Writing is like making love: interview with Giuseppe Ciarallo

As a writer, you start at 36 years with your collection Racconti per sax tenore (Stories for tenor sax).  Someone would say it is a late onset. But, is there an age to start?
Let me say that publishing my first book at 36 was a clever moving action to avoid being catalogued, with all the rhetoric that usually goes with it, in the banal category of “young beginners”. I’m joking, of course. In fact, the first publication is only the last and culminating act of a long journey. I started kind of an “organized” writing in 1986, and paid all my dues including sending stories to magazines, attending contests and creative writing courses, serial posting my texts to publishing houses (at that time information media had not yet widespread, therefore we sent massive swags of photocopies). It was still the era of typewriters: I was working on an Olivetti Studio 44, that I still keep. Going back to the question, I do not think that there is a right age to start. Not to make irreverent comparisons, Camilleri published his first book at age 53, Bufalino at 61…

That book became immediately a best-seller. How such a fulminant success made you feel?
Racconti per sax tenore received good reviews and immediately ended up in the rankings of Venerdì di Repubblica, which at that time was a reliable indicator of the success of a book. That was just the motivation that prompted me to continue into the world of words, with renewed confidence.

In that collection there is also the story Le opinioni di un sax tenore (The opinions of a tenor sax) in which, at the beginning of each chapter, a piece of music is suggested to accompany the reading. Given the heterogeneity of the proposals, was it just a functional choice or an effect of your musical passions as well?
Le opinioni di un sax tenore is a long story that combines two of my great loves: writing and music. In that story, and in the songs I chose to accompany the chapters, there was in fact my desire to share with the readers my favourite records with the readers, the feelings that music gave me, even inspiring my words. Le opinioni di un sax tenore was entirely written at the Capolinea, a place that unfortunately doesn’t exist any longer and, as long as the caves in Paris, that represented the place of jazz in Milan since the end of the war.

To read the next collection we have to wait until 1999, with Amori a serramanico (Switchblade Loves). Why such a long gestation period?
Often, long intervals between one book and the next don’t depend on the writer but on the scheduling problems of the publishing houses, especially when they are small to medium sized. Tranchida, which unfortunately doesn’t exist any longer, was a great publishing house, with a rich catalogue of which I am honoured to have been part of, but it had only enough resources to release a limited number of titles per year.

The tone of this collection is more light-hearted, and ironic stories alternate to more sharply humorous ones. Is that the way you look at reality?
As a matter of fact, irony and self-irony as a stylistic feature have always had an important role in my writing. Already in Racconti per sax tenore, stories like Chi ha ucciso il verbo dire? (Who killed the verb to say?), Una giornata nata male (A badly started day), Una perquisa mancata (A failed search) and Like a Bird, are based on a satirical view of reality. With Amori a serramanico I continued in that way. I think that irony and self-irony are an essential safety valve to be kept constantly active in order for the pressure cooker which is our brain not to explode, producing the devastating damage that we all can imagine.

Subsequently, in 2011 and in 2012, you took part in the anthologies Sorci verdi (Green mice) and Lavoro vivo (Alive job) containing socially and politically committed stories. Your writing work seems to have made a turning…
I am convinced that the stories contained in the two collections you mentioned, both published by Alegre, are stylistically better structured than the previous ones and have a greater emotional impact. However, I think this “step forward” is part of the creative and professional path to which each author aims. In those cases, the container itself required a change of pace as well. Sorci verdi is a book about racism, Lavoro vivo is about the world of work and of factory in particular: two issues that are very dear to me, since I am a son of immigrants (my mother was an artisan and my father a metalworker). In the story MissisSile Burning (Pity is dead) I was not really able to write dipping my pen in the ink of irony; Eqquessaè was instead a liberating act through which I spoke about my mother and my father, and relived part of my childhood, that was difficult, punctuated by continuous falls and rebirths. Such a condition was very frequent among the immigrants of yesterday and today I see it with pain in the eyes of the underdogs.

