Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dark Deeds from an Enlightened Age

(Editor’s note: In the post below, R.N. “Roger” Morris, author of the recently published historical thriller A Razor Wrapped in Silk [which stars mid-19th-century Russian detective Porfiry Petrovich], talks with the authors who publish as “Michael Gregorio” about the challenges of writing as a couple, Prussian vampires, and the Italian mafia.)

Daniela de Gregorio and Mike Jacob, aka “Michael Gregorio.”

Rap Sheet contributor Michael Gregorio is the author of four gripping Prussia-set historical crime novels of the Napoleonic period. He is also two people, the husband-and-wife writing team of Michael G. Jacob and Daniela de Gregorio, who live in Spoleto, a small town in central Italy’s Umbria region. Mike and Daniela have twice interviewed me for The Rap Sheet (here and here). Having recently read--and loved--the latest book in their series, Unholy Awakening (Minotaur), I thought it was about time I returned the compliment.

R.N. Morris: I consider myself very lucky, because I got in on the Hanno Stiffeniis series right at the beginning with your first novel, A Critique of Criminal Reason (one of January Magazine’s favorite books of 2006). That title hints at a link with the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who of course features directly in the book, and indeed casts his shadow over your hero, magistrate/investigator Stiffeniis, in every subsequent book. The standard question for historical crime novelists is “What drew you to your chosen period and setting?” Am I right in thinking that it had something to do with a preoccupation with Kant?

Michael Gregorio: Back in 2000, we were working separately on novels, but neither of us seemed to be going any­­where. Daniela was teaching philosophy, and she was fascinated by something she had read about the Prussian philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Indeed, she had plans to write a short story about the great thinker, and the rough ex-soldier, Martin Lampe, who was his personal valet. The two men had been living under the same roof for almost 30 years when, one day, the servant was sacked on the spot. What had Lampe done to give offense? And why did the “most rational man in the world” paste notices around his house, remind­ing himself to “Forget Martin Lampe”? Kant’s biographers had little to say on the subject, so we began working together on a possible explanation. The result in 2006 was A Critique of Criminal Reason.

Our first novel portrayed Kant’s last days, and it shocked many purists, apparently. We had come across an article in The Lancet suggesting that the philosopher’s old age was plagued by a form of Alzheimer’s disease described at the time as dementia. Can you imagine the most rational man in the world going nuts? It was the stuff that novels are made of ...

At the end of the book, we killed him off, as you probably recall. We never intended to use Kant as a serial subject, nor as a detective. Instead, we created a protégé, a young magistrate named Hanno Stiffeniis, an ex-student of Kant’s, as our hero. Hanno idolizes Kant until he actually meets him, and realizes that he is all too human. As a result, Hanno Stiffeniis is tormented by his fear of what Kant may have said or written about him. Like all lead characters, our magistrate is tormented by his own demons ...

In short, our novels are about Hanno Stiffeniis, his wife, and his family. You don’t need to study philosophy, know about Kant, or read our novels in chronological sequence to follow what’s going on. We think of Immanuel Kant as “wallpaper,” like Napoleon, Prussia, the Age of Enlightenment. These elements add color and context to the novels, while each investigation stands on its own.

RNM: Picking up on that “color and context,” let me say that the early 19th-century setting of all the books is utterly convincing. I particularly admire the way you have captured the complexities and tensions of an occupied country, as played out in the relationship between the Prussians and the occupying French. Hanno, as a Prussian magistrate is, of course, caught in the middle. How difficult was it to get a handle on that? How much came from specific research? And how much was the result of a brilliant imaginative leap?

