Edward Sklepowich - Exclusive Interview - italian-mysteries.com

Exclusive Interview with
Edward Sklepowich

(Urbino Macintyre Mysteries )

©2008 italian-mysteries.com
March, 2008

Italian Connection

Q: Why did you decide to set your books in Venice?

Edward Sklepowich: Venice has had a special place in my heart and imagination for a long time. My first trip to Venice was a forty-eight-hour unbroken spell. I felt I had returned to somewhere I had been before. It partly had to do with all the books about Venice I had read, the photographs and paintings I had seen. Its beauty, improbability, and melancholy have never disappointed me.

Before I wrote my first Urbino Macintyre I wrote a non-series literary novel set in Venice, which I’ve never tried to publish. Maybe someday, if I can dig it up. Once I decided to commit myself to an amateur sleuth series I never considered any other setting. I wanted an Italian setting – and a city that hadn’t changed much over time so that it would suit and reinforce the kind of mystery I was planning to write: neo-classic. Urbino Macintyre, as I developed him, couldn’t exist anywhere else but Venice. His identity, as is the contessa’s, is inextricably involved with the identity of the city. And through Urbino and the contessa, who are foreigners despite their decades of residency in Venice, I try to communicate that mysterious, estranging quality of the city that most people feel when they come there. I didn’t want to have my central characters Venetians themselves – or Italians, for that matter, even though there’s the saying that ‘Even an Italian is a stranger in Venice.’ In each of my books, however, I include a high proportion of Italian characters although none of these is a character through whose perspective we encounter Venice.

I think of Venice as being almost as much of a character as Urbino and the contessa. I don’t want to use it as a mere colorful backdrop but to interweave it into my plots, which would not be the same if it weren’t for the setting. Essential to each of my novels is something essential about Venice: glass-making and the theft of relics in Death in a Serene City, carnevale in Farewell to the Flesh, the Biennale in Liquid Desires, the bocca della verità and bridge festivals in Black Bridge, acqua alta in Death in the Palazzo, lace in Deadly to the Sight, gondolas in The Last Gondola, and the Historical Regatta in Frail Barrier.

Q: Tell us about your Italian ancestry.

Sklepowich: I’m what is called a ‘crypto-Italian,’ someone whose last name conceals a part of his ethnicity. It’s a very strong part of my identity and always has been. My Italian ancestry comes through my mother. Her parents emigrated from Naples and eventually settled in a small town in Connecticut that had a sizable Italian population. My parents and I lived in my grandparents’ large family house where Italian culture was dominant. For the early years of my childhood most kids in the neighborhood called me by my grandparents’ last name, ‘Cacchillo,’ and it seemed quite normal to me. And I used the Neapolitan dialect on a daily basis when I was home. I was a little linguistically confused at times because I assumed that some Italian words were understood by my friends. When I was in college, I studied Italian, and though I don’t speak it fluently, I speak it well. I respond emotionally to Italian. One of the things I love about the Italian people in Italy is how positive and responsive they are to anyone who even tries to speak Italian. They encourage you and praise you unlike people in some other countries who only seem to endure your mangling of their supposedly sacred tongue – even when you are speaking it fairly well. I think Italians understand that the main reason people learn Italian is because they love Italy, love Italian culture.

Q: Have you lived in Venice or other parts of Italy?

Sklepowich: Yes. I’ve lived in Venice off and on and have spent time in the Naples area with my relatives. I often thought that I would move permanently to Venice and take advantage of the Italian law (perhaps no longer in existence) that allows Americans with Italian parents or grandparents to become Italian citizens. I never did, however. My destiny, if you want to call it that, has taken me to Tunisia, which is less than an hour’s flight from Rome. One of the many reasons I enjoy living here is the way Italian culture is blended with the local culture. Italian culture (especially southern Italian culture) is in the language, the food, the customs. It’s also written in the faces and gestures of many of the people. Living in this atmosphere also has also made me re-interpret many things in my Italian American background – the last names of friends, the belief in the malocchio and other superstitions, gestures, adages – and see them within an intercultural context. I feel as if I’m in a strange kind of time-warp in Tunisia because the slower pace of life reminds me of how things used to be in the Italian American communities of my childhood. Tunisians also have a high opinion of Italy and Italian culture.

Q: Is it helpful to have lived in the place where you set your stories?