In 2011 you also publish DanteSka, seven hendecasyllabic cantos in strictly alternating rhyme, subtitled ApocriFunk – Hip Hopera in sette canti (ApocriFunk – Hip Hopera in seven cantos). Apparently, the union of an ancient poetic style with recent musical genres seems like an oxymoron: why this choice was taken?
DanteSka is a complex, very hard-working job, and contains a number of different motivations. First of all, the desire to grind with the word, for the word and on the word. Creating such a tight cage, like a quatrain of hendecasyllable, implies being able to make all the effort required to “contain” anything you want to tell within a length limited sentence. Because you can insert in a row a series of words whose total number of syllables is not greater than eleven, you always have to consider the placement of accents, in order not to break the rhythm; you must have in mind that the final word of the first line will have to rhyme with that of the third row, and the second with the fourth. Things like that. If we add that, as a further stake, I set myself to not use trivial rhymes (the infinitive form of verbs, for example), you can understand the complexity of the thing. Another reason, that led me to accept the challenge, occurred by chance on my way: I repeatedly happened to listen Rap music on the radio and on the television. Except in a few rare cases, where some research in the texts can actually be found, most of the pieces were made by cobbled stupid rhymes, or rather by rhymes that were not actually rhymes, just clichés badly plagiarized from overseas rapper. Nevertheless, in Rap I recognized a language closely followed by young people. Then I asked myself: what if I tried to tell our society as though I were a minstrel of the third millennium? Nothing original, mind you. Dante did the same operation seven hundred years ago, with the extraordinary result that the whole world knows and appreciates.

Political and social issues are present also in DanteSka, a work in which you imagine to penetrate Dante’s Hell through the latrine of a brewery and meet the souls of public people who are very close to our present government, being led, rather than by Virgil, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. On the whole, although the breezy grotesque tones, a sense of disillusionment seems to predominate…
Irony does not mean disengagement, of course. In fact, both my stories and DanteSka cantos are related to politics, to people’s life, to (un)civilized society, to the world of work; and this is my personal interpretation of “social literature” in whose name, together with other writers and artists, I have helped to give birth to a bi-annual magazine now come to its sixth year of publication: Nuova Rivista Letteraria (New Literary Magazine) (originally Letteraria).

You anticipated my question: you’re one of the founders and editor of Letteraria, which later became Nuova Rivista Letteraria, founded by Stefano Tassinari. Why did you decide this change of name? And how would you define the editorial line of Nuova Rivista Letteraria?
Since the beginning of the project, strongly supported by Stefano Tassinari, an extraordinary intellectual, writer, poet, but especially an activist and a cultural aggregator, I was part of the Letteraria collective, a magazine created with the specific aim to restart, within the left, the debate on major social issues: work, struggles, immigration, the welfare state, the arrogance of power and how much it has to do with the life of a society. All of this, from a particular writer’s point of view or analysing how writing has interpreted the social and historical changes over time (we talked about racism, labour, populism, struggle movements, school, family, and the next issue will focus on “food” or the fetish that this basic human need turned out to be in modern societies). Going back to your question, the reason why we changed the headline is due to an unfortunate event: the first two issues of the journal were released by a prestigious leftist publishing house, that a new property was trying to relaunch in full regalia. Small problem: the new publisher didn’t pay the graphic designers and printers (the writers offering their pieces for free in strict “militant” style) and this sounded like an oxymoron to our social writers’s ears, close and sensitive to the problems of workers. Hence, the need for a change (we fortunately met an immediate interest to the project by Edizioni Alegre), and the need to change the name of the headline.

Nuova Rivista Letteraria cooperates with many famous writers. Do you consider yourself a kind of literary group like those who used to be in the past?
That was the idea. When Stefano Tassinari, a dear friend who sadly passed away in May two years ago, convened us to the first meeting to found the magazine, the desire to go back to a pluralistic dimension of writing immediately emerged, after the destructive decades when the I, defined by Gadda as the dirtiest pronoun, had leapt overbearingly to the forefront burying the experiences of collectivism of the sixties and seventies. In this great adventure I had the good fortune to have traveling companions such as Stefano Tassinari, Bruno Arpaia, Wu Ming 1, Pino Cacucci, Milena Magnani, Maria Rosa Cutrufelli, Massimo Vaggi, Paolo Vachino, Silvia Albertazzi, besides Carlo Lucarelli, Marcello Fois, Gianpiero Rigosi and many others.

