Grace Brophy - Exclusive Interview -

Exclusive Interview with
Grace Brophy

(Commissario Cenni Investigations)

April, 2007

Italian Connections

Q: What brought you to Italy? To Umbria? Do you have Italian ancestors?

Grace Brophy: Both my parents were born in Ireland and I have dual citizenship, Irish and American. Miguel (originally from Uruguay and a figurative painter) and I wanted to live in Europe and since we knew Spain very well (we lived there off and on in the 1980’s), we decided to get to know Italy as well, and at some point decide between the two countries for permanent residence. In either country, we could get residency because Ireland is part of the European Community. Miguel wanted to include Ireland in the mix, but he had never been there and didn’t quite understand about the weather. When we visited Ireland in late May 2003, and I had to purchase a winter coat or freeze, we both agreed that although we love Ireland and its people, Italy is our first choice. The weather in Umbria, by the way, is wonderful! Never too cold and just occasionally very hot, but then you take off into the mountains to cool down.

Our first move to Italy was in 1998. I was working as a consultant for Verizon, and Verizon very generously agreed to let me work from Europe. We lived in Florence initially and then later in the countryside, outside Siena, but I developed a frozen shoulder and my mother, who was living in New Jersey, developed a heart condition, so we returned to New York after six months. In 2001 after my mother died, we decided to return to Italy and chose Venice, which was and still is my favorite city in Europe. Not to get into a long story, but we can both be naïve at times and we were finagled out of $4,000 renting an apartment that was falsely advertised. Miguel wanted to leave Italy for Spain, but I persuaded him to look for an apartment in Gubbio, a city in Umbria that I like very much. During his trip to Umbria, he stayed in Assisi over night and heard about a very nice apartment just a few hundred yards from the Piazza del Comune. It was less than half the rent of the apartment in Venice with a huge terrace and spectacular views of Perugia, Spello, and Montefalco. On a clear day, you could imagine seeing Rome. We lived in Assisi for two years before moving on to other parts of Umbria.

Q: Do you speak fluent Italian?

Brophy: No. I studied briefly, in an immersion class in a school run mainly for the religious who come to Assisi to study. I was doing very well, or at least that’s what Miguel says, until I quit. I found that I needed to focus on my writing. I do fine in restaurants and shops, and in small talk, but I can’t have a serious political discussion with someone in Italian. When we go back this fall, probably to Assisi, I intend to return to school and to stick with it until I’m fluent.

Also, Miguel’s Italian is so good that I tend to coast. He works hard at it, and even though we’ve been back in New York for more than a year, he still listens every evening to the Italian TV news. When in Italy, he listens to Italian radio while he paints, reads La Repubblica cover to cover every day, and speaks Italian all day every day, except, of course, to me. He’s very open and friendly, and I suspect knows most everyone in Assisi and in all the other places in which we lived. His method for learning a language is the most effective, but he’s more disciplined than I.

Q: Do you think it’s important that a writer actually inhabit the place they write about?

Brophy: Yes, I do. I think it’s acceptable to have the occasional hiatus (I’m on one right now), but it really helps to live in the place fulltime. I could never have written The Last Enemy if we hadn’t lived in Italy. Even though we took many long vacations in Italy (four weeks and longer) prior to moving there, you don’t learn enough, or feel enough, or appreciate enough, until you actually live in a place. I look forward to returning.

I know of one exception to the above. Michael Dibdin, who died recently, lived in Perugia for just a few years, where I believe he taught English. A friend of mine in Perugia, also an English teacher, says she knew him back then. I believe, however, that he wrote most of his Zen novels after he moved to Seattle. Although I admire all your featured novelists, Dibdin is my favorite. He captured the essence of Italy in ways I can only dream about. I’m very saddened by his death.

Q: Is there a distinct Umbrian personality?

Brophy: I can’t answer that question with any authority, since I haven’t lived in all the regions of Italy, although I suspect the answer is ‘yes.’ I’m confident that Umbria has a very different feel from the Veneto, or Calabria, or the Alto Adige. At least Italians think so.

