A Conversation with Marlena de Blasi
Jennifer Morgan Gray is a writer and editor in Washington,D.C.
Jennifer Morgan Gray: A Thousand Days in Tuscany is an autobiographical chronicle of your time in San Casciano dei Bagni. Did you keep a detailed journal during the time covered by the book? Was there one image or person in your life that compelled you to begin writing this memoir?
Marlena de Blasi: Friends keep giving me these lovely leatherbound journals, as though the empty books themselves would insure that I’d keep writing. I have quite a collection of blank ones and sometimes I recycle them, give them as gifts to others. But I did keep a journal of sorts during the San Casciano days, if not a particularly detailed one. I called it Florì’s book. It was a way for me to tell her things even when we couldn’t see each other or talk. I suppose I was the one who compelled the memoir, if “compel” is indeed the right word. I just wanted to tell my stories.
JMG: Do you view this book as a companion piece to A Thousand Days inVenice? How did you seek to make it a stand-alone work? Were there other titles you considered for either book and then abandoned? What is the “bittersweet adventure” of the book’s subtitle?
MdB:Surely it’s a companion piece to the first book. It begins on the very day we left Venice. But one who reads A Thousand Days in Tuscany first will not be at a disadvantage. I didn’t have to try to make it stand by itself. It’s a different story, albeit with two of the same protagonists. It recounts a whole other part of my life. A Thousand Days in Venice was my working title, my only title.The title I would never have considered changing. I was lucky that my publishers didn’t ask me to. But A Thousand Days in Tuscany is a title of which I’m hardly very fond, but my publishers loved it.The title is not even true since the book covers only a single year. But I guess “Three Hundred Sixty-five Days in Tuscany” doesn’t have the same ring. Apart from that little ruse, the book is not about Tuscany in the way that A Thousand Days in Venice is about Venice. The second book is more about people than it is about place.The original title was Dolce e Salata. Sweet and Salty. “That’s how life tastes to me,” I think I say at some point in the text. A Thousand Days in Tuscany is not another finding-the-villa-and-choosing-the-marble-for-the-staircase sort of story, or one about the darling peasants who come to clean the house and cook the suppers.The story is as much about pain as it is about beauty.All sugar or all salt—both end up as oppression.Even in Tuscany.
JMG:You discuss your husband, Fernando, and his “Quicksilver” nature at great length, beginning on page 93.What was the most difficult aspect of dealing with Fernando during those episodes? How did your relationship evolve during that time?
MdB:Once we’d been in Tuscany for a few months, Fernando began to blossom and the Quicksilver in him faded rather fast.The episodes I write about happened very early on in our Tuscan days.These were backlash events, the result of his unmanaged expectations more than anything else. He wanted his peace to arrive with our baggage. I think many people suffer delusion if they are convinced that serenity is geographical.The “If only I lived in Tuscany or Paris or Rio, then everything would be fine” song. As for what I found difficult during those periods, I think they were actually much more instructive than they were difficult. I learned that it was wrong for me to expect Fernando to be anyone but himself. In addition to his character, his very culture played a part. It’s simpler to quote the text. These crises of his, which feel oddly like betrayals, cause desolation in me.And I have to push hard at that desolation so I can remind myself of how he is made. All this behavior is an expression of his character, inexorable as bones and blood. Besides that, Fernando is Italian, and he knows what I can’t learn. He knows that life is an opera that must be shrieked and lamented and only once in a while laughed. I must tell you that having lived for almost twelve years in Italy now, I’ve become a bit unused to all this therapists’ lingo about “relationships” and such. Here there’s much less of that. Here people deal more in emotions than in excavation.We leave the digging to the archeologists. What I will say is that love—the real kind that happens only when both people love each other more than each one loves himself—ALWAYS grows.ALWAYS gets stronger. Nothing and no one can do much damage.And of course the converse of that is also true—if it’s not love, it can’t become love, no matter who the therapist is.
JMG: Barlozzo takes you and Fernando under his wing from the beginning of your time in Tuscany.Why do you think he immediately did so?
MdB:I think that in the text I talk about how Florì viewed Barlozzo’s attraction to us. She said that he liked us a pelle, from the skin. It was an instinct,much like falling in love is instinctual. Indeed, it was love that we all felt, and still feel, for one another.That’s what Florì meant when she called us “complicit.”Over the years, I’ve come to understand that—at first sight and more thereafter—I reminded Barlozzo of his mother, who died when she was not yet thirty. I think I talk in the text about his comparing me to his mother. Eyes, voice,mystery. He said we were very much alike.
