaits him on the next page: I think that that is very important, beyond the quality of writing and the intention to create a narrative.
Since Ph0xGen! you and Paolo have continued to write in collaboration…
We have tried to continue working together, because we had a contract with Mondadori to submit to them everything that we produced for ten years. That made us feel ideally “forced” to continue our work. We started to develop some ideas. One of these was inspired by the idea of Atlantropa, a civil engineering project that included the construction of a dam in the Straits of Gibraltar, in order to drain the Mediterranean and create lands to colonize. A scary thing. For years is was something that was talked about: there were people who really actually wanted it to be built, but then fortunately nothing came of it. There are drawings of the dam which are very similar to Sant’Elia’s architectural projects.
This project is hinted at in Heaven and Iron…
Yes, among the stories we drafted in that period there were some references to it. Unfortunately, in the end we couldn’t come to an agreement on building a whole novel, and each of us wrote our own: Paolo’s is called The Archivist – L’Archivista, short-listed for the Urania Prize in 2011, while the following year my Demon – Demone, whose title later became I’m not like you, was short-listed for the same prize. But, unlike Ph0xGen!, neither of our works was published by Urania because, in the meantime, the publishing market had changed and Mondadori had decided to focus less on Italian authors, publishing only one a year, the Prize winner. However, thanks to the modest prestige of being a finalist, I went looking for a publisher. I contacted about fifty, plus twelve literary agents. No agents were interested in my work, but three publishers were, and it was Gargoyle who actually offered me a contract. They primarily focus on publishing horror fiction, and asked me to change the title, because with a title like Demon their readership would think it was a horror or a fantasy novel. The editors believe they have their specific audience; it seems strange to me because, being more a reader that an author, I choose a book because of the writer, not the publisher. In any case, I was asked for alternative titles and one was I’m not like you, a sentence taken from the protagonist’s stream of consciousness.
I think this title fits perfectly, because the explanation of why the main character is not like the others is given in the epilogue, where he behaves the way others have behaved towards him, but reveals a totally different attitude.
The editor described the epilogue as an alternative type of happy ending.
You have an artistic background as a photographer and you started writing reluctantly: so you didn’t set out to be a writer…
I never thought I would dedicate myself to writing until Paolo insisted, and I lent myself to this experiment in a spirit of sacrifice and friendship, but I would not have bet a penny on our novel being published. However, not only was it published, but it sold eight thousand copies: an amazing number. At the time, that was Urania’s standard number of copies of a first run: there is a hard core of readers who will buy whatever comes out in the series, even our novel.
And did I’m not like you have the same success?
No, it did not sell even one-twentieth of what Urania sold, which was helped by the fact that it was also distributed through newsstands. The paradox is that Ph0xGen!, which was on sale in newsstands for three months, was presented only once; I’m not like you at least a dozen times. Ph0xGen! had two reviews, I’m not like you about twenty. Nevertheless, being on the bookstore shelves gives much more satisfaction, as does the interaction with the readers.
So can we expect Ph0xGen! to reappear in the bookstores?
It should reappear paired with the comic. I do not know if it will be two separate volumes, or a single volume. The publisher will be Multiplayer.
Usually, someone who starts writing without having ever thought about doing it does not write very well. In your case though, since your debut as a solo writer your writing has been very effective, with credible dialogue, a smooth but unusual style, and a talent for creating suspense and well-rounded characters. These are not usually skills that can be improvised. What influenced you as a writer?
I never attended a creative writing school, so I couldn’t, for example, explain how to create a novel. I can just do it. Even what I’m writing now has been devised in the same way, using the Italo Bonera system, that is to say, very recklessly. I have written the first chapter, I have drafted the last, and I have moved on to some parts in the middle. I will change some chapters and perhaps I will modify some characters. I always proceed very instinctively. That’s probably why I spend an average of three years completing a new work. Cinema is definitely my reference model: when I’m writing I visualize the scenes. Cinema is the narrative form of our time. That’s why its influence on us is so deep. In Ph0xGen! in particular, there are a lot of references to film.
