Wednesday, 25 May 2011

An interview with Alfredo Colitto

I’ve been looking forward to meeting Alfredo Colitto in my hometown of Bologna so when he suggests going for lunch at a local historical deli-cum-eatery I am just delighted.

After a chat about Italy, books and crime fiction, with plates of cheese and excellent prosciutto in front of us, I ask him about Inquisition (Cuore di Ferro) which has just been published in the UK by Sphere. Its background is Bologna and its university where the protagonist, Mondino de’ Liuzzi, was one of the first anatomists and surgeons in the early fourteenth century.

Mondino is an extremely interesting character, having written what is considered the first anatomical treatise, and quite short-tempered. In the book, Mondino is brought, illegally, a corpse (the study of anatomy was carried out on corpses of suicides or people who had been executed) by the Templar Knight Gerardo da Castelbretone who feigned to be a medicine student. During autopsy, Mondino discovers that the corpse’s heart has been transformed into iron and decides to help Gerardo to hide the corpse, which belongs to another Templar Knight. When another body is found with the same extraordinary transformation, Mondino realises that in order to save himself from the grips of the Inquisition, he must outwit both Inquisitors and Templars to find the real killer.

With such a fascinating historical background, I ask Alfredo how he carried out his research: firstly on Mondino’s own treatise which is still extant and available (on the internet no less!), then on his biography by the academic Piero P. Giorgi ( as well as on more general medieval studies.

Inquisition also mentions the well known complex of the Seven Churches in Bologna, which Alfredo refers to in the book because of its historical importance. Tradition has that it was built over an ancient Celtic sacred oak, on which subsequently a temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis was built, and then, perhaps in the fifth century, was erected the Basilica del Sepolcro. The whole complex was planned in imitation to the main places of faith in Jerusalem and was quite famous at the time.

With Cuore di Ferro finished, the editor was happy, the author had become passionate about the subject and a three-book deal was done (although readers keep demanding another book, Alfredo didn’t tell me whether it’s likely to happen or not!).

Alfredo’s next book will be another historical novel, but set in the seventeenth century: a family saga set between Naples and the forming United States.

I ask Alfredo more about his writing process, and he’s one of the authors who think about the plot, have it almost completed in their heads and then start writing – when writing a historical novel, this process allows one to focus the research, then work on specific ideas and more focused inquiries.

Alfredo currently works as a translator for different publishers and has worked with authors like Joe Lansdale, Don Winslow, and Hilary Clinton: his fluency with languages comes from his extensive travelling, which he says has been in few places but for a long time each, and I’m amazed by the list of places he’s visited: apart from the UK and Germany, he has lived in Mexico, India, and Nepal (where he drew the inspiration to write a fairytale, Bodhi Tree).

I am obviously curious to know what kind of books he reads and my inkling is confirmed: he claims to be an “omnivorous reader”, to read a bit of everything although quite a lot of thrillers, but not excluding fantasy and historical (his favourites being Bernard Cornwell, CJ Sansom, Rory Clements).

Finally, I have to come back to the modern world and I am interested to hear his take on the e-book phenomenon, from the double point of being Italian and an author: Alfredo thinks the e-book is a market, and not the market for books. It is extremely handy, especially for research, since with a tablet or ipad one can have everything in the same place. But the paper book certainly isn’t dead, it is just a different medium – you wouldn’t want to use your ipad on the beach!

Since Alfredo also teaches on creative writing courses, I ask what advice he has for aspiring writers and it resounds with what I’ve heard many a successful author: write what you like and enjoy, without thinking about the readership or publication: the market is unpredictable, and if things don’t go well at least you’ve written what you liked and enjoyed the process!

Alfredo’s book Inquisition published on 5 May 2011 in the UK by Sphere.

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