Posted on 07/05/2014 at 12:00 AM by Jeffrey Bruner
Writing a good novel is tough. Writing a good novel in a second language is even harder. But that’s Murder Italian Style for Maria Grazia Swan (website). We chat about the challenges of writing in a new language, the “American novel vs. the “European novel” and how she transplanted her immigration experience into her novel’s characters.
JEFFREY: You were born in Italy and later lived in Belgium, France and Germany. With all that access to great food and hundreds of years of culture, what made you decide to move to America?
MARIA: You had to ask! Did you notice that all the other countries are accessible by train, bus, cars, bicycle and if all fails, by foot? Not so America, it’s plane or ship because of the water. So much water. The only kind of water I truly like is the warm, bubbly kind in my bathtub. One of the reasons America was never on any of my “to go to” lists. Until ... I met and fell in love with an American boy. Love changes everything, and even if it isn’t going to last, there is always something to be thankful for. In my case I’m thankful for coming to America.
JEFFREY: How would you describe your English proficiency at that time?
MARIA: Zero. For a long time we (husband and I) traveled with pocket size dictionaries Italian-English and vice versa ... just in case.
I credit television and newspapers for learning quickly. Back then in Europe we didn’t have sitcoms on television. Here I discovered “Gilligan’s Island.” I was so naive, I would rush home from work every day hoping those poor people would finally be rescued ... it was years before I realized I was watching reruns of a show. I may add, my accent still gets in the way at times, even after all these years.
JEFFREY: How long did it take to realize that California, especially Orange County, is, um, not like the rest of America?
MARIA: It isn’t? Orange County is a fun place to live. I found a great difference between South Orange County and the rest of the county. Perhaps because at the time I lived there the beach towns felt very homey and safe. When I go back to visit, and I do that at least once a year if not more often, everything seems more crowded, more hurried. I get the feeling only the wealthy inherited Orange County. It never felt that way before.
JEFFREY: How long had you been living here before you got the courage to write in English? That’s incredibly brave, by the way. I can’t fathom trying to write in a foreign language.
MARIA: I’m not sure, I’m always better at writing than speaking (in English). Of course when I say that to my editors they laugh and laugh and laugh.
I believe that my written English is better because I’m a slow typist and so my brain has more time to process my thoughts while when I talk, well, I talk.
I won my first literary award in 1990, it was a national award for an essay about breasts implants. I had considered doing that while going through my divorce, Jane Fonda got hers about the same time, so I did a lot of soul searching and interviewed people and I ended up not doing. I’m as flat-chested today as I was then. I signed up for creative writing at Saddleback College (Orange County) around 1986. And that’s when I really got into it. Never looked back.
JEFFREY: Did you discover that you had the writer’s “voice” in English from the outset or did it take a while to develop that?
MARIA: I know I have a “voice” and since I never wrote a full-length novel in any other language I have to assume it is my English voice. According to the members of my critique group, I have what they call “marianisms” and they are probably correct because at times I find myself translating “feelings” from Italian to English. Nothing wrong with that, except that Italians tend to express their feelings in a super-sized show of emotions. Getting all chocked up here.
JEFFREY: Do you think there’s such a thing as a “European novel” and “American novel”? And has that changed in the last 20 years as the Internet made it easy for Americans to read European writers and vice versa?
MARIA: In my opinion there are more Europeans reading American authors, translated or otherwise than the other way around. A lot has to do with exposure and marketing. European spend millions on movie tickets to American movies and last time I was back home the only evening shows on TV were reruns of popular American shows. Having seen the originals I found the dubbed voices very annoying.
JEFFREY: Three of your novels — “Love Thy Sister,” “Bosom Bodies” and “Italian Summer” — feature Italian immigrant Mina Calvi, who always seems to find danger just around the corner. I’m going to guess that while you don’t find a lot (or any!) dead bodies, that there’s a fair amount of you in Mina’s character, right?
MARIA: You are correct. I don’t find dead bodies (yet) but I tend to find myself in plenty of trouble, probably because I feel sorry for everyone and I have the pay it forward mentality.
At this rate, any day now it will all catch up with me and I’ll be set for life, but then I’ll die of boredom. Yes, Mina’s feelings and reactions are pretty much the way I was in my youth and, like Mina, I was a late bloomer and, like Mina, I was raised by my grandparents.
Honestly, most of my characters are based on real people, the locations, are places I used to live, even the cars, when I first arrived to the states I had a 1968 Volkswagen Beatle. And for “Italian Summer,” I wrote that last year, in Italy. The three-story house I describe is the house I was born in.
JEFFREY: Is there more ahead for Mina?
MARIA: “Ashes of Autumn” is book four of the series and I hope to have a fall release because I get daily emails from fans asking about. By the way, I don’t dare say, my fans, because 90 percent are females asking about ... Diego (from “Bosom Bodies.”) I won’t say more because this book will change everything.
Categories: Author Interview