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Thursday 9 May 2013

Donna Leon

When Donn Leon visited London last month I had the great pleasure of meeting and talking with her. It was a most enjoyable conversation
Donna Leon was born in Montclair, New Jersey of Irish/Spanish descent. She first went to Italy as a student in 1965 returning regularly over the next decade while pursuing a career as an academic in the States and then later in Iran, (where she taught English to helicopter pilots for three years), China (teaching literature at a university near Shanghai) and finally Saudi
Arabia.  Donna then decided to move to Venice permanently, where she has now lived for more than twenty five years. 
Her novels are all set in Venice, featuring police Commissario Guido
Brunette and are widely praised, a
mongst other things, for her ability to create a remarkable sense of place, and to conjure up the sights and smells of

Q Donna, could you tell me about The Golden Egg, your twenty-second book, this latest book? Where did the idea of the mystery surrounding the death of a middle-aged, deaf and mute man originate?
A Well, I am always intrigued as an American that we never have to account for ourselves. In America we don’t have to have a residence, we don’t have to report to the police when we change city, we don’t have to
declare ourselves to the administration of the city. I am always been intrigued the way Italians, well, not only Italians, but Europeans, are always documented. There’s permission to be in that place, there’s the resident’s
permit, there’s the this, there’s the that, they are much more paper controlled than Americans are, and I wondered what would happen if someone slipped through the paper clips and how far in life, and how easy it would be for someone just not to exist in Italian society. The idea was also aided by the fact that there are so many
illegal people and immigrants in Italy; they flood in from everywhere.   That’s also true of Spain, Portugal and France. So I just started fooling around with the idea of a person who didn’t exist.  The only way that  person would come to the attention of the authorities is on his or her death. What does the city do upon the discovery of a dead person who doesn’t exist. And so this is a death, the person is taken to the hospital, here’s his name, here’s his address, but there is no birth certificate – this person does not exist. I just followed that, trying to
figure out how that would have happened.

Q Tell us about police Commissario Guido Brunette. Is he based on any one person or is he mainly imagination? How did he come about?
A He’s not based on anyone. I had the good sense when I wrote the first book to know that I would be working and living with this person for however long it would take me to write this book, and I had no idea how long it would take me, so I chose to create a person who I would find simpatico, and Brunette after twenty-two years is simpatico, he’s intelligent, he’s decent, he’s quick witted, he’s funny, he’s tolerant and a good  father, he’s a good husband. He’s a reader of the things that I read, so he had all of those qualities which would make a man attractive to me.  And after twenty-two years he still remains attractive, for those qualities.

Q What influenced your decision to write about a male detective, as opposed to a female?
Because it’s much easier. If the source of authority is female, much of the time must be spent justifying her power, although I am a woman you must answer this question, although I am a woman I am going to put you in jail.
 Q You had a relatively long academic career in the United States and in several other countries before your first book was published in 1992.  Had you always wanted to write? 
A No, absolutely not.  I got the idea for this book completely by accident when I was at an opera in Venice La Fenice.  I was backstage with a conductor friend and  discussing another conductor who had died. And  we were thinking of who, why, what.  I realised it was a great idea for a novel.   It hadn’t  previously crossed my mind to write a book, but I had read a lot of crime fiction at graduate school and I wrote a book using what I had stored unconsciously about the patterns of crime. The book then sat in a drawer for a year and a half, because all I had wanted to do was write the book, I wasn’t interested in publication.

But a friend nagged me into sending it in to a competition which it won and then I was offered a contract. The result was Death at La Fenice, which was published in 1992.

Q           Was this before or after you moved to Venice?
A           It was after. I had been there for sometime.

Q           So what prompted the move to Venice.
A           I don’t know.  My life has been very much the result of impulse. Because luckily my parents never
instilled in me any sense of ambition or responsibility, I just wanted to have a whole lot of fun and do interesting stuff.  So I had taught in Iran for some years, China, Switzerland, and then Saudi Arabia.  Saudi was such a
horrible experience that I then  decided to go to Venice to find a job. I had there very good friends at the level of family and I contacted then and asked to stay with them in Venice while I found a job, as I wanted to stop moving around and grow up. So I moved to Venice, I found a job, by then I spoke Italian. Soon I was absorbed into the family and I stayed. Then in 1990 I got the idea for the book, and that changed my life. This is one of the reasons I am not pretending to be cavalier about this. It just fell on me.  It was nothing I ever wanted, if it went away tomorrow, it wouldn’t make any difference to me.  It was great fun, a great run for twenty- two year, doing a job that was fun and making a lot of money doing it.

Q Are the ideas for your books sparked by real events and people, or do ideas just come to you? Or a
mixture of both?
A It’s both. Sometimes things happen. In Death in Judgement Brunetti is asked to investigate snuff films, real porno films where the woman is killed. That idea came to me in the early nineties when I read an article
explaining or rather stating that snuff films were being made in Bosnia, that Bosnian women were being raped and murdered. I was so repelled by this that I knew that this possibility would function largely in the next book.

