Q&A April 2020
Where you are currently living and are you needing to self-isolate in your country?
Returning to the US from Italy in the spring became an impossibility in times of contagion. My Italian husband and I are staying in our old home in the hills just south of the Po river, a rolling countryside about one hour and half from Milan. This is, as everyone knows, the region of northern Italy most severely affected by coronavirus. In total lockdown, self-isolation is very strict. However we’re quite fortunate, because isolating among the vineyards is a privilege. The downside is that we have to travel by car to reach a supermarket, a gas station or an ATM machine (the only businesses still functioning). We must fill out and carry special I.D. papers explaining the reasons for our movements every time we leave the house, but all in all we’re okay, and love the view from our windows. We wish the best to everyone from our corner of the world.
How are these surreal days influencing your normal writing process?
Interesting question. For the first two-three weeks, like most everyone else, I was glued to the Web and the TV, trying to understand what was going on in the world, especially as my daughter lives across the ocean in Vermont. Little by little, I realized there’s a risk in becoming obsessed with the latest news, many of which are incidentally unreliable. So I went back to writing. In The Gypsy Synagogue, my protagonist Martin Bora finds himself under siege in Stalingrad with the Sixth German Army. Without in the least comparing the drama of war faced by all those who suffered during that terrible conflict, the small experience of having my liberties curtailed by contagion helps me understand how we take so many things for granted in peacetime. It’s difficult to concentrate on fiction in the middle of grief, and at the same time writing is both a solace and a distraction.
What are the little things that are getting you through this extraordinary time?
My husband and I follow a simple lifestyle. We’re blissfully indifferent to gourmet food and can do without socializing. We’re navigating these strange times writing and reading up a storm. He is brushing up on Japanese history, art and culture; I have lately become fascinated by texts on the prehistory of the Italian region where we live. On a lighter vein, we’re devotees of Monty Python, Shaun the Sheep (“He even mucks about with those who cannot bleat”), Wallace and Gromit, old Hollywood movies and great documentary films, especially those directed by Werner Herzog. Thank goodness for DVDs and reruns. There’s nothing like The Spam Song to brighten your mood!
If you had to isolate yourself with one other writer, who would it be and why?
If I had to spend a long period of time in seclusion with one other writer, I believe I’d choose Federico Garcia Lorca. He is not only one of my favorite poets: I read how all those who knew him appreciated his joy of life, his sense of humor, his brilliant conversation and musical talent. What better company? (Actually, I was tempted to suggest my beloved essayist and champion of civil disobedience, Henry David Thoreau: but, aside from being a somewhat stern New Englander, he was also a quintessential wanderer who went to live in the woods at Walden Pond to “suck out all the marrow of life.” He’d be very unhappy, forced to stay indoors at all times)!
What are you currently reading for pleasure?
When I’m not learning about local antiquities, I diligently research sources for my novel in-progress. If I need a break from poring over Stalingrad, Prague under Nazi occupation and “tactical maneuvers for small army units on the Eastern Front,” I thoroughly enjoy revisiting authors I loved for years (Auden, Wiechert, Welty…) and Simenon’s crime novels. This week, I finished reading Ungaretti’s The Buried Port, an anthology of verses the Italian poet wrote as a very young man during the Great War. He is best known for his powerfully pithy short poems, which seem to illustrate appropriately these times of worry and disease: “We dangle / As tree leaves / Do in the Fall,” and “I light up / With immensity.”
Good luck, everyone. Stay home, and stay safe!