Behind the Pen: Niccolò Ammaniti

Niccolo Ammaniti

Few contemporary writers get me in as much of a spin these days as the Italian, Niccolò Ammaniti. And so it was a real honour for this super fan to catch up with the man at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival, to ask him a few questions about his riotous new (in the English translation) novel, Let the Games Begin (Canongate Books). So strap yourselves in folks because there’s a bit of a long ride ahead, but it’s one that’s well worth taking. (NOTE: I should warn you that there may be very mild spoilers in this interview. There is nothing though that should spoil your overall enjoyment of the book).

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Rob: I remember asking you when The Crossroads was published why the novel had a fascination in part with clown iconography. You responded, saying that Italy has something of a obsession with clowns, or at least with clown pictures. So, I can’t resist asking you whether you chose to focus on the theme of satanic cults in Let the Games Begin, because everyone in Italy has a similar obsession with Satanism? 🙂

Niccolò: Well of course there isn’t an obsession with Satanic cults in Italy but there are some very dark stories of a Satanic nature that make the news headlines. A while ago in northern Italy there was a group of young boys who were jailed for killing a girl by burying her alive. They were known as the Beasts of Satan and they carried out this killing as a Satanic ritual. Thing is, in this age of notoriety, where evil doers like to publicise their deeds of evilness, they weren’t doing too well, sitting somewhere near the bottom of the hit list for Satanic cults. I found this interesting and darkly humorous and I wanted to explore it in my fiction. And so the Beasts of Abbadon were born.

Also, I was inspired through playing World of Warcraft. Spending too many hours in the game I built myself up to be an important leader of a guild, which in the real world of course didn’t mean anything. All the people who I was playing with were older like me, and were working in everyday jobs such as builders, bus drivers etc. Yet here we all were, living this very different and more exciting life online, playing as wizards and rogues and warlocks etc, and embarking on quests to kill dragons on the tops of mountains and suchlike. We were all excited of course, but offline we were kind of unhappy because we had nobody else to share that excitement with. And it’s this fun and completely real situation that I wanted to explore, where one can lead two very different lives at the same time, independent of one another where friends and relatives of one life know nothing of the other. And the most interesting way I could think of doing this was through creating and playing around with a satanic cult.

Let The Games Begin by Niccolo AmmanitiRob: While one strand of Let the Games Begin focusses on satanism, another looks at the writer’s life, and in particular that of the charismatic Fabrizio Ciba. If I were to sum up Ciba then I would call him hesitating yet impulsive, egocentric yet insecure. On the outside he seems full of confidence, and yet internally there exists this continual need for reassurance and approval. A complex character indeed, and I wondered if any of your own writerly characteristics are wrapped up in Ciba?

Niccolò: Yes, there are a lot of my characteristics in Ciba. Writers are a really egocentric bunch. To illustrate, about ten years ago writers were very important on television. If an opinion was needed then a writer was called upon to give one. The questions were often stupid, on the subject of the castration of cats and suchlike, but it was important for the author to be asked, mainly for the sake of ego, but also for self promotion.

But with these continual appearances on TV there arose problems for these writers, because although many of them had become famous they couldn’t work out if their fame had stemmed from being on TV, or if it was a result of people liking their books. And so they were split in two, and insecurity would creep in because they could never figure it out.

Also, when writers are together they only ever talk about how many copies their books have sold, and how good or bad the reviews are, without ever discussing the quality of their books or their writing. I’m the same because it’s only human to think like this, but it’s something that I hate of myself, and so I decided to create Ciba, who is composition of all of the worst things that I see in writers, myself included.

Rob: So, you think that writers in particular are more open to insecurities?

Niccolò: Oh yes, writers are the most insecure. And part of this comes from the fact that when you write a new book it’s always like starting over, and you have to decide just how much you want it to change from your last book. It’s always important for me to change a little bit from one book to the next – if you think about I’m Not Scared and say, Let the Games Begin they are completely different – but when you change you have to be very careful because your readers like to recognise you and to feel the same sensations that they did when reading your last book. But, they also want something just a little different, and so there is a balance between creating something similar to what you have already and creating something new.

Rob: And given that they are so different, have you found readers that who liked I’m Not Scared didn’t enjoy Let the Games Begin, and vice versa?

Niccolò: Well, I find that I have two groups of readers. One group who like the books that feature an adolescent protagonist, such as in I’m Not Scared, Me and You and I’ll Steal You Away, and another who prefer the more humourous and grotesque side of my writing, as found in Let the Games Begin. As such, and with me being a Jekyll and Hyde kind of writer, I know that I can always appeal to either group. But of course the best kind of reader is the one who likes everything that I write.

Rob: There’s a particular scene in Let the Games Begin that reminds me strongly of a corresponding scene in Scarface. It got me thinking about your inspiration and influences, and where they come from?

Niccolò: Rob, you are one of the first to recognise that my inspiration for that scene was Scarface. It is one of my favourite scenes in the book. I was excited about writing it because it’s also one of my favourite scenes in Scarface.

No, I enjoy all kinds of movies, but I am particularly fond of horrors and zombie films. I like how the sensation of evil comes along and changes the normal lives of people forever. This is something I wanted to incorporate in Let the Games Begin, but for some of my readers it was seen as a step too far. These readers may be used to seeing supernatural elements in my short fiction, but I haven’t done this in my novels before, and for some it was just too fantastical.

