ADDICTED TO WRITING. Benedetta Cibrario was born in Florence, Italy, in 1962, to a father from Turin and a mother from Naples. She is a writer who lives in London. Her books include Rossovermiglio (2007; Campiello Prize 2008), which was followed by Sotto cieli noncuranti (2009; Rapallo Carige Prize 2010), Lo Scurnuso (2011), L’uomo che dormiva al parco (2012) and Il Rumore del Mondo (finalist at Premio Strega 2019). Her latest work, Per ogni parola perduta,was published in 2022.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Benedetta Cibrario, how did you decide to become a writer? 

It is something I always wanted to do. It turns out, when you are a writer, that somehow, at a certain point, you have to start. You cannot postpone it anymore; and this is exactly what happened to me.

When did you start? 

When I relocated to England. I write in Italian, so it was like going back home. When you go back to your native language, it’s intimately yours. Weirdly enough, being in a foreign country made me a writer.

Do you do a lot of research for your detailed descriptions of the characters and their cities in your books?

That’s the fun bit of all of it. I like sitting at my desk for 8 or 9 hours a day, and I spend half of my day doing research, half of my day writing. I’m curious by nature. I didn’t know anything about hot air balloons before starting writing Per ogni parola perduta, even less about Chambéry where it is set. Doing the research fills the gaps in my plot, and also protects me from the temptation of dripping too many autobiographical things into my writing.

Why did you write about ballooning?

I was really interested in Xavier de Maistre, a French speaking army officer and author who never believed in himself being a writer. He declared many times that he was a very unsuccessful guy and that what is really important in life is to be a dilettante, which I found fascinating.  He spent a huge part of his life in Russia.

Was de Maistre from Chambéry?

Yes. When he was born, Chambéry, in Savoy, was part of the Kingdom of Sardinia. In 1799 de Maistre joined the Russian army and went from Turin to St Petersburg. He was the very first writer of the 18th century to fly in a hot air balloon. Balloons are quite a metaphor. You can see things from another perspective, see everything from height, and they imply courage, and curiosity – which is a fil rouge in what I write. When I found out that this weird guy was also one of the very first people to have flown in Chambéry in 1784 I thought, well, there’s a story there.

“Being in a foreign country made me a writer.”

Benedetta Cibrario

Benedetta Cibrario, how do you assemble a character’s story?

I’m not a writer who draws up a very specific programme of what I am going to write. When I write I follow instinct or imagination. It is very tiring to write like this, because most of the time you have to rewrite and get rid of quite a big amount of pages you’ve been writing.

Do you write historical novels simply because you love history?

I do love history, but what I mainly like is memory of the past. Every character of mine, possibly every human being, is constantly facing, every second of our life, an interaction with the world we are living in which becomes history once the years have passed. I like to put my character in a tension between everyday life and what will become the big scheme of history. I try to transmit to the reader that there are moments in history or in life where it looks like time is slow in itself. The pace which prepares the Risorgimento – the unification of Italy which is the topic of the book Il rumore del mondo – is very, very slow, and I try to transform this into the physical act of reading slowly, and taking the reader slowly with me to see how these things develop in time. I write what I feel the subject really requires, whether it is short or long.

Are the cities that you write about often closely connected to your own life? 

It is exactly me, because I was born in Florence, part of my family lived in the countryside near Siena, my mother is from Naples. In my latest novel Per ogni parola perduta there is also Oxford, where I lived for a few years. In my recent books there is also London, where I live. Turin, the town where I grew up and got to become who I am, is also depicted in my work. 

Even if in your books you don’t obviously talk much about the world around you? 

I think I talk a lot about the world around me. It’s all there. When I write about other eras I camouflage what I now live and experience. I do this autobiographical camouflage a lot. I put a little bit of my experience and things that I thought or I have felt in every single character, but there is never one character which is me. There are parts of me in every character.

Did you go to Chambéry for your topographical research or did you use memory and invention?

It is entirely invention at the beginning, but then I go to check, so I went to Chambéry three times. That was difficult because it was during the pandemic. For Rossovermiglio I went to Tuscany to be extremely precise and check if my imagination got it right. For Lo Scurnuso, a small novel of which the first part is set in 18th century Naples, I did exactly the same walk which one of my characters does, from the Quartieri Spagnoli going up to Capodimonte.  I also went to look at a lot of paintings and views of Naples from every single angle. Getting help from an artistic perspective and seeing multiple views of the town enabled me to refer to perceptions of light, colour and distance while I was writing. I did the same with more or less all the books.

