1. At first, The Art of Falling was self-published. Why did you decide to do this, and what tips would you offer to someone thinking of doing the same?
I couldn’t find a publisher. For nearly three years I edited and rewrote and sent it to different literary agents and, occasionally, direct to publishers. Some loved it, but still nothing happened. No-one actually said it couldn’t be published because it was a bad book. It was so frustrating because I had been published before and knew that this was far better than the others.
My best advice to anyone considering doing the same is to engage a professional editor and proof-reader, to invest in the best quality production and cover you can afford, and – probably most important – to steel yourself to be fearless about getting your book into shops and getting media coverage for it. You also need to be absolutely certain that the company you choose to print your books also has the capacity to distribute them into shops and fulfil orders efficiently
2. The Art of Falling contains many detailed descriptions of Italy. Why did you choose Italy as the setting of your novel?
The idea for the novel came to me when I read a single paragraph in a newspaper about the project to stabilize the Leaning Tower of Pisa. With that as my starting point, it was inevitable that Italy would be the setting! The more I mulled over the idea, I realized I had spent a great deal of time in Italy over the years, both in summer and winter; that it was somewhere I had always been drawn to, almost without realizing it – and that was the germ of Tom Wainwright’s repressed yearning for his lost Italian life.
3. Your novel is set in a small Italian village during the war, how much research did you do for the book and how difficult was it to find the information that you needed?
Research for the novel – mainly from old out-of-print books from a second-hand shop – took about six months before I started writing, and then continued right through two years of writing (my daughter was very young at the time, and I was only able to work two days a week). I loved the research. A strange kind of synchronicity seemed to occur whenever I needed inspiration, or the answer to a question: there would be another article in a newspaper about Pisa, or one about wartime atrocities in the region (at the time the Italian authorities, just as in the book, were opening long dormant files). Then I was also lucky enough to have an introduction to a veteran who had fought with the 8th Army in Italy, who generously provided much detail and background information. I took my notebooks on family holidays to Tuscany and Umbria, where we moved around to stay in different places (the central farmhouse Le Macchie is a composite of these) and spent time in Pisa and Volterra. That part of the research was pure pleasure!
4. The Art of Falling contains many references to astronomy. Is this a particular passion of yours and why do you focus on it so much in your novel?
Not really a particular passion, more a normal curiosity about the stars and the universe. In the novel, it is linked to the Leaning Tower, because the astronomer and scientist Galileo was famously supposed to have conducted an experiment there to discover whether a lighter or heavier object would fall to the ground faster. There is much debate over whether he actually did drop these objects from the tower, or whether he simply did a Thought Experiment – where logic dictates that two apparent facts cannot both be true at the same time. This is the pattern of reasoning that Isabel tries to grapple with when she is feeling that she will never find out what happened to her father. She comes to the conclusion that at least one fact she has always accepted must be untrue, for Tom cannot be both alive and dead.
Elsewhere in the book, the stars become a symbol of displacing true emotion rather than the usual romantic metaphor, such as when Giuliana’s father gets out his vast old science book to keep the conversation going while he is making sure Tom is not alone with his daughter, or Isabel watches the meteor shower while worriedly watching out for Tom the night he never returns home.
5. The Tower of Pisa is quite a prevalent motif in the novel, why is this?
I’ve probably given quite a lot of that answer already, to previous questions. I can only add that the tower represents the uncertainty, and the inevitability of difficulty, when anything is built on shifting ground or to a flawed blueprint. Metaphorically, that extends to families and relationships. Also how there can be a kind of security in imperfection in that it gains its own stability – better the devil you know, in other words.
6. The style and content of The Art of Falling is rather different from your other novels Hot Gossip, Idol Chatter and The Moonbathers. Why did you decide to take your writing in such a different direction?
All the time I worked as a journalist, my ambition was to write novels. When I finally started one, I took all the usual advice given to novice writers: write about what you know, and think about a good marketing angle. So setting my books on newspapers and magazines, and making them funny, was the obvious way to go. The marketing angle (that I had actually worked on a gossip column) worked a treat. The problem was that while these books were fun and easy to write, I really wanted to do something more serious. So after The Moonbathers, I took the decision to try to write the novel I had always wanted to produce: more literary, with proper research and serious themes. It was starting all over again; I didn’t want a publishing contract, I just wanted to take as long as I needed to see whether I could do it. Little did I know then how long that would be.
7. Are any of the characters or events in the book based on your own experience?
With this book I was clear in my mind that I wanted to write about an entirely imaginary set of people, in a setting that had nothing to do with my life. Of course, it can never be quite as cut and dried as that. Of course, writers draw on their personal understanding and interpretation of the world. Having said that, there is nothing in the events of the story that are based on my own experience. Perhaps a tiny touch of vertigo, but that’s about it!
8. If a film were to be made of The Art of Falling, who would you like to cast as the main characters?
Giuliana would be played by a beautiful gamine like Natalie Portman. I happened to see father and son actors Peter and Rupert Penry-Jones on television, and thought they would be perfect for the younger and older Tom, with the slightly diffident Englishness required. Matteo would be the hardest for me to cast. Perhaps he would be most effectively played by an unknown (but spellbinding) Italian actor. I could see someone like Samantha Bond or Julianne Moore playing Isabel, determined yet vulnerable.
9. Who are your favourite authors and why?
Carol Shields, Sebastian Faulks and Julian Barnes all have a quality I admire greatly: their prose flows apparently effortlessly but glitters with wonderful observations. The words and stories carry their insight lightly but they are all the more powerful for that. I love Armistead Maupin, especially the Tales of the City books for the glorious characters and wit packed into his tight sharp sentences. Margaret Forster and Selina Hastings write brilliant biographies that really get under the skin of their subjects. And Sue Limb and Jilly Cooper’s early romances – especially Imogen and Octavia – are my comfort reads. Sometimes they work better than migraine pills.
10. Can you tell us anything about what you are working on at the moment?
A companion book – not a sequel – which still explores absence, and the effects of a wartime experience, this time in Holland. It has themes of film and photography, art and memory. I also have an insistent idea for another novel, set in Greece that will have the same rather dreamy southern European atmosphere as The Art of Falling.
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Julian Barnes, Rose Tremain, Sebastian Faulks, Karin Slaughter and many more share their personal writing experience with you in our Q&As. Take a look!