Italy, 1937. In a tiny village in rural Lombardy, Graziella Ponti is born into a loving family.
Though they are not rich and life is full of challenges, they are content and safe, surrounded by the tightly-knit community of Pieve Santa Clara.
But when the shadow of World War Two falls across the village with the arrival of Nazi soldiers, nothing in young Graziella’s life will ever be the same again.
Paradiso is Graziella’s story. It charts her loves, losses and triumphs as she grows up in post-war Italy, a country in transformation, freed from the shackles of dictatorship yet still gripped by the restraints of the Catholic church.
Paradiso is inspired by true stories told to Francesca Scanacapra by her Italian family and set in locations where she spent much of her childhood. It is a deeply affecting novel which sheds light on the complexity and trauma of Italy’s past and weaves it into the epic tale of an ordinary woman compelled to live in extraordinary times.
– When and where do you prefer to write?
As for the moment I still have a day job, I squeeze my writing into every available moment that I’m not working. I gave up teaching and translation in order to work with my husband, who is a builder; not because I’m particularly enthused by laying patios and building walls, but because doing a manual job leaves my head clear to write. I’ve had some good ideas whilst digging, or mixing cement.
Days when we can’t work due to bad weather are a cause for celebration as they allow me extra writing time. My week-ends are usually entirely arranged around writing.
I write in my bedroom because it’s comfortable and quiet, the light is good and I have a beautiful view over the garden. For me, tranquillity is key.
– Do you have a certain ritual?
I make a cup of coffee, arrange my cushions for maximum comfort and have my notebooks to hand. Once all that is in place, I fire up my laptop and off I go. I am often accompanied by my self-appointed muse, my cat, Alfonsina, who sits alongside me and listens intently when I read out loud.
– Is there a drink of some food that keeps you company while you write?
Definitely coffee, and often far too much of it. I did develop a bit of a biscuit habit for a time, but that’s under control now.
– What is your favourite book?
That’s a short question which could have a very long answer. If we’re talking about pure reading pleasure, and a certain amount of author envy, then it would be Perfume : The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind. The novel enthralled me from the first time I read it as the story is so dark and unusual, the characters are vibrant, and the writing is highly sensory. Perfume takes the historical fiction genre into a fantastical world and guides the reader, quite literally, by the nose, as not only people and places, but also emotions are described through smell. Genius!
– Do you consider writing a different genre in the future?
For the moment, no. I have several books brewing in my mind and all of them are historical fiction. If I wake up one morning with a brilliant idea for a science fiction novel, or a thriller, I’ll let you know.
– Do you sometimes base your characters on people you know?
I certainly do, although none of my characters are based solely on one person. They are composites of my imagination, of people I have met, of characters from books and films. Some simply develop traits which are useful to the story. Quite often their characteristics change as the book evolves.
Paradiso and its sequel, Return to Paradiso, are not intended to be in any way autobiographical, but it was interesting that when my daughter read an early draft, she asked whether the protagonist, Graziella, was based on me. Consciously, she wasn’t, although subconsciously many parts of her personality probably were. As they say, if you want a personal insight into an author, don’t read their biography, read their novels.
– Do you take a notebook everywhere in order to write down ideas that pop up?
I have several notebooks dotted around the house and one in my handbag. Although I try to be disciplined and keep my note-writing in my notebooks, quite often my ideas end up scrawled on scraps of paper and on the backs of envelopes. I have been known to hunt around in the recycling bin to rescue a discarded envelope on which I had scribbled a useful note.
– Which genre do you not like at all?
I’m not a fan of romantic fiction. Although I have no objection to love and romance within a novel, if it’s schmaltzy, or overly-sentimental, that’s a big turn-off for me.
– If you had the chance to co-write a book. Whom would it be with?
If I could bring him back from the grave, I would write with one of Italy’s great 20th century novelists, Alberto Moravia, because I could learn so much from him; not just from a writing perspective, but also concerning the attitudes and social norms of the time. The insightful psychological analyses of the characters who populate his books always captivates me. There is often a battle between sensitivity and brutality in his writing, which is something I also aspire to achieve.
As far as a living author is concerned, my choice would be Elena Ferrante, author of the Neapolitan Novels. I would choose her for many of the same reasons as Alberto Moravia.
– If you should travel to a foreign country to do research, which one would you chose and why?
So far my novels have been set in Italy, where I spent much of my childhood and I have plans for a novel set in France, where I lived throughout my twenties. I have also lived in Spain and Senegal, so there’s more inspiration tucked away there.
If I was to choose somewhere new, it would be Kenya, where my English grandmother spent her childhood. To my enormous regret, I didn’t write down any of the stories she told me about growing up in East Africa in the 1920s and early 1930s because I was too young to appreciate their value. I remember tales of governesses and pet lion cubs, but very little beyond that. Visiting some of the places she knew might jog my memory and would certainly give me a sense of place and a peek into the colonial world in which she grew up. That’s just whetted my appetite…
Thank you, Francesca Scanacapra and Rachel’s Random Resources
About the author
Francesca Scanacapra was born in Italy to an English mother and Italian father, and her childhood was spent living between England and Italy. Her adult life has been somewhat nomadic and she has pursued an eclectic mixture of career paths, including working as a technical translator between Italian, English, Spanish and French, a gym owner in Spain, an estate agent in France, a property developer in France and Senegal, and a teacher. Francesca lives in Dorset and currently works as a builder with her husband. She has two children.