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Donna Leon On Thirty Years of Inspector Guido Brunetti

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In July 1992, Guido Brunetti arrived as a new protagonist on the mystery scene in Donna Leon’s first novel, Death at La Fenice, which combined her love of opera with her gift for character and her deep appreciation of Venice. Kirkus Reviews called it “deftly plotted and smoothly written,” and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch proclaimed it was “a challenging mystery, a sophisticated drama.” Each year since, a new Brunetti story has appeared, redolent of family and food, exploring the ambiguities of guilt and justice, each at the same high standard Leon established at the start. 
Transient Desires, published today, March 9, 2021, is her 30th book in the series in 30 years—a remarkable achievement. On this occasion, she was interviewed by her editor at Grove Atlantic, George Gibson.

George Gibson: Thirty books in 30 years, all at the same high standard you established in the beginning—your new book Transient Desires is the 30th—is really an astonishing literary achievement. A friend of mine, also a fan of yours, told me recently, speaking for many of us, that he loves how fresh and original you’ve made each of your books. Are you surprised in any way that you and your characters are still going strong, and to what do you attribute this happy longevity?

Donna Leon: Yes, I am surprised by the continuing success of the books. As to the reasons, I think one is that the books show a Venice that is not often presented in English books nor much seen by tourists. They take the reader into Venetian homes, listen to them gripe about everything (in the way of Venetians), learn where certain things are to be found, get a sense of what Venetians think about their government, both local and national.

They also have a protagonist who is sane and decent, happily married, intelligent, a reader, dresses carefully and well, loves good food and wine, and who likes women. I think this is at variance with what many novels present as a protagonist or hero. People can be comfortable liking him and do, I believe, come to trust his judgment.

GG: We’ve now spent a year in the throes of the pandemic. Of course, it has affected your ability to travel and socialize, and one weeps at the tragedy it has inflicted. How has it affected you as a writer?

DL: It’s created the problem of how to write about the pandemic in future. I’m now working on the book for 2022, and I have to decide how much of a scar will still be visible in the spirit and habits of Venetians. Italy was devastated by Covid, but we don’t know how things will be in a year. Or two. And so, I’ve decided to treat it as a kind of folk memory and show how the memory lingers in thought, habit, behavior, but not write about the way the billions from Europe will be handled. Covid is better presented, in this time of uncertainty, as an ambiance, not a subject.

GG: How do the ideas for your books germinate and how and where do you then research them, so that Brunetti et al speak accurately and logically about the circumstances at hand?

DL: Many ideas come from chat with friends on the street (not at the moment), an article in a paper or a magazine, or from gossip. Gossip is best. I’m not sure that the characters speak accurately: facts don’t really exist in Italy.

GG: Speaking of research, the genesis of your first book, Death at La Fenice, came a bit out of the blue. Can you tell that story?

DL: I was at a rehearsal of Donizetti’s La Favorite (French version) at La Fenice in Venice, sitting in the conductor’s dressing room with the conductor (Gabriele Ferro, an old friend) and his wife (ditto). We started talking about another conductor, whom none of us particularly admired as a person. The idea came to me that to kill him in the dressing room would be a great idea for a crime novel, which I’d never thought of writing. Why not try?

GG: Guido Brunetti is a wonderfully appealing character in many ways, not least his name. There’s something about the name Guido that automatically makes one sympathetic. How did you settle on his name and those of your other characters? Dickens was famous for names that, in themselves, defined their character (Scrooge et al); do/did you have a thought process for naming characters?

DL: Oh, the names that Dickens comes up with!! Bless him. “Guido Brunetti” came from a tomb in the cemetery. I read the names on doorbells, open the phone book at random, pillage the name of a friend, look to see the name of the journalist writing for Il Gazzettino and use that.

GG: Everyone is, naturally, drawn to Signorina Elettra. What does she represent for you and what role does she play in your stories?

DL: I believe she’s the most popular character, no doubt because of the ambiguity of everything about her. What’s she doing working at the Questura, for God’s sake? She is the most useful character in that she knows how to use a computer as something other than a typewriter, a skill I lack. She can also be counted on for an ironic comment, always sounding far more English than Italian.

