Donna Leon, the creator of the Commissario Brunetti series set in Venice, is a lively and entertaining lady and I had been looking forward to her conversazione with Maxim Jakubowski. The questions obviously start with the background to the Italian setting. Donna began travelling in her twenties, and went to Italy with a friend whose mother wouldn’t let her go on her own. She fell in love with the friend’s family and their hospitality, and by extension with the country. She went back for holidays every year until she settled in Venice, where she now lives. Most of her life now has been spent in Italy.
She started writing mysteries by accident: while chatting to a friend in the La Fenice theatre she had the idea for a murder mystery (Death at La Fenice) which then became the first in the series. She read a lot of crime fiction in graduate school, which for her was escapism after reading Austen and the classics. She says crime writing is formulaic: you need a crime, a criminal, someone to pursue the criminal, and a solution – she makes it sound very easy!
When asked about her main character Commissario Brunetti, she says he is someone she likes to spend time with, as she has to do for about six months while writing the book. ‘I don’t want to spend six months with Wallander’, she claims, instead she wants someone who enjoys food and wine, and life. These, she says, were all unconscious decisions made when she started writing, and she still finds him an interesting person.
The 21st novel of Commissario Brunetti has just been published – he has become a darker character, he has less hope and fewer illusions about the future. She says these changes reflect her own, calls herself a pessimist but still gets up in the morning and is happy.
Baroque music (Haendel in particular) is her real passion, and although she doesn’t play, she is the patron of Il Complesso Barocco and Il Pomo d’Oro (named after an opera by Antonio Cesti). She was asked by her friend, renowned soprano Cecilia Bartoli to write something on music, and it ended up being The Jewels of Paradise, which is not a crime novel.
Her love for Italy is obvious in the dialogue: ‘I’ll never be Italian’ she claims, and likes having the mindset of an American of her generation living in Italy. She says Italians have an elasticity of comprehension she’ll never have. The moral tone in her novels is more Anglo-saxon than Italian, since Italians are not judgemental (although as an Italian myself I don’t really agree with this statement…)
She recounts an anecdote happened while in Vienna with the orchestra, with the Italian ambassador as a guest, when he offered the official car to a member of the orchestra with her two small children, while he and his wife walked to the restaurant under the rain. She was struck by how normal this was for the Ambassador and attributes this to his Italian mentality.
Maxim of course asked what we were all curious to know, why is she not published in Italy? Mainly, because she wants to avoid people who haven’t read her books to assume that she is judgemental of the country – Italians are allowed to do that, but she feels she is not. She recounts another anecdote when she met an aristocrat who accused her of portraying Italy and Italians in a negative way, when it was obvious he had never read any of her books.
She admits to not doing much research for her books, only doing it when she is really interested in a particular topic – for example, she did a lot of research for Acqua Alta and on diamonds for Blood from a Stone. She is not interested in the procedural aspect so that’s all invented!
Unlike other authors, some of her characters (e.g. Brunetti’s children) are stuck in a time warp, they never grow up – she doesn’t want to deal with those issues, and claims ‘if Sue Grafton can do it, I can do it!’. Nowadays she doesn’t read a lot of crime fiction, although acknowledges that Camilleri is very good, since all her spare time is devoted to the orchestra.
The conversazione closes mentioning the book/music combo Venetian Curiosities, with music played by the Complesso Barocco and a book written by herself, which I will have to check out very soon!