Shouldn’t I be writing about Italy?

Isn’t living in Italy different? If it’s different, doesn’t that make it interesting? If it’s interesting, shouldn’t I be writing about it?

I live my life day to day. It doesn’t seem that interesting. Except for some things that are amazing.

For instance: The coffee is always good.

Also: Italy is really old.

The house we live in, for instance: Who knows? Five hundred years? Six hundred? But who keeps track?

Now that’s kind of interesting.

How’s the book coming?

This morning at Caffe la Posta in Castiglion Fiorentino, as I was trying to read the Italian newspaper, I ran into professor Giuseppe Alpini. He asked me how the book is coming.

Oh, you didn’t know I’m writing a book?

I am writing a book called The Split-Second Forever. It is about how sudden decisions change lives for years and sometimes generations.

The idea for the book came in the early morning darkness in June 2015, when I awoke  at the Residence Le Santucce in Castiglion Fiorentino after a very vivid dream. I felt in the room with me a nurturing and reassuring presence whose form I could almost make out in the darkness. It is a very hard thing to describe, but I felt that the spirit of the place was communicating with me. At that time I had no idea that we might move to Italy, but the very next month my wife Norma and I decided to sell our San Francisco house and move to Castiglion Fiorentino.

By November we had sold the house and were staying at Le Santucce, the renovated medieval convent where we had been holding writing workshops. I began writing about Le Santucce, the family who  live there,  the man who rebuilt it, and the conditions under which it had been destroyed.

It was destroyed by American bombers on December 19, 1943. Over seventy people in the town were killed in the bombing. Such are the tragic things of war, and such is the tragic history of Italy’s involvement in World War II.

In order to tell the story of Le Santucce I interviewed many people, and the theme of split-second decisions began to take form. Mirella Raffaelli, matriarch of the family, told me how she met her husband to be on a train from Orvieto to Milan in a very romantic way, through a split-second decision. I then thought of her  son-in-law Alfeo, who decided to transform the pile of rubble left from World War II into the beautiful place now known as Residence Le Santucce. I then thought of the decision my wife Norma and I made in the summer of 2015 to sell our house in San Francisco and move to Castiglion Fiorentino, where the Tanganelli family cared for us and helped us make a new life in Italy.

I thought of the many decisions, germinated in an instant, that have shaped lives for generations. I thought of how that feeling of rightness comes over one, and of the struggle to determine if that feeling of rightness is a genuine harbinger of good fortune or if it is, as from time to time happens, a sinister delusion. Is it the voice of God, of one’s conscience, or some hidden desire twisted into an apparently divine presentiment?

I interviewed people and studied Italian history and pored over Renaissance manuscripts and slept and dreamed and imagined and studied. I wrote to scholars and writers. I wrote to Tobias Jones. I enlisted the help of a brilliant local translator. I interviewed everyone I could. I did not yet see a clear narrative arc. All I knew was that I wanted to write a book about the rebuilding of Le Santucce, how it came about and why.

Unless you are a writer or a worker in the publishing business you may not know that to publish a nonfiction book it is customary to first create a proposal and submit it to an agent. This is a process akin to slicing off thin strips of your own skin and boiling it, only more painful and not as interesting. Nevertheless authors around the world do this every day. When I had been writing for almost two years I turned to the task of pitching the book. In the course of that I visited a writers conference in Florence in the spring of 2018 and there I met an agent, a kind, practical man of  taste, humor and intelligence, who looked at my writing and exclaimed, “This is beautiful. You are a beautiful writer!” I sensed what was coming, having been in the business a long time. After reading it in wonder, shaking his head, his parting words were, “But what’s the payoff?”

These words echoed in my head for months. I took notes, played with titles, made word clouds, sketched, dreamed, read histories of medieval convents and building techniques, histories of Fascism and Tuscan families, of Florence, of the Renaissance, of churches and agriculture. I prayed for some kind of narrative arc to come and asked myself why I wanted so much to tell these disparate stories–two beautiful twins on a train from Orvieto to Milan in May 1952, American bomber pilots in December 1943, a man deciding to turn a pile of rubble into a beautiful building in June 1990, our decision to sell our house and move to Castiglion Fiorentino in July 2015.

