Mark Frutkin has published 16 books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. Five of his books are set in Italy, including Fabrizio’s Return, which won both the Trillium Award and the Sunburst Award. He worked as a consultant on a public art project titled “Postcards from the Piazzas” in Ottawa’s Little Italy and has collaborated on a book of photos and text on Italian piazzas with Italian-Canadian photographer Vincenzo Pietropaolo. Mark Frutkin’s most recent novel, The Rising Tide (Porcupine’s Quill, 2018), is set in Venice in 1769.
Having read quite a few of your wonderful novels, I am struck by the recurrence of historic Italy as a setting for four of them, including your latest, The Rising Tide. Why the fascination?
The Rising Tide, set in Venice in 1769, deals with the struggle for power between the Venetian doge and the Vatican, represented by an inquisitor sent by Rome. I’ve been to Venice at least four times over the years, to visit and to do research for several books. I’ve always had a fascination with Italy. In fact, a good Italian friend insists I must have Italian blood back there somewhere. This interest was awoken when I attended my third year of university in Rome. Loyola University Chicago had a campus there and the school allowed the students plenty of time for travel, so I visited numerous regions and cities of Italy at that time. I’ve kept going back since then, especially to do research on my various books set there. There’s something about Italian culture, Italian history, art, architecture, writing, Italian people, and, of course, Italian food and wine that fills a need for many people, including me. Perhaps it’s because the Renaissance was born in Italy and it’s still having an effect on the modern world – a moderating effect that states that aesthetics and art and simply living well are important, are a crucial part of being human and humane. I think that’s a message – the Italian worldview – that our present-day society badly needs.
Three of your earlier novels are also set in Italy. Can you tell us about them?
My first novel, The Growing Dawn, was based on the life and work of Marconi, who, of course, had a strong connection to Canada, having received the first transatlantic wireless signal in Newfoundland in 1901. That book took me to Bologna to research Marconi’s early life. Then, my novel about the travels of Marco Polo and his imprisonment in Genoa, The Lion of Venice, took me back to Venice for more research. And finally, Fabrizio’s Return, which won the Trillium Award for best book in Ontario, is set in a beautiful little city in Lombardy. Cremona is the place where Antonio Stradivari made his famous violins, and the book is all about music and magic and commedia dell’arte theatre, and so on. I’ve been to Cremona a number of times to visit friends there and do research. I have also published a travel book, Walking Backwards, in which I write about my visits to many cities around the world, including a number in Italy: Rome, Cremona, Alba, Mantua, and Venice.
You provided the text for Where Angels Come to Earth, a book with photos of Italian piazzas by well-known Toronto photographer, Vincenzo Pietropaolo. How did you make that connection?
I was introduced to Vincenzo by a mutual friend and we immediately hit it off. When he heard that I was interested in writing a book about Italian piazzas, he was quite interested. We ended up making three trips to Italy together, to take photos and to write about the great gift of the piazza that Italy has given to the world (including Canada). We didn’t want to focus on the most famous piazzas, but the ones that local Italians still use as gathering places to meet friends, have a glass of wine or espresso, and so on. So we visited piazzas in Rome, in Cremona Siena, Ragusa in Sicily, Ascoli Piceno in the Marche, and Alba in Piemonte, where we took in the famous annual donkey race. It was an amazing experience and brought me to a much deeper understanding of the Italian world view and how that humane attitude can manifest itself in a city’s architecture and planning. And the photos are fabulous. We hoped that readers would make a connection to fostering the same type of human spaces in cities in Canada, despite the frigid winters!
You brought your love of Italy home to Ottawa, where you live, when you acted as a special consultant to local artist c.j. fleury, who installed 15 Italian-themed columns on Preston Street in Little Italy. What was that experience like?
Someone had told the artist that I had a long-time connection with Italy, so she asked me to consult on her public art project, “Postcards from the Piazzas.” The fifteen columns are a celebration of all things Italian with each column holding one iconic bronze, such as a bicycle wheel, a commedia dell’arte mask, a bishop’s hat and so on. She also placed a bronze violin scroll on a column that included a quote on violins from my novel, Fabrizio’s Return, comparing the passing of a violin to the passing of a sleeping infant. The quote appears in Italian, English and French, and the column stands in front of Ciccio’s Café, one of my favourite Italian restaurants.
As a novelist and poet, has your work been influenced by any Italian writers?
Absolutely. Stylistically, my novels have been very much influenced by the work of Italo Calvino, his playfulness and his willingness to write stories that are like fables. In the realm of storytelling, I count Boccaccio and his signature work, The Decameron, as a powerful influence. Of course, Dante’s Divina Commedia is extremely important, not so much for its religious trappings as for its structure, and its historical references and tales. Also, I’ve always loved the modern poetry of Eugenio Montale, and the films of Federico Fellini. And if I’m up for reading some light detective fiction, I go for Donna Leon’s stories set in Venice, or the lesser-known but just as enjoyable stories of Magdalen Nabb set in Florence.
Will there be more works set in Italy? I hope so!
Definitely. I’m working on a novel based on the life and death of the great Italian painter, Caravaggio; the working title is The Artist and the Assassin. Caravaggio was the greatest painter of the early baroque and his work had an enormous influence on modern art. He also loved swordplay and was constantly scrapping in the streets of early 17th century Rome. A great deal of mystery surrounds the circumstances of his death, which, for a fiction writer, is simply an invitation to the imagination.
Are there any events that you’ve experienced that you think might encapsulate the Italian mentality?
There are numerous anecdotes that I could mention, but two come to mind – one in Italy, one in Canada. When I was a student in Rome, I took a trip alone to Perugia and Assisi. I spent a night at a pensione in Perugia that revealed much to me about the Italian heart. When I had arrived by train, I ate at the train station – a plate of dog-fish, which seemed a bit off. As I checked into my room, I realized I had stupidly forgotten my passport in Rome. The matron who ran the pensione said, “No problema,” and waved at the air. I went to my room and soon had horrible stomach pains from the fish. I went to her again and asked if she could help me. Without any hesitation, she gave me some medicine to drink and it worked almost instantly. To this day, I consider her the embodiment of a profound compassion and empathy that I find thoroughly Italian. The other event happened one day when I had bought all the fixings for a big spaghetti dinner at an Italian grocery store in Ottawa. Another customer, an elderly Italian lady, dressed all in black, saw me making my purchase and discreetly called me aside. She glanced about to ensure no one else could hear us. “You want to know the secret of a good tomato sauce?” she asked. “Yes, yes,” I answered eagerly. She whispered, “A little bit of clove spice.” That was it. My very own secret for pasta sauce from a genuine Italian momma. It works! Why she chose to divulge her secret to me, I don’t know. Perhaps she sensed some of that Italian blood hidden way back in there.
Veena Gokhale started her career as a journalist in Bombay. This “tough, tantalizing” city inspired Bombay Wali and Other Stories, published by Guernica Editions in 2013. Guernica published her novel, Land for Fatimah, in 2018. Veena lives in Montreal. http://www.veenago.com/writing/index.html