Exclusive Interview with Donna Leon

©2003 gialli.com, italian-mysteries.com
Venice, Italy
May 5, 2003

 

Discussion of Specific Books

Let’s start by talking about some of your books.


#12  Uniform Justice

Q: Tell us about your latest, Uniform Justice, which was released in the UK in March 2003.

Donna Leon: Uniform Justice deals with the suspicious suicide of a young man at a military academy here. At first it looks like he hanged himself, but then it begins to look like it might have been an act of vengeance, or a threat, against his father, a former politician. As Brunetti investigates, he discovers more evidence to suggest that the people at the school, and some in high places, are covering up the evidence. The ending is one of my blackest, utterly without hope of any sort. Nice.

Q: Where did you get the idea from?

Donna Leon: I have always had a particular antagonism for the military, and I just... No, No, No... I’m trying to remember... I had an idea for the opening scene -- the kid hanging in the shower looking like a bat. I just got taken with the idea that it was a bat... and then everything followed; if he was a military student he probably came from a certain class--but this kid didn’t, but most of the other students in the military academy do. There has been a lot of suspicious, maybe hazing, deaths in the last couple of years--in the last five or six years. There was a case in the northwest, I don’t remember where. I think two cadets were killed and then there was the famous case of the paratroopers who were in a helicopter in Bosnia. They were, I think, 100 meters above the ground and the two people that jumped were from a different unit or a different branch of the service than the people in control of the helicopter -- they were told to jump when they were at 100 meters so some hanky panky as going on there. Anyway this book just ran away from itself because of the military business.

Q: Is it set in an actual cadet academy in Venice?

Leon: No, there is a cadet academy here but I have never been there. I know nothing about it and it is marina (naval) near San Elena.


#11  Wilful Behavior

Leon: The German version of Wilful Behavior has just been released. I had two phone interviews this morning with the Austrians. They are very excited about that book because it is about stolen art and there are similar cases in the courts there.


#10  A Sea of Troubles

Q: How did you do the research for Pellestrina book, A Sea of Troubles? How did you get a sense of what the fishermen from there were like?

Leon: I just went there a couple of times, sat around the bars, talked to people, ate in the restaurants, and chatted with the old ladies on the street. Fishermen are pretty much that way.

Q: It seems your research is not that difficult, you don’t have to go into archives and anything like that.

Leon: No, I just go to lunch. And I never know when something is going into the file and something is not.


#4  A Venetian Reckoning (Death and Judgment)

Q: Do your ideas for plots usually come from newspaper headlines?

Leon: No, the only time that a specific headline got me going was the one about trafficking in women. There was an article in Il Corrierre della Sera and La Repubblica about eight years ago during the Bosnian mess. It was about “snuff” films being made in Bosnia and I used that because I was so revolted by the idea -- not so much about making “snuff” films which I can understand because I think people will do anything for money. So the idea of filming a gang rape and killing the woman and making and selling the tape -- that doesn’t bother me at all -- because I understand that. But watching is what I can’t understand. My head can get to murder and rape for profit because I can understand greed as a human motive, but I cannot understand the voyeuristic desire to watch such a film. I can comprehend one and I cannot comprehend the other.

Q: Was this book one of your favorites?

Leon: Yes, because that was the angriest book, because I find the idea of vigilante justice very attractive. I like the idea that the murderer decides that this person has gone too far, and nothing will happen to him unless she does something to stop him. She wasn’t a saint, she wasn’t a martyr, she wasn’t a heroine, just something human in her made her decide that this had gone too far. I think I was careful in the book to make her not be Mother Theresa. She has no qualms about pimping for these other women and importing other women; that doesn’t bother her one whit. But this guy went too far so she decided she would stop him. She killed him and she got caught. I like that book. That’s probably my favorite simply because of that. Because I think all of us have, particularly if you live in Italy, a longing for vigilante justice because it is obvious that the justice system here is a sham. Although at the same time, I realize that vigilante justice is impossible because it’s against the law. But it still has a very strong appeal.


#13  Doctored Evidence

Q: Have you completed #13?

Leon: Yes, I sent #13 to Heineman in January (2003) and I am still waiting for it to come back. It’s titled Doctored Evidence and begins with the quite delightfully brutal murder of my neighbor across-the-way, the woman who has had her television on, LOUD, every night of the summers for the last five years. It turns out that she might have been silenced because she possessed compromising evidence that might be used against a person of some importance in the city.


