‘Writing Has Always Been a Great Struggle for Me’
Elena Ferrante, Author of Naples Novels, Stays Mysterious
Q. and A.: Elena Ferrante
The author who writes under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante responded to written questions via email through her longtime Italian publisher, Sandra Ozzola Ferri. The following is a translated transcript of that interview.
Q. You insist on anonymity and yet are developing a cult following, especially among women, first in Italy and now in the United States and beyond. How do you feel about the reception of your books in the United States in recent years, and your growing readership, especially after James Wood’s review in The New Yorker in January 2013?
A. I appreciated James Wood’s review very much. The critical attention that he dedicated to my books not only helped them find readers but in a way it also helped me to read them. Writers, because they write, are condemned never to be readers of their own stories. What happens to the reader when he reads a story for the first time is effectively what the narrator experiences while he writes. The memory of first putting a story into words will always prevent writers from reading their work as an ordinary reader would. Critics like Wood not only help readers to read but especially, perhaps, help the author as well. Their function also becomes fundamental in helping faraway literary worlds to migrate. I never asked myself how the women in my stories would be received outside Italy. I wrote first and foremost for myself, and if I published I did so leaving the task of finding readers to the book itself. Now I know that thanks to Europa Editions [Ferrante’s English-language publisher], to Ann Goldstein [her English-language translator] and to Wood and so many other reviewers and writers and readers, the heart of these stories has burst forth, and it is not only Italian. I’m both surprised and happy.
Q. Do you feel your books have found the following they deserve in Italy?
A. I don’t do promotional tours in my own country or anywhere. In Italy my first book, “Troubling Love,” sold immediately, thanks to the word of mouth of readers who discovered it and appreciated the writing, and to reviewers who wrote about it positively. Then the director Mario Martone read it and turned it into a memorable film. This helped the book, but it also shifted the media attention onto me personally. Partly for that reason, I didn’t publish anything else for 10 years, at which point, with tremendous anxiety, I decided to publish “The Days of Abandonment.” The book was a success and had a wide readership, even if there was also a lot of resistance to [the protagonist] Olga’s reaction to being abandoned, — the same kind of resistance faced by Delia [the protagonist] in “Troubling Love.” The success of the book and of the film that was made from it focused even more attention onto the absence of the author. It was then that I decided, definitively, to separate my private life from the public life of my books, which overcame countless difficulties and have endured. I can say with a certain pride that in my country, the titles of my novels are better known than my name. I think this is a good outcome.
Q. Where do you see yourself in the Italian literary tradition?
A. I’m a storyteller. I’ve always been more interested in storytelling than in writing. Even today, Italy has a weak narrative tradition. Beautiful, magnificent, very carefully crafted pages abound, but not the flow of storytelling that despite its density manages to sweep you away. A bewitching example is Elsa Morante. I try to learn from her books, but I find them unsurpassable.
Q. The opening scene of the fourth and final novel in your Naples series, “Storia Della Bambina Perduta” (released in Italian this November and to be released in English next November), echoes some scenes in “The Lost Daughter,” a book in which the protagonist, Leda, also writes that she likes the echoes of names: Nani, Nina, Nennella, Elena, Lenù, etc. Why these echoes? Do you see your protagonists as some variation on the same woman or women?
A. The women in my stories are all echoes of real women who, because of their suffering or their combativeness, have very much influenced my imagination: my mother, a childhood girlfriend, acquaintances whose stories I know. In general I combine their experiences with my own and Delia, Amalia, Olga, Leda, Nina, Elena, Lenù are born out of that mix. But the echo that you noticed maybe derives from an oscillation inside the characters that I’ve always worked on. My women are strong, educated, self-aware and aware of their rights, just, but at the same time subject to unexpected breakdowns, to subservience of every kind, to mean feelings. I’ve also experienced this oscillation. I know it well, and that also affects the way I write.
Q. It seems fair to surmise from your books that you are a mother. Even if that’s not the case, how has the experience of motherhood — lived or observed — affected your writing?
