TMO interview with Premio Strega winning Italian novelist Paolo Giordano
“A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?” C.P. Snow‘s thesis, developed in the 1950s, of’The Two Cultures’ is debatable – he himself softened his approach later – but one aspect seems confirmedwhen you look at the types of books best-selling scientists write. They rarely, if ever, include novels.
And many of us, the reading public, are also surprised should a physicist decide to dedicate himself to creating fictional characters, as if thiswere a somewhat frivolous activity – yet we rightly accord the term intellectual to former ad-men/journalists turned novelists.
Paolo Giordano, the youngest novelist to win Italy’s prestigious Permio Strega Award for fiction (previous winners have included Alberto Moravia, Primo Levi, Umberto Eco, and more recently Niccoló Ammaniti), is no-doubt familiar with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, given that he is also a physicist (who’s research is on the properties of the ‘bottom’ quark). Reading the first chapters of his novel The Solitude of Prime Numbers – which has sold over a million copies – is good evidence in itself that the scientific method and the literary need not be poles apart. Giordano isolates two pivotal moments in the lives of his protagonists Alice and Mattia, and examines them at length in riveting detail. From there he expounds his thesis, taking these troubled children through adolescence and into adulthood. It’s a novel that examines loneliness in an affluent society, told with a narrative skill that manages to be both detached and yet engaged at the same time.
Paulo Giordano was kind enought to respond to our questions via email:
TMO:Let’s talk a little bit about childhood, which is a central theme of the novel, and at the same time the influence that geographical and cultural surroundings have on your writing. For example, why do you think it is that both you and Niccoló Amaniti, two Italian novelists from very different parts of the country, with different writing styles, have this fascination with children as protagonists? And why have your books in particular struck such a chord with the Italian public? Is it a particularly Italian theme?
Paolo Giordano: I should be totally honest and say that Niccoló Ammaniti was one of my main references and that, of course, he had a strong influence on me. One of his first novels, Steal you away, really shocked me when I was about 14. But I am not sure that childhood is a prerogative of Italian authors. There are at least two other novels that were fundamental to me in this sense: one is Ian McEwan’s The child in time and the second one is Towelhead by Alicia Erian.As for the fascination with childhood, any time I sit at my table and write, it’s like I go back to that particular age of my life. I feel that the most important things that happened to me happened during my childhood and what occured later was nothing but a continuous repetition of them. In this sense, it was quite natural for me to start telling the story through children. Before writing The solitude of prime numbers, in fact, I had only written short stories and almost all of them were about children.
TMO: Philip Roth interviewing Primo Levi pointed out that we have some generally accepted ideas of where writers come from – ex-journalists, and humanities graduates for the most part. Scientists (like Levi) have rarely figured in that list. Science and Literature seem to often stand at opposite poles, with very different ideas of what constitutes ‘truth’. As a successful physicist and novelist where do you think these two branches of knowledge meet (if at all)?
Paolo Giordano: It is true that such a severe distinction is often assumed. I think, to put it simply, it’s a distinction that isn’t true. Writing is the only job where everybody can fit in. There’s no need for a specific background, apart from the ability to write properly.
Moreover, I’m convinced that a very specific background far away from the strictly literary one – it can be scientific, economic or whatever – can help in giving new perspectives in the telling of reality and in defining a particular style.Science is particularly suited to this, as it’s probably the most pertinent language to describe the world of today, as we are totally and constantly embedded into science and technology.
Before the book was released, I never thought carefully about physics and writing meeting or splitting at some point. To me, they were simply two things that I worked with, two separate ways of organizing and analysing the outside world. Then I figured out that there are some small common regions where they overlap. In particular, these have to do for me with an idea of “precision” and with the sense that both give me of “putting disordered things back in order”.
TMO:Is it true that the novel started out with a different and less mathematical title? How did you come upon the metaphor at the heart of the book, and how did it effect what you had written up to that point?
Paolo Giordano: Yes, it is true. The former title was “In and out of the water”. Water seemed to me the dominant element in the story and the structure of the novel gave me this idea of “fluctuation”, of immerging and emerging alternatively.
My editor found the title it has now. He says he “found it in the book”. I guess that is true, but I know I was definitely too involved in the writing to be so lucid. That’s why we struggled a bit before I accepted the change in the title…
TMO: There’s an interesting and subtle political theme in the book regarding responsibility, and in particular the responsibility of parents towards children. I think it’s one of the themes that has made it particularly popular amongst readers in their twenties and thirties in Italy – though it’s a theme that applies worldwide against the background of the current economic crisis. Do you think writers have a duty to be political, either overtly or subtly?
