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To write or not to write. The problem with the Campiello prize
Federica De Maria | 25-03-2008 | ENG
(Translated by Anamaría Crowe Serrano)
“I’m dying to write”, confesses Valentina Brunettin. At 17 she won the Campiello Giovani prize, awarded to Italian writers under the age of 20. Now, at 27 she discovers she’d love to start again. This is the story of a culture that “consumes” talent all too quickly.

Valentina Brunettin, who are you really? Tell us.
I’m 27 years old, with a degree in Foreign Language and Literature, I earn a crust in a legal practice in Udine and would really love to do some proper writing again and to produce something interesting. Even if it’s not published.

And who were you back then? Remind us.
I’ll try to roll back the years to my para-artistic past like this… I started writing when I was 13 and, I have to admit, despite my best intentions, I found myself scribbling down bits of novels and stories that I never finished but which were always centred round some beautiful gay love story. I started to get worried during my Barbie doll days when I liked to make up stories where blonde Ken and dark-haired Ken (I had two of them!) started sleeping together with Barbie who – seduced and abandoned by the most bisexual of the two men – would go for an abortion in great secrecy or would give birth (always very secretly) helped by her best friend Big Jim (stolen from my brother’s toy box). In the end, I went from the dolls’ drama to the written word. My first story with a proper beginning and end, in fact, (even though I threw it away) was called “Misha in the keyhole” and it was an overtly gay story. Needless to say, my family had some inkling of this passion of mine, but they all thought I was writing cutesy teenage stuff: romances, affairs, stolen kisses.
Then, at 17, the Campiello Giovani competition was advertised. I sent L’antibo and managed to keep it to the page limit by the skin of my teeth. Come September I was in the shortlist along with four other guys.
What I remember of that weekend in Venice is the excitement and happiness and the faux intellectual air just about everyone was putting on. We felt we were real writers, and the average age was 16.
In the morning they announced that I was the winner of the national competition. My mother nearly fainted, I slipped on the footpath in front of twenty smiling photographers and then, from sheer excitement at having won, I practically ate nothing until that evening.
Then there was the live broadcast (which was postponed) on RaiUno, collecting the trophy and the kiss from Nancy Brilli, who is tiny but lovely.
There was a big meal at the Palazzo Ducale with the mad shoving and pushing at the buffet. Finally, after struggling my way through, all I ended up with on my plate was a bit of polenta and a single scoop of ice cream. There was no way you could get any more than that.
One week after I won, the publishers at Marsilio called me up and said that L’antibo could be taken out of the anthology for Campiello Giovani and become something in its own right. They extracted it, printed it and started a bit of marketing, but it was really very little (it wasn’t possible to do anything more with it).

And how did you feel? Confide in us.
I was really thrilled with what was happening. I was still often nervous in front of an audience at this or that conference because my mini-novel was a love story between a male student and a philosophy professor. My little novel is no great shakes, or more to the point, I thought at the time that it was ok for a young girl, but in the end the excessively baroque style made even me yawn after a few pages.
Two years later, Marsilio called me again and invited me to their main office.
X. greeted me with a cigar and his first question was:
“Signorina, what’s your greatest ambition?”
“Er, I couldn’t say… get a degree… become a teacher… ”
“No, no, no. I meant in terms of literature… ”
So there it was, he had faith in me and despite the rather slow sales of the little Antibo, he told me he wanted to give me another opportunity.
I had just started Fuoco su Babilonia (tr. Fire on Babylon) and he asked me to send him the first ten pages. From that, he would decide: if he liked it, it was my last chance because he couldn’t go around wasting his time acting on a hunch that might be wrong.
The first ten pages went well. I worked for a whole year. I’d write, send stuff off, the editor would make corrections. In the end 100 pages had to be left out. But I’ve never regretted it. Anyway, a book came out of it, and the theme of “gay love story + Nazi extermination” seemed to me to be very engaging. But then, I literally adored the characters and had lived them so intensely for two years that in the end I could even hear their voices and see their expressions, everything, in my mind.
Finishing Fuoco was like imposing a death sentence on my fantasy which, to be honest, to this day hasn’t run as wild as it did in those days.

And what were you thinking about? Inform us.
Right, the publication was lucky. It coincided with the first issue of PordenoneLegge. Outside of an affair I had with Y., I gained a bit of recognition. Every month, the publisher would send me reviews and articles, he’d arrange meetings and competitions (p.s. most literary prizes are rigged…) The odd critic wanted to flay me and douse me in salt and lemon, but others were already supportive.
But the problem was making the subject of male homosexuality acceptable, even though I realised eventually that the problem wasn’t so much that, perhaps, as my own style. Too long-winded and verbose.

