Making a hit with the Leone Scamarcio series: Q&A with Nadia Dalbuono

Robyn Walton, co-convenor of Sisters in Crime Australia, interviewed Nadia Dalbuono, about her Leone Scamarcio series – The Few (2014), The American (2015), and The Hit (2016), all published by Scribe.

Thanks for taking our questions, Nadia. Within three years you’ve produced three “Leone Scamarcio thrillers”, to borrow your publisher’s terminology. With a fourth Scamarcio adventure promised, you’ve made a brilliant start as a crime fiction novelist. Since your books aren’t yet known to a great many Australian readers, I’ll stay with quite general questions to help us familiarise ourselves with your output and understand how it may differ from the Italian crime fiction we’ve already read or watched in TV series.

You’re English-born and educated. What led you to locate your books in modern Italy, with a Rome-based male detective as your protagonist?

I moved to Italy in 2006 to live with my Italian partner in Milan. Shortly after I arrived in Italy, I started working as a consultant for Fox Television in Rome. The job involved travelling down to the capital twice a month. Over the years, I got to know the city, its beauty and its flaws, and it struck me that these ambiguities would make a good setting for a crime series. Over the course of my visits to Rome, I came to wonder what it must be like to try to succeed in a system where nepotism and corruption were rife. At about this time, the papers were running a few stories on the children of mafia families who were trying to break away from their pasts and lead honest lives. These two thoughts coalesced really and the character of Scamarcio was born.

Your plots refer to fairly recent real-life events in the areas of politics, global issues, organised crime, Catholic church administration, etc. And a few of your characters bear a resemblance to real people: for instance, the media-tycoon Prime Minister in The Few, published in 2014, must have been inspired by Silvio Berlusconi, who left office late in 2011. Should we read the novels as set now or a few years back in time?

It’s amorphous I think. The novels are about present day Italy and there will be characters that seem familiar but I wouldn’t want to claim the novels are set right in the moment. Italian politics is very fast moving and characters come and go – there are those who think Berlusconi might yet make a reappearance – so I prefer to keep it loose. Since the end of the Second World War the country has had more than 60 governments so it would be perilous to get hung up on any one political figure. He or she would probably be gone by the time I’d finished writing the book!

In interviews, you’ve named Michael Connolly and other English-language, American authors as influences. What have you learned from their writing?

I think reading a lot of Michael Connolly has given me more of an instinct for pacing and the need to keep things taut. Nothing is wasted in his books and they always follow a certain rhythm. I’ve also tried to learn from Dennis Lehane – particularly his skill at creating an atmosphere, an all-pervasive sense of mystery. What he did in the book Shutter Island was extraordinary. I’m aiming for something similar with my writing. I don’t want the reader to ever get too comfortable. Assumptions must be constantly challenged; the reader needs to remain shockable.

Then there are your fellow English-language crime writers who’ve created Italian detectives: for instance, Donna Leon and Michael Dibdin. Have you tried to differentiate your police officer and plots from theirs’?

I have to confess that I have never read Donna Leon or Michael Dibdin. I had been about to start reading them some years ago but as I was thinking of writing my own crime series I decided that it would be better if I didn’t read these two because the risk was that I’d assimilate their approach. I thought that if I wanted to be original I should seal myself off from English writers covering similar ground. I still don’t know if this was the right decision or not but I’ve set my path now so I’ll keep to it. I have read the Italians – Camilleri and de Giovanni. They help with authenticity I think. It’s useful for me to see things through an Italian eye.

In A Note to Readers at the end of your latest novel, The Hit, you ask for feedback: what did we make of Scamarcio and what would we like to see happen next in his life? If you take on board non-Italians’ suggestions, your storylines might be at risk of becoming less ‘Italian’ and your protagonist less ‘authentic’ than Italian-language writers’ detectives (e.g. Salvo Montalbano, the Sicilian creation of Andrea Camilleri). Any comments? 

I’d hope that I could spot any suggestions that deviate too far from authenticity. But you make an interesting point. As an English person writing for the English-speaking market I have to be very careful not to lose touch with Italian popular culture and the Italian news agenda. Although I live in Italy, it is very easy to watch Fox news or Sky every day, read English papers and ignore what is happening all around you. Because of this, I make a point of reading the home news section in Corriere della Serra as much as possible and watching the nightly news or documentaries on Rai. It is from here that I get my ideas. Having an Italian partner also helps — he is quick to tell me if something doesn’t ring true.

In book one your Scamarcio is not a young would-be or novice cop but a fully-formed professional with a back story. I read one reviewer saying she wouldn’t mind reading a prequel. Your thoughts on starting points?