What About Justice?

Q: When one reads your books, it’s pretty obvious that there is no justice, really.

Leon: Yes, but I don’t think it is peculiar to Italy. At least in Italy, people have no illusions about it. They know that all politicians are corrupt, they know that all institutions are corrupt and they never pretend that they are any thing but that. I find that very refreshing.

Q: Is there a sense that one needs to take things into one’s own hands?

Leon: No! No! Italians know about human nature -- they understand human nature perhaps better than anyone else does. They know that people are weak and greedy and lazy and dishonest and they just try to make the best of it; to work around it.


Cast of Characters

Q: How do you keep track of the characters’ trajectories in your books?

Leon: I sort of know them. I have no memory for what happens in what books. I don’t know when I might remember a scene, but beats me what book it’s in because there are 14 of them now, so it’s hard to remember when, who, what; but there is really a cast of very few people in there, the characters are pretty well defined. Brunetti and his wife, Elettra, the kids, Pucetti, Vianello.

Q: As you are developing your plot, do they sort of come in when its appropriate?

Leon: Yes.

Q: So you are not thinking ahead of time that you want this character.

Leon: No, I have no idea. This is probably what would happen -- If I were reading a book, this is probably what would happen because I have read 18 zillion of these things.


   Signorina Elettra

Q: Tell us about Signorina Elettra, she is one of our favorites.

Leon: She's everyone’s favorite. She came about one day a long time ago. I forget when she entered, the 3rd or 4th book. (the 3rd book) Really, that long ago. I was writing and someone knocked on Brunetti’s door and I didn’t have a clue who it could be or what it could be. So I went for a long walk, probably down to Sant Elena and I came back and turned on the computer and by God Signorina Elettra walked in and Thank God for the day that she did.

Q: She’s a great character.

Leon: Yes and she is so useful because she can do all the things I don’t know how to do -- I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Q: Is she the slightest bit typical? She seems like superwoman.

Leon: Well, she is typical of a certain kind of Italian woman, yes she is. She’s very much like the sister of a friend of mine, who in fact did, when there were sanctions against South Africa, did refuse to write a letter for the president of the Banca d’Italia here. She was his secretary and he asked her to take a letter to Johannesburg and she said she could not -- and when he got exercised about it, she said “Signore I’m going to go out and have a cup of coffee and when I come back we will just forget it.” She went out, came back, and it was never mentioned again.

Q: Elettra seems terribly underutilized in terms of her skills. Is there a glass ceiling situation?

Leon: Well, I think there’s a glass ceiling situation everywhere for women, sure. And she is not a member of the police, she’s not a policewomen. She’s a civil employee.


   Paola Brunetti

Q: Brunetti’s wife Paola seems such the perfect casalinga (housewife) and she’s always there with the gourmet dinners, she’s always available for the kids, and yet she is a college professor. It doesn’t appear that part of her life involves her very much. Why is that?

Leon: You said it! It’s an Italian university. Four hours a week in class. I have a friend that teaches at a university in Naples and we have a running gag. I ask him how many hours he had to work that month and he’ll say “four hours last week.” There is some pressure to publish, but once they are in, they don’t have to do a thing. American tenure is tenuous compared to a position in an Italian university.

Q: In Fatal Remedies (book #8), Paola made a very individual protest against the travel agent promoting paedophile sexual tours. She didn’t seem to have a network of other women or organization to work though or give her support. Why was that?

Leon: I think that all of that networking stuff is not something Italian women do. They have friends and family. Also here in Venice, people meet more. People have many more casual meetings on the street and go out to dinner much more often. Because, I think many people have more free time. Honestly, it never occurred to me that she would want or need that kind of support from other people. She did want support from Brunetti because she endangered his job, but a girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do.


   Brunetti’s Kids

Q: The kids are absolutely fascinating. They are universal types. Do you consciously not try to age them too fast?

Leon: I can’t, I can’t. Ponce de Leon. The kids have found the fountain. Time is not really passing in the books. I don’t think I ever refer to specific datable events; so four of these books could take place in the same year. I will keep them in their teens.


