Venero Armanno is a formidable Australian novelist with an equally impressive biography. He has published a collection of short stories and nine novels, three of which have been published internationally. In 2002 his novel The Volcano won Best Australian Fiction Book in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards and was shortlisted for the Courier Mail Book of the Year Award.
Born in Brisbane, Armanno studied at the University of Queensland, the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, Queensland University of Technology and the Tisch School of the Arts, New York.
Above all Armanno is a teacher and lecturer at the University of Queensland. I assume this is why he is so approachable and agreed to speak to me about his work and it’s connections to Sicily amongst other things.
How would you describe your writing style and novels to someone who has never read your work?
Trying to describe my work is one of the hardest things to answer—I’m glad there are critics who will do it for me.
It would be far easier if I worked in something easily identifiable, such as genre fiction: “I’m a crime writer, and my books investigate the dark psyche of people in the underbelly of Chicago.” I’ve often wished I could say something as straightforward as that.
In reality my books are probably a blend of literary and commercial fiction; they tend to be page-turners, while having a fair amount of depth (one hopes). People say the books are sensual and emotional. I’ve written a lot about the migrant experience, however that’s far from my only main theme. Mostly I’m interested in ideas of what it is to be alive, what it is to love, what it is to hope for better things…
Do you have a certain method when you are working on a novel? Is it mostly research and then creativity? For example how did something like the Volcano come about?
This varies from novel to novel, so there’s no one set answer, though my overall answer would be my method is to write without thinking too much… grasp an idea and run with it, wherever it leads. Over-thinking stifles just about everything. You can’t be over-thinking very much if you force yourself to write 1000 words a day or so. In the end you just have to let it all flow out.
With The Volcano, I had a basic idea, but it started out as a screenplay, which grew into a three part epic. When I really looked at that roughly 600 pages of screenplay, about twenty pages were good. So I started again from scratch. Mostly I researched as I wrote. – that is, when I came to places where I needed more information, I went and found it. That research led to other things that could go into the book… there were multiple drafting, believe me.
Do you mind being labelled as an Italo-Australian writer? What does it actually mean to you and for your writing to be classified as such?
I don’t mind and I don’t think it makes any difference one way or the other. I doubt my readership is primarily Italo-Australian, or even particularly ethnic. I think more was made of this in the first part of my career… Around the early 1990s I remember some newspaper articles equating my writing to Paul Keating’s view of a much more multi-cultural Australia, but that was a long time ago.
You also work in the screenplay genre, how does this fit in with being a novelist, does it influence your style?
No, they feel like two completely different worlds, to be honest. “A screenplay is a blueprint for a work of art that doesn’t yet exist.” – one of my favourite quotes about the form. A book is in itself the work of art (or whatever). I really dislike the spare type of fiction prose that seems to emulate the form of screenwriting; my writing is a little more lush and sensual. People say I write like a European/Italian/Latino – and that’s how I like it. With screenplays we’re always thinking more visually and externally; with fiction, what I love is the ability to play with, and live in, the interior world. So I don’t much see the two types of genres intersecting… at least not for me.
What advice would you give to an unpublished novelist ?
“If you aren’t writing, you’re not serious. What would you say to a kid who wants to play guitar in a band and be a rock star, but never bothers to pick up a guitar and learn/play?”
Then, ask yourself why you want to do this. If it’s for money and fame, go do something else. If it’s because you genuinely love books and have been a reader all your life, then fantastic – try to be the best writer you can. That means write a lot, every day, damn the consequences and try not to be a people-pleaser. Aim for the middle to long term, not the short term. Even if you solely concentrate on short stories, be aware that the road is long and that positive vibes are few and far between. Can you go several years without someone giving you some affirmation that what you’re doing is worthwhile? Can you deal with failure after failure? Because that’s what it will be like. So you have to do this for yourself, and for the sheer joy of writing. The rest is totally secondary, or irrelevant.
Give us a blurb about your most recent publication ?
Okay, this is the official one:
‘Black Mountain is an eerie and compelling read … Like the best of fiction, it remains with you long after you have finished.’ Christos Tsiolkas
Beginning in the sulphur mines of Sicily over a century ago, Black Mountain takes you on a journey through time and back again.
