q & a with nadia dalbuono

Recently I had the epic good fortune to interview author Nadia Dalbuono, writer of The Few, for work! I really enjoyed the book and spent far too long angsting over these questions. (One of my colleagues offered me the last question, which I think I’ll use on everyone.) This was originally posted over here.

You’ve spent the past fifteen years travelling the world as a documentarian for various companies in the UK. Were you scribbling story ideas in your downtime while on location, or has writing fiction been a recent creative pursuit for you?

I wasn’t exactly scribbling ideas but I did get some inspiration from my travels. I have always wanted to write but never really had the chance when I was working in documentaries. They were very long days and we often worked weekends so there wasn’t really much time for anything else. In the back of my mind I guess I’d decided that I didn’t want to be on the road forever and that writing could possibly give me the opportunity for a more settled life. It was when I started working as a consultant and the hours were more regular that I was able to take up writing properly. I found that it gives you a real sense of freedom that it’s difficult to find in TV where five different people want to throw in their opinion before the cut is completed.

I spent a lot of my time reading The Few with my laptop on my knee and Google Maps open so I could trace Scamarcio’s path around Italy and the places he visits. What was it about the landscape that compelled you to write a crime novel?

The idea for The Few came while I was on holiday on the island of Elba. I actually wrote the second part of the novel before I had written the first. I was sitting on a balcony overlooking the sea on a lovely September evening and started wondering about how appalling things can happen in beautiful places. And then the idea for the book slowly started to take shape. If you watch Italian news you’ll see how some of the country’s most squalid crimes often play out against breathtaking backdrops. I think there’s something interesting about that dichotomy.

Detective Leone Scamarcio is descended from Mafia royalty, but has chosen to leave that life behind and dedicate himself to the right side of the legal system. When he comes across situations in which a swift execution would be a vast improvement over bumbling police and tangles of red tape, it really tests his ethical stance, and, in turn, ours as a reader. Do you feel that sometimes public opinion can match Scamarcio’s moral quandary?

Yes I do. And with some crimes more than others, it’s particularly hard not to let your primal instincts for a swift execution take over. I think for Scamarcio it’s doubly difficult because he’s come from a background where settling things with a gun was the norm. His ethics are further tested by the fact that he’s forced to work inside a system which is, at best, inefficient, at worst, fatally flawed.

What’s in store for Scamarcio?

Well his next investigation has far-reaching international implications and is anything but the quiet case he could have done with after the events of The Few. Because of the highly sensitive nature of this new inquiry he finds his position in the force compromised and his private life under pressure. He’s forced to do some growing up and ends the novel a changed man from the Scamarcio of The Few.

What other crime fiction are you enjoying reading at the moment? Do you think there are enough Italian crime writers to start your own organised crime outfit?

Oh yes we could definitely start our own little mafia. Camilleri would have to do the catering – although I’m not sure whether his mouthwatering descriptions of Montalbano’s dinners come from the writer’s own expertise…

And for once, I’m not actually reading a crime novel but am really enjoying The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I think she’s a stunning writer. As regards crime and thrillers in general, I’m a big fan of Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Lee Child, John Le Carre, Ian Rankin, Peter James, Linwood Barclay and Patricia Highsmith.

What’s an answer you’ve always wanted to give to an interview question no one has ever asked you?

The questions would be…

How do you stay motivated to keep writing before you’re published? How do you know that what you’re doing isn’t a complete waste of time?

The answer would be…

For me this was the hardest thing, sitting down at my desk everyday and wondering whether what I was doing would ever see the light of day. I think this is one of the biggest challenges for new writers. All around you, your friends are making strides in their careers and there you are doing something that might never go anywhere. In the end I decided to ignore all the self doubt and just escape to the world I was creating because I enjoyed being there and felt the need to keep writing, whether or not anyone else ever read the book. I told myself not to think about whether I found an agent and publisher and just keep going and worry about all that stuff later.

It wasn’t easy to reach this state of mind but I’m very glad I did and this would be my advice to all would be writers. Just concentrate on the writing and then worry about the next stage once you’re happy with what you’ve created.

international review: nadia dalbuono, the few

I fished through a pile of books on my side table, trying to figure out which one to read. I like to stay savvy with what’s new, but I don’t have the time, in those precious few hours when the Rocket is asleep, to read all the books I want. I picked up James Ellroy’s Perfidia; it would be my first Ellroy, and I found myself slowly falling into it, until it fell on me. Like a temperamental eight-year-old, it takes a lot to convince me to read books that are too thick, at at some seven hundred pages, I couldn’t bring myself to get past thirty pages that day, but I hope to come back to it. I started Lee Child’s Personal (on the back cover: “And this time…it’s PERSONAL”), again, my first Lee Child; I ended up enjoying it far more than I thought though his completely inability to put a comma in everywhere (and as you know, I love me twenty commas per sentence) was a touch distracting. Everything was brief. I guess it works. I mean. Jack Reacher is quite the speedy hero. Still, I put it down and drifted around the house a little before returning to my pile and picking up Nadia Dalbuono’s The Few.

I’m not an enormous fan of Italian fiction; I’m not besotted with the idea of traveling to Italy and crime authors who write about it tend to make it seem even more grim than Sweden. Mafia-type fiction, also, is not really one of the niches of the crime genre that I find myself drawn to. But the first few pages drew me in enough to curl up on the couch properly, and I had it finished by the next day.Detective Leone Scamarcio is a police officer avoiding his own personal history as much as he can. His father was in the mob, and despite being straight, he thinks (probably correctly) that everyone thinks he’s corrupt. Apparently not his chief though, who calls him to a clandestine meeting where some incriminating photos of a foreign minister and some naked young men have come to light. One of those men has been found gruesomely stabbed in his Trastevere apartment, and this whole thing needs to be solved silently and swiftly before the chief has to answer to a friend in the very highest of places. One of the few clues left in the dead man’s apartment points the trail (unpleasantly) towards the abuse of children, and so Scarmarcio heads down it to a town full of secrets, corruption, and the worst kind of people in the most untouchable of places. As the summer heat gets his colleagues sweating and the minutiae of police politics seems unbearable, Scamarcio can’t help but wonder if there was more good to be done by way of the family industry than in a police force trying to do its best amongst Italy’s crooked dealings.
There are a few too many loose ends in this, and while it’s part of a two-book series, these seem so tied to the specific crime of this book that I’m not sure Dalbuono will tie them up later. There was something about the crime, despite being the hideousness of a child abduction (one thing almost guaranteed to make me feel sick about reading), that felt a little…unenthusiastic? For such a heinous crime I wasn’t as invested as I expected to be. The tale told throughout of a childhood friendship turned criminal and sour has a smaller payoff than I was anticipating. Leone was reputed to have sudden outbursts of violence but nothing much came of it beyond one scene. Nevertheless, it had great pacing, a lot of tension, interesting locales (the cliffside prison was a new one), and kept me happily captivated. Nothing outrageously new to see here, but a hearty crime book on a winter night is worth more than an electric blanket.