I came across this book thanks to being a member of the brilliant Women Writer’s Network. In a state of gloom thanks to the clocks going back (toddlers can’t tell the difference) and impending lockdown, I decided to escape to Italy with Valeria Vescina’s book That Summer in Puglia. I’m so glad I did. I gorged myself on this book, getting through the whole thing in less than a week.
It’s a cleverly framed novel (read about the decisions behind that here) that tells the story of an intense connection in the beautiful setting of Puglia. Not only are the characters intriguing, the novel is based on an awful twist of fate that leaves you desperate to find out how it all turns out. If you’re in need of some sunshine and vitality, I urge you to read it. That Summer in Puglia (Eyewear Publishing) is now in its third print run and available also in e-book form. I spoke to the writer last week to find out more about the book, her writing and publishing process. Don’t worry, there aren’t any spoilers!
1. Place is obviously incredibly important in this book. Did you go back to Puglia before writing the scenes or is it all based on memory?
I was born and raised in Puglia until the age of thirteen. I’ve lived abroad ever since but Puglia is still home to my parents and relatives, so I’ve returned at least once a year. Although I’m a true European – Italian and British, married to a Pole and fluent in four languages, after living in several countries – I’m also an Apulian with a profound love for my native land. Being fully integrated in different worlds gives me the gaze of both the insider and the outsider to Puglia: I know the region from within; and yet my sense of wonder – for its natural landscape, architecture, people and history’s impact on all these – is always fresh. Puglia is a land of dramatic contradictions: its modernity coexists with the legacy of a rich history as a crossroads of cultures. In the novel, those contradictions spark conflict between and within characters.
So, you’re right: place is crucial in the book because the protagonists are inseparable from Puglia. They have been shaped by it – and it tests them. Faced with a crisis, how will they respond to the social expectations of their place and time? Through their actions, will they accept or reject aspects of the culture around them? I wanted place to be an ‘active’ character.
Obviously, sense of place demands the filter of a narrator’s point of view – in this case, that of the main character Tommaso. Therefore, notwithstanding my familiarity with Ostuni (the town where the story unfolds), I walked repeatedly through its streets like a ‘method actor’ – imagining how Tommaso might perceive the streets, the buildings and the people at different points in the narrative. When he’s in love, which details would catch his attention and what kind of language would he use? Conversely, when he’s at a low point, how would he describe these and other places? In other moments, how would nostalgia, or hate, colour his perception?
Many readers enjoyed the references to local cuisine: I inserted them because traditional cooking is a form of embodied memory – personal and multi-generational – and so its emotional resonance can be intense for characters and, through them, for readers.
2. One thing that really struck me was how cleverly the plot was put together. Through the framed narrative of a present conversation, you held back from revealing things at the end of chapters which made me desperate to read on! Did you plan the plot before you started?
Thank you for your really kind comment. Yes, I did plan the plot before I started. Some stories can be written without being planned from the outset, but I couldn’t have made the twists and the characters’ psychological development in this novel coherent without a plan. The main incidents came to my imagination like vivid movie sequences; over subsequent months, I filled in gaps and details on index cards; I then re-ordered and condensed this material into scenes; finally, I re-wrote them into a plot.
The withholding and release of information to the reader, to which you refer, is a technique learnt from crime fiction at the suggestion of Ardu Vakil, one of my tutors on the MA in Creative Writing. Ardu rightly pointed out that what I set out to write involved a psychological mystery with a final denouement, and that I therefore needed to study and absorb the lessons of crime fiction even though That Summer in Puglia isn’t in that genre.
As regards the framed narrative, it allows for two things: shifts between the present day and Tommaso’s narration of past events; and changes of tempo and mood. Tension in the present-day scenes is heightened by the dramatic-monologue form: that is, Tommaso narrates his story to an interlocutor whom the reader doesn’t hear but whose responses we glean from Tommaso. This form presented itself intuitively; at one stage, I experimented with third-person point of view but then reverted to dramatic monologue. It was ideal for Tommaso, an unreliable narrator who has avoided coming to terms with his past: it conveys his sense of isolation; readers could identify with his sympathetic listener; and with the latter, they could move back and forth between judging Tommaso and feeling for him.
3. Class is a real theme that runs through your book. Why did you want to draw attention to it in your book?
‘Class’ can mean different things. If what we mean by it is ‘snobbery’, then we’re talking of one of many ways of ‘othering’ people. Although I didn’t realise it until I had drafted a large part of the novel, its central themes are empathy and dialogue: the everyday marvels they enable; the tragedies to which their absence can lead. Snobbery comes into That Summer in Puglia first as an obstacle to empathy and dialogue between Emma and Anna. In Tommaso’s mother, the ‘armour’ of class is a sign of insecurity, very unlike the ease of her husband’s relationships with everyone. As the story unfolds, dialogue will transform that and other aspects of the mother; conversely, Tommaso denies others the opportunity for dialogue, preventing himself for too long from understanding his father’s emotional inheritance.
4. It’s very hard to write a love story about young people without sounding cliched. What was it about the relationship between the two characters that made it so vivid and emotive?
It’s nice to hear your response to the love story. As the author, I’m probably not the best person to answer your question of what makes it vivid and emotive. So, I’ve looked through reviews of the novel (you can find some here) to see what readers said. Below are a few recurring comments.
- The fact that the protagonists – including Tommaso and his great love, Anna – come across as having lifelike complexity makes for believable emotions and motivations.
- The grounding of the love story in genuine local detail – a town square, whitewashed houses, winding alleyways, Tommaso’s villa and its gardens or the mouth-watering food cooked by Concetta – makes the scenes imaginable and the readers highly invested in the young lovers.
- The intensity of some of the emotions – starting with first love – grips because they are universal.
- Another big factor is that the love story doesn’t develop in a vacuum but is intricately connected with Tommaso and Anna’s relationships with family and friends.
5. Having written and published a novel, what advice would you give to people who are in the process of doing the same thing?
Write because you love it: getting traditionally published isn’t easy, so look at publication as a desirable, not an essential, outcome.
Read voraciously: all authors were and remain attentive readers, first.
Be humble: every profession takes years of study and practice, and writing is no exception. I’m extremely grateful for the teaching and constructive criticism received over the years.
Stay resilient: manuscript rejections are part of the process for every published author. Sometimes, rejections are accompanied by priceless feedback – if so, welcome it.
6. What can you tell us about the novel you’re currently working on?
I can happily say that I’m now half-way through writing it. It’s a historical novel set in the 1500s: a story of women, based on true events. I started researching it long before publication of my debut novel. Piecing together the facts, the relationships between the protagonists and their likely motivations was challenging because this is micro-history – involving ordinary people – as opposed to the History with a capital ‘h’ within which it fits. Another challenge arises from the gulf between the mentality of the time and ours: people’s internal worlds, ‘permissible’ emotions and expressions of feeling have changed in some important respects. I’ve set myself the task of being faithful to that mindset, whilst ‘translating’ it for my contemporaries. What happened to the women in my story is shocking. They deserve to be ‘brought back to life’ to give us insights into the roots, the legacy and the correctives of discrimination against women to this day.
Valeria Vescina is a novelist, a literary and opera reviewer (for the European Literature Network and Seen & Heard International, respectively), a trustee and the literary programme director of the Hampstead Arts Festival, as well as a creative-writing tutor (at organisations ranging from schools and universities to adult further education). She is a founder member of the Women Writers Network. She holds an MA in Creative & Life Writing from Goldsmiths, an MSc in Management from London Business School and a BSocSc in International Studies from the University of Birmingham. She blogs at https://valeriavescina.com/.
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