Sklepowich: It depends, and one of the things it depends on is the kind of mystery novel you write. If you are interested in police procedurals set in the contemporary period, which by definition must deal with relevant contemporary problems, then living in Venice or anywhere else that you set your mysteries is probably obligatory. But I think that there’s a danger in being overwhelmed by details. The imagination can suffer. Sometimes just knowing a little in certain areas is more than enough. And I think the zones of ambiguity that can come with partial knowledge can enrich your story, especially if the point of view character is himself or herself somewhat estranged (otherwise there will be problems of credibility). I’m writing for the kind of reader who wants to escape to an almost timeless zone and not be reminded of the kind of problems we all read about in the papers and see on television. Consequently, most of my plots don’t deal with contemporary issues, and they aren’t particularly violent. The Venice depicted is not the real one so much as the real one filtered through my imagination – and the imagination of Urbino and the contessa.

Urbino Macintyre Series

Q: Where did you get the idea of the plot for your first book?

Sklepowich: The ‘germ’ of Death in a Serene City was the theft of the body of Santa Lucia from San Geremia back sometime in the 1980s. I fused this idea with another one that had been floating in my mind – Henry James as a sleuth in Venice during a critical moment in his life, when a close woman friend committed suicide by leaping from a window of the Palazzo Semitecolo on the Grand Canal, near the Palazzo Dario.

Q: Were you always planning on a series?

Sklepowich: Yes, I was. As I was working out the characters for the first one, I projected them in my mind into future situations. I gave special care to their biographical details. I didn’t want to have two main characters who might have to change a lot over time. I wanted to keep them somewhat unattached and therefore available for many situations. For example, I didn’t want to have either of them married (or seeking marriage) because that would have meant dealing with their family life over time and fitting in children and how their children grow up, etc.. It wasn’t of interest to me. I believed it would deflect the series (as well as individual stories) from the course I planned for it. Also, keeping the two main characters detached also helped to keep the relationship between Urbino and Barbara ambiguous, since he is divorced and she is widowed.

Q: Was there a model for your Urbino Macintyre character and his back story?

Sklepowich: As I said, my original conception was to have Henry James as a sleuth. When I created Urbino Macintyre, I gave him many of James’s qualities – his intelligence, his refinement, his literary and cultural interests, his aloofness, his expatriatism. Also, the eccentric, even bizarre character of Des Esseintes in Huysmans’ nineteenth-century novel A Rebours fed into my conception of Urbino; I had intended to make him even more eccentric than he might now be. Traces of these two ‘Ur-Urbinos,’ so to speak, can be found in many of the books in the series. As for Urbino’s back story, I gave him a few autobiographical details: crypto-Italian ethnicity, divorce, orphanhood, only child, a North African connection with Morocco substituting for Tunisia.

Q: Was there a model for the Barbara character?

Sklepowich: Once again, I need to go back to Henry James. Barbara is a Jamesian character: the cultivated, wealthy dowager, a patroness of the arts. She is also the kind of woman James had close friendships with – even in the pattern of younger man/older woman. But she is also observed from life and has some slight similarities to older women friends of mine. Both Barbara and Urbino together have allowed me to pitch the series at a particular level where so-called high culture can be foregrounded. Many readers have responded in a positive way to the pairing of Urbino and Barbara, and quite frankly their relationship is one of the reasons I continue to enjoy writing the series.

Q: How did you arrive at the amateur sleuth angle?

Sklepowich: I think we write what we enjoy reading – and that a writer should do exactly that. Although I enjoy some procedurals (Simenon, Martha Grimes, Camilleri, Magdalen Nabb come to mind) and private eye mysteries (Nero Wolfe especially), I prefer amateur sleuths. I’m just not interested in the territory that I would be carried into with anything but an amateur sleuth or a cozy. I see my series as neo-classic returns to the spirit of Christie, Marsh, Allingham. The Venice setting helps me to recreate this spirit, as I said before, because even though Venice does change, it changes far less than any other place in the world, unless the other place is an archaeological site.

Q: Do you seek inspiration from actual events?

Sklepowich: Only to a certain extent. I’ve mentioned the theft of the body of Santa Lucia. Illegal immigration figures in Deadly to the Sight. There are a few other examples. However, if we expand the meaning of ‘actual events’ to include the history of Venice, then the answer is an emphatic ‘yes.’

