An interview with Alberto Cola, winner of the Premio Urania.
Alberto Cola, born in 1967, as Italian science fiction author, has just been awarded the latest Premio Urania for his new novel Lazarus, now published by Mondadori in Italy.
FT: Hello Alberto, and welcome to The Portal. Your third novel, Lazarus, has recently been awarded the Premio Urania, the most important award for science fiction novels in Italy. Let’s begin with the motivation for the Award: “Superior style and excellent imaginativeness, the creation of a technological society where the return of the dead is a premise to a troublesome investigation on our future.” It looks like this novel is mixing science fiction and horror themes. Which direction is science fiction going today from your point of view? And what differences, if any, are there between Italy and the English-speaking world?
AC: Hi all. Honestly I don’t think there are real horror elements inside this novel. Maybe there’s just a bit of that good kind of science fiction that typically mirrors our fears and questions that we don’t find the right answers to. I need to admit I enjoy writing without strict definition of genre, and my works probably “suffer” from a certain medley of different genres, even if this novel is probably not the case. I think mixing is the true safe-conduct to genre fiction, and making experiments to sweep readers away with more and more random coordinates where a story is set will be a real panacea for this kind of literature. From this perspective, the English-speaking world is doubtlessly much opener than Italy.
FT: The main character in Lazarus is Yukio Mishima (Translator’s note: Japanese author, poet, playwright, actor and film director, also remembered for his ritual suicide by seppuku after a failed coup d’état) risen from the dead. What led you to this choice? How important is the fact that the main character of your story is a man who committed suicide to defend his ideals? And that he was a writer?
AC: I have always found hard to resist the appeal that an intellectual – defining him just as a writer would be reductive – like Mishima is still able to evoke even 40 years after his death. I think such a type of man who’s able to face up his own responsibilities is very rare. Nowadays an intellectual would do anything but killing himself, even founding a new party to justify his actions instead of accepting the responsibility as a failure, while Mishima chose the way to true immortality. He was also a disputed and troublesome personality, but this makes him even more peculiar and intriguing.
FT: In an interview you said that this novel (also) speaks of “false immortality.” What does it mean?
AC: False immortality is the one men look for trying to use all that is ephemeral, useless and artificial. From this perspective, the appearance of Mishima in a future society where this attitude reaches a climax represents a contradiction to the nth power. Among those who seek their way to perpetuate life and withstand time, the only man who truly achieves immortality is Mishima, the one who consciously sought his death.
FT: What authors influence you in genre literature?
AC: Gaiman, Ballard, Simmons . . . The ones who have or had the ability to betray you in each and every page using the unexpected. With regard to the Italian writers, the matter is more complicated. The most famous is Valerio Evangelisti, but there are many other clever writers worthy of this name in our country, who are “penned within strict borders,” if you allow me the expression.
FT: This brings us to the situation of publishing in Italy. In an interview you said that in our country “it seems a writer needs to go through winning an award to get published.” This is the case of Lazarus, but also of another novel you wrote before, Ultima Pelle (loosely translated “Last Skin”), which won another award (the Premio Kipple), and also of several short stories of yours. What’s your opinion with regard to this matter?
AC: Italy is a very peculiar country. Genre fiction never really took root here and the reasons have been debated for decades. Despite a large group of skillful authors, hurdles are endless. The two novels you just cited were rejected in the past by other publishers with various motivations, but in the end the problem is always that uncertain sales data influence publishers’ choices. That said, I honestly daren’t say if the major fault is a less receptive market like ours or publishers who did not succeed in educating readers to quality. As a matter of fact, the ones who suffer the whole situation are those authors who would really have something to say on a larger scale and at an international level. But, with the luck of almost zero visibility…
FT: Have you ever thought about translating your novels to other languages, or do you have expectations or editorial projects in this direction?
AC: As of today, no. Again, we are wading into the water. Who would take the risk to publish abroad an author who is still unknown? Are there publishers who are still willing to be pure publishers, meaning to taking their own risks, investing on an unknown writer? If yes, please give them my telephone number, if you like…
FT: In these days electronic publishing is breaking through. What do you think about it as a reader, but also as an author, in light of the fact that your very first novel, Goliath, has been re-published recently as an e-book?
AC: Certainly I don’t dislike that such an innovation breaks into a market so suffocated in some ways. As a matter of fact, a true commercial maturation of e-publishing is still far from being at hand, and this is why I am not willing to deceive myself, nor to spend too much time on questions about it.
FT: There are authors who write following a scheme established before starting and others who prefer pure improvisation. What kind is Alberto Cola?
AC: Half and half. I’m always aware of the starting point and the final landfall place. But between these two there are so many things to worry about and pay attention to, and characters who are willing to follow a certain way and others who object to it. But in the end they do as I want, even if a healthy bit of anarchy is always welcome.
FT: I know that you belong to a collective of Italian writers, the so called Carboneria Letteraria. (loosely translated: “The literary Carbonari,” Translator’s note: the name is inspired to the groups of secret revolutionary societies founded in early 19th century in Italy against Austrian domination). Can you tell us something about the collective, its projects and your participation to it?
AC: The collective is formed by many voices, each unique and independent. For the time being, we have just published several anthology books of various kinds and genres, like Primo incontro, Frittology, Uomini a pezzi . . . who knows what else we will do in the future? Our theme is well represented in the literary manifest of the collective: “The Literary Carbonari, as its name says, is a Pulcinella secret society (Translator’s note: Pulcinella is a funny stock character in Neapolitan puppetry and theatre) aimed at literary conspiracy, consumption of carbohydrates along with worthy alcoholic accompaniment, and other forms of artistic expression.” In essence, beyond using words as an excuse, the most important aspect is passion that we have in common as authors who, first of all, are persons that have stories to tell. The fact that these stories accidentally end up on paper sheets is just a detail.
FT: Does Alberto Cola consider himself exclusively as a genre author or is he willing to challenge his skills also in other forms of fiction?
AC: The undersigned loves written words just the way they are. Genre is a detail determined by taste, but the willingness to change can’t be other than healthy for a writer. As in all aspects of life, to observe things from a different perspective refreshes passion. Don’t you agree?
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