by Moreno Giovannoni
There is a lot of writing about “the Writer’s Life”. This is not an example, except in passing.
First of all, you must understand, I am not a writer.
Why I Wrote A Book
I just wanted to tell the story of the village in Italy where my mother and father were born, the village they left to come to Australia in the 1950s. The writing is fictional but some people tell me it reads like memoir. The working title for the book has been Tales From San Ginese, but may become The Fireflies Of Autumn: Tales From San Ginese, or something else.
This book will be published by Black Inc in 2018.
I just wanted to tell the story of the village because I wanted to work out how I felt and what I believed about all sorts of things, including being born and dying and staying home and going away and especially about how to live a life. Do you know how long it took me to understand why I was writing it? Years.
I also want to tell another story.
I want to tell the story of the tobacco farm and the town in north-east Victoria where I grew up. The working title for this second book is The Sweet Life, which is a play on the title of Federico Fellini’s 1960 film La dolce vita, but also an ironic reference to the lifestyle of the characters in the film and the lifestyle of the characters in the book: the bohemian night life of Rome compared to the hard physical work at all hours in the tobacco paddocks and kilns. Yet the life of that Italian community was also sweet, very sweet.
I want to tell the story of the tobacco-growing Italian community in north-east Victoria because I want to work out how I feel and what I believe about all sorts of things, including being born in Italy and dying in another country and staying home and going away and especially how to live a life. Like my parents, who emigrated from San Ginese, I went away from the place where I grew up (Buffalo River). Many of us go away and I have decided that people, wherever possible, by and large, should just stay home.
How I Wrote A Book
Writing a book in my fifties has been emotionally exhausting and in the end overwhelming. It has been hard and it has been slow and I have only endured thanks to the support of some good writing friends and a wonderful teacher.
I haven’t had the time to do the mandatory ten year apprenticeship in my twenties and thirties, to learn the craft and then apply it. Also missing from my portfolio of experience has been learning to handle the roller-coaster of approval and rejection and rejection and rejection and the fear of ridicule and humiliation. Plenty of scepticism and rejection have come my way and I still haven’t learnt to manage it. There hasn’t been enough time yet. I started late. My skin is still thin.
In my twenties I started working as a translator. The work is very straightforward. Do the translation, do it well, get paid, go on to the next translation. I have done this for almost forty years. Translation is pretty mundane work, unless you are the translator for a Swiss chocolate company in Graham Greene’s Doctor Fischer And The Geneva Bomb Party.
Not too long ago I decided that if I was going to write the book then I had to lay my self-esteem on the line and risk everything or just about. I told my wife I was prepared to be publicly humiliated, but I had to tell the story of the village where my mother and father were born.
In the end I learned that you do need a thick skin (although I haven’t grown one yet) but at the same time the skin needs to be thin and therefore sensitive enough to feel the emotions, the pain and the passion (and boredom) that comes with making art. More about that “making art” thing in a minute.
To experience these emotions – ridicule, humiliation – I feel like my chest has to be torn open, the heart exposed, its three layers of skin peeled off and the organ left there beating, throbbing. In this way I can feel the lives of the people and the place I’m writing about more acutely. That sounds pretty over the top. But for me it’s true.
Now, about the “art.” Here I am probably putting my foot in it. When I write I am trying to create art. Nothing else interests me. Seriously. It may sound pretentious but that’s only because we live in Australia where “art” is a wanker’s word. At this stage I am probably out of my depth.
Yet the “art” idea drives my writing.
In my Italian persona I have a chip on my shoulder that looks down on Australians for various reasons and one of them is the inability to use the word “art” freely and unselfconsciously, the way an Italian would. On a few occasions I have let the chip run loose and have been accused of discriminating against Australians. The other Italians in the room have laughed.
I also have an Australian persona but it is forced. It manifests itself mostly at the footy. I go every week but it is illustrative that I go with a Greek Macedonian friend. My best friends have always been the sons and daughters of migrants. They may even be the readers who most appreciate my writing.
At the very least I can confidently say the idea of writing as “art” is important to me.
Writers get asked questions, including where do you get your ideas from?
If anyone were to ask me (and they haven’t, because I’m not a writer) I would say that every day I meet people and visit places that I want to write about.
For instance, I know that one day I will write a story, long or short, about the street I live in. It is an ordinary suburban street, two blocks from a railway station. When I first came to this street to visit the parents of the woman I ended up marrying I hated it. I travelled there from a student share house in Carlton. I hated the train ride, I hated the station, the lane I walked down, the busy main road nearby. I even thought I would write about my hate one day.
I had read George Orwell’s “lesser” novels about the crushing burden of everyday life in a capitalist world (Keep The Aspidistra Flying) and the agony of wasting your life then looking for your past (Coming Up For Air).
I had seen Lindsay Anderson’s If about rebellious youth and the stifling, warlike, conservative establishment. I had seen Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange about a violent kind of non-conformity. I was determined never to become a public service clerk, catching the suburban train, joining the flock of tame sheep that got off at Flinders Street station every morning. That’s exactly what I became.
Forty years later I live in that same suburban street in a house on a quarter acre block. It is this street that has taught me I can write about anyone and anything. It is in this street that I realised after forty years that familiarity breeds love and that I want to write about that. I write in a room upstairs at the back with a view of treetops and terracotta tiled roofs. The Florence of the South, according to Frank.
