CONVERSATION WITH DONNA LEON - An Interview with Penguin Books


This interview by Penguin has mostly to do with her crime novel Acqua Alta
(Released in mass market paperback in August 2004)

(© Penguin)


Question: I understand that you've been greatly influenced by British mystery writers such as P. D. James and Ruth Rendell. What is it that you find so appealing about the British mystery tradition? How are British mysteries different from their American counterparts, and how did those writers' books inform your own?

Leon: I like to think that the chief influence is the prose style, for the English seem more drawn to formality of expression. My dissertation was on Jane Austen, and it is the novels of an earlier age, with their longer sentences and more discursive style, that appeal to me. It's difficult for any writer to name another who has been an influence, or at least it is difficult to be honest about this. If Ruth Rendell has been an influence—and that is as great a compliment as one could hope to have—it comes from her interest in why people do things rather than in what they did or who might have done it.

Question: There's a wonderful line on page 67 of Acqua Alta about the Italian character—"Lele smiled his crooked smile, one side of his mouth turning down, the other up, a smile Brunetti had always thought best expressed the Italian character, never quite sure of gloom or glee and always ready to switch from one to the other"—and throughout the book, you give us insights into the Italian national identity, which seems to be a mix of fatalism, optimism, pessimism, and clannish pride. Do you consider Brunetti a quintessentially "Italian" character? How did your own understanding of the Italian character change after you moved to Italy? How is it different from the popular wisdom?

Leon: It is easier for an outsider to see things, at least to see the obvious things, and it is perhaps the obvious things that people overlook about their own culture. I've spent thirty years here, talking to friends, listening to people chat over coffee in bars, discussing politics while buying zucchini, and so whatever remains in my head about Italy is a compendium of things I've heard and read. Brunetti is a Northerner, and so his inner workings are a bit more Teutonic than would be true of someone in, say, Palermo.

Popular wisdom, huh? I fear that's just another name for cliché. Italians aren't all that different from the rest of us, save that they feel less guilt about the impulse to have fun.

Question: One of the themes in this book concerns Venetians' sharp definitions of who is, and who is not, a true Venetian. You've lived in Venice now for some years; do you feel like a "native"? Why or why not?

Leon: No, I'll never be Venetian, though because I fly under the flag of intimate, almost familial, friendship with a number of Venetians, I pass for Venetian with some people. I understand the dialect and always feel a lift in my heart when I get home after a long trip and hear it spoken again. But I'll never be able to speak it without feeling pretentious, and my family is not buried here, and so I'll never be a real Venetian.

Question: Venice holds such a prominent place in the popular imagination that it's a surprise to realize it's actually home to fewer than 100,000 people. What are some of the unique challenges of living in a city that's defined not only by its geographical realities but also by its reputation as a tourist destination? What, in particular, makes Venice the perfect setting for your mysteries?

Leon: The official population is now only about 60,000, I think. It is a setting for mysteries because of the combination of cliché and myth that surrounds the city. It is believed to be romantic, mysterious, faintly sinister, when in truth it is a tiny provincial town that happens to be extraordinarily beautiful in almost every angle but which is now buried under a wave of tourism that makes daily life at times insupportable.

Question: To which character do you relate the most? Like Brett, you are an American who leads an independent, expatriate life; like Flavia, you enjoy a peripatetic existence; like Brunetti, you are also a passionate Venetian. Is there one character—or many—you consider a stand-in for yourself?

Leon: I suppose, if anyone, I am a combination of Brunetti and Paola. My heart is Paola's, with her often impulsive solution to problems, while my head tries to retain Brunetti's calm, with varied success.

Question: Many of the characters in Acqua Alta are imprisoned (to varying degrees) by tradition, their sense of honor, or their cultural obligations. As an American in Italy, do you ever feel you are expected to adhere to a certain predetermined persona? What is that persona?

Leon: Nope. One of the wonderful things about Italians is that they don't much care what other people do. They might gossip about it, but they are slow to express moral judgments about a person's behavior. Further, foreigners seem to fall into a different category: we'd all prefer to gossip about the people we know, anyway.

Question: There's a sense in this book that beauty—whether a city's or an object's—can assert its own brand of tyranny; would you say that's accurate? Do you ever find yourself feeling oppressed by Venice's beauty? Do you personally believe there are certain things we should or should not do for the sake of beauty?

Leon: No, I'm never oppressed by it: the worst that happens is that I fail to notice it at times. The trouble starts, I think, when the value of beauty ceases to be aesthetic and becomes financial. Once a price tag is put on a painting or a fresco, it suddenly becomes desirable to people who might otherwise ignore it or remain inert to its beauty. I think the thing we should do with beauty is respond to it, not desire to own it.

Question: Acqua Alta is, in many ways, a story of the relationship between Brett and Flavia. Appropriately enough, the book opens with a lovely epigraph from Mozart's Don Giovanni. Can we see this epigraph as a sort of statement about Flavia and Brett's relationship? To whom do you imagine the "she" of the epigraph refers? Flavia? Brett? Or someone else entirely?

Leon: I think the epigraph comes from Don Ottavio, a character who has always seemed pretty much a dope to me, pining endlessly for Donna Anna. In the context of the book, yes, it could be Brett pining for Flavia and with about as much hope as poor Don Ottavio has.

Question: As we're reminded throughout the book, the Italian interpretation of law and order is somewhat more lax than how it might be applied here. Do you think it's correct to say that the Italians value—or are concerned with—different things in their legal system than are Americans? How did those differences affect your writing a murder mystery?

Leon: My sense of Italian law is that they are suspicious of the state's integrity or competence, and so they provide a long series of appeals. Hence court cases seem never to end or if they do end, they often renew themselves with phoenixlike regularity and go on again. This reality is reflected in the endings of many of the books, where there can be no sense that things have ended or ended fairly.

Question: Fans of your work are now familiar with Commissario Brunetti. What are some of the challenges of writing a recurring character? What are some of the advantages? Who is your favorite character in Acqua Alta, and why?

Leon: The major challenge is not to get tired of the whole thing, to keep having fun writing them. I still do. The advantage is that both writer and, one hopes, reader will form attachments to certain characters and continue to want to find out what happens to them. My favorite character is Flavia, not because I particularly like her but because of her voice. At the end of the book, she goes off to sing her first Handel opera, a move I made her make so that, should she return in some other book, she will be singing the music I love and would love to write about.

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 | Falling in Love |  | The Waters of Eternal Youth

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) 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