JMG: What about Barlozzo was compelling to you from the outset? How do both of you “trust risk more than comfort”? How was Barlozzo’s relationship with you different from the one he enjoyed with Fernando?
MdB: I say in the text that it was always “high noon” when Barlozzo arrived on any scene. I say that he looks a little like Gary Cooper. Now if you put both of those images together, perhaps you can understand why I found him mesmeric, gritty. I think that just as he was drawn to us instinctively, so were we drawn to him. A purely emotional response. Many readers want to know if I saw him as my father figure and I suppose I did, and do, but he’s much more than that to me. I guess I’ll save the rest of the answer for another book. As for our mutual trusting of risk more than comfort—either one of us believes in the myth of security. I think a person can chase safety—in a relationship, a job, a house, a bank account, any number of things—for all his life, as though safety were life’s entire goal.As though there were some prize for arriving at the end of life with all that “safety” intact, even if one also arrived not having lived that life, never once having walked to the edge. In the book I’m writing now, there is a part where Fernando and I have just spent an evening with two very old sisters who live in one of the grandest palazzi in Orvieto, women who’ve played things close to the chest for eighty years, never risking so much as their children’s wrath or a single strand of rubies, I tell Fernando, “Poor souls, they’ve had a safe life. Now they’re old and sad, their mettle untried.” As for how Barlozzo’s relationship was and is different with Fernando—well, the two of them are children together.They both immediately become about ten when they see each other. It’s a gift each of them gives to the other. Now with me, Barlozzo gets to be old. Maybe even older than he really is. He gets to talk about dying and being fearful. He gets to talk about the past. And I get the same things from him.
JMG: On page 215, you write, “Mathilde and Gerard had so much because they had so little.” Similarly, how did living in San Casciano give you perspective on what was truly important in life? What do you think is most alluring about the prospect of living “the simple life,” and what are its challenges?
MdB: I honestly don’t think that the people of the village gave us perspective. Remember that at least some significant percentage of them was trying to “escape” village life.Traditional life.They wanted to trade medieval life for “the pink and yellow cement palaces in the post-war part of the village.” What some of them might have done for us was to present, close up, images of who we wanted and didn’t want to be as we grew older. Everything is distilled in a hamlet of two hundred souls. But I think there’s evidence on almost every page of the book of our perspective on the simple life.We never really measured our choices in a clear-cut “allure versus challenge” sort of way.We never got out the yellow pad and drew two columns. I, more than Fernando at the beginning, was in thrall with the idea of weeding and scrubbing at life, of making it smaller, in a sense. Relieving it of things and thoughts and pursuits that didn’t add to our peace, and even relieving it of a few people who we knew could only continue to be themselves. And the smaller we made our life—no job, no house, not much money—the larger it became in terms of appreciation. There is a sense of privilege rather than of deprivation which comes with simplicity. Bread and oil and wine are a feast.A length of silk is a treasure. A day, a whole string of days spent walking and thinking and lying down in a field or wading in a river—not knowing if it’s the wind that makes you shiver or the revelation that this, this is how you really want to live—these composed our perspective. None of this is to say that in dreams there are no responsibilities. All dreams, at least the ones you really want to come true, begin with work. And so one invents the next thing to do. And the next one after that. Simplicity is not for the faint-hearted. Nor for the feint-hearted either.
JMG:Were you surprised that you so easily fit into the rhythm of the town? Was there a particular point when you really felt as though you belonged?
MdB: No, I wasn’t surprised. I would have been surprised not to have felt comfortable. I’ve traveled alone so much in my life, found myself in situations both awkward and marvelous, grim and enchanting in so many places in the world that, somewhere along the way, “fitting in” became natural. When strangers sense a person’s interior comfort, they become much more at ease themselves and differences—even in language—diffuse. Besides, the truth is that we’re all much more alike than we’re not. Another truth is that “belonging” is a rarity even among people who have been together forever—living, working, being neighbors. They are almost never a cohesive tribe, if you will. So the desire for a societal belonging has never been an issue for me. I know that I belong everywhere as much as I know that I don’t belong anywhere.
JMG: As I was reading, I found myself wincing whenever Misha opened his mouth! And it seems as though others, like Barlozzo, did as well. How is such a contentious person such a source of comfort—and a great friend—to you? Has he been to see you since his inaugural visit?
