Welcome to the three hundred and seventeenth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with novelist and autobiographer Leila Tavi. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello Leila. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Leila: Ciao Morgen. I’m based in Rome, where I work for the University Roma Tre and as a freelance journalist. From 1991 to 2000 I lived and studied in Vienna, commuting between Austria and Slovakia. At the moment I’m finishing my Ph.D. in Pre-Revolutionary Russian history, therefore I often travel to Russia, especially Sankt Petersburg and Chelyabinsk (Urals Region), where I’m visiting professor at the University. In my opinion writing is an attitude, something in our DNA, but the assumption of being a good writer is being a “bookworm”; I could read a book a day when I was a child. My motto was: “A book a day keeps the doctor away”. It has worked indeed… now that I have less time to read, I get the flu more easily than before.
Morgen: <laughs> Oh dear. I’m fairly flu-free but then I read a lot of blog content, if that counts. 🙂 What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Leila: My first novel Forbidden to think in colours (Vietato pensare a colori) is a sort of sophisticated comedy transposed into words, but I have also written an autobiographical book, East of the Danube (A est del Danubio), which has been published in monthly instalments by the Italian magazine “InStoria” (www.instoria.it). It is about my life experience in the Eastern European countries just after the collapse of communism. Science fiction stories with an international political background fascinate me, I’m also fond of historical novels like War and Peace or The Captain’s Daughter… I would like to set a story in the multiethnic Russian Empire under Catherine the Great with all the intrigues, the precious ancient stones she avidly collected, her lovers, her enemies, her conspirators.
Morgen: Wow, a real mixture. What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Leila: The last published novel is Forbidden to think in colours, but I’m already working on a new story. I won’t write under a pseudonym, because my name sounds already exotic to Italians: my first name has an Arabic / Jewish origin and my family name is unusual, too; it is the anagram of the Italian word “vita”, life, I couldn’t find a better pseudonym.
Morgen: It’s simple and I love that about your surname. You clearly have “vita” for writing. 🙂 Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Leila: Not as a writer, but as a screenwriter I’ve collected a lot of rejections from movie directors and producers, too. My father, my grandfather and my great grandmother worked in the movie industry; I know well that for a single movie which can be shot, there are two hundred screenplays and two thousand synopses that lie down in dusty boxes. It’s the shooting system and one should not become demoralized because of that. It is for me a stimulus to invent new stories with appeal for the directors.
Morgen: Absolutely. Whenever I get nowhere in a competition I console myself (not a lot of that needed, I assure you) that at least I have the story I wrote for it. 🙂 Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Leila: After the social networks revolution? The web offers enormous opportunities for self-promoting. Being sponsored by an agent sounds old-fashioned and at the same time gives you the impression that you are a V.I.P., yeah… maybe after my third book, I’ll hire one for me.
Morgen: I’d never say never but for now am happy with the freedom eBooks give me. Are your books available as eBooks? Were you involved in that process at all? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Leila: East of the Danube will be republished as an eBook by the end of this year. My publisher simply asked me if I would agree or prefer traditional distribution channels. I usually read a lot of eBooks, mostly old books which Google Books provides for free on-line and which are useful for my researches about European travellers in Russia and Asia in the XVIII-XIX Centuries. I confess, I haven’t bought a contemporary novel as an eBook yet, but I have read plenty of them, because a dear friend of mine, a well-known Russian translator from Italian, always sends me the books she translates together with the official Italian version, and since receiving a parcel from Russia by mail could take months, we got used to share books via e-mail.
Morgen: It’s certainly made reading much more accessible and I do think more people are reading these days, especially short stories and as a short story author, I’m all in favour of that. 🙂 How much of the marketing do you do?
Leila: I prefer to leave marketing strategies to my publisher, I’d rather concentrate myself on taking inspiration for good stuff.