   Count Falier

Q: Another strong character is Count Falier, Paola’s father. There was a Falier that was a Doge. Is this the same family?

Leon: Or maybe some minor branch of it. Falier is a Venetian name and everyone knows the Faliers were Doges. I needed somebody who had money and power and connections. Connections mainly and they’ve been Venetian forever, so they know where all the bodies are buried, which is the way things work here.

Q: Is the Falier Palazzo near the Accadémia Bridge the one in your books?

Leon: No, that’s the only place that doesn’t really exist, most of the others do. I just invented a palazzo down there on the Grand Canal.


   Brunetti’s House

Q: Did you invent Brunetti’s house?

Leon: No, that house is there because a friend of mine lives on the top floor. It’s easy to find. You walk from Rialto towards San Polo and on your right is Biancat Florist, a little bit after Sant’Aponal. And on the right you’ll see Biancat Florist with lots of white roses usually in the window. If you walk past Biancat and you go left, there’s a narrow calle that finishes in a building. That’s the building and the top floor cannot be seen because the wall of the building is there so as not to be visible from the ground. The whole thing was built illegally in the 1940s.


Writing Technique

Q: How do you manage such a rigorous 12-month cycle for your books?

Leon: It is only a page a day. A page a day is nothing. I take months off. I work all year long. Whenever I’m not involved with music I’m writing. But the thing I care about the most is baroque opera. So when and if there is a chance to go and hear a good baroque performance, I go. Because I can always write the book, but I can’t always see a great performance.

Q: Do you completely finish one book before you start writing parts of the next one?

Leon: Yes, usually when I am about a hundred pages from the end of a book, the next one starts tapping at the door in my head. And I have to fight to remain conscious of that book.

Q: When you start the book, do you know the ending?

Leon: No, I don’t work that way -- I have no idea. I start the book as though I were reading it. I haven’t a clue as to what is going to happen. I don’t know who the characters will be. I now have 200 and some odd pages of book #14 and I have no idea why anything happened.

Q: Do you do a lot of rewriting?

Leon: No, there is almost none.

Q: Well, you are very good, you are exceptionally good!

Leon: But it’s easy... I know the formula for having read so many of them. So, it’s like herding sheep down the path. Sooner or later they are all going to go through the gate. I shouldn’t say it’s easy, but it’s not hard.

Q: Has it become easier now?

Leon: Yes and no. Easier in that the actual process of forming sentences is easier; and knowing how characters are going to behave is easier. However, keeping it from being repetitive gets harder. Because after... how many times can you make the same clever remark.

Q: Unlike many mysteries set in Italy, your books do an exceptional job of portraying credible Italian characters in believable Italian settings.

Leon: I’ve lived here now for 25 years, so I have some sense of it.

Q: Do you think you can continue with these characters?

Leon: Once it’s not fun, I’ll stop. Because it’s fun now. Really fun to play with them and make them do things; and when it’s not I would like to think that I will know. Or, my friends will tell me it’s not any good anymore and I will stop.

Q: So, you do use your friends as a sounding board? And are they pretty honest with you?

Leon: Oh, yes. See, no one I know reads mysteries. In fact, most of my friends who have read these books say, “I have never read a mystery before, but I like this book.” And when these people say, “I wasted my three hours reading this book,” then I’ll stop. Because my ego really isn’t caught up in it. This is my job. This is my day job. I’ll know. My doctoral dissertation was about Jane Austen - The Changing Moral Order in the Universe of Jane Austin’s Novels. So I can tell the difference. I’d know if a book were not going well.

Q: Have you ever dropped some?

Leon: No. One, I cannibalized. I started writing one about the opera world and I didn’t like it. I thought people don’t want to hear that, so I took one event from that book and used it in another book. I wrote about a hundred pages and I didn’t like it so I stopped.

Q: Do you plan to write any non-mystery books?

Leon: No. I get offers all the time to do guidebooks and cookbooks.

Q: Do you have any interest in having a website, featuring your books?

Leon: No.

Q: Do you still teach college courses at the nearby American military bases?