MdB: As you might recall, Misha was a psychiatrist. Can you imagine being one of his patients? Barlozzo and Misha locked horns. In some ways they were just too much alike.About the same age, each one sprang from a very different culture and each one also lived through some stunningly difficult times.Years before, when I lived in California, Misha and I had become friends. In fact, at one point he believed he had fallen in love with me, though that idea passed quickly enough. But there always remained some wisp of jealousy from him where I was concerned. He showed it when he first met Fernando and, in a sense, when he met Barlozzo—though for an altogether different reason. He felt that Barlozzo had usurped his role as general sage and guiding spirit in our lives. Also, Misha knew when he came to visit us in San Casciano that he had only a few months left to live. He never told us this, not until he’d returned to California.And so the intention of his visit had been to “knock some sense” into us while he still could. But his letter from California said, among many other things, that he’d gone away from us with great contentment. Strangely enough, Misha and Florì died within a few days of each other.
JMG:What do you think incited Barlozzo finally to tell you the story of his family? How did his past weigh him down? And what do you think finally prompted him to live beyond the secrets and demons of those who lived and died before him?
MdB: Going back to that sentiment of instinct about which we spoke earlier, I think it played its part at this point as well. He felt safe with us. He’d carried the demons about with him until he found a safe place to put them down.To close the door on them. In the book I’m working on now, there is a scene that might help to explain “how his past weighed him down.” He tells me, “I wish I’d done what you did.” He whispers this. “I wish I’d loved someone more than myself. Myself whom, over time, I couldn’t distinguish from my sadness. As though I was made of sadness and there was nothing to do about it, and so I got used to it. Came to cherish it. Obedient as to a king, I followed where it led me. I thought it was me who was obliged to shelter the past.To keep it burning at all costs.A fire in the rain. Except for Florì, the sweet respite of her, my life has been made of other people’s lives. I wish I’d done what you did and claimed one for myself.”
JMG: Were you surprised when Barlozzo suggested he might buy a house for the four of you—him, Florìana, and you and Fernando—to spend time together? What about that gesture was characteristic and uncharacteristic of him? After Florìana’s death, did he follow through on those plans?
MdB:Yes, Fernando and I were both stunned on the day when he first brought us to see his “ruin.”What I think he was after was to make up for lost time. At that point, he and Florì had finally begun to live the love they’d had for each other for forty years. Rather than like a man beyond seventy, he was behaving like a young man in love, wanting to buy a house for his “bride,” wanting to have “children,” wanting to "settle down.” He wanted all the things he’d never had or thought he could have. So, it was a magnificent gesture. Heartbreaking, really.He thought he would live with Florì, share the house, from time to time, with us. And this sweetness is both characteristic and uncharacteristic of him. Florì called him buono come pane, good as bread.And that’s what he was and is. But he’d become very good at being rascally, too. At hiding his vulnerability behind the guise of a scoundrel. As for whether he followed through on those plans—well, the dream died with Florì. But in the book I’m writing now, you’ll see what happens with the “ruin.”
JMG: Do you think you and the other women would have gathered around Florì’s bedside had she not asked you to? How was it a cathartic experience for all of you? And how was it just a fun party that captured her spirit?
MdB:We were all happy when Florì said she wanted to be fussed over for a few days.We’d all been longing to take care of her from the first day she came home from the hospital. But she resisted us then, remained thoroughly self-sufficient. I believed her when she told me, “I can do that now that I know I’m well. Before, when I wasn’t sure, the idea of everyone being around me seemed too scented in farewell.” So, no, I don’t think we all would have arrived at her bedside unbidden. I don’t think the event was cathartic as much as it was nourishing, enriching. No one left behind their delusions or their pain or their memories in Florì’s bedroom that day. Rather,we came away with an exalted sense of our courage.We were all in the Red Tent together in tribal celebration of our childhood and our womanhood. How was it just a fun party that captured her spirit, you ask? In no way was it that. No way at all.
JMG: How did you feel about leaving on a three-month trip to research a book in the wake of Florì’s death? Do you think you would have done so without Barlozzo’s approval (whether tacit or overt)?
MdB: When Florì was sick and I wanted to go to the hospital to be with her, Barlozzo admonished me to love her the way she wanted to be loved rather than in the way I wanted to love her. In other words, she needed to be alone, and so the best way to love her was to let her be. It was much the same after Florì died. All I wanted to do was to keep Barlozzo close to us.To grieve with him. But that’s not what he needed from us. He needed to be alone.The best way to love him at that moment was to let him be.A loud resonance there. Too often, when someone is ill, others relate that illness to themselves. Either thinking: “What if it happened to me?” or, perhaps worse, “How will their illness, dying, and death affect me?” Or, the absolute apex of egotism, “I can’t take all this suffering.” The person who is ill can’t even be the protagonist in his own illness. As it turned out, by asking us to let him be after Florì died, by his telling us that he would much rather be alone, what Barlozzo accomplished was to strengthen the intimacy among he and Fernando and I. More about that in the next book.