MG: Thanks for allowing us the possibility of a brilliant imaginative leap! The fact is, when we began to write about the period, we had only the vaguest notions of Prussia and life in occupied Napoleonic Europe. Having said that, both of us are history buffs. Dani teaches the subject, while I have publish­ed a lot on the history of photography in the 19­th century. Still, we did need to learn a great deal more about the time and place before we could write a convincing novel. As we both enjoy reading and research, it proved to be more of a pleasure than a grind. Finding the stuff to read was more tricky, as there seems to be so little which is readily available, apart from standard histories, which are pretty dull. Then again, the French produced L’Encylopedie, a universal guide to all aspects of culture, commerce, science, and invention in the period. We consulted it extensively. There happens to be an original copy in our town library! Military memoirs of the Napoleonic period also give away snippets about life and conditions--British military historians are the very best--and then you start branching into areas from which much more can be derived--the lives of German philosophers, musicians, artists and architects, German literature from [Johann Wolfgang von] Goethe to the Grimm brothers. It was an extremely rich cultural panorama, bursting with ideas from the bright to the bizarre. Having got a grip on the basic facts, we started to make some of those “brilliant imaginative leaps” you were mentioning. You weren’t being ironical, were you?

For example, we live in Italy, which has extremes of climate, like northern Germany. The winters in Spoleto are as cold as those in Lotingen [the hometown of Hanno and his wife]. And medieval towns are pretty much the same wherever you go. The poorer parts of Italy and Germany were not so different. The important thing is to omit anything which sounds false. Convincing description is a matter of a few well-chosen words, and a plot which carries you through it.

RNM: As you mentioned it, let’s talk about plot. What do you look for in a plot? How do you go about constructing yours? I’m interested to know how the process works when there are two writers working together. Do you ever disagree about what should happen? And if so, who’s usually right?

MG: Plots are a lot like the sonata form in classical music: theme, development, reversal, resolution. Having said that, each sonata is distinct and different. We generally open with a short atmospheric introduction to paint the scene. Then we want a murder and a mystery which will immediately hook the reader’s interest in the first few pages. The crime must really resonate--the stakes are always high when somebody commits a murder--so more murders will follow on with diversions in the form of red herrings, errors of judgment, false trails, apparent clues which may be relevant or not, suspicions confounded, and a growing sense of frustration, helpless­ness, and chaos. At that point, we start to work towards a dramatic confrontation and a dénouement which will restore some sort of order. That’s the theory, anyway ...

We have learnt how to write our own form of mystery, and it seems to work. A thorough working-out of the story line helps us focus even before we start writing. We decide precisely what we want, and how we would like the story to unfold. Then, as it starts unfolding, we make decisions about the way that it is developing. And here the joys and the tribulations of working together kick in. One of us--it could be either one--would like things to happen in a certain way, or in a certain order, and we don’t always agree on the direction or the approach. We have often written two or more versions of a particular scene or chapter before deciding which way it should go. As a general rule, Daniela holds the compass and I wield the scissors, cutting out unnecessary steps along the way. We tend to be right when we finally agree. It’s an odd sort of chemistry, but when the light shines through we both seem to see it.

RNM: Ah, yes, the atmospheric introduction. The opening to your latest, Unholy Awakening, is a master class in Atmosphere, and it fair scared the bejesus out of me. The book has a vampire-related theme, although it’s a million miles from Stephenie Meyer. It’s interesting to compare today’s fashionable preoccupation with vampires with the genuine terror that existed in Prussia at the time of your novel. How do you see the differences? And were you at all wary of writing a “vampire novel”?

MG: A lot of fresh blood has been suckled from the vampire myth in recent years. Nowadays we think automatically of Stephenie Meyer, but what about the vampires of Anne Rice, Elizabeth Kostova, Fred Vargas, or John Ajvide Lindqvist? We felt there was still much more to be said, and we wanted to set it in the context from which it naturally sprang: the woodland culture of East Prussia, where the Grimm brothers were collecting folk tales of witches, wolves, and goblins at the dawn of the 19th century.

There could hardly be a more fitting time or place for a vampire novel!

Long before Bram Stoker created the legendary figure of reclusive Count Dracula, there was a vast corpus of documentary evidence recording the terror which the fear of vampires unleashed in rural towns and villages. Maria-Theresa of Austria prohibited the digging-up of the dead after outbreaks of vampire fever disrupted the Empire in 1755, for example. There was nothing romantic about these accounts, nothing fascinating about the vampire. The chronicles spoke of a familiar face which enters a house, bringing disease and death on the inhabitants. Having infected a town or a village, the plague moved on from one house to the next in an appalling epidemic of fear and death. More than anything, the vampire represented the danger of falling in love with, being spellbound by, or married to a person who becomes the open door through which evil enters your life.

