If you're looking to work on your writing with our writers whilst exploring a lesser-known part of Italy, check out our writing retreat starting 30 October. Highlights include:
Daily writing workshops
One-on-one sessions with writing mentors
One-of-a-kind activities to get you thinking about characters & scenes
Guided tours of local landmarks
Bonding over evening meals with other writers
I was lucky enough to interview writer Francesco Dimitri for the latest newsletter. A true son of Puglia, Francesco Dimitri is an Italian author and speaker living between London and a small town in Puglia. He is considered one of the foremost fantasy writers in Italy, and his works, both in English and in Italian, have been widely appreciated by non-genre readers too.
You should start with his novel, The Book of Hidden Things. It traces the annual meet-up of four friends, close to each other since childhood. Things take a turn when one of them doesn’t show up. Kirkus Reviews called the book a “thrilling spectacle that also manages to point poignantly at the way the landscapes we grow up in shape us in ways even beyond our understanding.”
Our conversation is below.
Lloyd Miner (LM): Hi Francesco; thanks so much for taking the time. I always start by talking about language. How many languages do you speak?
Francesco Dimitri (FD): In a sense, by living abroad taught I have learned my mother tongue, Italian, all over again. I became more away of the way it works, and stopped taking for granted its hidden cogs. While once the language spoke through me, now I speak through the language. Well. On my best days. And I speak through two languages – Italian and English. Three, if you count my hometown dialect. It’s different enough from Italian that someone from a different part of the country couldn’t follow a conversation.
(LM): What’s a great Italian word or phrase that doesn’t have an English equivalent and vice versa?
(FD): You cannot translate the word ‘home’ in Italian; we only have ‘house’ and ‘family’. It is a word I love, with its sense of a lived experience. More than a word of a phrase, what I miss in English is a verb tense, the imperfect. It is used to speak of something which was habitually done in the past. There are ways to express the same meaning in English, of course, but none of them conveys the nostalgic sense of a dimly remembered age which is part and parcel of the Italian ‘imperfect’.
(LM): What have you found the most difficult about writing in a second language? The most rewarding?
(FD): Both questions get the same answers: the emotional experience. What is really hard about writing fiction in another language is not the grammar – it is learning how to convey an emotional experience with a fundamentally different toolbox. And in order to do that, you need to be able to feel those emotions through that toolbox. When you start crying in another language, then you can write it.
(LM): You publish now mostly in English, correct? When did that happen? Was it a conscious decision, and what was behind it?
(FD): Yep, I work and publish mostly in English. It was a conscious decision. I moved to London back in 2008, when I barely spoke any English at all (I knew the English I needed to read role-playing game manuals, but I could not order tea). I had decided I wanted to write in English partly because it’s a larger market and partly because English and American authors of the fantastic were in my literary DNA. I wanted to explore the literature I loved more in its own terms.
(LM): How is writing in a second language compared to your native Italian, especially when using English to describe your home country? One of the things I’ve struggled with writing about The Netherlands in English is that sometimes Dutch words or concepts don’t translate like “natafelen” which signifies the conversation and time spent with people after a meal, literally, “after dining”.
(FD):I get what you mean, and I feel the same. It’s really hard, because words are experiences and vice versa. I often joke that it is a mistake to translate the word ‘spiaggia’ with ‘beach’. In theory, one is the literal translation of the other, but in practice the lived experience of an English beach is so far removed from the lived experience of an Italian ‘spiaggia’ that it would be better to consider them two separate things. I consider myself a bridge between culture: I take some Italy into England and some England into Italy, but that translation does require some work.
(LM): Characters in The Book of Hidden Things and Never the Wind have a complicated relationship with home, specifically where they grew up but left to pursue careers or relationships in northern Italy. Could you talk a bit about that - the idea of “migrating” within one’s own country and then returning home? I’m thinking of the friend group in The Book of Hidden Things and the mother and father in Never the Wind.
(FD): I come from a thin slice of land: Puglia people have been invaders and invaded, navigators and adventurers, since the dawn of time. We travel partially because we come from a place which is not wealthy, but partially also because we are curious, we can’t stand still. We want to explore. And Northern Italy is as different from Southern Italy as another country. They have different food, a different approach to life and work, different landscapes, a different way of life – and a different beauty. Many Southerners go North, for money, yes, but mostly, when everything is said and done, for a sense of adventure.
But then there is nostos, the return, the desire to see our hometown through the set of eyes we have acquired in our adventures. There is a tiny Ulysses in all of us, I think.
(LM): Migration is not limited, of course, to the movement of people inside their own country. There are also many people from other countries moving to Italy, and especially Puglia. In opening scene of The Book of Hidden Things a character observes a German couple who’ve moved to his hometown. How have you seen the region change?
(FD): It’s changed a lot, and not always for the best. Don’t get me wrong: having an influx of people coming in from abroad, bringing their own ways, is awesome. It is how cultures grow. It would have been unthinkable, twenty years ago, to find in a local supermarket everything you need to make sushi. We have always been a borderland, with people coming from both richer and poorer countries, and I hope we will stay one for ever.
But there are parts of Puglia which have been scourged by mass tourism, which is another thing entirely. You know what I mean, the package holidays in terrible hotels, or expensive masserias for that matter, which are exactly the same everywhere in the world. It brings a little money into a few people’s hands, in a way which is not sustainable and is destroying frail ecologies. Migration is Gandalf; mass tourism is Sauron. If all package holidays companies went bust tomorrow, I would dance on their ruined offices. They imprison people in a form of neo-feudalism, to sell tourists a crappy, plastic version of what real Puglia life is.