Did you also visit museums?

With Il Rumore del Mondo, which is set in the Risorgimento, I went to see museums and I walked wherever I could, in London and in Turin. There are strong commercial and political connections between London and Turin in the 19th century, much more than what one would imagine. From Foscolo to Giuseppe Mazzini, to name two of them, many Italians who took an important part in the upheavals which ultimately led to the Risorgimento were exiled in London. I went often to the Victoria and Albert Museum to check their collections. I wanted to know how they were dressed, what sort of dinner set they would have had. I spent hours in libraries and archives, reading books on the carriages they were using or which horse post stations and inns they would have stopped at going from London to Turin. I checked every detail. The aim was to create a sort of time machine, to bring the reader with me, back to those years. 

Why do you describe the places your characters inhabit and the way they dress in such detail?

I graduated in history of cinema. I have been a compulsive film moviegoer for years, and I’m very visual. By the obsession with details I want to recreate a cinematic experience for myself and for the reader. I would like them to see – not only to read, but to see what I am describing.

“As writers we have to understand our characters, and while we’re writing we do come to understand them.​”

Benedetta Cibrario, why did you want to describe the world of the aristocracy in your book Rossovermiglio?

Because it was a dusty world on the verge of disappearing. Rossovermiglio is set between the two World Wars. In 1946 Italy became a republic. Before that the Italian aristocracy witnessed the rising of Fascism without understanding what was going on. The war which derived from it not only brought destruction, immense suffering, and economic disaster, but also led to the abolition of monarchy. The ruling classes have a huge responsibility. The very same aristocracy which played an important role for the unification of Italy in the mid-19th century acted in a very different way in the mid-20th century. They withdrew from politics. They simply didn’t care about Mussolini and what was happening. When Mussolini went to Turin in 1923 to visit Fiat they put flags all around town and there was a huge photograph of Mussolini for La Stampa. I found a comment about the La Stampa article saying “oh, you know, the guy? I mean, the guy is wearing a grey coat in the morning. How vulgar is that!” Everything was only on the aesthetic point of view. 1946 was a pivotal year for my country. And also the very first time that women voted in Italy.

Are you critical of the irresponsibility of the aristocratic minority? 

Yes, I am, absolutely. Of course there are many exceptions. In Rome, in Palazzo Doria, there was a hidden apartment where the former Prince Doria Pamphilj was helping people. There are many stories like this one, of priests, farmers, rich and poor people in the country and in towns risking their lives to protect Jewish families, people prepared to go to jail and risk imprisonment and death by opposing the Fascist regime. Even in Chambéry, occupied by the Italian Fascists’ army, I found many stories of local people helping Jewish refugee families. So everywhere there were also people helping. But when something terrible happens to a country there is also a widespread responsibility. The good and the evil are always both there.

In each of your books you focus on an obsession. Why?

I like obsessive characters. For me, obsession is very interesting to describe and to try to understand. Obsession for objects is something I share with most of my characters. It is usually unrelated to fashion, unrelated sometimes even to the value of the object itself. As writers we have to understand our characters, and while we’re writing we do come to understand them.

In Lo Scurnuso the obsession is over a tiny terracotta statue created in Capodimonte. What is this about?

The mid-18th century was a glorious moment for Naples. The cultural and artistic life was incredibly rich. In every circle, from the royal court to most notable and rich families, it became very fashionable to have a Nativity crib. These Nativities were called “Presepi”.  They were staged every year, organised by a set-designer and displayed in the grand salon of every palazzo. The central part was the crib hut, with the Virgin, Saint Joseph and baby Jesus. Their little statues were made of terracotta, beautifully dressed in silk, the Three Kings always adorned with jewels. The crib is set in a painstakingly accurate representation of bustling 18th century Naples. There are taverns, markets, fishermen, farmers, beggars, shepherds, soldiers, ambassadors. Different animals, elephants, horses, monkeys. It is theatre, more than religion. Every small item, from the richly decorated dresses and the jewels worn by the different characters to the glass and lanterns in the taverns, was made specifically for the display. Huge amounts of money were spent on this occasion. This was so fashionable that even the King, Charles III of Bourbon, and all the court, started preparing these nativity scenes. It was like a competition, among families.

Who made all these miniature objects?

Every artist in town, sculptor, ceramist, silversmiths, usually doing larger things, was commissioned. For instance, the sword maker would have done tiny little swords, and the Capodimonte factory would have done tiny little porcelain things to put on the tables and so on. There is a nativity scene like this in New York in the Metropolitan Museum, and in Naples there are many in the museums. All these very beautiful sculptures are by anonymous artists and it is a very moving thing that you concentrate on doing something with all your soul and body and then it is anonymous, so nobody will ever know that you did it.

