AN UNEDUCATED GUESS

The Neapolitan Novels
by Elena Ferrante

A couple weeks ago, I happened to find myself in the back corner of a Sarasota (that would be Florida) bookshop, perched on a folding chair, talking about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels with a group of women who had at least a generation on me. Because this is what I do. I travel to destinations even sunnier and warmer than where I already live to participate in book clubs of the elderly. (And/or my mother happens to be quite good at coming up with creative cultural activities when I’m in town.)

So the ladies and I were rapping and inevitably the conversation turned to the question that fans of these books seem anxious to answer: Who is Elena Ferrante? Funny how when a writer uses a pen name, people immediately want to know their true identity. Perhaps they feel it will give them a deeper understanding of the book, one they could not possible have otherwise. Yet once the author’s true identity is revealed, I wonder how much it actually brings any new, significant insight versus simply pacifying the public’s curiosity.

When it comes to uncovering the real Ferrante, the literary gumshoes out there seem to be focusing their detective work on people whose lives are/were very similar to the novels’ narrator, the fictional “Elena Greco.” What’s particularly strange to me about this line of investigation is that if someone has gone to all the trouble of publishing pseudonymously and even in the midst of international acclaim has yet to come forward, would she really veil herself so thinly in the story itself?

I’m thinking the author is buried a little deeper within these books. The series does have two protagonists, after all. The yin to Elena’s yang is Lila, Elena’s lifelong frenemy, muse, cheerleader and antagonist, all wrapped up in one very troubled, brilliant woman. Unlike Elena, Lila never makes it out of their insulated neighborhood in Naples and consequently, she never experiences the academic or professional success of Elena. But Lila is innately intelligent and clearly has a gift for writing from an early age. And it is her talents and example that spur Elena on.

Interwoven but ultimately divergent, the paths of these two characters could be seen as two tines of a fork in the road; each can see in the other what her life may have been like had she made different choices. Or maybe the two women are meant to be two sides of one person. Maybe a female born in 1944 Naples wouldn’t feel “whole” following one path or another. Maybe none of us do.

For my money (and I have people in Sarasota willing to back me on this), the real Elena Ferrante isn’t someone whose life has been like that of the fictional Elena. It is someone whose life has been like Lila’s. Rather than re-hashing a semi-fictional version of her own experiences, wouldn’t it be more interesting for a writer to explore what it would have been like had she taken another path?

 

Folks,
In my recent interview with Chris Bower, he mentioned a David Mamet quote but couldn’t remember it precisely. He was kind enough to hunt down the quote in question and I’ve included it here.

INTERVIEWER

Do you try to put in five or six hours a day writing?

MAMET

I try to do as little writing as possible, as I look back on it. I like to talk on the telephone and, you know, read magazines.

INTERVIEWER

And sit in your office and forestall writing?

MAMET

Yes, and sometimes I like to do the opposite.

INTERVIEWER

Whatever happens, you get a lot out for somebody who doesn’t write a lot, or doesn’t like to write.

MAMET

I never saw the point in not.

INTERVIEWER

But you just said you spend a lot of time trying not to write.

MAMET

That’s true. But the actual point of being a writer, and doing something every once in a while mechanically, I just don’t see the point in it, and it wouldn’t be good for me. I’ve got to do it anyway. Like beavers, you know. They chop, they eat wood, because if they don’t, their teeth grow too long and they die. And they hate the sound of running water. Drives them crazy. So, if you put those two ideas together, they are going to build dams.

***

And here is the link to the interview in whole, which appeared in The Paris Review

CHRIS BOWER INTERVIEW

This horse was drawn by Susie Kirkwood, an artistic collaborator of Bower’s, and I stole it from his website.

Below is the much-anticipated link to my recent interview with Chris Bower, one of the five authors featured in the new novella-in-flash collection, My Very End of the Universe.

Listening back to this interview, I learned that I giggle and say “yeah” too much and my voice is kind of annoying. So I apologize ahead of time on those fronts. Fortunately, Bower does most of the talking and manages to compose himself better than I. Warning: this starts abruptly …

 

The first minute or so of this recording involves the hot button topic of transcription. Despite what I say at the interview’s start, I decided a full transcription of our chat was not in the cards, but I’ve included some choice excerpts below.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

“It wasn’t until I was in college … that I had to catch up to my own idea in my mind of who I was. It wasn’t until I went to West Virginia … when I experienced absolute loneliness for the first time … I found myself completely culturally isolated … my Midwestern-ness revealed itself in a major way … I was left with this idea that maybe I should write for real.”

“When you really get serious about writing … it’s really an act that can only take place in isolation.”

“Writing the first draft, that’s the fun part.”

“I’ve never been a Ray Bradbury type.”

Do you think writing can be taught?

“You can be technically better, 100% for sure.”

“You have to have utter confidence in what you’re doing.”

“In my (Creative Writing MFA) program … you got to see different versions of what you could become … A major part of it is the amount of time you get to spend on yourself.”

About My Other End of the Universe

“I don’t think it’s an accident that a lot of these stories have to do with adolescence and families. I think there’s something in the form that lends itself to this … This may be a little more of an authentic way of telling a story.”

“Our memories are so flawed that a lot of our most important ones aren’t even ours.”

“(A computer malfunction) made me care about a line.”

“When I’m writing a poem I feel like I’ve just gotten away with something.”

“The only reason this is a poem is because my computer’s broken.”

“Once you start filling things in, you have to fill more in … It wouldn’t be the voice of Al, the narrator … He wouldn’t have told a proper story of the family … As a writer I would have never been able to stop … This isn’t just a story told in fragments, this is how this guy thinks … He was trying to recreate his life with a lack of photographic evidence.”

Other Endeavors

“There’s a very vibrant literary storytelling scene in Chicago.” (For those interested, check out: Write Club and The Paper Machete)

Bower and co-author Margaret Chapman will be reading at one of my favorite independent bookstores, The Book Cellar in Chicago’s Lincoln Square, on Wednesday, Nov 19 at 7pm. Pick up a glass of wine, do some Christmas shopping and hear them read!

Bower and co-author Meg Pokrass will be reading in San Francisco in January – details to follow!