Name: Luca D’Andrea
Author of: THE MOUNTAIN (2017)
Luca D’Andrea’s debut novel, The Mountain, is now available. To celebrate, I have invited Luca along to chat about the book. I’d like to thank the lovely folks at MacLehose Press/Quercus for arranging this, and for their wonderful translation skills!
Thank you, Luca, for taking the time to chat with us.
No, the pleasure’s all mine, believe me.
Let’s start by looking at The Mountain. There are two very distinct storylines here, the story of Salinger and his family in “present day”, and the story of Kurt, Evi and Markus and their sad demise in 1985. Could you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind the story?
There was a man looking at a fossil. A giant ammonite, which are fairly common in my region. It was in a museum. There was a little girl with him. And they were holding hands. Father and daughter. An image, if you like, of absolute normality. But I sensed somehow that the girl was holding her father, protecting him, and not vice versa. As if she wanted to stop him … flying away. It was such a strange image that I said to myself, “There’s a story behind this, something worth telling.” So I rolled up my sleeves and got down to work. Except that, as my “writer’s compass” definitely tends towards the dark side of things, what gradually emerged was a thriller. I figured out that there had been a murder and that nobody had done justice to the victims. If I were a romantic novelist I’d probably have written about an unhappy love affair or whatever.
As a reader, it’s difficult to anticipate the story’s next turn. There are moments where it feels like supernatural horror, and others where it feels like old-fashioned crime. Did you have a specific conclusion in mind as you were writing the novel, or were you as surprised as the rest of us when it took one of its darker turns?
You know, I think the reader gives the writer the greatest gift he has: his time. And, as a writer, you have a duty to give the reader the most you can give. Including hours on end spent looking at old books, and buying beers for elderly climbers who only become talkative once they’ve emptied your wallet. So, before writing even just the first word of the novel, I work for months on the plot, the setting and above all the characters, because I want them to be rounded people, warts and all. All that takes me about six or seven months. In the end, I find myself with a kind of “treatment” in which every turn of the plot, every transition is clearly indicated. Only then can I start to write.
Despite the vast open spaces in which the story is set, the novel is steeped in a distinct sense of claustrophobia. How did you achieve this intense feeling, and how important was it to the success of the story?
Natural spaces, by which I mean also skyscrapers and moorland, not just mountains, are inside us, part of our personal histories. That’s why I always think of them as characters, on the same level as the human ones. Mountains change constantly from extreme cold (you can freeze to death in the middle of summer, I’ve seen it happen) to stifling heat. One minute, they open onto endless, almost alien landscapes, the next there are tunnels that send a shiver down your spine. And then there’s always the human factor. The Mountain is told by a single narrator, Jeremiah, and you experience everything through his eyes.
The Mountain covers a lot of ground, touching everything from palaeontology to mountain climbing, from mountain rescue to the South Tyrol secessionist movement in the 1980s (as someone who comes from Belfast, I found your description of the area as “Belfast with strudel” to be perfectly evocative). How much research was involved in writing the book, and how much is a result of the old maxim of “write what you know”?
I love writing fiction. Nobody’s interested in fights between gangs wearing tights in Verona, but everyone’s moved by Romeo and Juliet. To give their love story its greatness, though, Verona has to be believable. And that’s the key word: believability. 70% of what I write is real and requires a great deal of research and study, as well as actual memory, while 30% is pure invention. “Write what you know” is a good rule, an excellent one even, because it implies the discipline of curiosity. And that’s exactly what writing is, as I see it: discipline and curiosity. But it must never become a prison. We have a wonderful gift called imagination, let’s use it.
Jeremiah Salinger is one of the most interesting characters to turn up in fiction in some time. He’s not a particularly likeable character, because we can see how badly he is affecting his friends and family. Why did you decide to make him American?
The way I see it, Jeremiah is a man who’s trying to do the best he can, to the best of his abilities. Only, he’s an obsessive and it’s hard to reconcile obsession with the demands of a family or even, sometimes, simple common sense. If you think about it, that’s something a great many fictional protagonists have in common. Except that, unlike 90% of the protagonists of thrillers (or noir, detective stories, crime novels, call them what you will, to me they’re just novels), Jeremiah has a wife, a daughter, family ties. That appeals to me as a writer, and I think it also appeals to the reader.
Because it’s something we all have in common. I wouldn’t select Jeremiah as “father of the year”, of course, but I wouldn’t consign him to Hell either. He’s a human being. There’s light and shade in him. It wasn’t a random choice to make Jeremiah an American (thank you for the question), because, exactly like us South Tyroleans who have Italian as our mother tongue, Americans are also the children or grandchildren of immigrants, which made him somehow “close” to me. At the same time, though, in order to explore as best I could the dynamics of a small, enclosed, conservative community like Siebenhoch and a region as complex as mine, I needed the viewpoint of a stranger, someone from a completely different world, a broad-minded, multicultural world always open to innovation, like New York in this case. Which of course is why it was also natural for me to decide to write it in the first person, not the third person.
And are we likely to see him again in the future, or are you working on something different?
My new novel is just coming out now in Italy. It’s called Lissy and it’s set in my favourite amusement park: my own region. But it has nothing to do with The Mountain. It isn’t a sequel, or even a spin-off. Many readers have asked me for a sequel, but I’m sorry, I’m not a series writer. Series bore me after a while, they become soap operas, which, from a creative point of view, is the lowest point a writer can aspire to. I like every book to be a new challenge.
What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?
Thousands. Literally. And I’m grateful to all of them. Even the bad ones. If nothing else, they’ve taught me what NOT to do. But I’m a compulsive reader, I read everything. Definitely Stephen King, Patricia Highsmith, Jeffery Deaver, Don Winslow. And I love the English and American classics, especially Melville, who I’m crazy about. Then there’s Borges, Lovecraft and … But if you ask me the same question tomorrow, something tells me I could give you a different answer.
And finally, on a lighter note… If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?
Don’t laugh, but I usually keep away from writers. I’m always afraid that, having loved their books, there’s the risk I might feel disappointed seeing them in the flesh. Of course, I’d love to spend an evening with Melville. But I’d use a cheap trick. As he’s a real whale hunter, I’d ply him with lots of whisky to get him to keep talking, and I’d have just water so that I wouldn’t miss a word.
Thank you once again, Luca, for taking time out to share your thoughts.
Thank you, it’s been a real pleasure.