Magdalen Nabb - Exclusive Interview - Part Six - Miscellaneous Topics -

Exclusive Interview with Magdalen Nabb

Florence, Italy
September 10, 2004

Part Six - Miscellaneous Topics

Q: You mentioned earlier that you had written an award-winning play. Tell us about that experience?

Magdalen Nabb:  Before I wrote my first crime novel, I wrote a play and it was put on in London. I wasn’t very happy about that. I was very unhappy about the fact that repertoire doesn’t really exist anymore. I don’t know whether it does in America. When it did exist, they were doing three or four plays at once, that’s the point. In other words they have to learn lines. That’s how actors started out. They trained in repertoire. Now they train doing advertising or television--they never have to say more than one line if not a half line and they have no memory. Consequently if you begin playwriting, you always have to have young actors, you can’t write for popular actors because they’re too expensive. You’ve got to use beginners. And they have no memory. It was the most excruciating experience of my life. A person who’s been on television for years couldn’t put two lines together. Deeply embarrassing...

This was awful and I didn’t like it. They asked me to write another play because the play had won a prize which was very nice but I said, “No, I’m going home to write a novel.”

Q: Tell us about the children’s books you write.

Nabb:  I write books for five-year olds, these Josie Smith books. Some of them are published in America, not all of them. They’re about the problems children of that age have.

I think the loneliness of children is the reason why I write for them. Because Josie, for example, has no father and she has no money. She feels so at risk and so lonely because everyone else seems to have those things. The stories are written from inside her head. I never say what happened to her father because so many children write to me who have no father. One of the loveliest letters I’ve ever had was from a woman who was widowed and had three little girls to bring up and she said that they read Josie everyday because those books cover every problem that they’re ever likely to have. And when they’re in difficulty, they can find a point of reference of what Josie would do, or this is like so-and-so. And they can talk about things that they might find difficult to talk about otherwise. The mother wrote to me, and I felt so touched by that. She is the only person I ever answered with my own address on it because my mother was left with three little girls to bring up. The loneliness of thinking you’re the only person in the world who has no dad. Or you’re the only person in the world who has no money for toys when everyone else has got them. It’s lonely for children because they don’t communicate with each other. When they’re very small they don’t talk about their problems.

Q: You said you recently voted in the local elections. Tell us about that experience?

Nabb:  Yes, I’ve got involved in the elections this year for the first time ever. I went to a pre-election meeting in a tiny trattoria. The candidate who was supposed to speak to us that afternoon had a terrible accident in the family and couldn’t come. We were given wine and biscuits and then no one seemed to know what to do next, so I said, “Well you chaps, how about giving me some information because I’m voting for the first time and I have a whole gang of other foreigners who live here and are voting for the first time and I’m the only one who’s got the time to come and find out about everything--I have to go back to them and tell them who to vote for. Give me some information. Tell me who’s standing and whose what’s what here.”

It was like lighting a fuse. They didn't draw breath for about three hours, and the noise level was so terrible I couldn't hear any of them, so underneath the terrific din I whispered to my neighbour, “Will you just answer these questions?” I reported the answers back to my friends and we all voted in the municipal and European elections.

Q: Did you have to become an Italian citizen to vote?

Nabb:  No, I can vote but not in the political elections, i.e. central government. I can only vote in the administrative elections in Florence and for the European parliament.

Q: Is there a residency requirement?

Nabb:  Yes, I have to show up and register to vote. Which I did, in fact, because I was prodded into it and got involved with that as part of the research for the book I was writing.

Q: In 1993, the film The Marshal was produced for television in England. How can we get a copy of it?

Nabb: I don’t think you should, frankly or watch it. Don’t get a copy. It’s rubbish. It’s awful. It’s really awful. A painful story. Well, it should have been all right, but it could never have been wonderful made by those people. It should have been all right because the Carabinieri put a lot of money into it. They provided all the uniforms and they provided all the Carabinieri themselves who were not speaking parts. Cars, helicopters, everything. And then these stupid people who were making the film did something very silly--they lied to them, you know, treated them as they were just ‘eye-ties.’ And they fought with them. And they were really arrogant. And so the Carabinieri withdrew. And they had given them permission to go and film in the real station Pitti and the station Borgognissanti and the public Prosecutor’s office. And they lost every single location on the day they started filming all for being arrogant, lying and being rude to the Carabinieri. So then they had to just fiddle around and make things up. It’s not worth watching. We should have made six of them. So I had to withdrew the rights.