Leon: No. We came to a mutual agreement that it would be better if I stopped. In terms of time, it was too much. Because it was a schlepp of two hours whether I was teaching at Aviano or Vicenza. And, the trouble with -- the danger with Literature, if you talk about Literature you end up talking about ideas of society, ideas of right and wrong, ideas of religion, of justice, of blah, blah, blah. And I thought it would be best if these young American military people and I no longer discussed these issues. So, to spare them having to listen to me and to spare me having to listen to them, I decided to stop. It became upsetting for me to realize some of the ideas that people, who were pretending to get a university education, could have in their heads; and the abysmal ignorance of the students became too heavy a cross for me to bear. Not stupidity, because they’re not stupid, but they are abysmally ignorant. And I don’t think that at my age, I want to be in the company of people like that.


German TV Mini-Series

Q: In Germany, they have produced a TV mini-series of some of your books. What has been your involvement in this?

Leon: I wasn’t involved at all. My agent Diogenes told me they had a offer from a very reputable German film producer, Katharina Trebitsch, and they said this looks like a good thing, do it. So I said OK do it. And they did it. They’re now making the eighth and I have been to the set twice, because over the course of the years, I’ve come to know Katharina Trebitsch pretty well. I stay with her when I go to Hamburg to go to the opera and she comes to the opera with me. We have become good friends, but I have... I opted to have no involvement at all. I saw the first two films, I haven’t seen the others and Katharina has agreed that when they shoot the ones in which the opera singer appears, they will use one of our singers Simone Kermes, a German soprano as the voice of Flavia Petrelli. And that’s my only direct involvement with the film. And that was done as a favor I asked Katharina and I gave her a copy of Simone’s last two recordings and Katharina wants to use her.. not to shut me up or do me favor, but because she is very impressed with her.

Q: How do you feel about the final product, the television rendition?

Leon: I’ve never owned a television in my life, so I can’t say. I saw the first two at a friend’s -- they’re in German.

Q: Are there plans to adapt these films for an English-speaking audience?

Leon: I don’t know “nuttin.” I literally know nothing about it and I am not interested. I am doing an interview with Katharina here, she’s coming down because they close production next week. We are doing a joint interview for the German press and I intend fully to say I have seen them all and they’re wonderful. Because Katharina is my friend and I believe we should lie for our friends. IT’S GREAT!!


Publishers

Q: Currently, American fans have to purchase your books from the UK. Why aren’t your books published in the United States?

Leon: You will soon be able to get them in America. Diogenes in Zurich, who is my agent as well as my publisher has accepted a contract from Grove Atlantic, so they will be printed in the States. (Uniform Justice will be released by Atlantic Monthly Press in September 2003.)

Q: Do you have any say with the publishers how your books will be presented, what the title is, what the cover looks like and etc.?

Leon: I suppose I could, but I don’t know anything about publishing.

Q: How extensively are your books published in the international market? How many countries and languages?

Leon: Lots. I think most of the European countries. (The following information was supplied by Diogenes. Donna Leon's books are published in the following countries: France, The Netherlands, Spain (in Spanish and Catalan), Poland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Great Britain, Bulgaria, Portugal, Brazil, China, Croatia, Lithuania, Hungary, Turkey, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Russia, Japan, Israel, and the German version in Germany, Switzerland and Austria.)

Q: In what countries are your books the most successful?

Leon: Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

Q: Why is that?

Leon: I have a wonderful publisher who knows the market and places the books well. The Germans and the Austrians love mysteries.

Q: Why won’t you allow your books to be translated into Italian for publication in Italy?

Leon: I don’t want to be famous. I don’t like being famous and I don’t want to be famous where I live. I just don’t like it. It doesn’t do anyone any good to be famous. I have enough. I don’t care. See this is what people find so confusing. I don’t care. I don’t care if the books get published in America. I don’t care if they get published. I just don’t. I have enough. I’m not interested -- the idea of more has no importance to me. I don’t care.

Q: Have you been asked by the Italians to get them translated?

Leon: Yes, all of the Italian publishers would kill to have them. I don’t want to be famous. I am spotted on the street by German, Austrian, French, Danish, everything... at least 3 or 4 time a day, and it’s always very nice and always very respectful; but I don’t like it. And the people in my neighborhood know that I am the American who lives opposite Nando and above Angelo Costantini and it would just change the tenor of my life. The unfortunate thing is that it has somehow percolated into the Italian Press that I am afraid to have my books published because the Italians may be offended by what I say about Italy. But, I am not afraid, if people don’t like the books, read another book, don’t read it, don’t finish it, give it somebody, throw it away.


