I don’t think so, but it’s a pretty weird coincidence. When I started writing the novel in the summer of 2013, I came across a couple of passing references to how the U.S. had influenced Italian elections starting in 1947 and going forward through the 1950s. I found that very intriguing—I remember pausing in my reading when I came to the phrase “opinion moulders” and staring out the window and thinking, I can imagine bribing someone after an election, but how do you actually throw an election in a foreign country??? The idea was so odd to me that I decided to boil it down to one not very well-trained American trying to sway one small election in one town (Siena), and to make it very hard for him, for all the comic reasons that come to mind in terms of how bumpy it is to try to get anything done in Italy.
Does he use Twitter?
The 1956 equivalent: posters. After all, the original “wall” was a wall. I read that American operatives struggled to find cars with large enough trunks for all the cash they were hauling around and handing out. I began with the question, If I were sent to Siena to influence an election, how would I do it and what would I think about it? Michael’s character evolved away from my own, as fictional characters do, but he mulls over a lot of those same conflicts. And to solve the trunk problem I had him bring his own very large American car, which sets in motion the events of the novel.
Why Italy? You just wanted a tax-deductible trip there?
Of course. Plus I lived there for seven years starting in the late 1980s, in Milan and in Tuscany, so it was a way of going back to somewhere I loved every day when I sat down to write.
Stop pretending you write every day.
Okay, how about every day that I sat down to write. There were other reasons for choosing Italy, too, namely some guilt and shame I felt over the fact that when I was living there and Italians talked about American interference in their politics as if it were obvious to everyone, I didn’t bother to try to figure out if what they were saying was true. Of course it was. I wrote this book in part out of an attempt to tell that story, to make Americans see that the Italy that they both embrace in terms of food and tourism and mock as inefficient and politically gridlocked is very much shaped by what we did there, which was motivated by the fear our government had about Italians democratically electing communists.
So you wrote the book and then the Russians went to town on Twitter?
Yup. It was really surreal. I finished the manuscript in the spring of 2016 and by the fall it was already in the hands of the editor who would buy it, just as the news came out about Russian interference in the election. I had an interesting mix of emotions about the news: it was exactly like what I had put into the book in terms of using various covert ways to influence people’s ideas about candidates, which was kind of flattering (I got it right!) and made the novel feel very timely, but of course I was horrified, too. Some might argue “turnabout is fair play,” but that seems overly simplistic to me. It also felt like the news story about the election meddling would go away long before the book would come out… not so much.
So it’s a spy story, a love story—what is it?
Yes. I think the word I like best that people have used is “deceptive.” It seems to be another novel about how beautiful Tuscany is, and here’s this pretty young American couple moving there, but right in the first few pages you think “Oh. This is something else.” Or at least I hope you do. That’s why I picked Tuscany, because I was tired of seeing it and its people portrayed as something much simpler than what they are.
So you’re busting open that hurtful stereotype about… Tuscany as paradise?
I’m a radical. A truth teller. And a hedonist. It’s complicated.
Let’s get back to shame. What are you ashamed not to have read?
War and Peace, especially because I own a couple of nice editions. All the Greek and Roman classics –I’m really weak in that area. So many things that were not written in English—like most Americans, I just haven’t read enough by foreign authors. I have never read a Bulgarian novel, or a Latvian novel, or an Indonesian novel. There’s a TED talk by Ann Morgan about her year of reading a novel from every country. I want to do that.
You haven’t said anything about the heroine of your novel, Scottie.
I probably should, right?
Scottie has a “Me, Too,” moment. What were the challenges of writing about sex and power in the 1950s?
It was very tricky to put aside how I would have reacted to what happened to Scottie, and let her have her own reaction. I wanted her to have emotions that felt realistic to a modern reader but were true to the era she lived in and her own experiences (or lack of them). I wanted to show what happened to women in those situations, and in doing so imply what still happens to women who do not have the confidence or training or opportunity to speak up and actually be heard. Writing about the 1950s was definitely an exploration of an era that on the surface seems so clean and shiny and prosperous, but in reality was not so great for a lot of people.
You’re a journalist, a television writer, a novelist and an English professor. What are you going to be when you grow up?
I keep thinking I want to own a bookstore, like Ann Patchett, but I think really I just want to lie around and read books all day. Is that a job?
No, that’s a literate Labrador retriever. What’s the most irksome thing you heard someone say at a literary event?
That good writers will always rise to the top and be found. I don’t agree. It’s still a profession that relies on free time and connections. We need to nurture more voices, more writers, starting young. I think the world is much poorer for the lack of diversity in our canon, and I’m glad to see that changing—there’s still a long way to go. Literature is a powerful tool for empathy, and empathy is a powerful tool for peace. If no one has said that before, then I guess I just did, but it seems like someone must have.
Lots and lots of people have said it way better than you just did.
Good. I’m relieved. Is it time for a glass of prosecco?
Isn’t it always?
CHRISTINA LYNCH’s picaresque journey includes chapters in Chicago and at Harvard, where she was an editor on the Harvard Lampoon. She was the Milan correspondent for W magazine and Women’s Wear Daily, and disappeared for four years in Tuscany. In L.A. she was on the writing staff of Unhappily Ever After; Encore, Encore; The Dead Zone and Wildfire. She now lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. She is the co-author of two novels under the pen name Magnus Flyte. She teaches at College of the Sequoias. The Italian Party is her debut novel under her own name.