I realized that what connected them was that in each case, with a paucity of concrete information, with a great many unknowns, someone made a snap decision that changed lives for years or generations. The results were not always positive. For instance, on December 19, 1943, a pilot made a decision, having been unable to strike the primary target because of bad weather and poor visibility, to release thousands of tons of bombs over the medieval Tuscan hill town of Castiglion Fiorentino, killing over seventy men, women and children. On the other hand, a young woman on a train in 1952 decided to ask the soldier she had been flirting with to please mail a stack of postcards for her as he stepped down off the train in Bologna, leading to a marriage and children and the eventual rebuilding of Le Santucce.

So that is what I am writing about, and as Professor Alpini inquired about progress on the book I told him it was going slowly. Not the writing! I hastened to add. The writing is going great. It’s the selling. It’s the creating of a pitch and the sending of the pitch to agents and the waiting for a response.

That seems to be taking forever. But I sense that somewhere, someone will make a split-second decision that will change my life forever.

Three Quick Thoughts on Living in Tuscany

  1. No kidding, people are different here.
  2. Everything’s got a story and often it’s a long story.
  3. We’re glad we got out of San Francisco when we did but the real Tuscany is both much more amazing and much more about regular daily life than the brand “Tuscany”  co-opted by sellers of “Tuscan-brown sofas surrounded by Tuscan-yellow walls,” etcetera. That’s all. Just something I was thinking about. Keep in touch. Missing all our friends in the States.–Cary T.

    Hi there, I’m waving at you from the grounds of Iris Origo’s famous estate La Foce.

Working on the novel in Italy on Thanksgiving Day

Hi. So here it is Day 3 of my 49-day project to finish this novel using the Finishing School method and talk about it as I do so. Today, what I am editing is a long solo performance by the main character in which she gives a rambling monologue that makes her sound faintly deranged, and then dumps the contents of two bags on stage, one an expensive Gucci bag and the other a cheap Safeway bag, and uses the objects to fuel her monologue, as she disrobes and throws her clothes on the pile, and then squirts her father’s Ronson lighter fluid on the pile and lights it on fire and disappears, as in the title of the novel, Famous Actress Disappears.

Then there is a big fire onstage and all the audience members are locked into the theater.  It is challenging and complicated to write and I have been working on it a long time but I am now pretty close to having it done. The entire scene is about 10,000 words.

I am trying to give the narration of the performance the same intensity as the performance itself yet also must draw back to describe situations outside the scene to maintain narrative sense for the reader.

It’s hella tricky, dude! But another day and I think I will have this scene good enough, so that it does not break down or fall apart or lose readers.

The plan here is to finish the novel and have it be good enough to send to agents. For a while I thought of hiring a professional editor but I really don’t want to do that. I want to do it myself. I’m in that old tradition of the writer as lone hero, figuring it all out for himself. Though I advise against that in my work with others, I seem to be stuck with it for myself, at least for this novel. I want all the glory.

So I put in a good day of work, on this Thanksgiving Day, in Italy, and we ate pasta with cinghiale, or wild boar, and apple cake from the alimentari, and assam tea from Henry’s on Noriega in San Francisco (Thank you, Margaret McCue, for bringing it!), and I have 47 more days to get this thing done.

Also, which is the whole point here, I am using the Finishing School method, i.e. figuring out how much time it’s going to take, finding the time, enumerating the tasks, psyching myself up (that’s not actually in the method, I just do it), and checking in with my creative buddy before and after each work session. So I’m on track. It’s really pretty simple. One of those things that’s really simple but really effective if you do it.

Finally it got hot in Italy

Finally after the rains of May and June the sky went a brutal blue day after day and the ancient stones warmed and the air grew hot  and everyone slowed down, even the animals. The dogs that barked all winter and spring now lie on the concrete and let me pass. Even the motorcycles sound lazy. Now the weather is barefoot, short-haired, slow and workless, without ambition, a weather of waiting, of warm skin and patience, of early mornings and late nights, of swallows and cicadas and midnight tennis and boys playing calcio in the basketball courts.

Looking down at the Loggiato from way up by the Library and the old Etruscan grounds

Looking down at the Loggiato from way up by the Library and the old Etruscan grounds

How it came to be that our apartment door opens onto the Loggiato Vasariano, where in summer people eat pizza at outdoor tables and sometimes watch soccer projected on the wall above our door is that I fell in love with this apartment because it had the best views and the most mystery. It has three views. To the south is the castle Montecchio:

Montecchio in the morning with arrow

To the east is the bell tower of the Chiesa di Collegiata, backlit in the morning sun.