This is what happens to Hanno Stiffeniis in Unholy Awakening.

We’re not concerned about being accused of jumping on a bandwagon. People have been writing about vampires for centuries. We chanced on a text written by the Bishop of Trani in southern Italy in 1741. Giuseppe Davanzati examined the vampire phenomenon for the benefit of Pope Benedict XIV. An Enlightened scholar, Davanzati ascribed the widespread terror to popular ignorance regarding death and human decomposition, hypothesizing that bands of brigands exploited these fears to their advantage. It might have been magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis talking! Prussia had fallen victim to vampire terror many times, as the chronicles recount. Intimidated by the success of Stephenie Meyer or Fred Vargas? Not at all. We had a story of our own to tell.

RNM: Absolutely ... It’s rooted in the Prussia of that period, but also in keeping with your own darker than dark brand of noir. A couple of years ago you very kindly invited me to take part in the inaugural Trevi Noir Festival (I’m assuming it’s like the Olympics and will take place every four years). One of the objectives of that festival was to bring together British and Italian crime writers, to explore and celebrate our differences as well as our similarities. One of you is Italian, the other English, so you’re in a better position than most to have view on this. What distinguishes Italian noir from the English--and also, if you like, the American--tradition? Who are the Italian writers Rap Sheet readers ought to be looking out for? And are they available in English, please?

MG: Trevi Noir really went well. We had a lot of distinguished British writers, Laura Wilson, Andrew Taylor, Maxim Jakubowski, and, of course, the great Roger Morris. On the Italian front we had Kai Zen (four guys from all over the peninsula who write together by way of the Internet), Patrick Fogli, Diego De Silva, and Simone Sarasso. Somewhere in the middle were Daniela, myself, and Ben Pastor, an Italo-American, who lives in Italy. The significant difference between Italian and British crime writing emerged in a well-put question from our agent, Leslie Gardner: OK, said Leslie, historical reconstruction’s fine, but what about the central character? This really is the crux. English writers tend to be known for a character they have created, whether it be Porfiry, Stiffeniis, or [Ian Rankin’s] Rebus, while Italian noir is essentially political, left-wing, and revisionist. Leslie suggested that Italian writers were so involved in trying to explain the enigmas of Italian history--the bombing of Bologna station (Fogli), or where the terrorist Red Brigades came from (Sarasso)--that they didn’t take the time to create gripping fictional characters. From a British point of view, it is a reasonable criticism.

There are Italian crime writers who have created memorable characters--Massimo Carlotto’s Alligator, Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano, for instance--and it may just be a coincidence, but they are translated into English. My favorite Italian noir is Giuseppe Genna’s In the Name of Ishmael, which I read in an excellent English translation. Genna combines politics, conspiracy, and incidents from recent history in a compelling way, though his other books (notably the controversial novel, Hitler) are still looking for an English publisher. Barbara Baraldi [The Girl with the Crystal Eyes] is another Italian writer who has been published in the UK, and her work tends to be character-based and set in Bologna.

The real problem for native Italian authors is that they are competing with writers like the late Michael Dibdin or Donna Leon, whose portrayals of Italian society are really superficial--I call them “art, wine, and cookery” crime novels--but who have an army of English readers. Oddly, Dibdin is published and read in Italy, while Donna Leon is not.

When is the next Trevi Noir Olympics? Well, we are still recovering from the last one. We have never worked so hard in our lives!

RNM: Thanks for the recommendations. I know you’re both huge fans of the film Gomorra, which presents an absolutely authentic depiction of Italian organized crime. I also know that you’ve taught creative writing to the inmates of your local prison, some of whom are alleged to be mafiosi. How does it feel coming face to face with real killers, after spending so much time creating fictional ones? If nothing else, the experience must have given you some great material.