After the untimely death of great Stefano Tassinari, the magazine has not stopped its publications. What Stefano did, that was dealing with the whole editorial job by collecting pieces, editing, titling articles, writing forewords and identifying introductions to the articles, passed into your hands. A passing of the torch?
With Stefano’s death an essential referee was missing, because the magazine pivoted on his figure; besides being the “intellectual guarantee” of the project, he was managing Director, editor in chief, proof-reader; in short, he took care of everything except the graphics. Then as now, this is within competence of the great photographer Luca Gavagna from Ferrara, a friend of Stefano’s since childhood. To cope with this amount of work, in the post-Stefano period, a limited editorial board was created: in practice, now I take care of all those tasks which in the past were carried out by Stefano. A passing of the torch? Only in practical work. The figure of Stefano Tassinari is absolutely not replicable.

For few years, you have been collaborating with the magazine PaginaUno (PageOne) as well…
PaginaUno is another beautiful experience of my life as a writer. Very different from Letteraria, PaginaUno is a tool of political discussion, conducted with great wit and professionalism by all staff of the bimonthly journal (which includes major writers like Walter Pozzi, Davide Pinardi, Cataldo Russo). In this editorial reality, I’m actually a bit like a maverick. My old friend Walter Pozzi, who is also the editor, always leaves me free and I am very grateful for that: my pieces for PaginaUno often deals with some cultural aspects of the seventies – I wrote about the satirical anti-Franco magazine Hermano Lobo, the Italian underground Cane Caldo (Hot Dog), graphic designer Maurizio Bovarini, singer sculptor Herbert Pagani, sociologist Julius Salierno – interviews with show and culture celebrities who intrigue me (Fabio Treves, Alberto Patrucco, Susanna Parigi, Fulvio Abbate, Alberto Prunetti, Maria Rosa Cutrufelli, Giangilberto Monti, Cisco former Modena City Ramblers), or topics that I feel the urge to write about as a result of reading or discovering particular texts. And then, how I could not to be attached to the publisher PaginaUno after having the courage to publish such a particular work, of difficult impact on the public, as my DanteSka?

You were also one of the creators of the first printed version of Inkroci, to which you still cooperate, and youwrite for A-Rivista Anarchica (A-Anarchist Magazine) and other journals as well…
Inkroci is a beautiful place where I am offered the opportunity to write at length about two of my great passions: music and movies (a kind of movies, in fact). On this magazine I can introduce the readers to the discs that have been part of my formation and that in my opinion deserve not to end up in (or to be rescued from) oblivion. I like to tell not only about the contents, but also about anything that was around the world, the people, the “vibrations” of the unforgettable seventies. As for the other issue, I proposed to the editorial board a section that deals with cinema and literature, with literature in cinema, comparing original literary works and their film adaptations. Besides, every now and then, some of my stories appear on Inkroci… By the way, I would like to congratulate both the translators, who perfectly transpose the pieces in English, and the illustrators. Talented.
As for A-Rivista anarchica, I think it is a really special magazine, graphically very well cared for, having always interesting contents and, contrarily to what people may think (being the expression of an ideology), very much opened. For a decade I have been passionate to study the history of social movements of the second half of the nineteenth century, and in my research I could not avoid to meet, among others, the anarchist movement. I was immediately struck by the purity of an ideal that, no doubt, is the quintessence of utopia, and by the determination of its followers. A few years ago I bought a special issue of A-Rivista anarchica, it might have been on the fortieth anniversary of its publication, which reported the names of all its collaborators from the first issue. I thought that I would have liked to be part of that large group who, over the years, had contributed to put an important piece within the complex puzzle of press and thought freedom, and in the dissemination of culture and counter-culture. Immediately after that, through my friend Felice Accame, former collaborator of the magazine, I sent them one of my stories about Gaetano Bresci. They liked my story, and that was how I came into contact with A.

Someone would say that, working with several magazines released by different publishers, you “work for the competitors”. Personally I believe that, in the field of culture, reasoning in terms of competition is pointless and counterproductive; yet, many people do. What do you think? And what is the reason of your nonconformist choice?
Actually, I perceive all the journals which I collaborate with as complementary to each other. Each of them is responsible for the dissemination of culture, perhaps on different terrains, but I would see a “work for the competitors” or a “conflict of interest” if the areas of intervention were different from each other and they pulled in opposite directions, and this does not seem to be my case.