Bell tower in morning mistAnd to the north the window of our bedroom looks over the Piazza del Municipio itself. This is what we saw the other evening out our bedroom window:

Norma looking out the window

 

View from our window (flags flying)
I have just come in from sitting on the wall of the Loggiato Vasariano talking about the heat and Hemingway with my Italian friend Walter who is discontented. Walter is discontented because he loved Florence but he moved to Castiglion Fiorentino to be with his daughter and then his daughter moved to London. Now the Brexit may bring his daughter back to Italy which would make Walter happy.

I do not know too much else. I know we have a writing workshop in France at the end of August and there are still spots available. I know I left the United States and do not want to go back any time soon but maybe eventually to take care of some business in San Francisco and see friends. I know there is a paradox at work in that the same rapacious capitalism that was making life unpleasant in San Francisco also offered us a convenient exit so I am here in exile looking on with horror as America gets weirder and more violent every day.

Drop me a line: Piazza del Municipio, 7, Castiglion Fiorentino (AR) 52043, ITALY

p.s. That red arrow in the picture at the top, that points to our apartment. The castle in the background is Montecchio, and the bell tower is the Chiesa di Collegiata

Letter from Italy

I have this image in my mind of saying goodbye to someone on a river, maybe on the Arno in Florence, on a bridge, maybe the Santa Trinita Bridge, that would do, that would be a good bridge, and I can see the sky, a bluish color, you’ve seen a sky at dusk when it’s bluish,  you know how good it looks.

I’m not sure why the image of saying goodbye to someone comes up. Maybe because I feel I have said goodbye to so many people. There is a big goodbye hanging over me. Like a constant goodbye. Like I should walk around with a big Goodbye sign on me because so many people are now missing from my life, and so much is unfamiliar.

But I love what is unfamiliar. Today for the second time we drove up to Monte San Savino to this little joint that serves lunch but were late for lunch so he made Norma a sandwich and I had a pastry and espresso and aqua frizzante and she had a glass of wine. And then I was antsy. So we walked into that building with a courtyard and then out back is this garden. Sheesh. I’m not Mary McCarthy, you realize. I’m reading The Stones of Florence and Venice Observed and man she is some writer that Mary McCarthy.

So if I were in a conversation with someone and I said, I have this image in my head of saying goodbye to someone on a bridge, and the bridge is over the Arno in Florence and the bridge is the Santa Trinita Bridge that got blown up in WWII and then put back together, and on one side is the Spini Feroni Palace where Salvatore Farragamo has his shoe store and museum, and on the other side is the Harold Acton Library of the British Institute, and somehow that bridge has a hold on me. I stopped there last week and watched a Japanese couple have their wedding photos taken; the bride’s train was 15 feet long and the photo assistant was holding it out and letting it fly in the wind. I photographed it just like everybody else.

Being in Florence feels like a political act but I doubt that it looks like a political act because it is a small, personal act, an act of personal and political necessity, a quiet statement, an act of removal. It is also  the joy of knowing this:  We wanted to, and we did! Driving into the mountains this afternoon, looking across the Valdichiana as the sun came down, we look at each other and we share this knowledge that: We wanted to, and we did. We just took off, like in the middle of the night, and now all the things that were abrading our souls, that were slowly killing us, those things are left behind.

But what of this image of saying goodbye to someone? It is as if a constant goodbye is going on, all the people we used to see that we do not see: We are lonely, there is no doubt about that. Well, I am, anyway. Norma has been swept up by the Castiglionese. Me I think frankly they can take or leave but she has been swept up by the town. Me, I’m the guy who just came here to slow down and stay home and write.

Anyway, I think about this image of the bridge. If I were in therapy maybe the therapist would persuade me to talk about the feelings behind it. And I would do so and probably find something out that you’d think would be totally obvious.

Buried in it is my deep, awful, dispirited feeling about what has happened to America, and what has happened to San Francisco.