Morgen: Ah yes, that’s the benefit of having a publisher. I have to do all my marketing (apart from a couple of lines at the end of each blog post I don’t do enough) but I’m starting to edit my novels next so it’ll step up a gear. 🙂 Do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Leila: Yes, I do have a favourite character, Giulio Uberti, the main male character of Forbidden to think in colours, because this enfant terrible of the Roman high bourgeoisie synthesizes virtues and vices of three exceptional men I know: a lighting designer, an archaeologist and a movie director. I would choose Carolina Bang (Balada triste de trompeta, 2010) and Michael Stuhlbarg (A serious man, 2009), or Keira Knightley and Scott Speedman.
Morgen: Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Leila: Yes, I do. I was the first to have a photo on the cover; the publisher used graphic for the novels, but I let her change the idea. Regarding the title, before submitting the title to her, I always consult students at the University, they are young, they make the trend.
Morgen: A second opinion on everything is always a good idea. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Leila: I’m working on an idea related to the “emotional” interaction between human beings and the first robotic experiments. Our society forces us to alienation, but we are social beings and the paradox of this phenomenon is that we tend to create robots in our image; it seems to me that we want to create a better human being, because we have failed, somehow, in developing our species further. It is like, you know, the same old story of the gods in the Olympus treating human beings as puppets.
Morgen: 🙂 Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Leila: If I can’t write every day I keep in mind the idea or the situation so long I succeed in writing it down. I’ve never suffered from a writer’s block; on the contrary, I always have three or four ideas twirling in my mind at the same time.
Morgen: Oh, me too. Just a word will kick-start something. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Leila: Normally I get an idea and run with it; of course for screenplays you do need to have a plot and eventually a subplot, or it won’t work by shooting.
Morgen: You mentioned Giulio Uberti, do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Leila: I get the inspiration from real people and I like to mix characters together: the result is very funny and prevents me from being accused of defamation.
Morgen: 🙂 Do you write any non-fiction, poetry or short stories?
Leila: As a Ph.D. candidate I’ve written a bibliography and several papers; for magazines I’ve written about two hundred pieces. I would like to be able to write poems, it is the highest genre, but one needs to be “extirpated” from the frenzied environment which is gnawing us to enter the calm state of mind needed for poetry.
Morgen: I write very little poetry but then I have so many stories I want to write that I don’t feel guilty. 🙂 Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Leila: I do a lot of editing, in primis by myself and then with my proof-reader, the dear Giulia, who is very patient with me. I should admit that I painstakingly read and re-read and read again.
Morgen: Do you have to do much research?
Leila: Yes, I need to take the more I can from the different facets which compose the background I’m describing; by writing Forbidden to think in colours I met several times Luciano Stignani, a well-known and excellent lighting designer, I’ve interviewed him and spent time in his atelier together with him and his team.
Morgen: What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Leila: I use a first person narrator only for autobiographical books. I never tried to write in second person form, but why not, maybe. I can’t think of anyone who has written a second person narration in Italian.
Morgen: I’ve written a lot in second person recently and love it. Ever since I realised it existed (a couple of years ago) I just fell in love with it. Apparently it’s used a lot in poetry. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Leila: Yes, some ambitious synopses that couldn’t be shot with a low budget due to the economic crisis.
Morgen: Oh well, then maybe with the crisis is over? 🙂 What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Leila: I do live a large part of my life through my characters and I find it negative. Yes, I do find it negative when I sit on the computer suffering from buttock numbness while my characters are having a kiss and a cuddle. The ability I have to create embarrassing tragicomic situations in my books always surprises me.
Morgen: 🙂 What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Leila: To read a lot and to avoid banality.
Morgen: If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Leila: I would invite three great strategists: Caesar, Machiavelli and Napoleon in order to discuss with them feasible solutions for the current difficult international situation, not the “comatose” ones the politicians want to administer us. I would serve the “arzilla”, a traditional Roman fish soup made with race, carciofi alla Giudia (fried artichokes) plus rhubarb and strawberry crumble with custard.
Morgen: That sounds lovely… I love soup, and crumble. 🙂 Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Leila: Festina lente, “make haste slowly”, the motto of Emperor Augustus. When I repeat this motto to me, I know that all my ideas soon or later will see the light.
Morgen: We have ‘more haste less speed’. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Leila: As I mentioned before, I work at University Roma Tre, I’m very involved in that.
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing?