There is a difference between living in larger cities like Assisi or Venice, which are essentially tourist towns, and living in small villages where one rarely sees a tourist. We learned more about Umbria, its culture, and its people, when we moved to a small hill town near Orvieto. I plan to use some of what I learned in my next novel—or perhaps I should say what Miguel learned, as he was an integral part of town life. Like most Italian men, he loves football and can talk about it for hours on end. Also, in Umbria, people are openly political and Miguel loves to talk politics.

In the small towns, most of the men gather every day in the café (those who are still working as well as those who are retired), play briscola, watch others play briscola, discuss politics and football, and gossip. Lots of gossip—women have been unfairly branded in that respect! Even if I spoke fluent Italian, loved football, and played briscola, because I’m a woman I doubt I’d be included, although there are exceptions (a woman in my next novel is one such exception). The women come into the cafés with their husbands in the evenings or stop by for the occasional coffee, but they don’t hang out as the men do.

Miguel was gossiping one day with one of the owners of the local café and he pronounced a particular word as they do in that small village. The owner, originally from a larger town (not that much larger) just three miles distant, corrected him and suggested good-naturedly that he not pick up bad habits by speaking the local dialect. In Italy, local really is local. And about food, every area in Italy has its own and is rather scornful of what’s eaten elsewhere. Local olive oil is particularly sacred and I would suggest that visitors to Italy never praise the olive oil from one region while visiting another.

Commissario Cenni Series

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

Brophy: I intended to write a murder mystery, but it wasn’t until Good Friday in 2002, while viewing the procession in Assisi that I started hatching the plot. I loved the atmosphere of the evening and based the plot around the procession.

Q: When did you begin writing it?

Brophy: In the summer of 2002. I finished two-thirds and then it languished for a while. I finished it in 2004.

Q: Were you always planning on a series?

Brophy: Yes. I know many writers and knew of the difficulties in getting novels published. I decided up front to write a police procedural, which is a very popular genre. And if you’re going to write procedurals, you might as well make it a series, as series are easier to sell.

Q: Was there a model for your Allesandro Cenni character and his back story?

Brophy: When we were in Venice, we visited the Carabinieri with respect to the apartment fiasco I mentioned earlier. The senior officer in charge was a very good-looking man in his late thirties, spoke excellent English, and was dressed in a brown leather jacket and jeans. He also had a nice sense of irony. He became the physical model for my detective, although Miguel, my husband, is the model for a good bit of Cenni’s personality. Cenni’s family was created out of whole cloth.

Q: I think the twin brother/bishop connection is interesting.

Brophy: I wanted to explore the different, contradictory sides of a single personality, so I created fraternal twins. Alex professes to be an atheist (perhaps!), and Renato is a bishop in the Catholic Church. In at least one future novel, Renato will be the primary detective and Alex, the sidekick.

Q: Is Alex really an Italian nickname? Why not Sandro?

Brophy: Alessandro, of course, is Italian, but Alex is English or American. I spent many hours reviewing names before I began to write. Names, I think, are hugely important. A name should be memorable but also roll off the tongue. For my detectives and locals, I sat with the Perugia telephone book on my lap for hours looking for names that were mainly Umbrian. For characters from other parts of Italy, I tried to find names that were representative of those regions.

For first names, I consulted various Italian websites. I loved the name Alessandro immediately—rolls off the tongue, but I didn’t want Sandro as a nickname. For me, it didn’t have sufficient gravitas (perhaps because I was thinking of Botticelli’s angels). And then Cenni’s grandmother is Swedish and speaks excellent English and I imagined her calling her grandson ‘Alex’ to annoy her daughter-in-law.

Q: Why did you choose to make Cenni single?

Brophy: I wanted to write about all aspects of Italian culture, including romance. I was afraid if Cenni were married, it would limit him in future novels. An unmarried detective provides more scope for the imagination.

Q: Why did you put Cenni in the State Police instead of the Carabineri?