After I’m not like you you published Heaven and Iron with Paolo Frusca. It’s a collection of free-standing short stories, which in some way are connected to one another.
They are connected because they have a common setting and a mutual context, but each of them has its own theme. For instance, the cruelty of those who have nothing to lose, contrasted with the cruelty of those who have everything and don’t want to lose it. Some of these stories were written by myself, some by Paolo, and some were written together. Getting a short story collection published is very difficult. Practically no publishing house wants to have anything to do with it.
However, La Ponga publishers were interested…
They were; for a simple reason. While Gargoyle and Mondadori publish for their own profit, La Ponga publish for their own pleasure. I had a call from Stefano Tevini, one of the La Ponga partners, who is a writer, first and foremost. Stefano also commissioned two more short stories from us in order to reach a minimum number of pages, and we wrote them specially for this collection: My Name is not Quinto – Non mi chiamo Quinto and The Hearing – L’udienza. Paolo cannibalized his unpublished novel – which, by the way, La Ponga would like to publish. The Hearing is a slightly modified version of one of its chapters and My Name is not Quinto is a passage from it, where we have given it a different theme and a conclusion. The short story Cratere Mogadiscio – Mogadishu Crater was originally conceived as a chapter for I’m not like You. It would have been redundant in the novel: however, given that in writing everything can be re-used, I gave it a new structure, a well-defined theme, and I turned it into a self-supporting story.
Heaven and Iron is set against the background of Avrahamism, a new cult combining the extremisms of the three monotheistic religions…
Yes, it is a background against which we set some stories, each with its own theme.
I was particularly struck by a passage where you describe this background: an age with no past, no future, bogged down in a mediocre present. Yes, there were extraordinary resources available for all. Just a screen and a keyboard were enough to have all the information you wanted in a few seconds. Still, some people, scared by a complexity that was difficult to master, had chosen laziness and ignorance. The venomous plant of Avrahamism sprouted from this soil. It’s our present extended into a rather near future…
I’d say today we’re living precisely this kind of life.
Do you fear that situations like Avrahamism and the other ‘venomous plants’ described in your two novels might become a reality in the near future?
Even today we have something like Avrahamism: it’s called Isis. They are people with a simple vision of the world, where a single law ordains how things must be, with a clear distinction between Good and Evil. But there are people with a very simple and primitive vision of the world living in our countries as well. In Heaven and Iron Paolo and myself hypothesize that the real dividing line in the world is not between north and south, or east and west, but between urban and suburban – or deeply provincial – groups. This is the conflict that we see and have tried to emphasize. I believe that genre fiction, by depicting extreme situations, is a powerful way of dealing with today’s world. A kind of metaphor, devised by making colours even more saturated and making facts clearer.
I’m not like you is a tale of injustice, oppression, and corruption, Ph0xGen! a tale of the intrigues of the powerful in subjugating common people, Sky and Iron the embodiment, in nine pearls of cynicism and disillusion, of a future nightmare which will end up overpowering the masses. Why is your vision of the future so negative?
My vision of the future… The first books I read when I could choose them myself were science-fiction books, written in the Sixties or in the golden age of Sci-Fi, the Forties and the Fifties. A time when the world’s progress in technology, social development, and other fields was at its height. Everything was thriving and there was great hope. It seemed that technology would free us from the slavery of daily work. Some said that by the year 2000 everyone would own their personal home-robot, that everyone would travel in space and time in their own flying machines, and that computers would solve all their problems. The reality is that we have computers that often go haywire, and technology has not relieved us from being slaves to work. And what came out of all the optimism of that time? Just development without the progress. Exactly what was foreseen by Pasolini, a man who had already understood this situation in the Sixties. How can we have a positive and joyful vision of the future today? I cannot have one. I don’t even see the kind of progress these technological innovative devices are supposed to bring us. For instance, I don’t believe that smartphones have really improved the quality of human relationships. On the other hand, inventions like the washing machine did give a lot of free time to those who had to spend their day in the cold, outside at a ditch washing their family’s clothes. Global electrification was much more important than the Internet. You will notice that every book about the future contains gloomy visions of it.
