A Q & A with Michael Gregorio

Article published on August 5, 2011.

 

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A female corpse is found in the town of Lotingen. The girl’s neck has been ripped open, all the blood drained from the body. Hanno Stiffeniis hastens to investigate a case more terrifying than murder. Would any human being kill in such a gruesome fashion? Emma Rimmele has come to Lotingen to bury her mother. A beautiful woman travelling with a coffin in her baggage, Emma attracts gossip like a magnet. When a corpse is discovered near the house where she is living, speculation about the mysterious stranger reaches fever pitch. When two more ravaged bodies are found, fingers point accusingly in her direction. One word is heard on every tongue. Vampire…

News arrives from a nearby town. A French officer’s throat has been ripped out. Another French soldier has bled to death. The horror of Lotingen is happening elsewhere. Colonel Lavedrine, a criminologist in the Grand Armée, is ordered to collaborate with Magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis. Two years earlier, they had worked together to solve a murder despite fierce clashes of character and opinion. Once again, each man is drawn into the forbidden world of dark graveyard paths and reading in pursuit of a curse which has plagued Prussia for centuries.

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Q: What was the catalyst for writing your first novel Critique of Criminal Reason? After all, you each had a successful career, so there must have been a strong motivation to become novelists. And more particularly, why did you choose to be historical crime novelists?

Michael: We both wanted to be writers. I was writing mysteries in my spare time, Daniela was into horror, and we had both been rejected. It seemed that we were destined always to be teachers. Daniela was teaching philosophy, I was teaching English and the History of Photography. But then Daniela came up with an interesting idea concerning Immanuel Kant, the Prussian philosopher, and his manservant, Martin Lampe, and we decided to work on the theme together. Kant was a genius; Lampe was not.

A bit like us, really! Again, like us, they had lived under the same roof for almost thirty years. But one day Lampe was summarily dismissed from his post as Kant’s valet. What was the reason for this sudden turnaround? No-one knows. We were fascinated by the enigma, and we began to speculate on possible causes.

It was like a late divorce after a long and happy marriage. Both men were in their seventies; the effects of the split-up must have been devastating. Then again, we thought, what if one of them was crazy? Or what if they were both nuts?

Research revealed that Kant was subject in old age to what we would today identify as Alzheimer’s disease. Over tea and biscuits in the kitchen, we worked out a detailed plot on Saturday afternoons in a couple of months. We took a good deal longer to write the book. Finding an agent took another while, as did the search for a publisher. It wasn’t easy, but we found them both. And we found them because we didn’t give up. Both of us are stubborn, but we are not intransigent. Every single rejection – and we had lots of them – inspired us to look critically at our work, learn from the opinions of others, revise carefully, then start trying all over again.

Regarding the mystery genre, we believe that every book of whatever genre contains a mystery at its core. Otherwise, what’s the point in reading it?

Q: How is that someone living in 21st-century Italy would choose early 19th-century Prussia as the setting for your novels? This is, after all, neither a place nor a period with which many people in the 21st century have much familiarity.

Daniela: Starting from Immanuel Kant, our interest expanded to embrace the Prussia in which he lived. The most interesting part of writing a crime novel in a historical setting is the research which is necessary to write a convincing description of the people, places, and habits in which the action takes place. Prussia is especially fascinating. It was fiercely militaristic and rigidly aristocratic in an era of great political turbulence.

In rapid succession, the Age of Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon transformed the ways that people think of themselves. The proudest military nation in Europe was defeated by the upstart Napoleon and invaded by the French third estate. Serfdom was abolished, as was the aristocracy, and all men were (theoretically) equals. How did the Prussians react to what they considered to be a huge national disgrace?

Michael: This was also an age of rapidly expanding knowledge in all branches of the sciences. We attempted to combine these elements in a re-evocation of a Prussia which would fascinate and stimulate the reader as the plot unfolds. Our central character, magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis, explores a world which might be closed to non-specialist readers. Prussia no longer exists, of course, but it was the fiery crucible of the German state which would dominate European politics in the first half of the twentieth century.

Q: How important is the figure of Kant in your work? He is a central character in Critique of Criminal Reason, and an important influence in Days of Atonement. How did you hit upon using Kant as a key figure in the advancement of criminal investigations within your novels?