Q Oh! And the ever-resourceful Signorina Elettra, Patta's secretary, isn’t she wonderful? She arrived in the third book. Where did she come from?
A Wouldn’t you like one? She came because I was at a loss as to what was going to happen, and I wrote a scene in which someone knocked on Brunetti’s door, and I had no idea who this could be, and so I went out for a walk and when I came back the door opened and Signorina Elettra walked in.

Q That is wonderful, and leads me onto my next question which is probably two questions in one.  Do you plan your plots before you start writing?  And, if so, do your books change during the writing process, or do they pan out exactly as you originally planned?
A At the start of a book I have no idea. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t have a clue. 

Q But do you always know who is the murderer or does he/she emerge as the book unfolds?
A He or she emerges, I never have any idea.  In fact I am 240 pages into the next book and I have a victim but I don't know the killer.  It’s worked for twenty-two years, so I am sure that it will work again. I have a
certainty that as I continue to write it will become obvious to me. I just need to find the motive.

Q So do you ever have to go back once the murderer emerges and change him or her a bit?
A The only thing I have to do is change adjectives. When people have changed from good to bad, I have had to go back and change all the good adjectives, so that when the person is revealed to be a good person the people will be surprised and by the revelation of the good person being a bad person.

Q So you must a some point then as you get towards the end of the book say ‘Oh! You did it’. That’s very organic.
A Yes, and lucky.

Q Do you have a regular working day?
No, I don’t have a regular anything. I get up in the morning go and have a coffee with my best friend Roberta, whom I have known for more that forty years.  Then she goes to work, and I go back to my house and maybe I work. I force myself to sit in front of the computer. But during the day I am praying that people will drop by and say come out for coffee and then I say yeeees!

Q When embarking on a new book, what aspect challenges you the most?

A Physical description of what people look like. I find that difficult - always have. That I have to work at. Action, motion is OK for me. I do that easily. Physical description is hard, not the way they move, or the way  they dress. Just their faces.

Q           Do you have a favourite part of the writing process?
A           The funny bits, the conversations, the interchange between Signorina Elettra, Brunetti and Patta, who is a great figure of fun. He doesn’t understand why he is being sent up, he knows that he is, but he isn’t sure why.

Q Patta is so very suave. Don’t you think that  very good looking people can take themselves too seriously, as Patta seems to do?
A Absolutely

Q You have won several awards including a CWA Silver Dagger in 2000 for The ninth Brunetti novel, Friends in High Places. Do you have a favourite book of those you have written?
A Not really, maybe a couple of favourites.  I like The Golden Egg very much. The books are getting bleaker, I like Death in Judgement, very much but that’s dangerous because it’s about vigilante justice.  It was controversial, but I felt strongly about the subject matter.

Q German Television has produced a number of Commissario Brunette mysteries. Where you involved?
A In no way, and that was my choice. I don’t speak the language, so what am I going to say. I think that I have seen two of them maybe three.  They’re very German but they're OK.  I had lunch with the BBC yesterday,  and it looks as though our five year engagement is going to be fulfilled.  We have had a very long courtship, we were talking about the pre-nup. 

Q Oh! Very important. Will you take a greater role in that?
A Because the language is English and because I saw the German versions, I  might see what could better be changed.  I have told them that I will co-operate in any way I can to help them.  Not for my purposes but for their purposes.  Because I am a team player, and I would like this to be as good as it can be.

Q Are you in anyway influenced by other writers? 
A Not consciously, but I am sure that I am.  I read a lot of crime fiction.

Q Keeping a series going for 22 books and keeping it fresh and exciting is quite a feat.  Have you ever wanted or thought of writing a stand alone, or starting a new series?
A I did a stand-alone last year about music called The Jewels of Paradise.

Q Do you get back to America very often
A No, I was back there three years ago. I travel so much with book tours and related stuff. And a vast part of it is concerned with the music world. I am one of the managing directors of a Swiss Baroque Orchestra and I spend as much time with them as I can. I go to the rehearsals, the recordings, and I attend their series of concerts. I am very much committed to their success.

Q As you may know I am keen to promote new writers, so have you any golden tips for them?
A Read! And don’t just read crime fiction, read Jane Austin, read Dickens, read Trollope.

Thank you, Donna for taking the time to talk to me. It’s been lovely and informative to meet and chat with you.

The Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery Series
Death at La Fenice (1992)  
Death in a Strange Country (1993)         
The Anonymous Venetian (UK 1994)             
Dressed For Death (USA 1994)
A Venetian Reckoning (UK 1995) 
Aqua Alta (1996) The Death of Faith (1997)
Death and Judgement (USA 1995) 
Quietly in Their Sleep (USA 1997)
A Noble Radiance (1998)            
Fatal Remedies (1999)  
Friends in High Places (2000)
A Sea of Troubles (2001)         
Wilful Behaviour (2002)  
Uniform Justice (2003)
Doctored Evidence (2004)         
Blood From a Stone (2005)
Through a Glass Darkly  (2006)
Suffer Little Children (2007)      
The Girl of His Dreams (2008)  
About Face (2009)
A Question of Belief (2010)        
Drawing Conclusions (2011)  
Beastly Things (2012)
The Golden Egg (2013)

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