Book Reviews

Elena Ferrante Names the Devil and Slays the Minotaur, The Millions, October 30, 2015.

Against the Anti-Art Literati: On Roberto Calasso’s ‘The Art of the Publisher’, The Millions, February 24, 2016.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Art, on Keeping an Eye Open and The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes, Los Angeles Review of Books, June 10, 2016.

In Search of Lost Purity, on Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays by Cynthia Ozick, Seattle Review of Books, August 31, 2016.

FAQs

Is The Train to Orvieto about trains?

No, but if I Google the title, sometimes the Italian train schedule comes up! Personally, I love traveling by trains especially in Europe. The characters in the book also travel by train—most of the story takes place before air travel was the norm—and trains are involved at turning points in their lives and in the story.

Is the story autobiographical?

Only one small incident in the story actually happened to me: I once met and talked with an Italian soldier on a train which traveled between Rome and Firenze and which stopped in Orvieto. We had a pleasant conversation—he in Italian and I in Spanish. There was no hint that when he stood up to get off the train, he would suddenly grab me and give me a French kiss! The rest of the story is invented. 

That said, I believe that at some level all fiction is autobiographical in the sense that it is the record of an actual journey in the writer's mind that the writer has chosen to share. That some writers choose to be more revealing than others is self-evident.

What led you to write a novel in the first place? How did you start? 

I decided to write a novel when I was taking writing classes in college, but years passed before I undertook this project. There were many false starts. The method that worked for me was one described by Annie Dillard as "following the butterfly." I knew I wanted to write a story that was set in Italy. As I thought about where to begin, that conversation with the soldier on the train came to mind. I started writing a story around the question, "What might have happened if that encounter had continued?" 

What method did you use to construct it?

I had no method. I just kept writing with the above question in mind and more or less "discovered" the story as I went along. If the writer doesn't have a story plotted out, it's easy to go off in directions that don't work. I threw the entire novel away half a dozen times and some parts dozens of times before it seemed right.

Where is Orvieto? 

Orvieto is a hill town in the region of Umbria about half way between Florence and Rome. It was originally founded by the Etruscans, an ancient people who were probably from Greece. Their necropolis is famous for frescoes that depict celebrations, assignations, and banquets. Later, the Romans came. By the time of the Renaissance, the popes were using Orvieto as a resort and a place to escape their enemies because the town well fortified and has its own natural water supply. Pope Clement built the famous cathedral with the gold mosaic facade that can be seen for miles. The Signorelli fresco inside is regarded as one of the most important works of the Renaissance and is thought to have influenced Michelangelo. 

Why did you set your novel in Italy and specifically Orvieto?

I chose Orvieto as the setting because the incident on the train that I described above occurred there. However, the more I learned about Orvieto, the more I realized that my choice was especially fortunate because its qualities of isolation and fortification have symbolic value in the story.

Isn’t it difficult to write a book set in a country that isn’t your own? 

There are always problems that arise in writing about a country not one's own. I have studied the Italian language and culture for many years and have been to Italy many times, so I felt somewhat at home with that setting. That said, when I checked with experts about various details, I found there was much that I didn't know. For example, I didn't know that Italian names are very much tied to one's social class and occupation. As a result, I ended up changing almost every name in the book!

Most of your characters have complex, multi-sided personalities. How did you develop your characters?

I don't feel that I "developed" my characters. Rather, they "appeared" to me as I wrote. I could hear them speaking and I simply wrote down what they said. I was often surprised by what they said and did. Occasionally, I misunderstood what they were doing and in several instances I had to throw out part of the story and "listen" again. For me, this somewhat surprising and uncanny experience was among the most interesting aspects of writing the novel. 

The book has three interwoven stories that comprise a single story with one narrator. What led you to structure the book in this way?

I more or less lifted the structure from Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohiowhich is also a series of stories that form a single story arc. A major structural question in the novel arises from the fact that it covers more than thirty years in the life of a family, some of whom have died. Finding a voice and a narrator that could plausibly encompass all of this history in an intimate way was one of the most difficult structural problems to resolve. In fact, I wrote the entire story before I understood that the narrator was the youngest daughter speaking from the perspective of her own old age.

