Viola di Grado is one of Italy’s most exciting and critically acclaimed new authors. Her debut novel Settanta acrilico trenta lana – published in english under the title 70% acrylic 30% wool – won the prestigious Premio Campiello Opera Prima prize (Previous winners include Alessandro Piperno and Paolo Giordano), and her second novel Cuore Cavo has been a major critical and commercial success.
70% acrylic 30% wool set in Leeds, tells the story of a young Italian woman Camelia who lives in a wordless house with her depressed Mother, communicating solely in looks and gestures. Camelia studies Chinese and develops a strange and strained love affair with a local Chinese shop owner Wen. It’s a novel which weaves and meshes together languages, signs, symbols and cultures, always questioning the value and true possibility of communication. It’s also a brilliant, funny, dark and disturbing read.
Kate Appleton interviews Viola Di Grado for TMO (via email), to discuss 70% acrylic 30% wool and her approach to writing.
Your debut novel, which was translated into English earlier thisyear, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool, is a dark story – what were yourinfluences?
I don’t believe in influences. Of course you get influenced all thetime by everything and everyone, but creativity has to be about destroying and recreating from zero.
A lot of critics have been surprised by your mature style of writing – how do you deal with this reaction?
I don’t believe in “age”. I’ve been writing since I was 5 years old. When I was a little girl I signed a deal with myself saying from that moment on I would not talk to anybody but only write, of course I didn’t follow it in the end. Writing has always been not just something I do but the way I deal with both external and internal reality. Everything I see and do always goes through narration in my head at the same time as I live it, that means I am always writing in my head, even when I am not on paper. Sometimes I consider myself more a writer than a person. I often see my life as a means for my writing but that is never an artificial operation it’s the only way of “life” I believe in.
I come from near Leeds in the UK, so I found your description of the life there extremely interesting. Did you visit the area ordo much research before writing?
I lived for a year in Leeds. When I got there it struck me as a city with a strong personality. I wanted it to be a character in my novel and its constant meteorological extremeness made it perfect to suit a life that blocked, like a broken watch.
What is your method of writing?
The first stage is a shamanic one. I feel all ideas come to me and I have to speak with the voice of someone else, I don’t know if that means writers can have access to a collective unconscious, but they surely can access other people’s psychic territory. That stage always alternates with one of mathematical attention.I constantly work on the text, on every word, I can spend a whole night with just one word. I want every sentence to be self-sufficient as it happens in poetry, I don’t believe in a difference between prose and poetry.
There is a strong theme of sadness and unrequited love – was this from personal experience?
Do you think happiness and satisfactory love is interesting to read in a book?
Are your characters a reflection of yourself?
No. They are very different from me but they live inside the city of myself and I feed and protect them.
Are the names of your characters symbolic?
Yes. Camelia is a flower name like mine, as Lily is. Each of us hurts flowers (conventional beauty). Camelia cuts them, Lily kills herself, I hurt Camelia by giving her a terrible life (I’m sorry for that).
Is there a specific message in your novel that you want your readers to grasp?
Of course, there are many, and I hope I don’t need to explain them, I prefer to let others interpret for themselves.
Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
Ask my psychiatrist. Just kidding.
I’m aware you took part in a conference on Jacques Lacan who is famous for rejecting that reality can be captured in language, is this something you believe?
I was one of the people giving the talk. My novel’s philosophy is very similar to Lacan’s thought so Lacanian psychoanalysis invited me to give a talk for the European school of psychoanalysis on how my novel and Lacan meet.
Is psychoanalysis something that interests you? And if so to what field of thought do you subscribe?
Yes definitely, I’m passionate about it and I like to use psychoanalytic symbolism into my poetry in many ways (I write poetry too). Anyway I don’t think modern psychoanalysis is about
You’ve been labelled an ‘Italian Goth’ in the press. Do you subscribe to labels? How do you see yourself?
Labels are what people use when they aren’t able to understand you. I am not a ‘goth’ at all, I am Viola Di Grado. I don’t see myself, I see my self plural. They’re a lot of people, some may be similar to what you can call gothic but only in a traditional, literary, Edgar Allan Poe sense.
After the success of winning Italy’s ‘Campiello First Novel’ award do you now feel pressure?
I did, but it didn’t influence my work since I am always the strictest critic ever, more so than any critics.
Can we have a hint as to what your next novel will be tackling?
My latest novel is already out in Italy and it is about a girl’s life after she kills herself. What I wanted to do was to break the taboo of death- of the ambiguous stage between death and the skeleton, the corpse. We humans feel the cultural need to put a barrier between
life and death so we deny that death is not an event but a process, something that starts and goes on through decomposition of the body. My orator passionately looks after her own corpse,
watching its posthumous decay, and records on her secret diary everything that happens inside herself (literally).”
What book are you reading now?
I’m reading a biography of Catherine Mansfield, some contemporary American poets and a book by Thomas Bernard. Oh, and a book on Swedish grammar.
70% Acrylic 30% Wool is published by Europa Editions