Leila: I’m fond of horse riding, I go out with my daughter Denisa and we gallop in the beautiful country which still surrounds the neighbourhood where we live in the South of Rome. Our area has a romantic name “Castello della Cecchignola” (Cecchighola Castle), with an old tower, which is the soul of the neighbourhood. When I was a child I would always dream of entering the door of the castle and suddenly time would turn back… Few years ago an architect bought and restored the castle; he kindly invited the inhabitants to visit his estate… the castle was even more gorgeous as I could imagine in childhood.
Morgen: It sounds lovely – and a perfect location for stories. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Leila: Yes, I am a member of several LinkedIn groups: American Independent Writers, Association for Writers, Books and Writers, Creative Designers and Writers, Fiction Writers Guild, Writer’s Café, Writers, Writum.
Morgen: Which is probably how we met. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Leila: If a writer is able to bring his ambitions into the line with the degree to which they can be implemented, thanks to new media and languages, he will have a rosy future.
Morgen: Determination and passion, for sure. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Leila: I’m an Italian mother tongue writer and all the information you will find on-line is unfortunately in Italian; the official site of my book is sponsored by my publisher Ginevra Bentivoglio.
A personal web site for a single book is like our Italian old saying “To buy a saddle without owning a horse”.
Morgen: Book websites do strike me as a lot of work because you write another book and you have to start another site. Besides, it’s the author’s name a reader (hopefully) remembers rather than (or as well) the book. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Leila: I like to write, it is my passion in life, but even if I stay the whole night active and frisky because I got the inspiration, I never deprive myself of a good long sleep, especially in winter, when it is good to stay in bed under a warm blanket.
Morgen: Ah… I’m terrible. Even having given up my day job (only last Friday admittedly) I’m still not going to bed before midnight – I’m home all day today so tonight maybe. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Leila: What does impress you about a writer at a first sight?
Morgen: Usually if they are passionate… and not just because you said it. The ones who say that they can’t imagine doing anything else – that’s me. 🙂 Thank you, Leila.
I then invited Leila to include an extract of her writing…
Elisabetta is a student in Architecture, with a passion for lighting and vintage clothing. Determined to become a lighting designer, she has chosen an ambitious topic for her thesis: the lighting of the archaeological site of the Ludus Magnus, an ancient Roman palestra for gladiators near the Colosseum, that she is trying to enhance and “modernize” with an innovative light design in harmony with the contemporary urban landscape.
The enthusiasm of Elisabetta confronts the sudden mood swings of her professor, Palmieri, and the malicious jokes of Uberti, the owner of the lighting atelier where she works. Uberti is an upper-middle class enfant terrible, who changes girlfriend like socks: every morning.
He and Elisabetta have a completely opposite way of dealing with life and love, but they share the same passion for their work. In the night, the two rediscover the architectural beauties of Ancient Rome and wander the streets between Ostiense and Garbatella, two popular Roman neighborhoods full of gathering places for students. The light accompanies them during this trip, stressing the city’s architecture, tracing its routes, outlining the urban landscape. However, a sudden job offer comes soon after Elisabetta graduates and she has to move abroad… that would reverse the relationship between the two tête-bêche.
Leila Tavi was born in Rome; she graduated in Philology, then in Political Sciences. She has lived for ten years in Austria and Slovakia, observing how Eastern European totalitarian States collapsed and turned into democracies. Since 2008 she has been working as a freelance journalist; she is a Ph.D. candidate in Russian History and holds seminars in cultural and diplomatic relations between Pre-Unitarian Italian States and Russia at the Sankt-Petersburg State University and the Chelyabinsk State University. She is a member of “100 Autori per il Cinema”, which includes directors such as Bellocchio, Sorrentino, Virzì…; she is also a member of the Association “Donne di carta” (Paper Women), where she is a ‘Book-Person’ who learns by heart an excerpt of a famous novel and repeats it to other people. This group drafted a Reading Bill of Rights, which was awarded by President Giorgio Napolitano. Forbidden to Think in Colours is her second novel.
UPDATE MARCH 2012: you can read this interview in Italian at http://librini.wordpress.com.
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