Other Mystery Writers

Q: Did any mystery writers inspire you?

Leon: No.

Q: What’s your opinion about some of the authors who write mysteries set in Italy?

Leon: I think Nabb is very very good. I think Nabb is good because it is evident from her books that she lives in Italy, and that she speaks Italian and she has Italian friends and she has real sense of the Italian world. Pears is the one who writes about the art fraud. Some of his are quite good. I think it is quite evident that Dibdin doesn’t live in Italy. But Dibdin, particularly with Dark Specter, Dibdin is wonderful. When Dibdin is good he is fabulous. But I don’t think the Zen books are fabulous -- I think Dark Specter is fabulous and some of his other books set in other places are. He is a very very gifted writer. I think his prose is very good. Pears less so, I think; although his characters are good. I like them -- the art people. Sarah Caudwell is quite good.

For a number of years, I was writing a column for the London Sunday Times and I got sent all of the current mysteries. I can’t read them anymore. I can’t read mysteries anymore. I can read Ruth Rendell, I can read Frances Fyfield, Reginald Hill if he stops being so clever. Luckily, I’m not doing the column anymore. I can’t read them anymore. There’s so much I want to read, mainly history. That’s what I read by choice.

Q: Do you read any of the Italian mystery writers?

Leon: Yea, yea, I read Sciascia and I have read Camilleri. He is very good. The thing I love in Camilleri’s books, because I read them in Italian, is when he writes Sicilian dialect. You can sort of figure out what they’re saying although you really don’t know what they’re saying because it is Palermitano.

Q: How do you deal with the Venetian dialect? Have you learned it?

Leon: Yes, I’ve learned by hearing it. I don’t speak it. It would be sort of silly for me to try and speak Veneziano, other than odd phrases. Veneziano is what everybody speaks to me because I’ve been here so long.


La Fenice

Q: Is the reconstruction of La Fenice underway?

Leon: Yes, it is cordoned off. They say they are going to open it and have a concert in December. The work is going on, but it’s anybody’s guess what it is. There are all sorts of rumors. I’ve heard a rumor that they are going to open with a single concert in December and then close it for another year to do the acoustics and the interior. But that’s classic Italian. They said they would open the theater in December. That doesn’t mean open it and keep it open. That just means, open it, have a concert and close it again.


LINKS TO MORE DONNA LEON INTERVIEWS
The New York Times/International Herald Tribune published an interesting article about
Donna Leon in August 2003: A Patron of the Arts of Opera and Murder

Barnes & Nobles' Meet the Writers forum
has published a Summer 2003 interview with Donna Leon

Transcript of March 2003
BBC Radio 4 Donna Leon Interview
Transcript of 1999
CBS Sunday Morning Donna Leon TV Feature
Article by bookstore owner Elaine Petrocelli
At Lunch With Donna Leon

Donna Leon Book List
Death at La Fenice | Death in a Strange Country | The Anonymous Venetian
A Venetian Reckoning | Acqua Alta | The Death of Faith | A Noble Radiance
Fatal Remedies | Friends in High Places | A Sea of Troubles
Wilful Behaviour | Uniform Justice | Doctored Evidence | Blood From A Stone
Through a Glass Darkly | 
Suffer the Little Children | The Girl of His Dreams | About Face
A Question of Belief | Drawing Conclusions | Beastly Things | The Golden Egg
By Its Cover

Interviews & Articles
MHz Networks Interview with Donna Leon
April 2013 Interview on BBC's Meet the Author
Exclusive Donna Leon Interview
Donna Leon 2003 Interview - La Maga Abbandonata CD
2009 Interview by The Gypsy's Guide Blog
La Serenissima (December 2005)
An American in Venice (Washington Post)
Amazon.de Interview
Meet The Author 2005
March 2005 Interview
New Zealand Herald Interview
Conversation about Acqua Alta (Penguin)
German Interview Translated into English
Swiss EducETH Interview (July-2004)
A Patron of the Arts of Opera and Murder
Barnes & Noble Interview
BBC Radio 4
CBS Sunday Morning
At Lunch With Donna Leon