Jennifer Robson is the author of six novels set during and after the two world wars. Her latest novel is Our Darkest Night set in Italy during World War II. A former editor by profession and a self-described lifelong history nerd, Robson studied French literature and Modern History as an undergraduate at Western University, then attended University of Oxford, where she obtained a doctorate in British economic and social history. She lives in Toronto with her husband and children. Jennifer Robson discusses her latest novel and her work in this interview for Accenti.
Your most recent novel, Our Darkest Night (William Morrow, 2021), is set in Italy during the Holocaust. Nina, a city girl, escapes the Jewish ghetto in Venice and goes to live and work on a farm. Tell us about Our Darkest Night.
Our Darkest Night was inspired by the history of my husband’s grandparents. They were from the Veneto region of northern Italy, specifically from San Zenone degli Ezzelini. We found out quite by chance, not very long ago that, with the encouragement of their parish priest, Father Oddo Stocco, they had helped hide Jewish Italians from the Nazis during the war. They’ve never spoken of it. It was one of their daughters, Zia Maria, who mentioned it to us on a visit to Italy. I was really taken aback. It wasn’t that they were hiding it, it was just that they were reticent to talk about sad things, upsetting things, that happened during the war.
It got me thinking about the idea of writing a book with one of the people who had to go into hiding as a central character, and that character became Nina Mazin, who is the daughter of a renowned physician. They’re Venetian; her family has lived in Italy for hundreds and hundreds of years. Nina’s father realizes what is happening and he sends her into hiding with a friend of the family. This is when we meet Niccolò Gerardi, and he takes her from Venice, the only home she’s ever known, into the Italian countryside to a tiny village called Mezzo Ciel, which is on the foothills of Monte Grappa, actually very close to the town where my husband’s family is from.
Which characters were actually inspired by members of the family?
The actual characters in the book are completely fictional. There’s no real person who corresponds to Nina or Niccolò. But the character Father Bernardi is my imagined version of what Father Oddo Stocco himself would have been like. I wasn’t able to speak to anybody who knew Father Stocco when he was alive. But what I do know from my research is that he was named “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem in 2010. They had ample documentary evidence of the peril he put himself in to save fellow Italians from Nazi persecution.
It was in 1943, with the fall of Mussolini and the arrival in Italy of the Nazi occupying forces, that things really became dire, and that’s the moment I wanted to look at. Nina … is one of the fortunate few who finds refuge in an Italian family. And this really did happen. I mean, the Italian Jews who survived, by and large, was because they managed to find a place to hide outside of the urban centres. It’s not meant to be a portrait of my husband’s family. They just gave me the spark to start looking for answers. I will say that all the details of everyday life came from both sides of my husband’s family, all of the various aunts and uncles who are still alive, and cousins, who were just so helpful. If this book feels authentic to readers, it’s because of all of them.
Did your research actually take you to Venice?
It did. We were very fortunate. I’d been busy with events for my previous book, The Gown, and had not been able to carve out even a week to 10 days until January 2020. I had written most of the book at this point, although it was still in very rough form. What I wanted to do was retrace the steps that my characters took and follow them through the book, specifically, Nina, just to make sure that everything felt right, that if I stood in a place and I looked around through Nina’s eyes, that what I was describing was as close to the truth as I could get at a remove of 75 to 80 years. I should add that the village in the book, which is called Mezzo Ciel, is fictional. I didn’t really want to base it on a specific place because everybody’s going to complain: “oh, so and so wasn’t there. That didn’t happen.” When it’s fictional, I can create, or I can control everything.
If you look at a very detailed maps of the area, there is a place called Mezzo Ciel, but it is really not much more than a crossroads now. I think it might have been a larger farming village at one point. But as soon as I heard that name I thought, how could I not use that name? The idea that one is halfway to heaven, halfway to the sky, it was so resonant with meaning to me. There’s a difference between going somewhere and visiting family or being a tourist and then going somewhere with the view to capture it on the page as part of a story. I needed to get a sense of what the countryside was like that Nina and Nico walk through. What was it like inside the tiny little church in Mezzo Ciel? All of those things I needed to have a sense of what it felt like. If I’m doing my job, I can capture that, and then the readers can feel it as well.
Well, you captured it for me. What challenges did you come across writing English dialogue that would have been spoken in Venetian dialect?
Oh, what an excellent question. That was a concern all along because, you know, Nina herself is Venetian. She speaks a more formal type of Italian because she comes from what we would think of now as an upper middle class background. Then she needs to go to this tiny town where everyone is speaking dialect. In the end I had to kind of choose to gloss over the fact that Nina would have had some difficulty understanding the dialect. Niccolò, for example, there are times when he’s speaking in formal Italian and when he speaks in dialect, and she observes this. But I think to render it would’ve made it unwieldy. It just pulls you out of the story and I thought it was just important to keep the language as clear as possible. Some of the characters are Austrian or German, and they’re speaking Italian. So I hope people will forgive me for it.
I understand that there will be an Italian version out soon.
