A Conversation with Andrea Lee
Q: Having lived in Italy for a number of years, do you ever attempt to write in Italian? How does living in a non-English speaking country affect your writing?
AL: Though I have lived in Italy for over fifteen years and speak fluent Italian, I’ve never once considered writing in Italian because I have such a passion for the English language. It’s a love affair that began very early in my childhood when I realized that a word like “secret” could darken and embellish an entire conversation–not just because of what it stood for, but how it sounded, and felt in the mouth. English is such a fabulous language, so flexible and voluminous with its mixture of Latinate and Germanic roots. I went deep into its past as a student of Old and Middle English in college, and though I enjoyed studying other languages–French, Russian, and of course Italian–I have always known that my element, my invaluable craftsman’s tool, is my native tongue. It takes a certain amount of upkeep, because as any expatriate knows, during daily life in a foreign country the language of your birth tends to evolve into a peculiar kind of patois mixed with the local language. My Italian husband and our kids gossip, joke and argue in an Italian-American hodgepodge–a habit that could infect my written English, if I didn’t rigorously immerse myself in literature–not to mention overpriced imported magazines, newspapers, and lots and lots of satellite TV.
Q: How did you come up with the premise for Lost Hearts in Italy? Was it an idea you’d been thinking about for a while?
AL: Lost Hearts is a story of a love triangle, of adultery and betrayal, and it is a plot I have had in the back of my mind for many years. Since I began writing, I’ve been obsessed by this theme. As a child, I was haunted by the Arthurian tales of Lancelot and Guinevere and Tristan and Iseult, and as I got older, by Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. Adultery, of course, is one of the great literary themes, summing up everything that is best and worst in human nature. It encapsulates our ability to trust, to form idealistic bonds like marriage, and our equal ability to blast those bonds to smithereens, impelled by the irrational but very human power we call passion. It is a terribly sad and terribly beautiful theme, and an inexhaustible source of inspiration for a writer.
Q: Much of your writing centers around expatriot characters. Do you write from some of your own experiences? What draws you to explore characters in unfamiliar territories?
AL: I draw my plots, place descriptions and characters from a mixture of my own experience, the experience of people around me, and a whole gallery of people, places and things I have simply invented. The last part is the most fun.
I am interested in expatriate characters because not only do I live in Italy, but also spend several months a year in Africa, where I have a house in Madagascar. So my daily experience tends always to be connected to the expatriate role of living in a place where you never quite belong.
But my interest in the experience of outsiders springs from two other sources. The first is simply that, like every other writer, I am always somewhat apart–taking a step backwards from life to observe patterns and notice details. Being a writer is like being a spy–you are always gathering information, listening to conversations, memorizing faces–but the information is for your own use. I might give a character a face I saw a year ago on a street in Florence or New York.
The second reason I write so often about the experience of outsiders is that, as an African American I grew up in a family both deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement, and also with a long tradition of being both privileged and mixed race–my family tree includes Native American, Irish and Danish ancestors. And just as every American of color feels excluded from the American image of its ideal self, so my family felt a bit adrift in that we fit in neither with stereotypes of American blacks, nor with the Caucasian ideal. As one of the few black children in white private schools–an experience I wrote about in my novel Sarah Phillips–I had early experience in feeling like a foreigner.
Q: You’ve written novels, short stories, a memoir, and a number of journalistic magazine pieces. Which format comes most easily to you, and which do you enjoy writing most?
AL: I’ve written in many forms, but what I really love writing–and reading–are short stories. Short stories are like poems: the limitations of the form compel a writer to concentrate her powers–to distil a character description into two sentences, for example, instead of two pages. Writing a short story is a more intense experience than writing a novel, where you have the luxury of space and time to amble in many directions.
Q: What are the cultural differences between Americans and Italians you want to convey in your writing? As you spend more time in Italy, do these changes become more apparent or more difficult to pick out?
AL: The cultural differences between Italians and Americans that emerge in my writing are those that I have always noticed over the years since I married into an Italian family. They all boil down to one thing: the ever-present sense of the past, and the weight of tradition. This atmosphere is quite natural in a place where, as I drive to the gym or the supermarket, I pass over land that was successively occupied by Roman legions, by Napoleon’s troops, and by Italian partisans fighting the Nazis. It is easy to observe that Italians, like most Europeans, are more attached to family and birthplace than are Americans. This to me seems both positive–families are wonderfully close, and no one is ever at a loss for a hot meal or a babysitter or the means to keep an elderly relative comfortably at home–and also suffocating–I’ve seen too many talented kids deny career dreams that would involve moving to other cities or countries, and too many forty year old bachelors still living with their parents. By contrast, our American ideal of independence and individualism seems rootless and scary, but at the same time rather magnificent.