Niccolo Ammaniti - EdBookFest2013Rob: One of the characters in Let the Games Begin has a blow out about book tours, and the fact that he hates being pulled around the globe like a rag doll and paraded in front of people. Given that you’re sitting with me here in Edinburgh, miles away from home, I wanted to ask you about your own opinion of book tours?

Niccolò: It can be a very difficult job being a writer on tour, because sometimes you are tired and you don’t have a lot to say, and yet everyone expects you to always come out with something smart.

There is one old and important Italian writer who I often see on tour, and I get the impression that he just wants to be home and not visiting strange foreign countries. And the same thing has happened to me on occasion. It’s not so bad here in Edinburgh because I can understand what’s going on, but in a country where the language and culture is vastly different I can’t really tell if the people understand me, or if they are happy with the things that I’m saying to them.

And so you spend three days with jetlag, talking about yourself in a country where the people probably don’t care about you, and yes, it does tend to become a little tiring at times.

Rob: The biggest scene in Let the Games Begin is of course the huge party hosted by real-estate magnate Chiatti, in the grounds of the Villa Ada, where the cream of Italian society are gathered. Reading this part of the novel I got the impression that, along with the main storyline, you were saying something about the superficial nature of celebrity culture, and its excesses. Am I correct in assuming this?

Niccolò: I think so yes, but I wasn’t just saying something of the celebrity culture in Italy, but of the world as a whole. The main idea though was taking all of these people and putting them in a situation that would turn out to be the biggest nightmare of their lives.

Rob: I note with interest that you make a plea in the acknowledgment section of Let the Games Begin, saying that the real Villa Ada in Rome is in a terrible state of disrepair and that it should be restored before it is too late. Has the featuring of the Villa Ada in the novel, and your plea therein, brought about any improvements to the park?

Niccolò: No, no improvements whatsoever. I’m sorry I tried but I’m just not powerful enough. In Italy you can be Spiderman but it’s still not possible to change anything. To be fair though, we are going through tough times in Italy, and there is just not enough money to fix everything that needs to be fixed.

Rob: Most recently in Italy you’ve published a novella and a yet to published in English short story collection. Is this a sign that you are moving more into the shorter forms of fiction, or are these publications just filling a gap while you secretly work on a glorious epic?

Niccolò: For me writing a novel is like climbing a mountain. At the beginning you have the sensation that you are at base camp, looking up at the mountain above you. And from base camp you can see the path ahead. You know the routes that you are going to take and where you’ll be stopping off etc. and it’s a difficult task ahead yes, but it is all very well planned out.

When you write a short story on the other hand, you have only an idea as your starting point It’s another way of writing – for me something akin to telling jokes – and in comparison it’s like running very hard for 100 metres.

Another way to put it is to say that when I’m writing a novel I feel like I am competing in a tournament, in many different games. But writing short stories is more recreational, like playing tennis with a friend, where I’m able to practise my serve and work more closely on my form.

As for this latest short story collection, well it’s a collection that spans twenty years of writing. I used to write a lot of short stories both for newspapers and for myself, and the first short story that I wrote is in there, together with the latest. And so rather than a move into short fiction it’s a gathering of two decades of work.

Rob: As your writing has progressed you have become more and more outrageous in your storytelling, and yet your most recently published novella Me and You, is a very calm and collected work of fiction in comparison. Is there a particular reason why you’ve suddenly pared back on the outrageousness?

Niccolò: When I wrote Me and You I wanted to cut out all that was not important. I decided to be very honest and very essential in my writing. And this is very different from something like Let the Games Begin, where I put more than enough stuff in, because with this novel I just wanted to play and have stupid contrasts and interactions between things.

Writing in these two very different ways is something I have to do, because this is how I live my life away from my writing. Sometimes I like to be serious and emotional, and other times I just want to joke around. And it is these two parts that make up the real Niccolò Ammanitti.

Rob: Lastly, in honour of Mantos and his purchase of the glorious Durendal sword from Ebay, what is the best/worst thing that you’ve ever bought from an online auction site?

Niccolò: I’ve bought many things from Ebay but my worst and most memorable purchase was a pair of special shoes from China that came with a claim that you could travel on the surface of water in them, provided you walked very fast. I tried them out at on a fish pond at my mother’s home in the country, but I never got far before the shoes failed on me, leaving me to sink into the middle of the pond, with coy swimming all around me.

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And so that was the incomparable Niccolò Ammaniti, interviewed during his first ever visit to the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Did he have a good time? Well, by all accounts he really seems to have. His event was a blast both for him and his audience, and if you could have only have heard him during his photo session with EdBookFest photographer, Chris Close (my pic of Niccolò above with his jacket over his head is from this photo shoot) then you would have heard a writer who was having a whale of a time.

I really hope that you enjoyed this interview because it was an honour and a privilege for me to conduct it. I’ve long admired this man, and to be able to spend time with him in person was soul touching. He turned out to be exactly what I hoped he would be, too – warm, friendly, funny and animated i.e. the embodiment of his fiction.

Do I need to tell you to go and buy Niccolò’s books? Well, I think I do that enough already, but you really would be doing yourself a favour if you went and picked up a copy of Let the Games Begin. You certainly wouldn’t be disappointed.

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).