(LM): The point is clear and understandable against mass tourism, but what, then, would you consider its opposite, especially regarding Puglia? What should visitors to the region look for and do?
(FD): I’m not sure I have a lot of wisdom to offer there. Most suggestions I have would apply, I think, to everywhere else in the world. Avoid any kind of package holiday, cheap or expensive, big or small - think as a visitor, exactly, rather than a tourist. Which means, for example, try to fall in step with the local notion of time: people are not twenty minute ‘late’, because most appointment are approximate. The waiter is not ‘slow’, they just don’t want to rush. If they close shop for a few hours in the full of tourist season, it’s not because they’re stupid, it’s because they care for having a dip in the sea more than for making every penny they could. I know the process is tricky and can be frustrating, but trust me, it’s a pretty pleasant way of life once you get the hang of it; a way of life which package holidays do not convey.
Then, survival tips. If a place needs to state makes ‘typical’ cuisine, it probably doesn’t. Frise and mashed broadbeans should be cheap: if they charge you a lot for them, avoid. If they add the word ‘gourmet’ to any local food, avoid.
And please, please, please: do use our beautiful free beaches as much as you can. We have a long and proud tradition of free beaches, and yes, there are no services there, no fancy lidos, but that’s the point. Bring your own umbrella and an ice bag and you’re going to have a luxury day for next to nothing. This is how we always did it, and how, I hope, we will be able to do it in the future, locals and visitors alike, exchanging chats and ideas under a stark, powerful sun. A beach made of lidos back to back is a vision of hell, and it is the vision some entrepreneurs and politicians have. It’s a cancer.
My gripe is with country politics, certainly not with visitors per se. This is a borderland in many ways, and as I said, visitors are part of its very nature, its true oldest culture. The problem begins when visitors are turned into a mass industry, and the main one at that. In Puglia we have a lot to offer in terms of production of culture, science, food, sustainable projects, even energy - but we are being turned into Italy’s theme park just because it’s easier that way, and because the wealthy of the country love to swim in pristine seas, until they’re not pristine anymore. And I say, excuse my French, fuck that.
(LM): Could you talk a bit about how Puglia has inspired you and your writing? I’m thinking specifically about the region’s unique climate and landscape.
(FD): It’s not just me, I think. Humans are part of nature, part of the landscape: we are nature as much as rocks and swallows and stray cats are ‘nature’. One of the things I do in my writing is explore how the landscape in which I grew up made me. A key point we share is that we are both full of contradictions. This is a land of stark sunshine and deep shades, of open-hearted hospitality and long feuds. Those contradictions can be really hard to navigate, but they make for an intense experience of life.
(LM): What’s your writing routine look like? Do you begin with an outline or jump right into it? Do you write daily at a fixed time?
(FD): I write in the morning, and I never outline. Writing is an exploratory process to me: I am mapping a land unknown. Then, with the second draft and the ones after that, I make that land intelligible to readers too, and fun to navigate, hopefully.
(LM): What books everyone interested in Italy should read, aside from your own, of course?
(FD): Three come to my mind. One is The Italians, by John Hooper, an English journalist who wrote a funny, real, empathic, no-prisoners-taken account of Italians in general. Another is Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, a novel from the Fifties which is still the best description I ever read of Southern Italy. And then Franco Cassano’s Il Pensiero Meridiano is a small, beautiful book that proposes a form of ‘meridian thinking’, where our southern ways become key to thinking about different ways of life.
(LM): Let's talk genre. You work in fantasy - what drew you to the genre? What keeps you coming back to it? And how do you account for its continued popularity? How are your English-language reading audiences different, if at all, from Italian-language ones?
(FD): We often say that imagination is bigger than reality, but I believe the opposite is true: imagination has limits, reality doesn’t. And the fantastic, in all its form, reminds us of that. It reminds us that no matter what we think, we are probably wrong. That what seems impossible today is the reality of tomorrow - or yesterday, in some cases. Things can be different - these four words, I think, encapsulate the genre, and they are lovely.
I’m not sure there is a difference among audiences. Readers are readers. Everywhere you go, the core of readers of speculative fiction is made of curious folks, counter-cultural folks, existential rebels. They’re great people to hang out with.
His latest book, The Dark Side of the Sky, comes out in spring 2024. The novel is a:
A page-turning literary fantasy filled with terror and wonder, set in a sun-baked Southern Italy, for fans of The Girls by Emma Cline, The Magus by John Fowles and The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai.
It’s been labelled a doomsday cult, but the Bastion might be humanity’s last hope. Amidst all the lies and chaos, come hear their true story, in their own words.
On the rural coast of Puglia, Italy, Becca and Ric run the Bastion, offering solace and a home for lost souls. Each year they welcome new members to join the Open Feast, where they teach them to release their burdens and create a better world, in a journey of self-discovery and spiritual teachings.
But the Bastion has secrets. The Bastion has a destiny. Deep in the Inner Pinewood, a place of real magic and beauty, they are all that stands against the dark forces that would tear the sky wide open
And what of those who call Becca and Ric liars? Cult leaders and con artists? What of those who tried to leave the Bastion? As it becomes increasingly difficult to tell truth from fiction, who can you trust to save us all?