The Booktopia Book Guru asks
author of The Italians at Cleat’s Corner Store
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born and raised in Northamptonshire – don’t worry, most of England doesn’t know where it is either (somewhere on the M1, north of Watford?). My Italian grandfather was a POW on a farm there during the War and my family started out working in shoe factories. I went to a local comprehensive school and cultivated a substantial working class chip on my shoulder, which was fairly ridiculous given my dad had made good by then and we’d moved to a suburb that was about as middle class as could be.
But every Sunday we’d go to Nonna and Nonno’s house and my sisters and I would get the full Italian immersion. We couldn’t sit on the sofa as there was always pasta drying over it and we couldn’t play outside because the lawn and driveway had been turned into an allotment. We’d be stuffed so full of gnocchi we could hardly ride our bikes home. Later, when my grandparents retired back to their village in the mountains of Lazio, we spent every summer there. It sounds idyllic, and in some ways it was. But it was also a backward, insular place and we were always considered foreigners – the subject of ridiculous gossip and speculation. I guess at some point, I must have thought ‘this is what my grandparents must have felt in our village in England in the 40s’.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
The first thing I ever wanted to be was a trapeze artist, probably because my mum loved ’50’s movies and I was enamoured with Gina Lollobrigida and Tony Curtis in those sequinned leotards under the big top. But at 12 I’d discovered novels and all I wanted to do was read. At 18, I studied English at Leeds University and when I graduated I still wanted an excuse to read books all day, so I did a Masters in Medieval Literature. I was planning a PhD on something utterly compelling, like “Margery Kempe: Medieval Feminist?” when I started to realise I should probably get out a bit more.
I became an English teacher and went to Asia. At 30 I’d sold out to the corporate world. I like to blame being royally dumped by my boyfriend back in my twenties and not being able to pay the rent, but looking back I think I just wanted to wear shoulder pads and feel powerful. It was never really me, but I did get to travel and see a lot of countries.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I feel a bit of a fraud as a writer to admit that I was never scribbling endlessly in diaries or penning my own adventure novels as a child. At 18, I was too much in awe of books to think about writing them. Some novels were like sacred text to me, written either by demi-gods of intelligence or souls so sensitive there was no way they could have gone to a comprehensive school in the East Midlands, or studied Shakespeare at the kitchen table with Coronation Street playing in the background.
Now I understand there’s no romantic mysticism to novel writing. Writers can be all sorts of people. And, yes, novels can even be written by sleep-deprived mothers, still reeking of the change-table, who would sell their soul for a bit of polysyllabic dialogue.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
1. Michelangelo’s La Pieta in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome. I saw this many times as a child and my Nonna also kept a criminal plastic replica of it in her bedroom. It sent shivers down my spine because it was so eerily human (and, let’s face it, the crucifixion story itself is frankly terrifying for small children). I never ended up religious, but I did become obsessed with those everyday moments of tenderness and humanity in epic stories.
2. Philip Larkin’s A Study of Reading Habits. It was one of the first poems I studied at school and I still love how it’s funny and sad and ironic all at the same time. It made me understand writing is as much about what you aren’t saying as what you are.
3. Amelie’s Waltz by Yann Tiersen. Whenever I got the shits with the draft of my book I’d go to the piano and try and make a bit more headway with this piece. Then I’d go back to my desk incredibly thankful I was writing a novel and not tying to be a pianist.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
It was one of two secret ambitions – and I’m never going to be playing Amelie’s Waltz in public, that’s for sure.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
The Italians at Cleat’s Corner Store is a cross-cultural coming of age story. It’s set in two villages and two time frames: Leyton in East Anglia in 1949 and Montelupini in the mountains of Lazio during the Second World War. Connie Farrington, the 17-year old shop assistant at Mrs Cleat’s shop, has had her dreams of university thwarted by her aunt who took her in after her mother bolted. When a family of Italian immigrants comes to work the farm where the father was once a prisoner of war, Connie is drawn into the world of the Onorati brothers, a world much more exotic and colourful than anything the parochial Leyton has to offer.
But Connie begins to see the two brothers are very different. Vittorio wants to cast off his immigrant roots and forge a new and better life for himself using his charm and his head for opportunity, while the introverted Lucio is an enigma, a gifted artist who sells himself short, refusing to capitalise on his talent. As the three characters’ lives entwine in England, Lucio’s back-story begins to unfold in war-torn Italy, slowly revealing the secrets he carries with him. The two villages shine a light on each other in many ways and both are populated with characters who hopefully show that beyond cultural diversity, there is a good deal in human nature that unifies us.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope that English readers might be a little bit more enlightened about some of the things that happened in Italy during the War; I hope they can see the beauty in small, ordinary lives – that such stories are as much history as sweeping world events; but mostly I hope they can feel for my characters and get a satisfying read.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
Oooh, my favourite type of question! But I refuse to pick just one, so please indulge me: Hilary Mantel (for her vast but transparent research, the enormous depth of her characters and fabulous dialogue), ditto Ian McKewan; EM Forster, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot and Anthony Trollope (my British Favourites); Lorrie Moore (so funny, so observant, so quirky); Jane Austen (for her re-re-re-readability); Helen Garner (for making the ordinary dazzlingly new); Andrea Levy and Geraldine Brooks (for their story-telling); Louis De Bernieres (for writing about so many cultures so expertly, his compassion and wit); Annie Proulx, Tim Winton and Charles Frazier (for sense of place), Henry James and MJ Hyland (for atmosphere), Harper Lee and Junot Diaz (for voice), Chaucer (for characters and irony). I can’t even start on writers of short stories and science fiction fantasy because I think that was the gong …
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
Do they? That sounds seriously “Corporate”. Will my publisher make me do a Performance Evaluation at the end of this as well?
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Listen to all the advice you can and diligently take note of it in little Moleskins. Then write your book anyway.
Jo, thank you for playing.