By Daniela Enriquez
[A few weeks ago I met with Anna Lawton, author of two novels and several non-fiction books, at the headquarters of her publishing house, New Academia Publishing, to speak about her latest work, Amy’s Story. What follows is a lightly modified transcript of our conversation. You can find the audio of the original interview at the end of this article.]
DE: During your presentation of Amy’s Story you said that the impetus for writing this book was a sudden idea – or better – a “flash”. Can you tell us more about this flash and about the structure of the book?
AL: The flash was the scene that opens the novel: Amy hopping into a taxi cab going downtown to meet a friend on a clear September day, and later finding herself caught in the turmoil of the 9/11 attack. When I start writing a novel I need to visualize the first scene, I need to have a picture in mind, or a film sequence, and then everything else follows naturally, because the incipit already contains the premise for everything else.
The structure of the book is a bit convoluted. The novel contains a frame that starts and ends in the present, while the bulk of the narrative unfolds in the past. The frame is necessary, because it defines the end of an era and the beginning of an uncertain future. It also gives dynamism to the narrative by providing jump-cuts in space and time and generates curiosity in the reader, who feels compelled to keep reading in order to discover in which way the beginning connects to the end. The frame is Amy’s story while the bulk of the novel is Stella’s story, which is a manuscript written by a childhood friend that Amy is editing for publication.
DE: This is your first novel written in English, and although you have written several academic books in English, your fist novel, Album di famiglia, was written in Italian. Why did you make this decision and how did that change the writing process for you?
Album di Famiglia was the first work I wrote in Italian, in fact all my other books – essays, articles – were written in English. That was the real challenge for me! I wondered if I still had an absolute mastery of the language after so many years abroad, if I had lost my vocabulary…but when I started writing all doubts dissipated: the language was still there, live and fresh!, it poured down on the page in a flow that I could shape and color creatively. That book was meant for an Italian audience, and it made sense to write it in Italian. Amy’s Story is for the American public. It is about the American experience, the U.S. and its recent history.
DE: The novel is full of characters that have very strong personalities but there is definitely one important element that we find in every chapter: History. Can we consider this book a historical novel? How important is History to the story you tell?
AL: There are at least two types of historical novel. One, where there is a central character who is a historical figure, and the other model, that I follow in Amy’s Story, in which there are fictitious characters who act on a historical background. My novel covers forty years of American history and attempts to make sense of the problems we are facing today by tracing their causes in the recent past. I have been living in this country for about forty years as a citizen and I have experienced the changes that took place. Some of them are good, some not so good, but they are all significant in the way they affected our lives and values, our position in the world. I wanted to capture all that in a novel. There are specific events that I refer to in the novel: the Vietnam War protests, the uprising of feminism, hippy culture, the Watergate scandal up to 9/11 and beyond. These events had a tremendous impact on how American society evolved, they changed it from a society grounded in unshakable principles, and therefore comfortable with a solid sense of identity, to a society shaken by doubt, in search of a new identity, and gradually affected by a good dose of cynicism. In other words, it’s becoming much more European, regrettably so I must say.
DE: Can you tell us something about the other main characters in the novel? No spoilers!
AL: At the center of the story there are two women: Amy and her childhood friend Stella. They grow up together in Italy and spend summers in the countryside in Amy’s grandmother’s villa. Then they move to the States at the same time, one to attend graduate school and the other to follow a lover. It was a romance that brought Stella here and it is this romance that she narrates in her manuscript, which she probably wrote around the 80s, looking back at her life. After that, we lose track of her and we are left only with her memoir, which Amy edits for publication as a novel.
DE: Several dialogues in the book focus on issues that were very important in the 60’s and that are also very contemporary: social justice, immigration, women rights, and more. What are the major changes between those times and today, and how do these relate to the story you tell?
AL: You cannot understand the present without knowing the past. A critical look at our past history is essential if you want to have a future. The differences between then and now are remarkable. In the 60s the youth counterculture was very idealistic: the panacea was embodied by the slogan “all you need is love”. That kumbaya attitude was obviously naïve, but it was honest. They believed in those values and, if nothing else, it created a positive energy. Today there is no idealism in protest, only anger and the will to deny, destroy, and demonize. In the 60’s, social movements had clear objectives. Today, what are the objectives?
DE: Toward the end the book “gets political” but it’s difficult to understand the writer’s opinion, since different characters express different points of view. Did you do this on purpose, and why?
AL: Of course I did it on purpose. In the construction of a novel, everything is done on purpose. Each element has a function. If I were to write a political pamphlet I would use very clear and unequivocal language, with every word carrying a specific meaning in order to convey a specific message. But in a novel it is important to use a language that is ambiguous and evocative. Thinking that the words of one specific character represent what the author means is completely erroneous. My novel does contain a meaning, which is deep and is not on the surface—the reader must work to dig it out.
DE: Amy is a publisher…like you. Has being your own publisher this time changed the writing process?
AL: No! When I write I never think of how and where my work will be published, I am only concerned about writing. It’s only at the end, when the work is finished, that I start to think about the other matters and … all the fun ends!
DE: From the book it seems like you still believe in the American dream. Is that so?
AL: Well, at least the immigrants in my book still believe that the American dream is possible! If you ask me, I personally think that it is still possible—and very difficult—as it has always been. It has always been the basic value which has propelled the development of this country, and the majority of people believe in it. Many people today are still convinced, at least more here than in any other country in the world.
DE: Any new projects in the works?
AL: The next project is an English translation of my first novel, Album di Famiglia, Family Album. The book is a family saga that covers a period of time from the beginning of the 20th century through the end of the second world war, with a flashback to the 19th century. It is a story of three women, three generations and follows their lives and the decay of their fortunes. It has already been translated, the work is largely finished, and I hope that it will be published by next year!