Brophy: I did a fair amount of research on the various branches of the Italian police before I began to write. The internet has some informative Italian government sites, with English translations, on the work done by the various branches. The Carabineri and the State Police have overlapping functions so either would work. Assisi didn’t help much in the decision making, as it has three branches of police: Carabinieri, with its barracks at the top of the town, State Police, with offices below Piazza St. Chiara, and Municipal Police, with offices in the Plaza del Comune. In Perugia province, one applies for a soggiorno through the State Police, so the State Police were my first contact in Assisi. Also, my intuition is (apologies in advance if I’m wrong) that the Carabinieri veer more to the right politically than the State Police, and since Alex veers to the left (true of Umbria and Tuscany), I chose the State Police. I hope he’s happy!

Q: How did you research the police procedures used in Perugia/Umbria/Italy?

Brophy: Aside from information I found on Italian government websites, it was very difficult to get information on police procedures. Miguel, acting as my translator, asked many questions of a very nice officer in the Assisi Municipal Police. We also made trips to Perugia Centro, where I asked questions of officers in the State Police (then traveled to their main station house near the football stadium—pink with green window frames—but they wouldn’t admit me to ask questions), and to the top of Assisi to talk to the Carabinieri, but when I asked very detailed questions, most of the officers I spoke to would shrug their shoulders. I once asked an Italian, a high school teacher, about Italy’s judicial system, and she responded that she could tell me about the American system, but couldn’t help out on the Italian system—American TV! I called a friend of a friend in Rome, with a doctoral degree in government, who responded, "I don’t know as I’ve never been arrested." I researched the Napoleonic Code on the internet and read all the police procedurals set in Italy that I found in a friend’s library looking for information. I came to the conclusion that these writers must have had similar problems, as their plots generally skirted around the details. In the end, I had an Italian lawyer who speaks English read the final manuscript. In future novels, I would like to be more detailed, as I prefer police procedurals with lots of detail, so this is still a problem to be solved.


Q: Where do you get the ideas for your plot themes?

Brophy: That’s difficult to answer, as plot ideas come from everywhere. I’m always dreaming up plots. I suppose in some respects, the characters define the plot, rather than the other way round. In the novel I’m currently writing, I read an article in the New York Times magazine section six months ago that pushed me to create a particular type of character for my current novel, and from that character came one thread of the plot. Another thread I decided on two years ago when Miguel and I spent a month in Venice. The plot is always evolving.

I found when writing The Last Enemy (and in the current novel as well) that I deviate quite a bit from my first thoughts. Some times a minor character takes off and becomes an integral part of the novel (it’s happening in my current novel) and other times a major character is boring and I get rid of him or her quickly.

Speaking of The Last Enemy, I have lots of friends in New York who are English professors and some of them were put out that I murdered an English teacher. As one friend said, "We have enough problems with CUNY’s administration without our friends killing us off." When I taught English at Queens College, students plagiarizing term papers was a constant problem, and a major irritant, so perhaps that gave me one of my plot ideas for The Last Enemy.

Q: Do you seek inspiration from actual Umbrian or Italian events?

Brophy: I have one novel in mind that concerns a body found seven years after the Assisi earthquake, which happened in 1997. When we lived in Assisi we circled the town every evening (and always passed the cemetery—a bit player in The Last Enemy). I got the idea for the lost body when my husband and I walked past a building from which they were still cleaning out rubble, seven years after the earthquake.

Another future novel concerns a murdered football referee before or after the World Cup. The idea came floating into my mind after the huge fuss in 2002 when an offside was called in Italy’s game against South Korea.

Q: Why did you choose to feature an aristocratic family in The Last Enemy?

Brophy: In studying modern Italian history, I learned that titles were discontinued right after WWII, yet in Venice and in Siena and in other places, we met people who introduced themselves as Count or Countess. I thought it pretentious and wanted to write about it. Also, I wanted the head of the Casati family to be an arrogant snob, and making him a Count helped. In addition, many popular English mysteries cull the aristocracy for characters. I want my novels to sell, and Americans are fascinated by the notion of nobility. This, I hope, holds true for Italian nobility as well as English nobility.


