Donna Leon Interview - EducETH-Switzerland
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Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich
Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zurich
Archives 2004

An interview with the American best-selling author Donna Leon

Donna Leon, American mystery writer and creator of the popular Comissario Brunetti, conducted a Creative Writing Workshop in Ernen (VS). Convinced of the educational value of the EducETH, the usually very reserved author granted an interview in English.

Transcript of Interview

Katharina Merker Welcome to EducETH. My name is Katharina Merker. My guest is an American writer, who lives in Venice, Italy, and is the creator of Commissario Brunetti. Donna Leon, it's a pleasure having you here.

Donna Leon Thank you.

KM  I'd like you to look back on the very beginning of your career as a writer of crime fiction. When did you first have the idea of writing crime fiction? How did this happen?

DL  It took place, the original idea, in the dressing room of La Fenice Theater in Venice, when I was speaking to Gabriele Ferro and to his wife. And they, good Sicilians, were speaking badly about the conductor, and we somehow decided to kill him there in the dressing room. And then the idea came to me that this would be an interesting idea for a murder mystery. But until then I hadn't thought about it.

KM  Never before? What other kinds of texts have you produced so far?

DL  I have written book reviews for the London Sunday Times and other English newspapers. I, for a time, wrote monthly pieces for Weltwoche in Zurich. I've done some opera reviewing, and I've done some articles for major German publications. Other than that I can't think of anything

KM  Can you recall a moment that really triggered off a plot of a new story?

DL  Not a plot, but an idea for a book. I read once about, what are called snuff films, where women are raped and killed -- really raped and really killed in film; it's filmed. And I was so horrified by the idea that I thought that I would have that be the reason for the event of a book. So, when I began the next book I knew why things would happen, although I didn't have any idea at the beginning of the book in fact what would happen.

KM  Could you characterize your audience and your favorite readers, and do you keep them in mind while working on a new book?

DL  I think that the reader should -- is a reasonably well educated and reasonably sophisticated public. And I think this is true in the various countries, where the books are popular, or where they're read. No, I don't keep anyone in mind except myself -- I write but to amuse myself.

KM  At various occasions you have mentioned that everyone can get to the point to write well. Could you give some advice to students, who would like to improve their writing?

DL  I think the best thing you can do to become a good writer is to read. I think that by reading one begins a long love affair with language and with words, and what language can be used to do, made to do in the hands of a good writer. As to what to tell them what to do in terms of writing: Write what you want and then give it to someone you trust. And have them read it for you, and try not to be offended when they tell you what they think about it.

KM  What is the difference between writing well and being a writer?

DL  Oh, I think that most people, who have a certain level of education and certain experience in writing can write well. A writer is someone, who manages to make people want to continue to read what they are reading.

KM  In your books you appear to be a specialist in many different fields. In one of your first books you show that you are an expert in ceramics, and in all of them you give the impression of being a chef or at least a gourmet. Could you describe the kind of research you do for a new book?

DL  In the case of ceramics I read about art and art forgery for about six months; I read a lot. And by the time I came to write the book, in which the subject of art history occurred, I knew an enormous amount about it. Of course, I have forgotten much of it now in the last ten years.
As to the gourmet stuff, I have the good fortune to live in Italy, where most people know how to cook well and eat well, discernedly. And so one takes that into the air one breathes.

KM  OK. Now let's move on to what appears to be your true passion, namely music. Your knowledge in this field is impressive. Where does your great interest in music stem from?

DL  Just from listening to it. I discovered the love of music as a kid. I always liked classical music. As a university student I liked classical music and so my early exposure to classical music was all the usual stuff. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, and Bach. And then about twenty years ago I discovered Händel and Baroque vocal music. Since then my specialization in taste has pretty much concentrated on Händel and his vocal music, and now that's virtually all I listen to.

KM  And what are the reasons that you focus so much on Baroque music?

DL  It makes me happy to listen to it, and I like being happy, because I'm not much interested in the alternative.

KM  That's very nice of you to say. OK, apart from being a devoted listener are you an active player of an instrument or a singer?

DL  No, I cannot read music, I don't sing, and I cannot play an instrument.

KM  What distinguishes the mystery of music and the mystery of literature?

DL  I don't think there is any mystery in music -- you like it or you don't like it. And you like a particular kind of music, and you don't like other kinds of music. I can't stand country and western music, and yet I have American friends, who love it. I don't think it means much; it doesn't say much about a person in terms of intelligence or cultural level.
The mystery of writing, maybe, that is more significant, because words can be -- I think -- much more complicated than music can be. Because words can have so many different meanings. Obviously music and a musical passage can have different interpretations, and maybe that's a mystery -- it might as well.
But that's a question I think I might have to think about at far greater length.

KM  How do you see the difference of technique and skills a musician and a writer need?

DL  Well, they need far more practice. Because one automatically grows up -- an educated person automatically grows up immersed in the world of words. If you want to study computer programing, you have to do it by means of words. You have to read and you have to write. Just as if you want to study theology or art history. You have to do it primarily through reading and writing.
With music you don't have to sing, you don't have to play an instrument, if you are in the world of music. Very often -- one can, if one would want to -- shut off the world of music and simply not listen to it. But you can't do that with words.

KM   Thank you very much, Donna Leon, for all your information.

DL  You're more than welcome.

This interview took place in Ernen, VS, Switzerland, on July 29, 2004.

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