In Conversation with Novelist Edoardo Nesi by Licia Canton and Roberto Ciuffini

Edoardo Nesi is the author of Storia della mia gente (The Story of My People), which was awarded Italy’s prestigious Strega Prize for literature in 2011 and the Blue Metropolis Strega Prize for 2012.

Set in the Tuscan town of Prato, the novel tells the story of the closure of the writer’s family textile business and the decline of the entire textile industry in Prato – a decline which began in the late 1990s. Like many industrial regions of Italy, the textile industry in Prato was characterized by scores of nimble and interdependent micro-industries for decades.

Inspired by typical Italian individualism – the basis for craftsmanship since the Renaissance – these companies created new products of superior quality which were the result of original ideas. A long tradition of astuteness, creativity and good aesthetic taste have given Italy a competitive advantage envied by Americans, Brits, Japanese, Germans, and more recently, the Chinese.

But lately, there is a lot of talk of an economic crisis, of bankruptcies and job losses. This talk is based on numbers: economic indicators, statistical data, stock market reports… Numbers, of course, are essential in helping us understand events in a world that is increasingly complicated. However, we cannot diminish the fact that behind these cold, hard numbers are millions of unique individuals enduring genuine hardship.

Peeling back the numbers to see how economic adversity affects individuals is not something that we could expect from politicians, government leaders and economists. Rather, it is up to the intellectuals, the artists, and the writers to guide us in interpreting the less obvious signs of the transformation that is taking place.

In this sense, it is truly a sign of the times that the most prestigious literary prize in Italy was awarded, in 2011, to Storia della mia gente, which focuses on the decline of a manufacturing sector in one of Italy’s most industrious provinces.

The severity of the Italian fiscal crisis is taking on the proportions of a humanitarian catastrophe: consider the fact that since the beginning of 2012, some 70 people – small businessmen, artisans and simple workers – have taken their lives for having lost their businesses or employment.

As Nesi writes in Storia della mia gente, ‘‘When you sell your company, you sell your history.” An entrepreneur forced to liquidate his business also bids farewell to a lifetime of work and the dream of leaving behind a legacy – a part of himself – with honour, dedication and truth. Likewise, an employee who loses his job does not merely lose an income; he loses everything that he was in the past and what he would have been in the future. In other words, he loses his identity.

Nesi’s narrative unfolds like a thread of crisp yet smooth prose, both passionate and melancholic – reminiscent of the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, as Nesi himself admits, one of his major influences and the inspiration for the title of the book. Just as Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby famously recounted the glittering beauty and the hypocrisy in the jazz age and the “Roaring Twenties,” Nesi, by alternating between different forms and registers – biographical narrative and fiction, pamphlet and political invective, nostalgic description and logical analysis – describes the contrasts and tragedy of a “roaring Lost World,” one where “living and working was incomparably easier, more beneficial, more beautiful, and freer than the world we live in today.”

An English translation of Storia della mia gente is due out later this year. Accenti caught up with Edoardo Nesi at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival in Montreal in April.

By Roberto Ciuffini, translated by Licia Canton

What went through your mind when you learned that you had won the Strega Prize? 
Well, the Strega Prize has always been an extraordinary honour and it is by far the most important literary award in Italy. I was happy to win, of course, and knowing that my book is more or less the story of my life – the story of my family – makes it an even bigger honour.

How does it feel to win the Strega-Blue Metropolis Prize? 
This, too, is a very important award because it’s an international award. It is important for me also because it brings my book, and my experience, to Canada. This is a special country for me. Montreal is a special city. There are many Italians living here. And then there is the textile industry, which is important in this city. So, all these things go together.

You began your career as a writer while you were still running a textile manufacturing business. How did you manage both careers simultaneously? 
It was very difficult. But it is also what many writers have to endure [having a paying job] to pursue their writing career. The problem is that when you find a job that allows you to live your life and it gives you time to write, you think that it is the best way to be. But it’s not. Thomas Pynchon said that when you find a way to survive with both a job and a writing career, you realize after many years that you have been living a fractured life, a fragmented life. You end up never having a chance to be good at anything. Which means that you have to try to be successful in what you do best and what you like more, which is not always the same thing. I now understand my life differently than I did before, and I try to give my best energy to one thing instead of two.

Because your book is about the lost art, the lost tradition, of textile manufacturing, do you feel that the choice of going into writing was made for you? 
Well, I probably would have ignored the advice of Thomas Pynchon because even if I hoped to be a writer, I loved being a textile entrepreneur – especially in the way we made textiles. We were making and selling fabrics to the best fashion designers in the world. And so you meet a lot of creative people and you realize how beautiful it can be when you sell a very good product to someone. That was very important. It is true that the choice was not totally mine. I had to sell my company, and then I became just a writer. But I have always felt that there is no big difference between the two jobs.

When do you write and where do you write? Do you have a specific routine? 
When I was younger, I used to write at night, mostly at night. I cannot anymore. Now, I usually write as soon as I wake up, with a good strong Italian coffee – not Canadian (laughter). That’s the best time for me. As much as possible, there must be no interruptions. There could be music but it must be instrumental music, and it has to be unobtrusive. The place is always the same; it is very difficult for me to move. And the computer, as well, is always the same one. The funny thing is that I can only type with one finger, but I’m very fast.

There’s a new technology on the horizon, the eBook. What are your thoughts on the proliferation of eBooks? 
Well, I’m not against eBooks, but I have to say that I’ve never been able to finish a book in eBook form. Maybe I’m too old to properly appreciate this new format. I need the book in my hands. I need to touch the paper.

What is your favourite book? 
It has changed over time. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry is one. My list also includes Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler. Anna Karenina is one of my all-time favourites as well. Until I was 20, I only read American science fiction. Then there was the Gabriel García Márquez period followed by the David Foster Wallace period. Infinite Jest is my favourite book now; it has been my favourite book for the last ten years.

If you could have dinner with an English-speaking author, who would that be and what would you talk about? 
I remember, once I had breakfast with Richard Ford, which was a wonderful experience, I must say. Which is uncommon, because in Italy breakfast is usually very quick. But we had a long American breakfast in Rome – with bacon and eggs, and one coffee after another, and croissants. But if I had a choice now, it would be Martin Amis. I would try to learn as much as I can, just by listening to him.

You’ve also directed a film. How do you compare writing and directing? I had just published my first book and I was asked to direct the film version. I had a great deal of faith in the way you can express ideas through movies, so I accepted. But then I realized that there was a problem of method. All my books are continually rewritten and corrected, and you cannot do this while shooting a movie. When you shoot a movie, you make a storyboard. And so, you have an idea of how you want the movie to be. But when I went home at night, I thought of a better way to shoot the movie. So there was a problem…

Do you plan to dedicate more time to the art of moviemaking? In the interest of Italian cinema, no! (laughter)

What are you working on next? 
A sequel to Storia della mia gente came out in the spring. The book looks at the topic of the first book in a positive light, that things are not that terrible – and that there is hope for Italy and for the Italian economy – if we give young people, people in their 20s, a chance. I think things won’t improve much for people in their 40s, even those in their 30s. The reason is the speed at which things change. That generation may not be equipped to deal with change. To get back to your question, my next project is to find time to do nothing, to simply think about my next novel, a great long novel, with lots of characters and twists and turns – maybe a love story. My wife keeps asking me.

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