I hadn’t realised someone had said that. It’s interesting because I’ve been thinking about a prequel lately. I’d probably start it as Scamarcio beginning work as a junior detective. The death of his father wouldn’t be far behind him and he’d be struggling with that and the huge burden of shame at being the son of such a well-known ‘ndrangheta figure. He’d probably be encountering a fair bit of animosity from the other new recruits, not to mention friction with mentors. It would be around this time that the feature appears in the Italian press, describing Scamarcio as Italy’s ‘big white hope’ and putting him under yet more pressure. (I mention this article in the first two books as it ends up being the bane of his life.) Whether his father’s old lieutenant, Piocosta, would already be on the scene back then, I’m not sure. I almost prefer the idea of him creeping up on Scamarcio as he starts to become more successful and powerful in the squad. He wouldn’t bother to get in touch until Scamarcio was of real use to him.

Your own work history is in television documentary making. Do you ‘see’ your stories playing out like screen features? Do visual considerations influence your authorial choices (for instance, of locations when you despatch Scamarcio outside Rome, to other parts of Italy or abroad)?

Yes, I think because I spent so many years in television, seeing things play out visually is almost hardwired. Having sat through so many edits, I also think it helps with pacing and knowing whether a scene is pulling its weight or not. I used to have a boss in TV who said: ‘When the scene has done its job, move on.’ I try to abide by that.

I like to get Scamarcio out of Rome when I can so I can create natural breaks and breathers in the story and the setting. Italy has so many different landscapes and it feels right to me that readers should be taken on a journey. I’d like them to finish the book with the sense that they’ve really experienced the sights, smells and sounds of this place.

What about ‘hearing’ your stories? What is your approach to dialogue, ambient noise, music, explanations by narrators, and so on?

Spending so much time in the edit has also given me a bit of an ear for how people speak, I think. The bonus now is that I can make them say exactly what I want, rather than trying to hone unwieldy sentences into something that makes sense! I enjoy writing dialogue – more than description – but it can take me a long time to get it to the point when I’m happy with it. In the most recent Scamarcio novel he goes for many pages not speaking to anyone and that was a real challenge. I had to work very hard on the descriptions and missed not having the dialogue to break away to.

I think ambient noise and music can be crucial in creating an atmosphere in exactly the same way that the role of a sound designer in films is vitally important but so often overlooked. On the other hand, explanation by the narrator is something I’m not keen on. I prefer to keep everything in the moment; I want to remain locked into Scamarcio’s point of view so I prefer to give the narrator a minimal role. He needs to do his job but stay firmly in the background.

Scamarcio was reared in southern Italy, in Calabria, his father and other family members belonging to that region’s version of the Mafia, the ‘ndrangheta. Is it difficult, even scary, trying to go beyond the stereotypes to create credible characters from this milieu? 

Yes, it is difficult. But nobody is ever 100% good or bad and it’s these shades of grey that interest me. The mafias of the south sometimes help those in need; they try to keep on the good side of the community. Fear is not the only weapon they wield. It is also often the only career choice for poor villages and I am sure inside these villages there are people with good hearts who would have chosen other options had they been available.

Re whether it’s scary – I must confess that I have never sat down for a drink with a Mafioso – I have not taken my research this far. Some time back I was asked to do a documentary on the ‘ndrangheta and their secret bunkers. I was pregnant at the time and my partner was not happy with the idea. It would probably have provided excellent background and I do have some regrets about saying no… but on the other hand when you have a family you are no longer a free agent. And this is always in my mind when I’m writing. You don’t want to annoy the wrong people so you need to tread very carefully…especially in a country like Italy.

In The American the stakes are colossal. Scamarcio is entangled in a conspiracy connecting covert international operations, terrorism, Vatican finances, and more. Such a novel is a thriller rather than a police procedural. Can Scamarcio continue to shift back and forward between the two types of narrative on a case by case basis? Do such genre distinctions really matter?  

I don’t think these genre distinctions matter. I didn’t even think about the fact that The American was more of a thriller than a police procedural when I was writing it. I think you need to go with whatever form feels best for your story. It’s the story that dictates. What is genre anyway? Isn’t it just a device we created to make sense of different literary works? Once you know what the rules are, you’re free to tear them up I think. (That said, you’ll never see Scamarcio in a rom-com!)

Nadia, are there any other things you’d like to tell us about your writing life and/or the Scamarcio series?

My writing life is not particularly exciting I’m afraid. The babysitter arrives at 10am. I start work then write until about 3pm when I have to collect my other child from nursery. I do have days when I just stare miserably at the blank screen and have to wrestle with myself not to go on Twitter and read Donald Trump’s stream of consciousness, which is by turns entertaining/disturbing/ hilarious/nerve-wracking/appalling. I am fascinated by Trump to the extent that I’d like to write about him but quite how I haven’t yet worked out…

Thank you for your responses.

Many thanks for your interest.