As a poet, you also take part to the carovana dei versi (caravan of the verses) and the poetry slam of abrigliasciolta. How do you live these experiences?
Let me be very clear on one thing: I am not a poet. I like to call myself a honest craftsman of the verse, where the adjective “honest” embodies passion, dedication and extreme respect for the word. Poetry is something extremely high, a term of which too many people abuse, and I do not want to fall into the same error. carovana dei versi is a nice container of energy, a constantly moving magma behind which the able direction of Ombretta Diaferia discreetly hides. For over a decade she has been directing very effectively, and with rare passion, an orchestra of young and less young people interested in poetry. carovana dei versi is living in a choral way the love for poetry; as well as my other writing experiences, it has a collectivist connotation, as I said talking about Nuova Rivista Letteraria. Though I took part to them on two occasions, I like less the poetry slam, because I personally do not think that poetry can and should be the subject of a competition, since the ability to interpret sometimes prevails on the work.

Before you mentioned your Olivetti Studio 44. Nowadays, do you write by hand, on the typewriter or on the computer?
I write in pen. Always. I tried, but I just cannot write directly on the computer (and, earlier, on the typewriter). It takes away my concentration. My studio is full of handwritten pages, some in ordered sequence, and of scattered paper scraps where maybe I pinned an idea to be developed, noted newspapers; in other words, I write a little everywhere. However, analysing this way of working of mine I discovered that behind pen writing there is urgency and immediacy; in the next rewrite on the computer, there is a first revision of the text and this is very important. The writer knows that the first draft should be read and reread, written and rewritten many times before achieving a satisfactory result. This is my path.

One thing one notices when reading your works, is that although you use a rich language, you express yourself in a simple, direct way. In a literary work, how important is readability to you?
I do not like baroquism, especially in literature. A research, also spasmodic, of the word cannot become the very essence and the only reason of writing. The exercise of style, although in some cases I practiced it myself, must be immediately declared to the reader, otherwise it is pure narcissism. Concerning the issue of readability, saying that any text, being addressed to an audience, has to be readable, is even a commonplace; which doesn’t mean in any way that we should write according to the average level of understanding of the readers, otherwise in our country and in this ominous historical period (statistical data on readers in Italy are daunting) literature would have already been dead and buried. However, if someone is convinced that simplicity is synonymous with poverty of speech, well, that’s his own problem.

In your opinion, art and literature in particular, can and should produce consciousness in the reader? May it still have a revolutionary power?
There are some words by the syndicalist and great anarchist intellectual Fernand Pelloutier, that guide my hand when I write: “It is ignorance that makes the resigned. This means that art must do the rebels”. Not to mention that even Antonio Gramsci said: “Educate yourself, because we need all our intelligence”. Well, I believe it is really so. Power has always feared culture, because a cultured man is a conscious man, able to put events in relation and therefore he is not controllable. Artists, writers must do their part by stopping navel-gazing and telling futility; instead, they should communicate the readers emotions and awareness. Everything else is pure literary onanism. Of course, this is what I think about it, but I never claimed to be the depositary of the truth.

Do you think we are actually living a rather disturbing downward cultural homologation?
The disaster in which our country has been living for some decades is visible to everyone. The dismantling of the Italian public school and university, together with the cut (not to say the reset) of loans to the world of culture over time has led to a worrying flattening of thought and to a drastic reduction of critical skills in the majority of citizens. Media and the television are complicit in the ongoing cultural genocide. Why all this? Because, as I said, power is afraid of culture.

I think that the so-called crisis of literature or, more in general, crisis of culture, is actually a standstill. “Crisis” would already be a nice term, we would already be ahead. A crisis involves something that bursts, it is a breaking anyway…
I think you’re right. But there is no eternal stasis, and who gets all the benefits from this stasis knows that very well. This is the moment of calm before the storm outbreaks, the situation of maximum tension of the elastic. Then there is the break, and no one is able to determine or limit the consequent damage. Obviously, the crisis or stasis of literature and culture, are only a small slice of a political, economic, social problem, involving the whole life of our advanced societies.