Daniela: Immanuel Kant defined the modern pragmatic conscience. He posited the moral basis of contemporary thought, regarding Man and his place in Nature. We explore Kantian philosophy very indirectly, and extrapolate various possibilities that may never have occurred to him. Kant never investigated a murder, so far as we know, but he certainly would have been as interested as anybody watching Sky News today. And his understanding of criminal behaviour would have been informed by Rationality. Let’s be honest, he would have made a great detective!

Equally, the fact that Kant explored only what was ‘knowable’ does not mean that he ignored the unknowable. We are convinced that the subjects which Kant chose not to write about are at least as significant as the subjects on which he wrote in depth. This is the grey area in which we work.

Q: Your superb crafting and balancing of the elements of fiction (plot, characters, setting, point of view, style, and theme) are particularly commendable in both novels. Theme, however, is often mismanaged by lesser authors (whose heavy-handed didacticism destroys the balance of the work), which leads me to ask you about your awareness of ways in which you hope to have readers seize upon and appreciate the universality of the themes (especially the limits of logic, the ineffable nature of evil, and the influences upon the world of mysticism, the demonic, and religion).

Michael: We are not moralists. Nor are we didactic. The tendency is there, but we struggle to avoid being heavy-handed and ruthlessly cancel anything which interrupts the ongoing rhythm of the tale. We let the story tell itself, we allow our characters to explore attitudes which we do not share, and the conclusion is therefore unpredictable, but morally credible. This is why it is so important to create the ‘world’ of the novel. You evoke it, but you don’t really control it. It has a life of its own, and the believability of the life that it takes on is the ultimate reward for the writer. You discover aspects of your characters and their behaviour that you didn’t foresee. If it works, they really do have a life, and you simply help them to live it.

Q: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about the themes of Jewish mysticism and anti-Semitism in early 19th-century Europe as they figure in Days of Atonement. The character of Aaron Jacob (with a last name that is coincidentally your last name, Michael) and his reputation as Baal Shem (and the informed allusion to his real-life antecedent, Baal Shem Tov) raises all sorts of interesting issues in the novel.

Michael: One of the most direct consequences of the French Revolution was the liberation of Man, of every colour, creed and religion. The position of the Jews, and their social history in Germany, both before and after the events that we describe, is surely a subject of the very greatest interest. We do not pretend to be experts, but we carefully researched those aspects of contemporary Jewish life in Prussia which coincided with our story, and we feel that they add a dimension which justifies their inclusion.

Aaron Jacob is a scientist who also happens to be Jewish, and these elements condition his way of seeing and judging contemporary events. Hanno Stiffeniis is a Pietist and a magistrate, and he views the same events from a different perspective. It is in the collision of these perspectives – the interaction of all the differing world-views of the various characters in the plot – that the central drama of the crime story is played out.

Q: The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), as I understand it, atones only for sins between man and God, not for sins against another person (and God seems significantly absent from Days of Atonement). Is there a religious significance to the title of the book?

Daniela: Our choice of title has nothing to do with religion. We chose the plural ‘Days’ because the atonement in the title is multiple and varied, and it applies to all of the characters, not merely Aaron Jacob. A great deal has already been written about God, so we simply avoid trying to mentioning Him.

We have been favourably reviewed by a number of Jewish websites and literary critics, and we are very proud of the fact, but Aaron Jacob is just one of the many characters in the book that we enjoyed creating. We try to portray a many-sided world in which the central crime reverberates. Crime brings chaos and upset, obviously, and it should echo in the lives of all the characters, whether they are directly involved or not.

Q: You’ve each revealed a bit of your personal lives in other interviews, and those revelations suggest a different kind of question about your novels: to what extent would Hanno (a tireless disciple of Kant who nevertheless is occasionally humbled by mistakes in reasoning and judgment) and Helena (a remarkable woman who has acquitted herself admirably in both novels) be modelled upon Michael and Daniela?

Both: There are elements of both of them in both of us. The better elements, we hasten to add! Every writer reveals something of himself through the characters and the situations that he creates. At the same time, given the historical context of the novels, our characters are, we hope, children of their time. In any case, they are personifications of that time-period as we conceive it. And so, inevitably, there are bits of us in there as well, transported back in time in a sort of ‘virtual history’ in which we have both played a formative part.

Q: But how do you actually go about writing together?

Michael: We don’t sit down and write together! We plan extensively together, talking about plot, character, incident. We do a great deal of independent research, talking over what we can use, and how best to use it. Then we work out who is going to write what, playing to our different strengths and preferences. At that point, we retire to our respective computers and set to work.