One day I will walk my reader down past the line of shops between the station and Malane Street. This time I will avoid the lane, which will be for another day. Every shop will have a history, some of which I will invent because I like to write like that. This is the street along which Mitch the yellow Labrador and I walked the children on the way to school every morning for years and years. I want to write a book about a street, using a lot of truth and some invention, with elements of Gerald Murnane. When I write I make up as little as possible, as the truth is always more interesting. What I write is also all true and all made up. These are the thoughts that feed my writer’s heart.
I have an inexhaustible supply of ideas, in case you were wondering.
I have noticed I write about one thing only: the passage of time, the impermanence of everything, decay and death.
My own pop Freudian psychological analysis of why I write what I do reveals that my writer’s fixation on decay and death comes from the Catholicism I was raised in. It’s not just a Catholic idea of course (even George Harrison knew that All Things Must Pass). But it was the Catholic Church that taught me, just before I finally and irrevocably lapsed in my late teens, that this life is ephemeral. The lesson has stuck.
Below are some examples of my preferred subject matter.
The first piece of writing I had published was given the title Lost In Translation by a Saturday Age editor and published as an essay. It was about the death and decay you encounter working as an interpreter, in aged care assessments, visiting nursing homes.
Island literary magazine then published A Short History Of The Boy, a story based on my idyllic country childhood. I remember correcting the title in the proof I was sent. They had called it The Short History Of The Boy. To me it was a shocking thing and I got them to correct it. I can’t explain why I preferred the “A” to the “The” but I did. I remember the relief I felt when it was corrected. I had been horrified at the prospect of the story being published with the wrong title and at one stage thought it might be too late to fix it. This was my first experience of writer’s anxiety and paranoia.
Meanwhile, this story too was about a life that had passed, a childhood, observed by a God-like omniscient narrator from high up in the sky.
Two other early stories published in university magazines, When Irish Eyes, and Sally dealt with the slow onset of my mother’s Parkinson’s-like syndrome and the death of a school-friend in a car accident.
By the time The Percheron was published in Best Australian essays I had moved beyond simple decay and death to their aftermath. The aftermath is usually that the survivors keep living their lives. The aftermath is often quite boring.
I wonder whether I will become tiring and predictable if I write about decay and death all the time.
The Writer’s Life (more Ideas and Favourite Subject)
I have never been so caught up in the writer’s life as I have in recent weeks, and for me, writing is mostly like having teeth pulled.
I have had to find 3000 words to be workshopped at a writing class. I have had to write 9000 words for the blog.
I wrote a 4000 word eulogy after my father Ugo died on 2 May. As the writer in the family it fell to me to draft the eulogy.
My father Ugo, whom you met in my first blog, died on Tuesday 2 May. I spoke to him the night before via Facetime with my brother’s help.
Two weeks after he died I had built up the courage to listen again to his last voicemail which he left on my phone on the Saturday, so I checked my phone messages. It was gone. Then I remembered I had boldly and blindly deleted it a few days after he died it so that it wasn’t sitting there waiting to ambush me.
During the Facetime call the night before he died, the writer in me took the opportunity to ask him the names of the three young men who had sailed to Australia with him. The photograph shows them in Capetown, in front of a large white colonial building, with Table Mountain in the background. I had gathered a lot of the material for my book by asking him questions. He said he could only remember one name, Noè, who was from Montecarlo near Lucca. Noè (Noah) is a good name for a man sailing on a ship.
The writer in me remembers the message Ugo left on my phone on Saturday 29 April.
Now, you tell me how I, just an ordinary cristiano, can ever forget those words.
Two observations first:
1) because I write stories the words will end up in a book one day.
2) it’s better that I deleted the message because when I write the words I can imagine them in a different way. They will be true but a little different.
My voice was so important to him, a family member’s voice, and an Italian voice.
Here are the words coming via his mobile phone through the air from the nursing home:
Sono tuo padre, Ugo. Telefonavo un po’ per sentire la voce di uno di noi, che son qui solo, Morè.
It’s your father, Ugo. I was calling just to hear the voice of one of my people, because I’m all alone here, Morè.
A few days before that he left a message saying he was afraid because something had happened and he couldn’t understand what was going on in his head. He wanted me or my brother to call him.
M’è successo qualcosa,. Sto perdendo i sensi. Telefona.
Something’s happened to me. I’m losing my mind. Call me.
I want to write about this.
I want to write about the Italian language, which is such a small thing in such a big English speaking country. His small, old Italian voice, in an English speaking nursing home. In a country town, whose only history book, published in the early 1970s, mentions the Italian community in one paragraph.
In a country where even today the population believes that food is the principal contribution of its immigrants (see Melbourne Salami Festa). Salame is good but what immigrants contributed was their energy and drive, their work, the strength in their arms, their legs and their backs, their families.
I am not a writer. I just want to write a book (or two).
When someone says “I want to be a writer” I believe they are mistaking style for substance. For me the substance is the book and that’s the only thing that matters.
Deciding I don’t want to be a writer solves a problem for me.
Rather than saying I’m a writer, which I have never felt comfortable about, if people were to ask me what I’m doing I would just tell them I’m writing a book.