Q: How do you plan to track of your characters’ trajectories in upcoming books?

Brophy: I have a good memory and if I make any mistakes I’m sure my editor will catch me out. She’s excellent.

Q: Will many characters recur from book to book?

Brophy: Cenni’s family and colleagues for sure. Artemesia is due for a return, and if other characters pop in uninvited, I guess they’ll stay.

Q: Do you plan a lot of back references in the upcoming books?

Brophy: A friend asked me today what I had learned in writing the first book. I responded that the technical aspects are the most difficult: getting characters on and off stage, providing just enough information to keep the reader interested without violating the form of the novel. Your question deals with another of these technical problems. I have to repeat some things since I can’t assume that the reader of the current novel has read the previous novels while at the same time not boring the reader who’s been there and knows it all. Very tricky. I hope I succeed.

Works in Progress

Q: Tell us about #2.

Brophy: It takes place in Spello (Umbria) with a few scenes in Venice. The two main characters, aside from Cenni, are women in their mid-seventies who attended convent school together in Venice during World War II. One is German, formerly the German cultural attaché in Rome; the other is a Contessa in Venice, the last of her line. The Contessa’s father was murdered during the German occupation and a good bit of the plot is concerned with unraveling the reasons for his death—and whodunit! There are two other plot lines but since I’m still working them out, I won’t reveal them here. The tentative title is "The Pink House," but that will probably change to something more enticing. The Spello flower festival will have a bit part at the end of the novel.

Writing Process

Q: Tell us about your process in writing a Cenni book - Research, Writing/Rewriting, Publisher Interaction, Promotion,

I do a good bit of preliminary research using the internet, primarily for Italian history, and if I can’t find the information via the internet, I send out emails asking for help. For the current novel, I needed information about Venice during the occupation. Since I had part of the plot in mind two years ago when Miguel and I were visiting Venice for a month, I did some research then with the help of a bookseller in Canneregio. I am still missing some information, and just a few days ago I wrote to Joseph Kanon, author of Alibi, a novel set in Venice immediately after WWII—excellent novel, by the way. He very generously wrote back and explained that he’d had similar problems since there’s little that’s been written about Venice during the war. He did, however, give me some suggestions. In addition, I wrote to a friend who lives in Murano, and she spoke to a neighbor of hers, 87 years old, who remembers the occupation very well. She’s arranging for me to interview him by telephone. Whatever works is basically my method. But I am by nature a person who likes to do research.

Before I began writing The Last Enemy, I wrote biographies of all the characters. I included their likes and dislikes, education, family background, favorite foods, etc. Much of the information I didn’t use but I wanted to have a sense of the people before I began to write about them. Of course, some of the characters changed in the writing, but this method works for me.

I’m a compulsive reviser. I tend, however, to revise line-by-line and paragraph-by-paragraph, and not in big swathes. I can’t continue to write if I think I’ve written a badly constructed sentence, so I keep plugging away until I’m happy. And every day before I begin a new section, I read the previous sections and revise again—as the novel gets near to the end, we’re talking a lot of reading. Luckily, I’m a fast reader. I taught writing at the City University of New York before I took up systems engineering and the most important lesson I tried to instill in my students was the importance of revision.


Q: How did you link up with Soho Press?

Brophy: I was three-quarters through writing my novel when a friend (also a writer) visited us in Italy for a week. She read my partial manuscript, liked it, and recommended it to her agent. He agreed to read it, said that he liked it, and offered to represent me, but asked that I first change the ending. I made some minor changes but resisted making the major change that he wanted, as his suggested ending would have made no sense in a police procedural set in Italy. Nonetheless, he said he would represent me, so I returned to Italy assuming I had an agent. When I returned to New York many months later to take care of family business, I found he hadn’t sent it to a single publisher, still waiting, he said, for the new ending.

I was unhappy with our arrangement and decided to find a publisher for myself. I went searching on the internet for companies who publish mysteries set in foreign places and up popped Soho Crime. I sent Soho the requested synopsis and opening chapters, received an email from the publisher a few days later asking me to send the full manuscript, and a few days after that she invited me to lunch. We had an excellent lunch and I signed with Soho that day. I should also add that Soho liked the ending.