Daniela writes in Italian, while I write in English. Then, having translated Daniela’s work into English, we begin to work closely together on correcting, improving and strengthening what might be called the first real draft. We are very different writers, and we approach things differently, which leads to a great deal of lively discussion and some fierce arguments about how we want the final draft to read. In a positive sense, we are constantly editing and improving each other. It may sound chaotic, but it seems to work!

Q: On a lighter note, how is it that your cat Lionello managed to receive a cameo appearance of sorts in Days of Atonement?

Daniela: Lionello was a starving kitten tied to a tree when we found him abandoned in the countryside. His only sibling had just died. Now he’s a beautiful, chubby house-cat. Any cat-owner will tell you how fascinating and individual the comportment of their pet is. Lionello makes us smile a hundred times a day, and we thought that the world should know about him. He deserved a cameo portrait, and we believe we drew a nice one, though he seems oblivious to the fact. If any reader of the novel buys a cat because of Lionello, we would like to hear about it.

Q: During your ‘Proustean’ interview on your website, you each identified historical figures you most denounce and detest; Michael named Hitler, and Daniela included 20th-century dictators (which covers a lot of territory) and ‘all religious fanatics’. To what extent do those denouncements figure in your vision of early 19th-century Prussia and the Napoleonic invasion and occupation, as portrayed in your two novels?

Michael: I was more specific about Hitler, questioning how he managed to worm his way inside the German psyche. You could say the same of any political dictator, and of any influential religious fanatic, of course. Fanaticism and the violence which it inspires are the greatest dangers faced by the human race. When one man, or group of men, decides that everybody else should be this, or that, then the freedom of individuals is at risk. Individuality is our most precious gift; our attempts to guarantee this wonderful freedom are, unfortunately, what make us most vulnerable.

Q: Also in your ‘Proustean’ interview, you identified writers and books you have most admired; I was particularly interested in some of Daniela’s list (Franz Kafka, Marguerite Yourcenar, Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and Tales by the Brothers Grimm) and some of Michael’s, too (Herman Melville, the Russian novelists, Charles Dickens, George Pelecanos, Alan Furst). I would favourably compare your works to those of Umberto Eco, Luigi Pirandello, and Arturo Perez Reverte (though you may wish to dispute those comparisons).

In connection with those observations, Harold Bloom, the American critic, has written extensively on the ‘anxiety of influence’ which he claims all writers experience as they negotiate the sometimes difficult territory between their own originality and the inescapable influence of antecedents. Would you comment upon the extent to which you are aware of, and either embrace or resist, the influence of your favourite authors?

Both: We have all been influenced by every single thing that we have ever read. As we both read widely, the influences are truly vast. If we have ever purloined an idea or a concept that does not belong to us, then we humbly apologize to the originator, living or dead. At the same time, it won’t stop us reading and unconsciously purloining in the future!

Q: Speaking of Harold Bloom again, he points out that reading is a ‘solitary praxis’, an observation which every lifelong reader of literature can appreciate, but I think nearly every reader must wonder about what I would label ‘the Michael Gregorio praxis of authorship’.

As readers, we are accustomed to imagining and hearing about the solitary author (someone like Flaubert) struggling to find le mot juste, or (someone like Hemingway) labouring for an entire day over a single sentence. How is it then that two people – a married couple – actually go about the process of authoring a novel?

Daniela: ‘Solitary praxis’ is a myth, at least with regard to present-day writers. Most authors are far from alone when they work, accepting advice and asking for help from a whole range of interested parties, such as agents, editors, experts and ‘tweakers’ of one sort or another. They also frequently turn for company to the instant intellectual info-bank, which is the Internet.

Thinking of the novel as an inspired work of art that issues from an ivory tower is an outmoded Romantic idea. Today there is so much pressure to write a book in a certain way, to a certain length, by a certain date, and satisfying the criteria of the market-place, that the solitary author must be the exception to the rule. Having said that, we are, perhaps, one of the few exceptions! In the sense that solitary authors tend to lose themselves down solitary paths, while two people working closely together on the same problem tend to constantly challenge and correct the excesses of the other partner.

We both wrote solo before writing together. We have done the ‘ivory tower’ thing; we didn’t really enjoy it, and we weren’t very successful at it.

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