Donatella Di Pietrantonio‘s new novel, Bella Mia, has recently been published in translation by Calisi Press. Our reviewer Becky Danks posed some questions to Donatalla, whose answers have been translated by Calisi’s editor Franca Scurti Simpson.
CSP: What inspired you to write about the earthquake in L’Aquila in 2009?
DDP: I was motivated by the need to write a novel about pain, about loss, but also about the human ability to transform pain, reshape it without removing it, and use it as an opportunity for growth.
How did you approach the task of researching the subject? How long did it take and how did you go about it?
I did my research by visiting the historic centre of the town, always with friends who live in L’Aquila. They were also the most valuable source of information, particularly about the emotional experience of the people affected by the earthquake. In any case, I know the town well, I went to university there and I have maintained strong links with people and places after I left. The research into the book took about 18 months.
This is a book about recent events. Did you find it difficult to write about this subject as it is still so raw in people’s minds and residents are still displaced?
In a way, yes. I wrote carefully, fearful that my fiction would intrude and upset the sensitivities of those who have lived through the traumatic experience of the earthquake, those who had lost a loved one, those who had lost their home, their neighbourhood and their job.
In light of recent events, with further earthquakes occurring in Central Italy, what advice would you give to those people newly affected based on what you have learnt?
It is very difficult to give advice about this sort of thing, there is always the risk of being intrusive or simply banal, but it is important to encourage those who have been affected by tragedies of this type not to lose hope, to invest in their future, rebuild their lives around what is left, rather than focus on the past, on what has been lost.
Are any of the characters in the book based on real people? If so then how much is based on truth and how much is fiction? For example the central family and also the writer who is the only official resident of the Red Zone and the elderly man in the camp who telephones his dead wife every day.
The only real person in the novel is the old writer, a historian, to be correct, who the day after the earthquake refused to leave his home, which had been only minimally damaged, and continued to live, alone, in the deserted city centre. The other characters are all fictional but I believe they are consistent with their background, made so peculiar by the earthquake.
Your previous novel was about dementia and its impact on a mother-daughter relationship. What makes you choose to tackle such sensitive subjects?
I believe that pain is an inevitable part of our existence. It is also what allows us to give shape and highlight our human “essence”. For this reason it needs to be explored, talked about, so that we can get to know it and accept it. When we experience joy and happiness, we can simply be, but we have to learn to work on our pain.
How have you found the process of having your writing translated and what advice would you give to aspiring female Italian writers?
Holding in your hands your book translated into another language is very exciting, even when you don’t understand that language. It is an amazing feeling to realise that what you have written can leave you behind and travel much further than you can. My advice to young Italian female writers is to believe in themselves and to nurture themselves and their writing, by reading and experiencing life as much as they can.
Can you describe your writing routine?
I don’t write methodically and I don’t write at fixed times. I steal the time to write when the story forming inside me urges me to do so. I often write in bed, on my laptop, in positions that are uncomfortable and hurt my back. I am curious about and open to the world, to other people. With the earthquake in L’Aquila, I felt immediately involved, because the experience of pain and loss is universal, it affects us all. And I know and love the town, so I felt its wounds and those of its people, in particular.
How did you combine your job as a paediatric dentist with writing your books? Would you consider writing full time?
Dentist by day, writer by night! Actually, the best time for me to write is at dawn, when the house is immersed in silence and my rested thoughts are eager to find their way onto the page. There are times I think I would love to be able to write full time but I don’t think I could bear to be separated from my little patients.
Are you planning on writing a new book and if so, what will it be about?
Yes, I am finishing a new novel which will be published in Italy by Einaudi next February. It is again a novel about fundamental relationships, about mothering experiences, broken and then renewed and partially mended, and the traumatic effect of these on the children involved.