English writers have often been drawn to Italy, but generally more to the Tuscan sunshine, and romantic ideas of a simpler mediterranean life – far away from the hustle and bustle of cold and wet London. Neil Griffiths instead, in his first novel, has turned his eye southwards, to the dark and dangerous city of Naples. Andrew Lawless spoke to Griffiths about his debut novel, for Three Monkeys Online.
How did you come to write the novel:
Well, what actually happened was that a friend of mine, who's been living in Naples for the last ten or twelve years, called me up one day – he teaches English as a foreign language, and he said he had a student coming to London (where I was at the time), who wanted some conversation lessons. I was looking for ideas at the time, and needed to supplement my income (laughs) so I said yes. So I arrived the next week at this hotel, and it transpired that the student, Massimo, I was going to meet was actually the President of the Court of Murder in Naples. And one of the principal characters in my book became the President of the court in Naples. And having met Massimo, who is very like Alessandro in my novel – this kind of very smart, charismatic, funny character – this kind of all-round big personality, I spent a while wondering could something fictional be made of this. It was partly his character that fascinated me.
Previously I'd tried to write a completely different type of book, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought – this is a kind of gift. So I went over to Naples to hang out, meet up with him, go to the Court and see basically where it took me. And that's how it came about.
Tell me about the Court in Naples – obviously the book has the Camorra (Editor's Note: Naples crime syndicate) as a backdrop
The Court scenes in the novel are pretty much what I saw in Naples. The first thirty or forty pages of the novel are very much what happened to me when I turned up in Naples. I went to Naples about five times over eighteen months, and watched the same trial. And it was very strange, just like in the novel you go into the public gallery and you're sitting with the girlfriends, wives, mothers of these accused. There's a very edgy and volatile atmosphere. And people do wonder who you are, they do stare out at you, you are observed from the cage where the accused are.After meeting Massimo, and going to the Courts is was like an inspiration – I realised you could write it, almost just as it was. Obviously it's not the whole novel, and things after the Court scenes are very different, but for those scenes it was direct observation almost. It was fascinating and interesting and at the end of the day you just don't turn that kind of inspiration down.
Tell me, how did Massimo react? Obviously you based a lot of the Judge's character on him – and he's a potentially controversial character – that is to say it's not necessarily the most flattering of portraits at the end of the day.
It's quite funny. Massimo was hugely enthusiastic about me writing the novel – and it took a couple of years. I think in some ways he was quite flattered. I think he always knew that there was going to be questions asked of the Judge that would be problematic – and he thought they were very interesting questions, the question of betrayal being asked across all the characters was something that interested him. So, when he read the novel he really liked it, and came back to me with a heartfelt e-mail with all the things he liked in the novel, and the things he didn't like. Classically, as a southern Italian male, the thing he most disliked was not the suggestion that Alessandro may be corrupt or somehow morally dubious, but rather that he'd been cuckolded. He was quite troubled by that, and it seems that Italian men really do have problems with that notion. But in short, he enjoyed the novel, and we're still on good terms (laughs) in fact I'm going over to visit him shortly.
Are there plans to publish the book in Italian?
Athe moment the book has been translated in to Dutch, French and Russian at the moment, but apparently there's always a certain difficulty trying to sell a novel about a country, in that country, when written by a foreigner. There's always a certain scepticism. So Italian publishers have been less than forthcoming. There's also this resistance or dislike that when someone writes about Italy that they would include organised crime.