All writers have behind them a history of reading. What was yours, after science fiction?
I’ve been reading a lot of noir fiction lately. I’m not like you for instance, is considered a Sci-Fi novel simply because it’s set in 2059. However, I have not read any contemporary Sci-Fi novels for a long time. The last significant one was Dan Simmons’s Hyperion, I guess. That was about twenty years ago. In my opinion, John Scalzi, too, displayed magnificent intuition with his Old Man’s War – Morire per vivere. However, after the first eighty pages, the story loses its coherence, even though the author continued the saga in many more books. I usually read many different things, chiefly in genre fiction, but I have never had the nerve to take on a classic. I mostly prefer French and American noir novels and a lot of Italian genre fiction. I like Massimo Carlotto, Tullio Avoledo, and Vittorio Evangelisti. Stephen Gunn (aka Stefano di Marino) is a remarkable author too, one of the most outstanding writers of Italian genre fiction.
You and Paolo Frusca both have a very smooth and immediate style. Do you think it is important to write to be read, potentially, by all kinds of reader?
Yes, it’s imperative. Hemingway, for instance, always wrote very short sentences. This makes the act of reading easier. Patterson, a million-copy bestseller author, writes two-page chapters: they almost seem to be made on purpose in order to be read during a five-minute break. Readers are important, and writing in order to be read is important. I’m just thinking of Masterpiece, last year’s literary talent show on Italian television. I remember that most of the participants wrote stories about themselves, with a self-referential style that doesn’t take the reader into account. In the end, when you’re writing you’re talking about yourself anyway, but you should create a captivating story.
Do you think that literature should make the reader think?
When I sit before my computer, I always try to write something light and escapist. But I can’t because I’m a dreary person and I can’t avoid putting dreary themes into my stories. I really admire those who write purely escapist works, but I don’t know how to do it.
Do you agree with the warnings about writing going through a crisis?
It’s the publishing industry that’s in a crisis. I keep on reading interesting things.
Who are the contemporary writers who should absolutely be read?
I’ll tell you just one name: Philip Roth.
And among Italian writers?
Massimo Carlotto, I admire him deeply.
Which authors were a leading factor in your becoming a writer?
André Héléna, an excellent, rather unknown writer, who’s published in Italy by Aìsara, a Sardinian publishing house. And Ross MacDonald: I really admire the way he sets his scenes and creates his characters. Unfortunately, his novels are hard to find, because they were printed a long time ago. Luckily, Polillo is reprinting them.
Heaven and Iron ends with the words ‘to be continued’ between parentheses. So, is the whole novel a kind of prologue?
We wrote that at the end, but we don’t plan to continue the story. We wanted to point out that, even though the story comes to an end, events still continue. In that very short story, Meno di tre (Less than Three) we see the dismay of a person facing the absolute Unknown. Something happens to him and to the world around him, and he just doesn’t know why. We see all his thoughts, some of them conflicting, piling up in his head. Maybe he remains alone, maybe he does not. The words ‘to be continued’ just meant that. We have no sequel in mind, at least for the present.
Why do you write?
Because I was forced to write, in the beginning. Then because I realized that I could write well. Now, because I like it.
Where do you find your ideas?
In the shower. Joking aside, when I intend to write something, I focus on the story and, when ideas come to mind, I take notes. Lately, when I find a sentence, or a word, or a situation that impress me, I send myself e-mails on my cell-phone. Anyway, ideas come to me reading other writers, looking around, reading newspapers, watching movies. Ideas come out of impressions. It’s impossible to be born nobody’s child. In some way you always copy someone else, and add something of yourself, something different. I think this is the way it works in all the fields of creativity.
Are you writing something new?
I am halfway through a novel that is linked, somehow, to comics. It won’t be a science fiction book. It will be set in the quite recent past. I hope to be able to finish it within a reasonable period of time.