A. The roles of daughters and mothers are central to my books; sometimes I think I haven’t written about anything else. Every single one of my anxieties has ended up there. To conceive, to change shape, to feel inhabited by something increasingly alive that makes you feel ill and gives you a sense of well-being is both thrilling and threatening. It’s an experience akin to awe, that ancient feeling that mortals had when they found themselves facing a god, the same feeling that Mary must have felt, immersed in her reading, when the angel appeared. As for my writing, it began before the children came along, it was already a very strong passion, and it often came into conflict with my love for them, especially with the obligations and pleasures of taking care of them. Writing is also a kind of reproduction of life, one marked by contradictory and overwhelming emotions. But the continuum of writing — even with the anguish that you might not always know how to revive it and that no life might ever pass through it again — can be severed, if you need to, out of necessity or other pressing needs. In the end, you have to separate yourself from your books. But you never really cut the umbilical cord. Children always remain an inescapable knot of love, of terrors, of satisfactions and anxieties.
Q. There are many, many classical references in your work, not least the names Elena, or Helen, and Leda. Why the interest in the classical world? What about it speaks to you?
A. I studied classics. You’ve recognized the traces of it in my works and I’m pleased by that, but I hardly notice it myself. I recognize my education more in stories that I wrote as exercises and that fortunately have never seen the light of day. I have to say that I’ve never seen the classical world as an ancient world. Instead I feel its closeness, and I think I’ve learned many things from the Greek and Latin classics about how to put words together. As a girl I wanted to make that world my own, and I practiced with translations that tried to remove the lofty tones that I had been taught to use in school. But at the same time I imagined the Bay of Naples filled with sirens who spoke in Greek as in a lovely story by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Naples is a city in which many worlds coexist. The Greek, Latin and Eastern worlds; medieval, modern and contemporary Europe; even the United States, are all side by side, neighbors, especially in the dialect and also in the historical stratification of the city.
Q. How did the Naples novels come into being? Did you envision them as four distinct novels from the start or did you start writing “My Brilliant Friend” without knowing where the story would end?
A. Almost six years ago I started writing a story of a difficult female friendship that came directly from inside a book that I’m very attached to, “The Lost Daughter.” I thought I could manage it in 100, 150 pages. Instead, the writing, I would say extremely naturally, unearthed memories of people and places from my childhood — stories, experiences, fantasies — so much so that the story went on for many years. The story was conceived and written as a single narrative. Its division into four hefty volumes was decided when I realized that the story of Lila and Len? couldn’t easily be contained in one book. I always knew the end of the story, and I knew some central episodes very well — Lila’s wedding, the adultery on Ischia, the work in the factory, the lost daughter — but the rest was a surprising and demanding gift that came from the pure storytelling pleasure.
Q. The third novel in the Naples books is more cinematic. Have you also worked in cinema?
A. Absolutely not. But I adore the cinema and have since I was a child.
Q. How did you start writing novels? What book of yours do you consider a breakthrough in your own writing and why?
A. I discovered as a girl that I liked telling stories. I did it orally and with some success. Around age 13 I started to write stories, but writing didn’t become a permanent habit until I was in my 20s. “Troubling Love” was important. I felt that I’d found the right tone. “The Days of Abandonment” confirmed that for me, after much struggle, and gave me confidence. Today I think “My Brilliant Friend” was my most arduous yet most successful book. Writing it was like having the chance to live my life over again. But I still think that the most daring, the most risk-taking book is “The Lost Daughter.” If I hadn’t gone through that, with great anxiety, I wouldn’t have written “My Brilliant Friend.”
Q. In which order did you write your seven novels compared with their publication dates?
A. As I said, I consider “My Brilliant Friend” a single story, so I’ve published four novels, the last one in four volumes, and all of them written in the order in which they were published. But they ripened during the years when I wrote privately. It’s as if I found them by painstakingly organizing countless narrative fragments. [“Days of Abandonment” (2002) was published in English in 2005 and “Troubling Love” (1991) in English in 2006.]
Q. Can you describe your writing process? You told The Financial Times that you made a living doing what you’ve always done, “which is not writing.” How much of your time are you able to devote to your writing compared with your other job? Can you tell us what that other job is?