And why did you publish? Enlighten us.
For a writer, the amazing thing about being published, isn’t that it brings a feeling of egocentric satisfaction or that it might provide opportunities to meet people or move in circles that were once out of reach. In my opinion, seeing your work published means giving it a shape and placing it in space and time. A writer feels that s/he has left some trace regardless of whether it sells or not. Your work is something that, from the time it’s printed, represents the fact that you existed.
Needless to say, the novel hasn’t sold widely and didn’t become the overnight success Marsilio had foreseen. Ergo, X. hid behind a wall of silence from which he emerged two years ago with a business-like phone call asking me if I wanted to purchase the unsold copies of the book or have them sent for pulping. “The second option there”, I answered, the way Guzzanti (1) would.
A book that doesn’t do well and a writer who as a result is rarely “seen” are destined to travel together to just one place: nowhere. So it was bye-bye commissioned newspaper articles, bye-bye reviews, bye-bye lectures. The happy, vaguely VIP circus gives you a boot up the backside and so be it.
I went back to my normal life but my passion for writing still suffered from the bitter after-effect of the experience. It would be hypocritical of me to say that everything went back to being the way it was before, because that wasn’t how it was.
The need to write, my ideas and spirit were all a bit shaken so I decided to concentrate on my studies, get a degree (which I did, obtaining the highest grade and managing at the same time to graduate without having to request an extension), go through eight hundred different jobs and in the end wound up working as an underpaid dogsbody.

And what have you written? Reveal all.
Well, there was L’antibo. Bo is 16 years old, from America, and is having serious trouble studying. In the library he meets Adriano, a philosophy professor who gives him a hand, befriends him, becomes a special friend. The story is interwoven step by step with the story of Hadrian and Antinous. In the end, the latter kills himself as it seems happened in real life, but Bo on the other hand has a think about things and gets over his state of adolescent melancholy and depression more or less intact. The parallels with Hadrian’s life disappear after an outing with the family.
In Fuoco su Babilonia (tr. Fire on Babylon), Spiegel “works” in a brothel for men with some of his friends. We’re in Nazi Germany. After a tip-off, the brothel is discovered and destroyed, and everyone working there is arrested, with Spiegel and Tizian (his colleague and best friend) being deported to a concentration camp. There, after many misfortunes, Spiegel is chosen because of his mild manner to wait on an SS officer. The two men become lovers, have orgasmic sex. Then the camp is liberated. The Nazi officer escapes and Spiegel, who’s in bits because of what he has suffered and the love affair, goes back to the city with his friend Tizian. There, between the bombings and hardship, he gets engaged to a doctor even though he doesn’t love him as passionately. The story between them unfolds until, for almost fortuitous reasons, Spiegel manages to link up again with the Nazi officer shortly before he’s brought to trial, facing probable execution.

And is your work in or out? Complain to us.
If I think about the availability of my novels, I can’t complain. There have been debut novels published with vanity presses that afterwards disappeared into thin air; aspiring artists who can only produce a hundred copies with some unknown publisher; young novelists who wait six years for a reply.
I found a good publisher, they didn’t pay me but they didn’t fleece me either, and they tried to promote my books as best they could.
I’m very happy. I really can’t complain about anyone and, even though I have to say this with a touch of bitter-sweetness, I’m lucky to have experienced the thrill of being called a “writer” at 18 years of age.

And what have you learnt? Share with us.
It seems to me that, right now, the world of Italian literature works something like this: writers all belong to one extended family, they might love or hate each other, but in the end, on important occasions, they’re all united. Whoever does a good review for you is your friend and some day you’ll have to repay that favour. Whoever offers you lodgings during a book fair is an acquaintance and some day you’ll have to go all out to arrange an audience for them with the Pope. That’s how it goes, but it’s not really as shocking as it seems.
Now, why am I griping on about the literary scene like this as if I was Britney Spears? Well, because publishing is business, not art. And because there are ways and means of procuring a little niche for yourself in the circle of famous writers which I never quite cracked.

And who will you become? Take us into the future.
I can’t do anything except continue with the day job, buy myself 100g of stracchino cheese a week and have a French manicure to console myself. To be honest I do everything I think failed writers do: aside from those more (un)fortunate ones who become opinion columnists or managers of artistic talent, I work to make a living and now and again I write something which, of course, I might send to some literary competition God knows where in the hope of winning some money, having something published even if it’s in an anthology, getting some silver plated trophy or a weekend in some shack with a complimentary tomino cheese.

And are you writing at the moment? Give yourself a plug.
I wrote a story recently which was mentioned on the Frontiere-Grenzen competition site. Mostly, in recent times, I’ve focused on short stories. I’ve put five of them into a mini-collection which has the working title “Don’t pick your nose”. The first story is about a rape, the second one is a sad story about a frigid porn actress, the third one is about a gay scandal in a boy band like the ‘Backstreet Boys’, the fourth one is about the life of a trans-sexual and the fifth one tells of a violent sexual assault on a young 13 year old girl, where the context, the language and thinking behind it imitate the way young kids today talk and think.

And do you still believe in yourself? Think big.
It’s a tough world out there for us poor writers who have been forgotten by God, publishers and readers.
But at least I’ve found one solution. If I ever get to publish something again in my life (I’ve given up the gay theme now because I felt I had exhausted it a bit; I’ve thrown myself into autobiography and chick lit), you won’t catch me dead at a Book Fair or the Mantua Festival: my strategy will be to publish a nice calendar together with the novel. My own calendar…

No kidding, is that a promise?
[…]

(March 25, 2008)
Anthological Excerpts 1

Anthological Excerpts 2

Born in Udine in 1980, Valentina Brunettin won the Campiello Giovani in 1998, with her novel L’antibo (tr. The Antibo), published by Marsilio.
In 2002 she published her second novel, Fuoco su Babilonia (tr. Fire on Babylon), also with Marsilio.
She lives, works and loves in Udine.

(1) Corrado Guzzanti, Italian comedian.