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Fact interplaying with fiction

Clare Azzopardi’s Castillo, her first novel for adults, was launched this week. Taking readers back to the 1980s and putting political intrigue, car bombs and an assassinated writer at the forefront, it will certainly ring a few uncomfortable bells in readers’ minds. Interview by Ramona Depares.

Clare AzzopardiClare Azzopardi

When, and how, was the idea for the novel born?

The idea was born long ago… I hadn’t even yet published Kulħadd ħalla isem warajh when I started work on this novel. The first, extensive step was research into the 1980s and the political unrest of the time. Everything else segued from there.

Over time, though, this morphed into the background of the novel, so by the end of it I’d no longer say that this is a novel about the 1980s. There is a deeper, more intimate idea underlying this novel and that is the idea of the woman who realises, as soon as she gives birth to her child, that she doesn’t want to be a mother, that she doesn’t have the mother gene.

To complicate matters, life intervenes and situations evolve that give her the perfect opportunity to run away from her life and leave her daughter with the father. So yes, this is a novel about the relationship, or non-relationship, between mother and daughter – a daughter who eventually becomes a mother in her own right and starts to build a relationship with her own daughter.

This is your first novel that is targeted to adults. How was your approach different from when writing short stories?

A short story is compact and, for me at least, it depicts more than anything a situation, a character trait, a sliver out of a much larger story. A novel, on the other hand, attempts to depict everything: it goes for the rounded character, for multiple storylines and drills deeper. A novel doesn’t leave you yearning for more.

A short story, almost by definition, has neither beginning nor end. It is practically a photograph of a moment in time – we don’t know what came before, or after, that moment. As far as I’m concerned, a novel gives me a firmly grounded beginning and end. And I usually feel I know its characters intimately, whereas if you mention Gracey or Polly, Camilla or Rita (all characters from my last anthology of short stories), I’d have to confess to not knowing much about them.

I’m deeply bound to them, yes. But I chose to relate only a tiny part of them. But if you mention Emma Barbara (from Castillo), I know where she was born, where she grew up, where she moved to, all about her daughter… I even know she committed a murder, and why…

Did you find it more, or less, challenging? And do you have a preference?

For me, writing a novel is a far greater challenge than writing a short story. Mainly stylistically. Themes aren’t that much of a problem – once I’m convinced, they can become only clearer. You research in depth and then can dip in and use at will, so that’s not really a problem as far.

But deciding on the style to be used, yes that’s where it starts becoming complicated. Who is going to be the narrator? And how will they narrate? Will I use the first person? Will I have an omniscient narrator? A bossy one? An objective one? Or a subjective one?

I grappled with these questions endlessly: was Emma or Amanda going to be my main narrator? Or would I select a third person who knew everything about the both of them?

The novel deals with politically motivated murders, specifically car bombs. Did the recent assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia affect the finalisation of your novel?

Our country’s history is littered with mysteries to which we have never been offered resolution…. Literature offers a fictitious resolution

No. I had submitted the final draft of my manuscript to my publisher last August, and the bomb went off in October. The novel had long been completed and, not in a thousand years would I have imagined that something of the sort would happen in my country, in my time. While writing the novel, I was convinced that politically motivated bombings were something that belonged firmly in our country’s history, in the 1980s.

Then, of course, everything changed in October. There are many similarities in the novel: there’s a car bomb that goes off in Sliema, killing a writer who was right next to the car at that precise instant. Was the bomb intended for her? I don’t know. Or rather, I’d rather say I don’t know until you read the novel.

Do you think it will affect people’s reactions to the novel?

Everything affects readers’ reactions. Last October’s car bomb took us back to the 1980s. It once again split the country in two. It brought to the fore once more our tribal mentality and we started hearing yet again.

Not that we had ever abandoned our tribal mentality, but social media has amplified this to unbearable levels. In a novel, every single word is carefully selected and every phrase calibrated. It’s not a spontaneous outburst vomited onto Facebook. But yes, of course it could affect people’s reactions to the novel. I hope it will infuriate them, make them cry, laugh and hopefully by the end of it pause and reflect on what, if anything, has changed since the 1980s.

The story has two very different facets – there’s the family plotline, and the political one. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Undoubtedly, the political plotline came first. But I don’t feel this novel to be exclusively about that. The mother-daughter relationship, as mentioned above, is far more crucial in my mind. Possibly because I am not a mother myself.

Or, possibly, because I imagine I might one day regret not having children. I’m not even sure myself… but I am sure that in this novel the idea of motherhood is the supreme idea. There’s a mother who takes care of her own mother in the latter’s last five years of life. There’s a mother who is searching for her mother who abandoned her 25 years earlier, while herself now a mother of a little girl and finding herself being overprotective in her regard: obsessive about losing her, not wanting her out of her sight even for a single moment.

Castillo presents a novel-within-a-novel scenario: what was the biggest challenge in achieving this without creating confusion in the readers’ minds?

This was a massive challenge. There were points during the process of writing the novel where I deliberately did not want to make it clear to the reader that I was quoting from other novels written in the 1980s. It is, of course, something that Mario Vargas Llosa did in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. But I’ve been working on this novel for over four years, so at a certain point I questioned myself whether I wanted to be lenient with my readers. I opted for the latter so, whenever the reader comes across extracts from these other older novels, they’ll find a note with the name and year of publication of the said novel.

How much of the novel is based on historical events?

This novel is a constant interplay of fact and fiction. Tiny details such as when Colonel Muammar Gaddafi visited Malta in May 1976 become fictitious, while the car bomb in Sliema on the morning of December 5, 1986, becomes factual. And that was the day Cathy Penza died. Did you know that? Or perhaps you knew it but forgot, and remember only who famously died later that same day?

Will the novel offer a resolution, or do the readers have to find their own truth? 

Our country’s history is littered with mysteries to which we have never been offered resolution. As with most other countries’ histories too, after all. A time comes when we seem to give up hope and accept the flimsiest of stories as fact, irrespective of whether this was the truth or not. Literature offers a fictitious resolution that, over time, might not remain fictitious but evolve into known fact.

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