What research did you have to do for the book?

Although the setting has a long history, I realized early on that I couldn't master that history with any authority and that I would have to limit my historical perspective to the details that were pertinent to this story. For example, because Etruscan art figures in the plot, I read several books on the subject and visited museums in Florence, Rome, and Paris, where there are important collections. Similarly, I visited the cathedral in Orvieto, another important plot location, and read several books on the art there, especially the Signorelli fresco and the reliquary. I also read numerous books on various aspects of Italian society during WWII and researched the social movements of the 1960s in an effort to lend authenticity to particular events in the story.  This here-and-there approach served my needs as the author; had I been more expert, the story might well have been different. It's hard to say.

How do you write? Do you work every day for a certain amount of time? All at once? Only when you’re inspired?

I had worked as a writer long before I began the novel and had often found that the time to begin writing was when I could hear the words, as though someone were dictating them. This phenomenon occurred in or near my left ear. Similarly, when I "heard" the characters in my novel talking, I wrote down their conversations and actions. This method worked satisfactorily for early drafts that required simply getting the story down. In later drafts I edited those "conversations" again and again, adding and shaping the material as I went, making sure everything fitted together. I repeated this process many times before completing the manuscript.

Because most of the writing had to accommodate work and family commitments, I simply wrote when I could. I didn't impose a set writing time. In fact, I often put the book away for months at a time and then returned to it later. These "time outs" proved very helpful because I had often stopped at a problem that I was later able to resolve.

The inspiration part, i.e. the easy part, was when I wrote down what the characters said and did. After that, it was pure work, some of it devilishly hard.

I'm not eccentric about writing. Unlike some writers, I have no good luck charms or a special place that I must sit. I don't require silence. I'm able to concentrate easily and find I can work most anywhere, though I prefer using a computer because it has so many options for search and editing. Morning hours are best, but any hour will do. I don't require alcohol or other substances and don't need to touch paper, pencil, pen or typewriter.

What do you think readers might enjoy most about the novel?

The novel can be enjoyed on many levels. I think it's a compelling story of a family and one could leave it there. Others will enjoy the setting. After all, what's not to like about Italy? Art lovers will have their needs satisfied. Ditto travelers and lovers of trains. I also wanted to raise some questions that are important to me about relationships, in particular how we don't always know who we are or why and our capacity for self-deception. The characters also face deeper questions about happiness, faith, loss, betrayal, guilt, and redemption, as we all do. I especially hope that these investigations will be as meaningful to readers as they are to me.

What writers do you admire? Why?

Right now, I very much admire Elena Ferrante's work. She is an extraordinarily honest writer (and extraordinarily reclusive as well). Her writing so touches on bone marrow that I don't understand how she manages to survive her own output. Her four-volume Neapolitan novels constitute one of the most compelling literary works I've ever encountered. When I finished reading it, I wept not because I was sad, but because someone had done what she had done. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I believe her to be the Proust-Dickens-Faulkner of Naples.

There are many other writers whom I also admire just as much: Primo Levi, Italo Calvino, Roberto Calasso, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Camus, Orhan Pamuk, and Wislawa Zymborska. Oh, yes, and my favorite cioccolato al tartufo (chocolate truffle), the Italian TV series, Commissario Montalbano, based on the novels of Andrea Camilleri. And I never tire of Andrew Graham-Dixon's documentaries and lectures on Italian art, history, and culture.

It's popular to ask someone who has written a novel what other writers he or she would like to dine with. I would be so intimidated by any of the above company that I would probably be too nervous to eat. I might like to have lunch with Elena Ferrante, though, just so I could tell her how much I like her work.

Media & Press

Amazon Customer Reviews, to date.

 on NW Italian Radio Show, March 6, 2017, 1150 AM KKNW, 3-5 PM (Seattle/Tacoma region). 

"The Train to Orvieto," Foreward Reviews, December, 2016.

"Seattle Novelist Debuts with Family Saga 'Train to Orvieto,'" Bellingham Herald, November 3, 2016.

"Debut Novel Considers Family Saga," Kitsap Sun, October 29, 2016.

