Niccolò Ammaniti’s event may have been subtitled ‘the party’s over’, but it was really only just beginning when he took to the stage in the Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre on Sunday evening, in front of an impressively large gathering.
The Italian author, who is perhaps best known for his novel I’m Not Scared (a book which has enjoyed considerable success around Europe, boosted massively by the 2003 cinema adaptation, directed by Gabriele Salvatores), was making his first ever appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, to promote his riotous new novel, Let The Games Begin (Canongate Books).
And if fans were hoping that Niccolò Ammaniti was going to be as colourful and as animated as his fiction, then they weren’t disappointed. For the entire hour he regaled the audience with his charm and his humour as he related tales of childhood, revealed his inspirations, and offered a glimpse into what it is that makes this writer tick.
And it would appear after listening to him speak that what really makes Niccolò Ammaniti tick is HUMOUR. “I wrote Let the Games Begin primarily for me. It’s my favourite novel and I’m very proud of it,” he said, “not least because it lets the reader see what my personality is really like. I like to laugh and the real me shines through, which is impossible in tragedy because one has to keep oneself at a distance to some degree.”
When asked about the inspiration behind his latest (in the English language) novel, Niccolò revealed that the original spark came from a group of Hell Angels who fished at a local pond. “They had an obsession with Etruscan gods,” he said, “and I really wanted to write about them. But they already knew the kind of fiction I wrote, and how I like to create laughable characters. And so I had to write them as something else, and that something else was a satanic cult.“
Niccolò also revealed that growing up near the Villa Ada (a sprawling green space in the centre of Rome) had an influence on the novel. “I’ve lived all my life near this park,” he said. “My mother used to take me around it in a pram, and when I was older I played soccer there. I had my first kiss in this park and I smoked my first joint there, and it’s always played a big part in my life. And from the Villa Ada comes many a legend. There is one that suggests that an old yeti lives in an abandoned building in the park, and that he feeds on the leftovers of picnics abandoned by park visitors. And it was this story that inspired another aspect of the novel.“
Moving on to a more general discussion, it was pointed out to Niccolò that adolescence seemed to be an important theme of his writing. “Yes it is,” he said, “because I think that adolescence is a very important period in our lives. In 5 years we can change so much in our appearance, and in our attitude, and in our relationship with others. And it is during this time that we first realise that life can be hard. And, there can be so many different mental aspects to adolescence too and ways of thinking, and this makes the age perfect for a main character.”
And it would seem that the animal world, and ethnology in particular, also plays an important part in the writing life of the Italian author. Having trained to some extent as a biologist before turning to the pen, Niccolò has long had an interest in animal behaviour, and in the way that animals interact with one another. “When I write about people I often look at the behaviour of animals,” he said. “Aquariums in particular interest me, and how when we buy fish we put together such a different mix of type, and colour, and fish from different countries. At first they want to kill each other, but eventually they usually find a way of staying together in the same tank. And this is what I like to do in my books. I like to put different characters in the same box and see what happens.”
Asked why he got involved so heavily in the adaptation of his novels to the big screen, when writers more usually recoil at the very thought of it, Niccolò admitted that he rather enjoyed the process. “Life as a writer can be very lonely,” he said. “When you write a novel you have little opportunity to interact with others, and so it’s nice when working on a screenplay to be doing so in company.” He added that it completely changes his life for a few months, but was quick to point out that once the screenplay was finished and handed in, he took no further part in the process.
So will we ever see Let the Games Begin on the big screen, Niccolò was asked in closing. “I don’t think so,” he said. “It would be too expensive. And not only that, a comedy version of Jurassic Park? It would take someone very crazy to make this movie.”
I’ve a feeling that Niccolò Ammaniti hasn’t finished with this yet, and that we’ll see him in the screenwriter’s office again sometime soon. But hopefully not before he’s finished writing his next novel. It’s only forty pages in he tells us, but it’s looking good. The theme? He wouldn’t say. But I’m willing to bet that he’s going to take us on another one of those journeys that few of us will forget.