Andrea di Robilant: Books can change one's life

I am still at heart a reporter looking for a good story

The world we are leaving to the younger generations is not in good shape and they will have to save it. And they will. Yes, I am optimistic, says Andrea di Robilant, Italian journalist and writer, in an interview to Europost.

 Mr di Robilant, you are visiting Sofia for the release in Bulgarian of your latest book - Autumn in Venice. In which countries and in what languages has it been published so far?

 I am very pleased that a book of mine is published in Bulgaria by Colibri. The book has already been published in the Unites States, the UK, Australia, France, Spain and South America, but also smaller countries like Hungary, Serbia and even North Macedonia. So the book is travelling. But I am especially glad to see it in print in Bulgarian. You know, a special thread unites my family to Bulgaria.

What thread?

My great-great-grandfather, Carlo Felice di Robilant, was a great supporter of Bulgaria when he was Italian foreign minister, and he lobbied hard for the creation of the modern Bulgarian State at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 in the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish war. But there is another reason I am attracted to Bulgaria: roses!

Roses? Of course.

- Well, Bulgaria is famous for its roses and I am interested in old roses. I wrote a book called Chasing the Rose, a travel adventure in search of the identity of a mysterious rose that grows wild in a wood on the Venetian mainland. After the book came out, I contacted a Venetian family that is well known for making perfumes. And we developed a wonderful perfume from this rose!

 Going back to your new book, what made you decide to write about this particular love of Hemingway's, whose life continues to offer unexplored areas despite having been a subject of fascination for such a long time?

One day by chance, in the countryside near Venice, I met Gianfranco Ivancich, the older brother of Adriana Ivancich, the woman at the centre of this story. Adriana had long been dead. Gianfranco, who was then in his nineties, told me that he had just sold the last batch of Hemingway's letters to the Hemingway archives at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. I was curious. A few weeks later I was in Boston on a book tour and I went to the JFK Library, found those letters, and many more. I spent two days reading the correspondence between Hemingway and young Adriana, and came away convinced that this strange and mysterious love story had been far more important in Hemingway's life than biographers had tended to believe. And that it deserved to be told in full.

You started out as a journalist but gained recognition as a nonfiction writer? Is this the choice of your life?

Yes, I used to be a foreign correspondent. When I was posted in Washington DC for La Stampa, I sold a book proposal to Sonny Mehta, the legendary editor at Knopf who alas died earlier this month. It was the story of two star-crossed lovers in 18th century Venice and was based on a cache of letters that my father had found in the house where he had grown up in Venice. I took a leave of absence from the paper and moved to Venice for a year with my whole family. The book was a success. It changed my life. More books followed and I decided to leave the paper and write books. Nonfiction books. I am still at heart a reporter looking for a good story.

With your education and experience, you could be a politician. How come you have not been tempted by politics yet?

As a journalist I was always on the opposite side of politicians. I've watched them too closely to want to be a part of their world. I am not against politicians in principle. On the contrary, I am always on the lookout for an inspiring politician. But in general, a journalist wants or should want to uncover the factual truth, while a politician tends to dissimulate it. I have always been suspicious of journalists who switch sides and become politicians.

You write your books in English first, not in Italian. Why is that?

For the simple reason that I sold by first book in the US and my publishing house expected a book in English. And then I simply continued writing my books in English. Then I always rewrite them in Italian with the help of my wife Alessandra. It's very difficult to translate oneself, and I wouldn't be able to do it without her help. But it sometimes leads to some pretty contentious sessions with her.

You have travelled extensively and this is reflected in your work. What is one place you would return to, again and again?

 I suppose it would have to be Iran, especially now that it is again hard to get in. But I have wonderful memories of Afghanistan in the seventies. I would want to go back to the country I knew then. I spent quite a bit of time in South America as well, in my twenties. I often have an urge to go back to Argentina and Peru. But again, what I really want is to go back to the Argentina and Peru that I remember. So in the end I never go.

 Very few people in the West know Iran as well as you do. What attracted you initially to this country that is being much talked about but remains poorly understood?

Right after high school, I travelled over land to Asia. It was something one did in those days. On my way east, I stopped in Iran where I had old school friends, and I travelled all across the country, learning the culture and the language, even spending some time with the Bakhtiari tribe in the north. So I decided to stay and taught English at the State University in Tehran for a while. It was 1975, and it wasn't difficult to see that under the Shah the country was increasingly divided between the very very rich and the poor, and tensions were brewing that were bound to explode.

You teach young people. What is your message to them? Are you optimistic about the new generations as you look at how values are changing in the world?

Teaching at the American University in Rome is an important part of my life now. I learn a great deal from my young students and when they work well they give me great satisfaction. Am I optimistic? Well, the world we are leaving to the younger generations is not in good shape and they will have to save it. And they will. Yes, I am optimistic!

Can you lift the curtain a bit on your next projects? Where is your inspiration taking you after Venice?

My next book is about maps and journeys in Renaissance Venice - a book I sold more than ten years ago and that I never got around to writing. So now is the time. Then, perhaps, I will be able to look beyond Venice and its lagoon!

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Andrea di Robilant is a journalist and writer. Born and raised in Italy, he studied history and politics at Columbia University and spent many years in the US as a correspondent for the Italian dailies La Repubblica and La Stampa. He is the author of five books of nonfiction - A Venetian Affair: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in the 18th Century; Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon; Irresistible North: From Venice to Greenland on the Trail of the Zen Brothers; Chasing the Rose: An Adventure in the Venetian Countryside; and most recently Autumn in Venice. Professor di Robilant teaches Creative Nonfiction and Travel Writing at John Cabot University in Rome.

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