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Interviewed for PUSHKIN PRESS
by Rosie Goldsmith
On the publication of the two new English editions of
his books FISTS & THE BREAK
Pietro Grossi is a 34-year-old Tuscan novelist. He was born in Florence, but has
lived all over the world, including several years in New York. He’s been writing
since he was eight years old and published his first book when he was twenty-two.
Pushkin Press has just published two new editions of his books in English: both are
translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis. On his UK tour in October 2012,
Pietro Grossi spoke to Rosie Goldsmith about Fists, a series of three novellas, and
The Break, his first full-length novel.
Fists is a collection of short stories, entitled Boxing, Horses and The Monkey. They’re
stories about young men struggling to grow up. The first story is about a boxing
match between two phenomenal young boxers of 15 years of age; the second story
is about two brothers who are given two horses by their father, basically to give
them something to do in life because he doesn’t want to have to worry about them.
Their mother is no longer around and so they need to learn how to look after these
horses. And these animals will lead them into adulthood. And the third story is
about a man, an older man, 30 years old, whose oldest and best friend goes mad and
starts acting like a monkey. So it’s a kind of distress story. It’s a picture of 24 hours in
the life of this young man: going back to his old home city to visit his friend who is
naked in a room and acts like a monkey.
The Break is basically a story about a character called Dino, who repairs and lays
stone pavements…and he’s also a phenomenal pool or billiard player, an Italian Pool
player, which is not like American pool: it’s a weird game with three balls and little
pins in the middle, but it’s a very, very complicated game, something in between
pool and chess: very complicated, very difficult, but a superb and very beautiful
game. And it’s the story of his struggle to find his perfect life: how he’s affected by
events, some good, some bad; his struggle to face this new life and the uncertainty
of life in general.
RG: You have a very distinctive style. Some people have compared you to
Hemingway or Salinger, Nick Hornby even. How did you develop your style?
I have no idea in the sense that I have always struggled with writing, but I have no
idea why I began writing. I was just a kid and I liked the image of myself in front of
the typewriter, and this, from being something I liked, became something bigger, a
very intense, passionate love story, but also one of suffering. I tried to stop writing at
one point, saying this whole writing thing is bad for me and too frustrating, so I tried
to quit. But I couldn’t. So if you ask me why I write today, it’s because if I don’t, I feel
worse than if I do. And while I was struggling to try to deal with this very special,
peculiar ‘woman in my life’, as it were, who kind of ruined my life but saved my life
at the same time, I just needed to find a way to do it in the best, the healthiest way
possible. At some point I picked up a couple of tricks, from Hemingway’s interviews,
and a couple of others from other sources, and those few tricks basically brought me
to Fists and writing in the way I write. But it’s basically just the struggle to do it in a
decent way and to feel happy with it…I mean, not happy with the result - I’m never
happy with the result - but happy while I’m doing it. And that’s probably what’s in
my so-called ‘style’, but I’ve no idea where it comes from!
Do you read as passionately as you write?
I definitely read as passionately as I write, and I do it more and more now. I always
wrote more than I read and I always wanted to write more than I read. But when I
was young, I had to choose between a book, even a good book, and a night or an
afternoon out with a friend, and I’d usually go for the afternoon with my friend. But
then the more time went on, the more I read, the more it became frustrating finding
time to write, because I’m a pretty slow and distracted reader, so I need to love what
I read very much. So I ended up reading only masterpieces. The more I read, though,
the more I see that reading is probably better than writing, because the other books
are better than mine!
Who are the writers you like to read most?
That’s a very good question, a huge question. At home, I have two shelves, on which
I put all the books I’d need to take with me to the famous desert island…and that’s
the reason why I read, to find books to put on those two shelves. So if I had to pick
something out, I’d probably pick 20th century North American literature and Russian
19th century literature - these two above all the rest: these are the two literatures,
which up to now affected me the most and changed me the most; definitely
Hemingway’s short stories, for one; or Salinger’s stories which I read in my early 20s.
A few years ago, for the first time, after years of waiting, I read War & Peace.
North American and Russian literature are the two literatures, or intellectual
moments, that most changed my life. Actually, War & Peace was kind of weird
because I was beginning the third part and I remember, as I was reading it, there and
then, the feeling of myself getting older. I was at the seaside place belonging to my
former girlfriend and I had this precise image, this knowledge, that the Pietro that
would stand up from that chair would be a lot different and a lot older from the one
who first sat down there…..so great was the intensity of what I was reading and what
I was feeling.