Breaking up with San Francisco: How we decided

The way this whole thing started was my wife and I were sitting at the dining room table and I had my head in my hands and at this point I can’t remember but I think it was she who first said, Well, we could sell the house and move to Italy and yes, now that I think about it I’m sure it was she who said that first, not me, because if it had been me saying it then it would have been just another of those frequent outbursts I’m known for, when I want to throw everything over and move to the woods or New York or go camping or start a band or become a lawyer, or move into a tiny apartment or raise llamas except for that last bit I would never want to raise llamas especially in a tiny apartment.

Whereas because it was she who was saying We could sell the house and move to Italy all of a sudden it was a real and serious proposition and I sensed its possibilities immediately as I am the kind who becomes keenly interested all of a sudden if there’s any change or escape in the offing as I am in my heart a desperate soul always looking for a way out of whatever I have gotten myself into, and so I said with I think guardedly less enthusiasm than I was actually feeling, lest she be testing me, Yes, I think we probably could do that. If you are serious.

Ha ha me saying “If you are serious” was a ridiculous role reversal, which I rather enjoyed, getting to play the responsible one for once. Bravo.

And so the dialog continued not much longer in fact along the lines of, Yes, we actually could. Yes. It would make sense. It would be a little crazy but not all that crazy because this house we bought for nothing is worth crazy gazillions now and you have your European passport and we have people in Italy who will guide us and welcome us and make us part of their family and we have business there to support us and rents are reasonable in Castiglion Fiorentino and so is the excellent incredible food and plus we love it there and I think I said it already but you have your European passport and I am married to you. Along those lines.

So you know how things start happening when they seem like “right”? Right? Like it’s almost superstition? So we found by chance the same real estate agent who sold Joan Walsh her house and David Talbot his house and we said OK, we’re on.

Then she, Carren, our agent, whom we love, told us to get rid of everything we own.

Now that bit right there alone could be a whole chapter in a book called How To Turn Your Life Upside Down And Shake It So Everything Falls Out Into a Dumpster. Or how to find a guy named Javier to pick up huge things and carry them out on his head by himself, or how to give your big old Fischer bar piano to Linda Kelly who will put it in her bedroom and sell three of her Grateful Dead books to the movers two of whom were huge mountain men and one regular sized one. It could be.

But here is one interesting thing  along the lines of personal transformation etc. that happened then.

Because we had approximately 1,350 books, I could not decide which ones to keep and which ones to give away until I completely redefined myself as someone who does not keep books. I just did it right on the spot. I said, henceforth, be it known: I am no longer a person who keeps books!

Done! Amazing! So easy!

I do however like books. So the floor refinishers came with their giant sanders and hammers and the real estate agent said here, go up to our place on the Russian River and stay there until it’s over. Which we did, which is why we are there now. And what did I bring with me but the Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry edited by Paul Hoover and I am reading Alice Notley.

So things work out. I mean, I’m reading Alice Notley.

Enough for now. More to come. (I think.)

In Florence. Italianate facades. Espresso on Magenta and Corso Italia and a boy with a harmonica

Kids are beautiful in cities. They ain’t been ground up yet. There’s harmonicas. After grueling San Francisco-Paris-Florence flight we ride the tiny Pensione Crocini elevator to the tall windows on the courtyard, wash, nap, then espresso at the cafe and luxuriating in the beautiful visual rhythm of the Italianate style, the beautiful rhythm of spring on the Arno, which is rushing past the American Consulate now with the heavy spring rains (spotty snow still on the Alps as we flew from Paris), art students in retro ’80s T-shirts and Deloitte employees in white shirts and black ties on motos, and the carabarini with their carbines guarding the embassy down Corso Italia a block from the Arno, golden buildings in blue light, our tiny cage elevator with the seat where the operator used to sit, our courtyard with the magnolia tree in flower, the salmon-colored apartment block sprouting satellite antennas and bedsheets drying in the warm May air and laundry and awnings and the ubiquitous shutters. A city like a painting, pretty in its particulars, well composed, holding together, yielding up its treasure as long as one cares to keep looking, flowing past on bicycles and Maseratis and scooters. Three euros for two espressos at a red metal table under an awning in the breeze off the river. High walls. High fashion. Mysteries behind towering doors.

Saturday we meet Janet Shepard and Joya Cory and her husband Richard here at the Crocini and Sunday we take the train south from Florence to Castiglion Fiorentino and start the first of two nine-day writing workshops at the Le Santucce residence, looking forward to seeing our hosts Alfeo and Miranda and Luisella and Luca .