"Magnolia Author Releases New Novel," Queen Anne & Magnolia News, October 4, 2016.

"Author and Artist Rebecca Novelli Paints a Story of Forgiveness and Hope," ItaloAmericano, September 29, 2016.

 

For Discussion

·      While some readers question whether the principal female characters, Willa and Fina, could have made other, perhaps better, choices in their lives, others have observed that Willa and Fina made the choices available to them in their particular places and times. Which view do you share? Why? What has been your own experience in having and making choices about your life?

·      Most of the characters in The Train to Orvieto deceive themselves in some way and act on those deceptions. How would you describe their self-deceptions, their motivations, and their consequences? Do you feel that these characters exemplify common human traits or are they perhaps just eccentric, foolish, or merely dishonest?

·      Gabriele and Willa’s relationship begins unexpectedly and with great passion. What were the causes(s) of the failure of their marriage?

·      Losine is a somewhat enigmatic character. What is your understanding of him? What questions do you have about him? What is his role in the story? Do you think his suffering and guilt are deserved or not? Why?

·      What is the nature of the relationship between Losine and Willa? Why are they important to each other? Do you think he and Willa truly loved each other? Why or why not? Was their decision to remain apart (1) a noble act of sacrifice and renunciation or (2) simply a demonstration of a lack of commitment to their relationship or (3) a result of circumstances beyond their control?

·      What do you make of Fina’s effort to reconcile with Gabriele? What does she want Gabriele to forgive? Do you agree with Gabriele that forgiveness demands that we “bless what we cannot bear”? Why or why not? Do you think ultimately Gabriele accepts what he cannot bear and forgives Willa and himself? Why?

·      In entering a different society and culture Willa comes up against attitudes and customs she doesn’t understand or isn’t aware of. What are some examples of her lack of understanding? Consider the change in Gabriele’s attitude toward Willa (p. 101, paragraph 3)? Compare Maria Christina’s view (p. 120-124) and Signora Farnese’s view (p.131) of Willa and her situation. Was Willa simply stupid or were her mistakes the results of youthful exuberance and naivete’?

·      Starting with Willa’s birthday party in Chapter 1, how many different views of Willa can you recall in the novel? How does Willa view herself? How do these different perspectives affect Willa and the course of her life? How do you view Willa, who she is, and what she wants?

·      In what ways does Willa change in the course of the story? In your view do these changes represent personal growth and a natural process of maturing? Why or why not? Would you say that Willa is someone who made lemonade out of lemons? Or do you feel Willa remains forever young and lacking in wisdom?

·      How do you understand the differences in Fina’s relationships with Bruno and with Joey? Is her decision to marry Joey one of convenience or is their relationship a deeper one? What do you think about Bruno’s attitude toward Fina at the end of the story? How do you understand Bruno?

·      How are the characters affected by the history of their time? How are they affected by tradition, social customs, and economic status? How would you describe the scope and limits of their control of their lives? In what ways are Willa and Fina constrained by their gender? Their circumstances? Would you say that The Train to Orvieto a feminist novel? Why or why not?

·      Willa and Losine agreed that Willa would tell Fina the truth about the circumstances of her birth. Do you agree with their decision? Why or why not?

·      What “unpriestly” qualities does Fr. Enrico have? What do you make of his discussions about faith with Losine (pp. 205-207) and Sylvana (pp. 295-96)? How does each of these characters view faith differently?

·      At the funeral meal (pp.293-296) there is a discussion of the meaning of happiness. Which view of happiness most accords with your own? Are the characters’ claims about happiness self-serving or not?

·      In what ways is the town of Orvieto a microcosm of the place where we all live our lives?

·      The story might be summarized as one of love, loss, betrayal, reconciliation, and forgiveness. Who betrays whom in the book? Who loses what in the story? What were the effects of these losses? Do you think Fina loses Joey or do you think he returned from Vietnam?

·      At the beginning of the story, Willa tells her father that she intends to miss nothing in life and plans to live life to the fullest. How does she fulfill that promise to herself? At one point in the story, Fina says that Willa “lost her dreams” and that she, Fina, doesn’t want to lose hers. Do you agree with Fina that Willa lost her dreams? Does everyone?