The content of what you write about is also very distinctive, about boys, young
men achieving adulthood, this subject pre-occupies you, why did you choose it?
Because I think this has been my whole life, to be honest. It’s not something I really
searched for, because I don’t really search for anything when I’m writing; I accept
that writing is bigger than me: I’m in the middle of a sea, I have no control over my
writing or what I write; my characters are much wiser and much more powerful than
me and much better than me!
So I think the reason I keep writing about getting older is because throughout my life
that has been my greatest struggle. The person sitting in this chair in this room is
basically the result of a huge, continuing fight between parts of the same building,
let’s say, a fight over how to make the best life possible, the most intense life
possible. One side says you have to live life to the full every day - the 60s way, live
life to the full, destroy yourself and die at 25 - there’s even a saying in Italian, ‘better
a strong 20 years than a weak 100 years’ - that’s the side of me that makes me take
risks, risks me crashing into walls and crashing in general; and the other side of me is
saying, no, life is about placing bricks one on top of the other and building
permanent things, the solid, responsible Pietro, whose life is about work and sweat.
This continual fight has made me what I am now. I don’t know if I have solved the
problem, but that’s why my struggle so far has been - about getting older and finding
a way to live an intense and proper life.
The boys and men you write about are all ordinary people doing good solid jobs, or
boxing or working with horses; they’re all very well researched professions, you
immerse yourself in them: Do you do a lot of research?
Strangely enough, I don’t do much research; I do some after the books are already
written. But when I write – and that’s what I don’t understand about my writing – at
some point a character just takes life right in front of me, so I just let them go and
follow them and lose any sort of control over them completely. If I start putting
myself in the story, everything falls apart. What I learned about literature is, it knows
better than you…and so you just need to follow it, follow the story, follow the
character, just let it go. And so [in The Break] I just followed this man paving the
roads, I didn’t know anything about it, and weirdly enough, when I’d finished writing
it and I did some research and after I met a guy who actually paves streets and
asked him lots of things, I added a few points which I found nice, intriguing. But
actually what I’d written was strangely credible. But it can’t always work that way,
because there are some things like my last book [Enchantment – due to be published
by Pushkin Press in 2013] that needed real research, so for that I had to read and
study a lot of things because I needed to know all about it.
All your books have a very strong moral purpose or philosophical drive, and there’s
always a resolution: where does that drive come from?
I guess it comes from me. Again I don’t really know, because that’s just the way my
books have worked up to now and how my characters wanted to ‘let it work’. What I
can say is that the stories that intrigue me have this kind of wider world around
them…and I guess that comes from me because I am intrigued by how what we
cannot see - and anyone can call that what they like – gets into our everyday life.
Is it God?
If you want to call it that, yes. It’s life, the mystery of life. It’s what science in the 20th
century has discovered, and is what we will never discover. There is a wall over
which human beings will never be able to look and this was defined by modern
science. And what’s behind that wall is whatever works for you. I personally think
that most of the stories and metaphors created to explain the general fog lying
behind that wall are no better than a belief in Santa Claus. I think they’re fascinating
but very naïve. That said, I think everybody has the right to deal with this undeniable
part of our lives in the way they wish.
Your third book– Enchantment – is coming out: is this also about boys and men?
Yes, and for me at the moment, it’s kind of completing the circle. Because this time it
is about four friends, teenagers, and follows their friendship across twenty years. It is
mainly about just one of them, the narrator. So they go from fifteen or sixteen to
thirty-six, thirty-seven. In this book the narrator is not an ordinary man-in-the-street,
because he is a cosmologist, a physicist, a professor at Columbia University, New
York, and very bright. It’s basically about this person’s profound doubt about his life,
as a result of things that happened between him and these friends. He is thinking
back over their life together. So I’m still intrigued by this coming-of-age topic but to
be honest I’m now bored with it. I have definitely got to a point where, having
wanted to write this book for years and having opened the window on that dark
side, I’ve opened it, looked through and done with it. This third book in the series
trashed my life for a year or two because it was a very intense experience. Now I
think I want to move on. I’ve been to the dark side of the Italian male.
Maybe a trilogy about Italian women…?!
That would need more than a trilogy!
Pietro Grossi, thank you!