Why are your characters often successful people who lose everything?  

What’s interesting is what happens when you start losing all your money, or when you lose all the prestige of your family, or when a huge series of misunderstandings puts you in the situation of losing your friends, your lovers, your wife, your husband. But, in the end, there’s always at least one character wise enough to try to repair the damage.

Benedetta Cibrario

Benedetta Cibrario: Per ogni parola perduta

Benedetta Cibrario

Benedetta Cibrario: Il rumore del mondo

Benedetta Cibrario

Benedetta Cibrario: Rossovermiglio

Benedetta Cibrario

Benedetta Cibrario: Lo Scurnuso

Benedetta Cibrario

A Neapolitan presepio. A centuries-old tradition in Naples and southern Italy, the presepio is an elaborate nativity scene recreated with miniature figures arranged in a detailed panorama of 18th-century life in Naples. Handmade by artists in the Royal Court of Naples between 1700 and 1830, the presepio includes superbly modeled humans, animals, angelic figures, and architectural elements.

Benedetta Cibrario

A Tavern Scene in a Neapolitan presipio.

“Writing is my way to organise the world which I see around me.”

Benedetta Cibrario, why are there lots of secrets and lies in your books? 

Having secrets in life is considered easier in most cases. It’s so much more difficult to have the courage to say the truth loudly. Much easier to have many little drawers around you where you put your secrets to avoid confrontation.

Many of your characters lead misguided family lives. Is this something close to your own experience? 

Not directly. But I see what happens around me. Family relationships are never easy. They can be twisted and toxic. It is always difficult to be within a family or to be in a marriage. It’s difficult to be a daughter or son, difficult to be a mother or father.

Are strong characterful women part of your own family? 

There are many women in my family, and all of them have strong character. I do. There is a sentence in Rossovermiglio that my great-grandmother used to say, it was a leitmotif in her life. In Italian it is “Ordino, Commando, Voglio.” I order. I command. I want. In the past women needed to be strong. Intimately. Resourceful. How else could they survive in a world in which they were constantly held in an inferior position? They could not vote, they could not teach or be doctors or ambassadors, nor could they do many other jobs. And yet they were looking after the children, which is a monumental task.

You have only recently published your book Per ogni parola perduta, but do you still have a strong urge to write?

I cannot stop writing. I cannot live without it. I was a smoker for many years, and when I do not write it is exactly the same freakout feeling which I had when the tobacconist was closed on Sunday and you couldn’t buy cigarettes. I have to write. Writing is my way to organise the world which I see around me.

How is it to write in Italian while living in the English speaking world? 

It is like a secret. It suits me very well because I can write when I feel a bit of uneasiness. I don’t belong here. My English is not good enough, and I have very few English friends.

But you have spent a lot of time living in England? 

Yes, but my roots are definitely in Italy. I feel clumsy where I live, and being clumsy when I do things or see people makes me long to be at my desk. I like this living as a foreigner in a foreign country.

Will you live in Italy again? 

Most of my novels have been written when I was abroad. When I’m in Italy I find it more difficult to write, less interesting, because I need the distance. I need to be far away in order to have perspective.

Do you write and rewrite in order to achieve the richness and fluency of your use of the Italian language?

I write and rewrite every day. Before starting the new day I go backwards and read the previous pages, and I correct for at least the first couple of hours. Then I start a new page.

When your historical characters speak do you try to rebuild the language of their time or do you give them the language of today? 

I do a mixture, because I try to give what would have been the feeling of a language. For parts set in ancient times the language I use is slightly different, and I simply try to construct the sentence, I don’t create a dialect or a language. But it is difficult to rebuild the Italian language of another century.

Is there a distinction in the way different classes of people speak in Italian, as there is in English?

Yes. In Italy, the aristocracy used to speak only French when in society circles, or one of the many different dialects at home. The posh people of the 19th century, during the time of Cavour or Garibaldi, were talking either French or Torinese, the dialect of Turin. But the Torinese dialect of Cavour would never have been the same kind of Torinese as the people doing house work. Identifying the provenance of people by the way they speak is common to both English and Italian. It has been like this since ever. In Latin Rome the senators were speaking a language which was not the language of the crowd.

Do you think of your readers when you write? 

Yes, I do. All the time. I don’t write for myself. I know I write for someone else.

Benedetta Cibrario, thank you very much.