MG: Yes, we wrote a couple of spirited defenses of Gomorra for The Rap Sheet after the film failed to win the approval we thought that it deserved from the Oscars in the States. Matteo Garrone’s film (and the book by Roberto Saviano which inspired it) made a huge impression in a country where organized crime by mafia clans is daily news. It opened up a window on a ruthless world that very few people knew about. “Lifelike” was not the word for it. Now, when you hear on TV that a mayor was shot in a mafia-type execution in a small town near Salerno yesterday, or that the mafia has managed to infiltrate the costly building programs for the projected 2015 Expo in Milan, you have a context, a sense of what is happening. No one can hope to “understand” Italy unless they’re aware of how closely political corruption and organized crime are linked. It is estimated that a sixth of the Gross National Product is in the hands of mafia organizations like the Camorra (Naples), ’Ndrangheta (Calabria), and the Corona Unita (Puglia). Roberto Saviano’s wordplay on Gomorrah and Camorra was intentional and it was loaded with moral and social significance. Both the book and the film were documentaries as much as they were fiction.

And yes, we do know some of these people by name.

A couple of years ago, we were invited to the local high-security prison in Spoleto to talk about one of our books. We have been teaching some of the inmates ever since. We ask them to write about their lives and criminal experiences. That is, we get them to “fictionalize” it. They are all “lifers” condemned for violent crimes associated with the mafia. As they refuse to name the other members of their clans, under Italian law “life” means “life without remission.” Visits from their families and us are all they’ve got. They are extremely nice with us and they seem to appreciate the effort we make. We take their writing seriously, and we help them to pass the time.

They often say things that set you thinking, however. One guy went philosophical on us one day, wondering why normal people are “so fascinated by violence.” Another prisoner, a big boss from Palermo, insists that he is “like the Fiat factory in Turin”: he creates work for hundreds of people and boosts the local economy. Sometimes amazing snippets emerge. One of them told us how they plan an important hit by “testing the gun” to make sure it won’t block or backfire. You go out and shoot someone who “deserves a bullet.” When the gun has passed the test, it’s ready for the big job.

One day, however, we were unable to go to the prison. We had to cancel the visit. The week after, Daniela explained to them that her headmistress had planned a teachers’ meeting that day, and that she had refused to change the date. Daniela had no choice; she had to go to the meeting. One of our “students” looked at Dani, smiled and said: “Just give me her name …”

RNM: That’s very chilling. But funny too.

MG: Yes, isn’t it? We do what our students do: we never name names.

RNM: So what’s next for Michael Gregorio? Can you share with us what you’re working on at the moment? Another Hanno novel, or perhaps something drawing on your deep understanding of Italy? That explosive combination of political corruption and organized crime that you mentioned must be grist to the mill for crime writers.

MG: Well, Unholy Awakening is in the shops, and we are already working on the next one. It will not be the fifth Hanno Stiffeniis mystery. It’s time for Hanno to take a break. As you guessed, there are other scenarios closer to home that strongly attract us. The emergence of the mafia in the aftermath of the Second World War, for example. It was a troubled time, a period of great social chaos. More civilians died in the three years after the signing of the Armistice than during the five years that Italy had been at war. We are talking of at least 180,000 murders. As the Allies moved north, an undeclared civil war broke out. People started paying off their war debts, taking revenge on political enemies, getting even with their neighbors who had wield­ed power as fascist party members. After 20 years of totalitarian dictatorship, three years of fighting on the side of the Germans, and two more as the despised allies of the Allies, it was inevitable, perhaps.

We are very excited about the new story. [In it,] Raoul Sodano, an ex-fascist policeman, has not entirely come to terms with his recent past, though he has been co-opted to work as an investigator with the American authorities in Rome. A number of women have disappeared, and some of them have been brutally murdered. When Raoul discovers that one of the missing women is English, things warm up. Who was Catherine Allison, and what exactly was she doing in fascist Rome?

RNM: It sounds tremendous--can’t wait to read it. On which note, I’d better let you get back to work!

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