JMG: I’ve read that you and Fernando have launched the project of leading tours together. How do you enjoy working together as a team? What do you think the most important element of exploring a new place is—in other words, do you have a philosophy on how to best enjoy traveling?
MdB:Well, as far as our working together, that’s the lovely part. I do the talking and the cooking and Fernando does the charming and the driving. Succinctly put. But the truth is, we don’t have all that much time for that part of our lives at the moment. I’m always writing the “next book.”At this point,we usually program no more than six to eight weeks a year for touring with our guests.With very few exceptions, this work has put us together with some of the most magnificent people we’d ever hoped to meet. In the book-inprogress, I do tell some of the stories surrounding these tours.
JMG: How was writing a memoir different from the food-based writing—including cookbooks and criticism—that you usually do? What were the challenges of the memoir? How did you find it a liberating project?
MdB: This is a great question because normally one would expect that the leap from food books to memoir would be a giant one. But in fact, when I was writing cookbooks, they weren’t cookbooks at all but a collection of recipes with memories. Now that I’m writing in the memoir genre, I include recipes. In a sense, I’ve always done both. Even when I was a food critic for all those years, I always wrote about the history of a place or of the chef or of his grandmother. So my writing life has always been very much of a piece. Only the balances have shifted. The challenges of a memoir? To tell other people’s stories along with your own. More than your own.To develop all the players.To let yourself be seen in resonance, reflection rather than under hot, white light. Some writers are too busy with their own lives to be collecting impressions about others.When they set about to write their story, the result can be one long egoistic narrative. Not so many of us live such fascinating lives that the telling of them can stand alone. Was it a liberating project? Well, everything one does passionately is liberating, isn’t it? I love my life, I love to write. I love the hard parts about being a writer more than the easy parts, though. And there are lots of hard parts.
JMG: Do you have any special writing routines or methods that facilitate the process and stoke your creative juices? Do you cook a great deal while you are writing?
MdB:I cook a great deal when I’m writing and when I’m not. I cook and bake with great constancy, shall we say. Fernando rations my flour during writing periods so I get only a kilo a day.Two decent loaves. One for a neighbor, one for us. I rotate my bread route. I even bring bread to the baker, trade him for flour. But as for routines—no. I write mostly in the very early mornings (while waiting for the bread to rise; didn’t I tell you that my life is all of a piece?) but sometimes I don’t sit down to write until late afternoon. I would feel throttled by a routine of any kind. As for stoking the creative juices—I have trouble the other way. I find inspiration in the smallest events and so my fingers are always trying to catch up with my racing mind.As for methods—Do you mean going to writers’ conferences or joining writers’ groups or taking classes and such? Well, I’ve never been to a writers’ conference and I hope to continue to evade that experience.All those churning, churlish, starving people waving manuscripts at one another. And most writers’ groups are not peopled by writers at all.As for creative writing classes,well you can’t teach a body to write words any more than you can teach it to write music.You can teach a person to write poetry because poetry has more technical flesh on its bones.You can teach someone the rudiments of how to put color on a canvas (not teach them to paint, mind you) since there’s technical skill wanted for that, too. Same thing goes for all the fine arts. But I’ve never known a writer who learned how to write.Though I have known a few who became decent plagiarists. If you’re a writer, you write.
JMG:Do you try to sit down at your computer and write for a certain amount of time each day? For instance, are you predisposed to writing in the evening, the morning, or just whenever, as you say, your fingers are itching to catch up with your mind? Are there any writers you love to read when you’re about to plunge into crafting your own words?
MdB:No, there’s no preordained plan as to when or for how long I’ll write. But since I’m not a sleeper and am awakened by the muses at no later than five each morning, I already know—before sunrise— if it’s a long session I’ll want that day, a shorter one, or just an hour or so to read what’s already there.That daily-changing sense of things is what gives my writing life its shape. In the same way that I don’t sleep much, I don’t rush much either. I read at least half the time in Italian. Mostly classics, once in a while a contemporary work. Rarely, though. Italian literature has been in a slump for years. Maybe centuries. I read happily in Italian, although I do so, in part, because I live in a place where books in English, at least good books in English, are hard to come by. My non-Italian reading is often dictated by the secondhand books my friends send to me or by the care packages posted by my British and Australian editors. From my own stacks, I read and reread the dead Europeans. And the Russians. All of them.
JMG: What can your readers expect from you next?
MdB: I’m working on a third memoir, the working title of which is: In via del Duomo 34. Our address here in Orvieto. It’s a continuation of Tuscany, just as Tuscany is a continuation of Venice, but, too, it’s a story unto itself.