Q: You mentioned earlier that you had just completed some documentary films. Can you tell us about them?

Nabb:  This morning I received in the post two DVDs of documentary films that I made in Pakistan. My hobby is watching the news, 24-hour news from different countries. I’m a complete news maniac, really. Two years ago, I was watching during the Afghan war. I saw this little girl in Afghanistan and she’d just started school. She was at school and she was tearing the words off the blackboard, so desperate was she to learn. She had this little sprout of hair like Josie Smith, the heroine of my children’s books. And when she went home in the afternoon--as part of the World Food Program--they gave her five kilos of cooking oil, as they do to all families who send their little girls to school. So this little thing, she looked like Josie and she’s going home down this long dusty road, by herself with this huge can. And she can’t carry it. She’s stumping along and she was so like Josie so I just thought, that’s it, I’ve just got to do something. I rang up my publisher in Switzerland and said, “Find this woman who’s running this Afghan refugee school.” She’s Swiss and somebody had just given her a prize on Swiss television. They found her and I went up and met her.

I went out with a film crew to see her in Pakistan. They are right at the border with Afghanistan. She needed money for her school, especially to buy books.

Just before I left I got an emergency call from the Brooke Hospital, which is a hospital that looks after the working horses of very poor people in countries where the main transport is equine. They can’t afford medicine, shoes or anything. The Afghans, who went over into Pakistan when the Americans started to bomb, rode into Pakistan, across the Himalayas with their donkey or their mule or their horse. The animals were wrecked--their backs covered in sores, their feet worn out, starving. So The Brooke wrote to people who ride, the various riding organizations in the world, with a desperate call for help. They couldn’t cope. It came here by fax and I was just about to leave for Pakistan to film the refugee school. So, I rang The Brooke up and said, “I’m going out there with a film crew, so we could maybe make some films for you so you can get more money.” So we kind of got detoured. So we went to Peshawar and Islamabad and Lahore and Quetta and we filmed the horse hospitals.

We filmed many refugee schools, too and I bought books for the children. Ever since then the royalties from the Josie Smith books have gone to buy schoolbooks for those schools. On that first visit, with so little money, I think it was one million and a half lire ($7,500), I was able to buy all the books necessary for that school. And there are 900 children in the school. To the horse hospitals, I send the royalties from The Enchanted Horse, which is my best selling children’s book.

The horse hospitals started in Cairo after the First World War when the English army left and abandoned their horses. Now, they’re in Egypt, Jordon, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Africa.

Q: Is there a writing community in Florence?

Nabb: No, but there are plenty of writers who live here. I keep company with the people I write about rather than other writers.

Below is part of an internet audio interview with Magdalen Nabb by David Prest.

‘The recent television exposés of Tuscany's hidden secrets have shown us a very different side to Italy's most enigmatic of regions. This was a place where routine exorcisms and extortion rackets were rife. But if you go to Florence, be prepared to scrape that darker side and look behind the closed doors if you really want to get a measure of the city. That's the advice I was given by crime writer and Florence resident Magdalen Nabb. “People seem surprised when I say that Florence, both architecturally and as a city, inspires crime writing,” says Nabb as she sits in her apartment overlooking the Arno. “There are huge, dark and mysterious doorways that you can just get a glimpse through, and tiny alleyways which are positive Jack the Ripper stuff, and it's the mysteriousness or closed nature of the communities that's so fascinating. The average tourist is put on a sort of railway line between the Uffizi Gallery and Palazzo Pitti and only gets to see the backs of these buildings.”

As I wandered around the cathedral area, I remembered some more of Magdalen Nabb's observations. “You can't help but be affected by the architectures,” she said, “suicides for example always throw themselves off Giotto's bell tower. After all, it's a statement if you jump off there and if I were going to jump off something, I'd definitely jump off Giotto's tower. It's beautiful.”’

David Prest is an award winning travel writer and radio producer and a founder of He also runs Whistledown Productions, an independent supplier of programmes to BBC Radio. He lives in South London.