Today there is a tendency to self-publishing, especially on the web which has made this practice simple and cost effective. What do you think about it?
I don’t like and I don’t care. I’m a man of the last century, a man of the past. If I had the chance to go back in time, I would like to live in the century that goes from 1850 to 1950, in which I like to think that the most important, dramatic and beautiful things of the entire life of humanity took place. A book is made of paper and ink. A tablet is comfortable, weighs little and contains whole libraries, I know that. But think how sad and poor the houses of the future will be, no shelves, no dusty volumes, no history. No, if this is the future, I do not care.

Erri De Luca wrote that “the writer should be smaller than the matter he tells”. Do you agree?
Erri De Luca wrote a natural thing (by saying “granted” I wouldn’t be disrespectful to a writer that I esteem very much); the writer will always be smaller than the matter he tells. Those who think they do the opposite, and there are some, are doomed to become ridiculous.

Every good writer is also an avid reader; who are, in your opinion, the contemporary writers that should be absolutely read?
I am an omnivorous and messy reader, I read novels and essays, poetry, reportages and everything inspires me at the moment or is necessary for me to write either my stories or the number of pieces for the magazines which I collaborate with. I really like the classics of nineteenth century Russian literature, primarily Dostoyevsky; the French Sartre and Queneau; Kafka and Roth, Joseph; the Americans Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fante, Bukowski, Hammett and Chandler. I love noir, historical books, mostly set in specific times and places, like the Spanish Civil War, Paris of late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Russia of the revolution, Fascist Italy, the colonial experiences…

And among the contemporary Italian?
I love southern writers of the second half of the twentieth century: my countrymen Jovine and Silone, Lussu, Alvaro, Gramsci, but also Gadda, Pratolini, Morante, Sciascia and the most recent Striano, Tassinari, and why not? Camilleri. And by the way, I have a real reverence for the production of the Sicilian publisher Sellerio.

When you write, what are your sources of inspiration?
Each text needs an initial spark, an idea that is worth being developed. This fuse, let’s call it like this, normally comes from life, ours or that of the people we have around or maybe of someone who we know by chance; then, to develop the story it is all a work of studying and collecting information. Personally I do not start writing until I’ve got quite clear in my mind the key to give to my story and its general layout. Then, writing, things change a lot, because the characters begin to live their own life and lead the events where they want to, but it’s me who put there the initial posts and the command of the operation is always and only mine.

Are you working on a new book? Will it be a book of poetry or narrative? Would you like to give us a taste?
A new collection of my short stories should be published, conditional is a must, in 2015. I really care about this project because I am convinced that in our country the ostracism reserved to short stories as a narrative form is completely unmotivated, besides being unfair. In Anglo-Saxon countries, short stories are considered full-fledged high literature. In Italy, editors shake their heads every time you propose them a book of short stories. I stubbornly go on my way.

Why do you write? Why writing?
If I told you that for me writing is like making love to the most beautiful woman in the world, would you believe me? To let you understand me, I will tell you a little story that explains this concept. Well … A ship sinks off the coast of a desert island. Miraculously saved, a young, handsome sailor and supermodel Kate Moss (one can put the one he likes best) land on the beach of the island. In this heavenly scenario, the two fall in love and, as is logical, overwhelmed by passion they make unbridled sex.
Everything has gone well for a few weeks then, suddenly, the young sailor begins to languish. The woman affectionately asks the reason for his change in mood. «What’s wrong with you? Are you tired of me?» asks the girl. «No, my love – answers the sailor – how could I? It’s just that … I sorely miss my friend Mario». The beautiful supermodel is still a bit puzzled, then she asks: «Can I do anything to dispel your melancholy?». The young man thinks about it for a moment and says: «Yes. Well … you could wear my sailor uniform… and hide your long hair under my white hat». And while drawing a pair of black moustaches on her face with an off piece of coal, he adds: «Now go behind the palm tree, pretend to be my friend Mario, suddenly emerge and meet me as if we didn’t see each other for a long time». Without understanding, the girl executes to the letter the provisions of the sailor. She emerges from the palm, goes to the young man and he, like seized with an explosive joy, runs towards her, throws his arms around her neck in an affectionate greeting and says: «Hello Mario! How are you? – And immediately after – Oh! Do you know that I make love with Kate Moss?». Here we are. Writing is just like making love with the most beautiful woman in the world. The pleasure, the passion … I agree, but what fun is it if then we cannot tell anybody?

Translation by Anna Anzani (edited by Emman Riddington)

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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).