Paolo Giordano:I think it is something they have to aim for. But the “political side” can emerge in a writer very slowly and I guess this path has to be respected, first of all. There’s always the “urge” to talk about one thing instead of another and this is the only reliable guide for an author. The political urge simply grows together with it, slowly for some of us, faster for others.
TMO:There are two artists/musicians mentioned in passing in the book, the Counting Crows and Damien Rice, whom Alice listens to. Let’s talk a little bit about your relationship with Anglo-American culture. How influenced were/are you by music/books/films that come from outside Italy, and what kind of impact do you think this ‘outside’ culture has had on Italian society?
Paolo Giordano:My background is almost completely Anglo-American, in music as well as in literature and in movies. If I had to mention my heroes in these fields, they would all be English or American (David Foster Wallace, Michael Cunningham, Jeffrey Euginides, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Lynch, Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and so on). I have to admit that a big part of my formation artistically happened through Mtv, which is still the only television (at least in Italy) that has a very “pop” point of view on the outside world.
Like most of the world, Italy has also been “invaded” by the Anglo-American culture during the last number of
decades, but I can say that, contrary to a lot of people, I am quite happy with this “invasion”.
TMO: Given that it’s a story about symmetries and relationships, amongst other things, it seems appropriate to talk about the structure. You’ve divided the story up into seven sections, spread over a narrative timeframe of 24 years. What made you choose this very particular architecture for the story?
The structure was built step by step during the writing process. I had no particular idea about it, in advance, in my mind. When I felt that the “interesting” events of a particular age had been exhausted, I just moved on to the following age, with a big jump. Only while I was writing the end of the story, I felt the need to put the years at the beginning of every part, to help the reader a bit.The symmetry of the novel, probably, comes from the fact that there are two intertwined stories and I constantly moved from one to another, so that the two ended up in influencing each other.
TMO: How important a trait is sympathy for a novelist? Or, putting it another way, let’s attempt to define the relationship a writer has with his/her characters, in a sporting context: Referee or Fan? Do you see yourself, like a referee, disinterested and there to maintain the rules of the imaginary universe created? Or, like a Fan, do you sympathise with specific characters, pushing them to perform?
Paolo Giordano: I think I am neither a referee nor a fan. Putting the proper distance between yourself and your characters is one of the hardest things to do. More than “sympathy”, I always rely on “empathy”. It works also if you are not telling the story in first person. You can say the most brutal or sentimental things as long as you are “true” to your character and as long as you see things exactly as he/she would.
TMO: The book is being turned into a film; can you tell us a bit about that? Also, I’ve read that you attended the Holden School in Italy, where courses are dedicated to storytelling through various artistic forms from the novel and short story through to films and graphic novels. Have you any ambitions to experiment with other forms of storytelling apart from the novel and short story?
Paolo Giordano: Yes, I’d like to experiment with other forms, but rather slowly. I think the right time will come for everything. What I have to do first is to improve my own writing and to look for a dinstinct voice.So far I took the chance of studying how a film script is written. I’ve worked together with the director, Saverio Costanzo, and the experience opened my mind to a completely different grammar and language.
TMO: As a reader, what are the elements that draw you to a novel? To put it another way, what kind of novels/writers do you enjoy the most?
Paolo Giordano: Definitely the psychological aspects, the ability to show situations and feelings that are so secret and prohibited that we are usually scared by and ashamed of them. I guess in every novel I search for the humanity that lacks in most of real relationships.
TMO: Let’s talk a little bit about the ending of the novel. The novel is, in some respects, quite traditional. Its narrative follows a linear path in time, and yet the ending is abrupt, almost contradicting the form of the novel by refusing to answer all the questions posed.
Paolo Giordano: The ending was rather hard. I had to write it five times over and still I am not convinced that this is the best choice. I didn’t want to leave anything open, but any time I forced the characters into a definite direction, they refused too take it because the story turned into something uncoherent, dishonest.
I think I had to let them be free to choose some future which was no more in the line of what had been told before. The novel doesn’t end when the two characters are “resolved”, as a traditional form would suggest, but when their relationship, their friendship or love or whatever it may be, is resolved.