A challenge in writing about the mysterious author Elena Ferrante, as I did recently for the Daily News, is how to deal with her anonymity.
Her anonymity is beside the point, but it is also unique. She would be newsworthy for her talent, but her reclusiveness is also entangled with her art. When I asked Jonathan Franzen if he envied Elena Ferrante her anonymity, he answered: “I respect her anonymity as a personal artistic choice. But anonymity can be almost as distracting as publicity. You don’t have to put up with people misquoting and misconstruing you, but you do have to put up with people constantly talking about your anonymity. Both situations are a distraction from the work, which is the only thing that matters.”
He’s right. There is essentially no ideal solution for an acclaimed writer to keeps readers focused only on the work.
Maybe Ferrante’s anonymity would be less discussed if her epic’s subject matter didn’t so closely collide with the subject of anonymity. In my article, I wrote about how Ferrante well knows that the disappearance of a person compels curiosity — she chose it as the frame story for the Neapolitan series. In addition, her narrative describes in great detail what it is like to be a writer, and to have fame or want fame, and to have feelings hurt — both the writer’s and subjects’ — within that public sphere.
This resonance forces the reader into strange mental gymnastics: The writer authoring the book seems to know a great deal about book promotion, and yet this writer at some point— pre-fame? post-fame? — took a vow to never promote. Is this the writer equivalent of rehab? Or is the writer the daughter of a famous writer — a child left behind as much as the daughters of the narrator — thus out to prove promotion unnecessary?
Book promotion can be painful. For the un-famous, there are the readings where the only attendee is the stockboy who someone forced to sit in one of the rows of chairs; interviews where it is clear the person never even read the flap copy. For the famous, there is the lack of privacy, the infringement on work time, the pain inflicted on loved ones exposed by the work (see Karl Ove Knausgaard), the moments of disorientation surrounded by the makeup-caked TV interviewers while trying to say something as lucid as the book.
But for a writer, getting out there in front of readers also leads to unexpected beauty, interacting directly with readers who for however many hours shared the same thought paths as the writer. When writing works, it’s just as much of a surprise to the writer as it is to the reader; both of you can enjoy this mind meteorite together.
So the one thing that does not ring entirely true in Ferrante’s depiction of the life of the writer is that no strangers respond to the narrator’s work. Ferrante has a great command of the mechanics of book promotion and the feelings of the writer, but never lets slip the surprises that happen directly reader to writer. Given that Ferrante excels at including the splinters of events in her narration, this aspect seems not just left out but absent.
I thought of that absence, and the absence of the general public in getting to pose questions to the author directly as I was doing my interviews. It seemed unfortunate that the only people raising ideas to her would be the select group of one journalist interview per country per book. So to harvest more intelligence, I asked interviewees: What question would you ask Elena Ferrante if you could?
Jonathan Franzen responded: “I might ask her what she imagines happened to the eponymous lost child of the fourth Neapolitan novel.”
Ferrante’s translator, Ann Goldstein, smiled and said: “I’m way too timid to even have those thoughts.”
Sara Nelson, the editorial director at Amazon, would ask: “Is there such a thing as an unambiguous feeling?”
Yooyeon Noh, who acquired the books for publication in Korea, offered: “I would like to ask about her life and how it has influenced her work.”
A friend who had read the series would ask her, “What is the source of your confidence?”
My question for Ferrante would be essentially what inspired me to write this blog post in the first place: thinking about how much contact with readers can overwhelm you…in a good way.
After I wrote my second book, I received a small envelope forwarded from my publisher. The return address had the name of a woman, scratched in the shaky handwriting of an older person. Inside, the card read: “Your book made me less lonely.”
Given that, my question to Ferrante would be: “What reader response meant the most to you and why?”
And to you readers, I would like to know: What would you ask Elena Ferrante if you could? Let us know on Twitter or send us an email. Responses will be shared in a future Page Views post.