A. I don’t consider writing a job. A job has fixed hours — you start, you finish. I write continuously and everywhere and at every hour of the day and night. What I call my job is orderly and quiet, and when necessary it retreats and leaves me time. Writing has always been a great struggle for me. I would polish it line by line and I wouldn’t move forward if I didn’t think that what I had already written was perfect, and since the work never seemed perfect I didn’t even try to find a publisher. The books that I ultimately published all came with surprising ease, even “My Brilliant Friend,” although it took me years.
Q. What about the editing process? You send your work to Edizione E/O and do they do much editing?
A. The editing is extremely attentive, but delicate and done with great courtesy. I’m the one who welcomes doubts. I add them to my own questions and write, rewrite, erase, add until the day before the book goes to press.
Q. I fully respect your choice, and I’m sure you are tired of this question, but I have to ask it: At what stage in your writing life, and in what spirit, did you choose anonymity? Was it meant, as in the ancient epics, to give the story precedence over the storyteller? To protect your family and loved ones? Or simply to avoid the media, as you’ve said in the past?
A. If I may, I didn’t choose anonymity; the books are signed. Instead, I chose absence. More than 20 years ago I felt the burden of exposing myself in public. I wanted to detach myself from the finished story. I wanted the books to assert themselves without my patronage. This choice created a small polemic in the media, whose logic is aimed at inventing protagonists while ignoring the quality of the work, so that it seems natural that bad or mediocre books by someone who has a reputation in the media deserve more attention than books that might be of higher quality but were written by someone who is no one. But today, what counts most for me is to preserve a creative space that seems full of possibilities, including technical ones. The structural absence of the author affects the writing in a way that I’d like to continue to explore.
Q. At this point, now that you’ve had a certain success, would you ever reconsider the anonymity and reveal who you are? For Hollywood stars, they say that fame can be lonely. But anonymous literary success must also be a bit lonely, no?
A. I don’t feel at all lonely. I’m happy that my stories have migrated and found readers in Italy and in other parts of the world. I follow their journeys with affection, but from afar. They are books that I have written to put my writing on display, not me. I have my life, which for now is quite full.
Q. In Italy in particular, people often say that your anonymity must mean that you’re a man. What do you make of that assumption? The Neapolitan novelist Domenico Starnone has given interviews saying that he is very tired of everyone asking if he’s you. What would you say to him?
A. That he’s right and I feel guilty. But I hold him in great esteem and I’m certain that he understands my motivations. My identity, my sex can be found in my writing. Everything that has sprouted up around that is yet more evidence of the character of Italians in the first years of the 21st century.
Q. Any comments you’d like to make about the current state of Italy?
A. Italy is an extraordinary country but it has been made completely ordinary by the permanent confusion between legality and illegality, between the common good and private interest. This confusion, concealed behind verbose self-promotion of all kinds, runs through criminal organizations as well as political parties, government bureaucracies and all social classes. That makes it very difficult to be a truly good Italian, different from the models constructed by newspapers and television. And yet good, excellent Italians exist in every corner of civic life, even if you don’t see them on television. They are evidence of the fact that Italy, if it still manages, in spite of everything, to have excellent citizens, is truly an extraordinary country.
Q. Besides wonderful material, what else has Naples given you? What for you sets that city apart?
A. Naples is my city, the city where I learned quickly, before I was 20, the best and worst of Italy and the world. I advise everyone to come and live here even just for a few weeks. It’s an apprenticeship, in all the most stupefying ways.
Q. Flaubert famously said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” Which of your books — and which of your protagonists — would you say is closest to your own experience or your own heart, and why?
A. All my books derive their truth from my own experience. But together Len? and Lila are the ones that best capture me. Not in the specific events of their lives, nor in their concreteness as people with a destiny, but in the movement that characterizes their relationship, in the self-discipline of the one that continuously and brusquely shatters when it runs up against the unruly imagination of the other.
Q. What is the best thing that you hope readers could take away from your work?
A. That even if we’re constantly tempted to lower our guard — out of love, or weariness, or sympathy or kindness — we women shouldn’t do it. We can lose from one moment to the next everything that we have achieved.
Q. Is there anything else you’d like to add?