Soho is a small press in New York City, very close to our apartment. Everyone who works there is very friendly and helpful, and I’m delighted to have found a home there. It has an excellent reputation and is well respected by booksellers, particularly those that specialize in selling murder mysteries. Soho knows how to promote its writers, and I’m sure it will do right by me.

Q: Any plans for publication in other languages/countries?

Brophy: Soho is my agent for foreign rights. I’m sure it will seek opportunities to publish in other languages.

Q: Do you plan to have an author website?

Brophy: I’m very involved in writing at the moment, so a bit disinclined to stop and do a website. But, eventually, yes.

Q: Will there be a book tour for The Last Enemy?

Brophy: If Soho asks me to visit stores in my area, I’ll do so gladly. In the meantime, I have appointments at a number of stores in New York City to do stock signings. Today I signed some copies at the Corner Bookstore.


Q: Were you inspired by any contemporary mystery writers?

Brophy: My favorites for mystery and spy series, in order of preference:

Foremost, John LeCarré. I have all his books but first always is Smiley’s People.

P. D. James, Colin Dexter, Ruth Rendell, each for different reasons. James for characterization; Dexter for humor; and Rendell for noir.

And of those who go further back, Dorothy Sayers, with Gaudy Night as my top pick.

I dislike thrillers, can’t imagine why others want to read them, and particularly dislike any type of novel that’s so busy throwing out plot devices, it has no time to develop believable characters. Prose style counts, and in thrillers, style seems to be the last thing on any one’s mind. Fortunately, none of this is true for any of the writers you feature on your website.

I like many writers who have written stand-alone mysteries, far too many to list here. I’ll mention three: Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley (although I suppose you might call this book the first of the Ripley series); Joseph Kanon, Alibi and The Good German, and, of course, Joseph O’Connor, Star of the Sea.

Q: Have you met any of your colleagues authoring mystery series set in Italy?

Brophy: No.

Q: Do you read their books?

Brophy: Until we moved to Italy, I was unaware of mysteries set in Italy. When we wound up in Assisi, I met Barbara Richards. Barbara teaches English in Perugia—for many years now—and has an excellent library of both classics and murder mysteries. When I ran out of my own books to read, I raided Barbara’s library. She has most of Dibdin and some of Leon. I like both writers, but for different reasons.

My favorite mystery set in Italy is Dead Lagoon. I’ve read it a number of times and am currently rereading it. Dibdin’s description of Zen stalking his old friend Tommaso through the streets of Venice and to the Lido is a brilliant piece of writing. We always rent an apartment in Canneregio when we’re in Venice, which is where Dibdin located Zen’s ancestral home and where much of the action takes place, so this also attracts me to this particular novel. And I often reread the opening pages (the ones set in the Lagoon) for the sheer pleasure of reading beautiful prose.

I particularly enjoy reading about the home life of Donna Leon’s detective, the give and take between the children and the parents, the descriptions of food, although not when I’m trying to diet.

I had never read any of Nabb’s books until Soho purchased mine. We live a few blocks from the New York 42nd Street Library, and I found all of Nabb’s novels there and read them all—I had a Nabb fest. I enjoyed them very much and for many of the same reasons that I like Leon. Descriptions of family life are very real; her primary detective is very sympathetic.

I’ve only read two of Andrea Camilleri. I liked both very much and intend to read more.

I’ve read two of Iain Pears; he makes me laugh, which is always a plus.

After reading through your website, I just ordered two novels by Gianrico Carofiglio. I hope to learn more about police and judicial procedures since he was formerly a judge in Bari.

Q: Both Magdalen Nabb and Cara Black are published by Soho, have you met either one of them?

Cara wrote a very nice blurb for my novel and I recently corresponded with her by email. I don’t know her personally but would certainly like to meet her. The same is true of Magdalen Nabb.

Detail Page for The Last Enemy