When a boy sold into slavery finds the courage to escape his brutal life, he is saved by a mysterious stranger, who raises the boy as his own. Renamed Cesare Montenero after Sicily’s own ‘black mountain’, Mount Etna, the boy grows up to discover that his rescue was no accident, that his physical strength is unnatural, and that he has more in common with his saviour than he could have imagined. And when he meets the enigmatic Celeste, he suspects for the first time that he may not be alone.
Based on factual events and ranging through Italy, Paris and the rural fringes of coastal Australia, Black Mountain is a haunting exploration of what it means to be human.
What are you working on in this moment ?
I’ve been redrafting a new book called CRYSTAL GIRL, and that work’s done for now (I think), so it’s off with publishers and agents. I’ve been working on something very different since then, a very large novel called WOLF HOUSE. Let’s just say it involves a girl with powers she doesn’t quite understand, a haunted house, Sicilian witches and, well, some very wolfish feelings… I am absolutely loving writing this book. In fact, right now it has gone off for a long run on its own; I feel like I’m just there for the ride.
How are you connected to Sicily? Do you visit Sicily often?
My family went back to live in Sicily for six months when I was at a very impressionable age (nine), so I’ve always felt very connected to the place. My parents, in Australia, lived a very Sicilian lifestyle too, if I can put it that way. So that increased the connection. I don’t have a lot of family left there so I haven’t been back in a while, but I’m very keen to take my young family.
Tell us about your other ‘Sicilian’ themed books …
These would be The Lonely Hunter and its sequel Romeo of the Underworld, Firehead, and The Volcano.
Each of these, in their own way, is about family and love, the effects of the migrant experience on first and second generation migrants, and the search for the self.
Black Mountain is your most recently published novel, tell us more about this, how did you discover this amazing setting and story?
I first came across the history of small boys forced to work in the Sicilian sulphur mines, in unthinkable conditions, during my research into The Volcano. It was such a powerful history that I felt I should use it for a book on its own, and not in some other work. I also wanted a little more time to read and talk to anyone who might have had first or second-hand experience with this slavery. I’m glad I waited quite a few years before attempting Black Mountain – I have to say, I’m thrilled with how it turned out.
Do you have a favorite Sicilian author/work?
I like the old stuff. Just recently I finished rereading some wonderful books: Conversations in Sicily by Elio Vittorini; Little Novels of Sicily by Giovanni Verga; The Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia; Night’s Eyes by Gesualdo Bufalino. Of course, you can’t go past Il Gattopardo! I also love Cesare Pavese, even though he’s not Sicilian. And my wife gave me a new, first-time novelist’s book On Earth As It Is In Heaven, by Davide Ennia (he’s from Palermo). It looks great.
But right now I’ve started reading a lot of Japanese literature…
Are you a blog reader at all? I know you have one but I get the impression you aren’t a fan.
Yeah, it’s a funny thing. Writers like being locked away in a room, then they’re expected to be public in some way. I like my privacy and I don’t need people to know what I think on an hour by hour basis! Or day by day, month by month, year by year…
My publishers encouraged me to develop my own blog site and Facebook page, so finally I did. I think in three years I have managed to write two and a half blogs – honestly, I couldn’t care less. My energy should go into novels anyway. I’ve since updated my blog site so it just gives a bit of information for any reader that might be curious about my work. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, or even distant… I’m just not the type who needs to express blog-style thoughts. I have full novels to do that, after all.
I don’t follow blogs by people whose work I enjoy, either. There’s more fun in mystery. I come from that generation where you didn’t have access to artists and writers, and so (maybe) their work spoke more acutely.
A million thanks to Venero Armanno for finding the time to answer my questions.
The Volcano and The Black Mountain are available as ebooks on Amazon. Second hand print editions of the Volcano can be hunted down through ebay and Amazon. While Black Mountain can be ordered directly from The Nile and Booktopia online Australian bookstores.
I reviewed Venero Armanno’s book the Volcano for the Times of Sicily.