GG: Food and family are so central to each book. Brunetti never misses a chance to have a coffee, or to come home for lunch, which Paola almost always prepares, and the mealtime family conversations are always illuminating. How do you orchestrate food and family to amplify and give texture to your stories, or to regulate the action?

DL: Well, people eat twice a day, don’t they? (Breakfast doesn’t exist in the Brunetti family). And it is at table that they learn about life: table manners, politics, correct word use, books that might be interesting, what is proper or improper behavior, to use or not to use foul language, how adults deal with problems, social ideas, prejudices for or against things, just about everything that goes into a person’s head.

As to the food: Paola teaches three or four hours a week, so she’s got time to cook. And she views cooking as a way to show her love for her family, not as a dreadful chore she’d love to avoid so they could go out to dinner.

GG: In Transient Desires, there is an emotional and revealing passage in which Brunetti’s eyes are opened by his partner Claudia Griffoni as to the differences between Brunetti’s northern and her southern Italian roots. Does this scene represent an ongoing cultural issue in Italy? And is Brunetti—who doesn’t age—nonetheless becoming more of a mentor, to Griffoni and others?

DL: I think Griffoni is fully formed, as is Vianello and Signorina Elettra. They develop, yes, but on their own and because of their own experiences. There is still a tremendous prejudice against Southerners. I’ve heard Northerners say things casually about people from the South that leave me with my mouth open. It’s difficult to understand the prejudices of people from other countries, easy to understand our own. Because ours are right, right? My best female friend is Venetian, male: Neapolitan.

GG: Your 30th book, Transient Desires, reprises the disturbing theme of human trafficking, which your 4th novel, Death and Judgment, also revolved around. Based on your research for the new book, in what horrifying ways has this deadly business developed in the past quarter century?

DL: We’re capitalists: think supply and demand. As the rest of the world gets more crowded and poorer, there are more young women who can be induced to take a chance—a loser’s chance—on a new life in Europe: companion to peaceful old person, loving family to live with, weekends free, Italian lessons, work permit, friendly neighbors, your own room, you name it, honey.

They are younger today, and most of them are African. More of them come, the trafficking is in the hands of people from their own countries, who know how best to create psychic terror, and because there are so many, they are more expendable.

Although the traffic seems to have expanded (who knows?) less attention is paid to it by the public. But there are still men willing to pay for an hour—or ten minutes—with a woman who has no rights, no home, no defense.

GG: When/how do you decide to introduce new characters into one of your books (like the Guardia Costiera in Transient Desires)? Do they emerge as the story necessitates, or do you plan for their presence at the start to add new resonance (or to give you new challenges)?

DL: I fear I don’t plan much. I get an idea and start (the idea comes when it wants) telling a story, and as I go along, the story begins to tell itself. New people show up, just as Signorina Elettra did, ages ago, when I was stuck and didn’t know where to take the book. She knocked on the door of Brunetti’s office, and there she was: fully formed, like Minerva, leaping from Zeus’ head.

GG: You’ve been asked often about which writers have influenced you. Another way of asking the question could be: recognizing that the classics play a role in many of your Brunetti stories—while small in space, nonetheless large in appreciating the denouement—what place do the classics inhabit in your worldview? Why does Guido only read the classics when he needs inspiration?

DL: Is there something else more worthwhile for us to read? You want to know about the position of women? Read The Trojan Women. You wonder what people who are denigrated and insulted are capable of doing? Read Agamemnon. I think he reads the classics for solace. Obviously, I read or have read many things—I taught English Literature at the university level for decades.

GG: While Guido Brunetti and all your characters never age, the world moves on with each book, and since current events play a role in all your books, the characters need to keep up with them and reflect them in speech and action. In the story you’re currently writing, which will be published in 2022, has the uncertainty of the future caused by the pandemic required you to anticipate that future in a way that wouldn’t have been an issue pre-pandemic?

DL: I think not. There’s little in the novels that could be carbon-dated. Politicians are vilified, but they are never named. Events are referred to, but they are usually events from the past (in terms of the book). This allows for the slow ageing of Brunetti and the entire cast. These are the oldest teenagers in recorded history, I fear. I think there is no real contemporary named or referred to in the books. This was dumb luck on my part, not planning.



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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

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