Yes, very soon. HarperCollins Italia is responsible for that and they did a beautiful version of my previous book, The Gown. So I can’t wait to see what they’ll do. I’m hoping that even though it’s being published in Italy some copies will make their way over here because we have such a huge Italian population in Canada. I feel like my husband’s cousins alone could account for quite a few sales. I’ll have to tell that to my publisher.
When you’re not doing research or writing, what do you like to read for fun?
I love to read historical fiction. I’m fortunate enough that I’ve made a lot of friends who write historical fiction, and quite often I’m called upon to read early copies of their books. So I’ve been working my way through early copies of books that by and large friends have written. But I also love to read nonfiction, just straight history, and I have to say right now, you know, in the midst of this very long pandemic, one thing I find that’s a real comfort to read are cookbooks: well-written cookbooks, Nigella Lawson’s cookbooks, for example. You can read them for just the pleasure of reading them, as much as anything else, and then just fantasize about interesting, fun things to cook. Not that I actually do. I have to say I miss my mother-in-law so much. She died three years ago at Christmastime. Just the things we would make together as a family… I really do miss that.
Do you have a favourite Venetian dish or favourite dish that your mother-in-law used to make?Oh my gosh. So, I’m going to apologize. I’m going to mispronounce some of the things she would make. She was a wonderful cook. She made and she introduced me to things that I never had eaten before. She would braise baby artichokes in this delicious sauce that she would thicken with bread crumbs. She would show me how to make things too; she wasn’t one of these people who wouldn’t share recipes. I learned how to make a proper lasagna: none of this ricotta going into lasagna nonsense for her, no, no. She would make it with cream, not with milk. There was no messing around. The sugo, I don’t know what she did to it to make it so good. She would make the little fritters when it was New Year’s and the lovely little pastry that she would deep fry, and all of our friends whenever we had a party at Christmastime, everybody would wait until Mom arrived with the big platter, you know: just a mound covered with icing sugar. And you know, everybody would die for this platter of pastries and they would be gone in about two minutes. I was like “Mom, make a smaller second so we can hide it.” And my children were very close to her. The highest praise that I can get from my kids if I make something like a bouillon, a sauce or a lasagna is for them to say, you know, mom, this is almost as good as Nonna’s.
It’s nice to hear. You have an academic background in economics and history; you’re a former editor; and now you’re a full time novelist. Many part-time writers or aspiring novelists out there dream of giving up their full-time jobs to just write. I’m sure everybody wants to know how that happened for you. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers, people who have a nine-to-five job but would really like to be writing all the time?
I’m part of an informal group of writers, all women writers, and a number of us started out doing other things we didn’t ever imagine. It wasn’t just that we were unhappy with the jobs we had, there’s something about writing that is deeply satisfying. It has nothing to do with whether your book is published or whether you make any money selling your books. The act of writing itself is just wonderful. I just find it a wonderful kind of completing type of activity. I started when my kids were little. I was home on what felt like this eternal maternity leave. As much as I loved being at home with them, which I really did, there were stretches of time that got a little dull at home with a toddler and a newborn baby. I started writing down this idea I had, and it turned into my first book. It’s just a story of a woman in the First World War, and it took me a long time to get it published.
Initially, that wasn’t my aim. I just wanted to do something with my time. My advice is always start small, because you need to kind of build yourself up to it. It’s almost like a different life that you’re embarking on. Start with a notebook. Don’t go big, don’t go and buy an expensive computer or anything like that. In fact, as I look over my shoulder here, I have a whole string of notebooks that I’ve used over the years for different projects. And then what you need to do is find time every day and try and make it the same time if you can – even better if you can drag yourself out of bed a little bit early every day and find that quiet time before the rest of the house gets up and starts asking questions, you know; “Mom, where’s this? Mom, where’s that?” Find 15 minutes and just start writing your ideas down, because 15 minutes a day over the course of a year adds up to a lot of writing. If you make it a habit, it just will be something you do almost reflexively. After a year you’ll be surprised how far you’ve come. And you may find yourself spending longer and longer each day, which is not a bad thing, but just commit yourself to that small time. The dividends are incredible, even if you never get anything published. That’s not the point. The point is to know that you have done it yourself, and that’s a rare accomplishment in this day. To sit down and focus and write something really just for yourself, I think is an amazing thing to do.
That’s wonderful advice. Last question: is there any discussion about a movie based on Our Darkest Night?
At the moment there are discussions on most of my books. My literary agent is involved and I also have a film agent. I try not to pay attention to any of it because the chances… Lots of people sell what they call the options to have their books made into movies or television series. Very few of those options are then “exercised” or turned into actual filmed projects. And so, I never want to get too excited. I think it’s quite cinematic and I certainly have lots of ideas about who I’d like to see in the various roles. And I mean the countryside itself. Northern Italy is so beautiful and really very few North Americans venture out of Venice into this region. I really wish they would. I remember the first time I saw Asolo I was blown away by how beautiful it is, or Bassano del Grappa. These are incredible cities, and not just beautiful, I mean the food, the hotels, the people there are so warm and friendly and welcoming. It’s a shame that more people don’t visit that part of the world. So maybe one day someone will actually go the distance with this book and it will turn into a movie.
Thank you very much, Jennifer Robson, for speaking to Accenti.
Thanks very much.