FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
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 and do so in Europe whenever I can. 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 between Rome and Firenze, 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 really 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" what the answer was.
Where is Orvieto?
Orvieto is an ancient 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 it's well fortified and has its own 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 the place, 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, Ohio, which 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. 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 I felt it was right.
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. 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 incredible 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: 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 important her work is to me.