Q: Is Urbino’s palazzo entirely fictional or based on an actual building?

Sklepowich: The Palazzo Uccello is entirely fictional, a kind of pastiche of several buildings in Venice. It’s located in the Cannaregio sestiere, in a quiet, somewhat remote area near the Madonna dell’ Orto. I lived in that area although the building I lived in bears little resemblance to the Palazzo Uccello. I didn’t want to have someone like Urbino live in the thick of things – near the Piazza San Marco, on the Grand Canal (as does the contessa), or in the expatriate area of Dorsoduro.

Writing Process

Q: Tell us about your process in writing an Urbino Macintyre book.

Sklepowich: I don’t do much research unless there’s an area of the book that requires it, such as glass-making, lace-making, etc. I want the details to be right in cases like these. Of course, there are always facts that need to be checked out, historical events, perhaps the provenance of a painting, details in the life of Peggy Guggenheim, the history of the Biennale. Since I visit Venice many times a year, my impressions of the city are fresh in my mind when I’m writing one of my books. And I travel with a notebook, always recording what I see, hear, feel, etc. I enjoy doing things in this old-fashioned way, instead of traveling with a laptop or a recorder. I spend two or three months ‘dreaming’ the story’s characters and plot, always beginning with characters, their psychology and relationships with each other, their interaction, their back stories. I’m more interested in character than I am in plot – or maybe it’s more correct to say that I’m only interested in plots that proceed logically from character. I’m more interested in why characters do what they do than I am in what they do. My books have been called ‘languid,’ ‘slow moving,’ ‘leisurely,’ – not always as a compliment, but these are the qualities I strive for and that I hope will be appreciated by the right kind of reader, someone who feels that ‘the world is too much with us,’ that we need to slow down and think, that we need to escape from all the noise surrounding us, to restore some peace.

By the time I sit down to write, I have all the characters and the whole plot worked out, though I sometimes deviate from my plan and remove or add characters as I write and have the plot change.

I use file cards for each chapter. On each card I write the main events in the chapter, and I keep adding details to the cards as I write the book. This method allows me to reconsider, shuffle, remove, add in a fluid manner, even when I’m far away from the computer. I try to make each day’s work as good as I can, contrary to the advice that one should just push ahead without worrying about refinement. I still put every book through at least two revisions, however.

Q: Is there a #9 in the works? Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Sklepowich: Yes, there is. It’s set in January, my favorite time of year in Venice. Part of its background will be Mariano Fortuny and dress-making. Urbino is writing a biography about Fortuny and helping the contessa put together an exhibit of Fortuny gowns, scarves, etc. at her palazzo. Its working title is The Veils of Venice and the victim and most of the suspects are members of the same eccentric family, Anglo-Italians like the contessa and remote relations of hers, all living in the same palazzo in the Santa Croce area.


Q: How did you link up with your current publisher?

Sklepowich: My agent worked that out. Severn House had an interest in my series as possibly backlist. I’m very pleased with them, and it gratifies me that being published by them means being published in both the UK and America, since my books are more in the British tradition than the American one.

Q: Have any of the books been published in other languages/countries?

Sklepowich: All of them have been published in Germany, two in France.


Q: Are you inspired by any contemporary mystery writers?

Sklepowich: When I seek inspiration it isn’t from any contemporary mystery writers but from the classic mystery writers (Conan Doyle, Christie, Marsh, Sayers, Allingham, etc.). I also turn to classic writers in general, like Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf; there’s always something valuable to be learned from them, even about mysteries and detection, since all of them deal with concealment and revelation – though not always of a crime. It’s a good idea for the contemporary mystery novel to cross-pollinate with classic writing – whether in the mystery genre or not – rather than to keep up with current trends. If we do this in the right way and if we can attract and keep the attention of readers – not at all easy in today’s world – we will not only be read, but maybe also re-read.

However, I enjoy reading many of my contemporaries (some of them no longer with us) and turn to them for escape, refreshment. Let me single out Patricia Highsmith, Sarah Caudwell, Timothy Holmes, Martha Grimes, Aaron Elkins, Elizabeth Peters, P. D. James, Ruth Rendell (especially her psychological thrillers), Magdalen Nabb, Michael Dibdin, Andrea Camilleri.