Q: Lost Hearts in Italy spans a number of years and a multitude of characters–it possesses the widest scope of your work yet. What were the challenges of writing from different viewpoints and different time periods?
AL: Lost Hearts is the most challenging book I have written so far, largely because of its complex structure. It’s divided into two time periods–the late 1980s , when the love triangle existed, and the present day–and into three major viewpoints–that of Mira and Nick, the young American married couple, and that of Zenin, the older Italian man whose love affair with Mira destroys the marriage. In addition, there is a sort of “Greek chorus” of random people–sometimes friends, sometimes passers—by, who comment on parts of the drama.
One thing that has always struck me is how every story has thousands of angles of approach, and that the one way to get close to any kind of truth is to observe and acknowledge dispassionately as many facets of a situation as possible. This was what I was trying to play with in Lost Hearts to take a standard melodrama, a love triangle, and look at it through a kaleidoscope.
It was difficult to make a pattern that did not grow too monotonous or bear too heavily on one character or one period. At a certain point I had to lay out all the pages on the floor and arrange them like parts of a puzzle.
Q: The novel is a coming-of-age story, a love story, a story of betrayal, and a story about living in an unfamiliar land all at once. Which component was most important for you to convey?
AL: Lost Hearts is above all a novel about the different ways people have of being foreign to each other. It’s about the basic curiosity we all have that, throughout life, attracts us to new places, new experiences, that even tempts us out of a good situation–say, the security of a happy marriage–toward a seductive unknown that may hold pain and destruction. Moving from the known to the unknown is, also, how we grow up, and become aware of our human condition. It’s the old, old story of Adam and Eve’s apple, which made them alien to their former protected life and forces them to travel into a completely new, completely mortal world.
The novel plays with this idea in a number of ways. Nick and Mira are of different races–he is white and she is black–and are initially attracted to what is mysterious in each other. But when they almost too easily overcome these differences and melt into a premature “happy ending”, they are still lingering in an extended childhood. Their move to Europe is a further step toward maturity, and it coincides with Mira’s move into infidelity with Zenin, who represents all the mysteries of age, of wealth, of foreignness. For Zenin, Mira is irresistible because she is both foreign and educated, and at the beginning, at least, independent of his money. For Nick, Zenin is the undefined menace of the old world, the nameless, powerful rival.
Years after their intimate triangle has ended, they all look back ruefully and realize, to a certain extent, that the glamour of otherness is an illusion, and that a step into the unknown always ends in knowledge, with its harrowing mixture of good and evil, and in a further awareness of our common mortality.
Q: Are there certain authors who have inspired your writing? Which books have been the most influential over the course of your career?
AL: My two favorite books are Kipling’s classic adventure novel, “Kim”, which is a meditation on identity and the varieties of truth, and Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, which is about the various ways of looking at good and evil. Other writers who have been important to me range from Anthony Trollope, to Isak Dinesen, to Phillip Roth, to Jean Toomer. But the two books I had most in mind when I wrote “Lost Hearts” were Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” and “The Children”s Bach” by the great Australian writer, Helen Garner. Both novels deal with a kind of innocence in marriage, that is eventually destroyed.
Q: Each of your characters possesses unsympathetic qualities–Mira betrays her husband and child;
Zenin is cold and calculating–and yet they are entirely identifiable and understandable to the reader. How do you go about creating such complex, human characters?
AL: When I create a character, I try to be simultaneously inside and outside his or her brain. Inside, weaving a language of memories and emotions, and outside, looking on with a kind of amused compassion. You can become very attached to the most unpleasant characters. For example, I loved creating Zenin.
Q: What is your writing process like? Do you have a set schedule or routine?
AL: I have an office in my house in Turin, and a set writing schedule from about eight-thirty in the morning until about three-thirty , when my eleven year old son Charles returns from school.
Q: What are you working on now?
AL: My next two projects are already under way. One is a novel called The Red Island House, about sexual tourism in the beautiful country of Madagascar, where I spend part of every year. The second is a series of interlinked short stories about the complicated, sometimes scandalous life of a large Italian family, as seen through the eyes of their adopted South African daughter. So, as usual, I am exploring race and culture, and the many ways of being foreign.
From the Trade Paperback edition.