An instant Sunday Times bestseller with stellar reviews in the New York Times and the Guardian, Still Life is the one of the most spellbinding reads about Florence in recent years. Sarah Winman speaks to The Florentine ahead of an author’s event at The British Institute on December 2.
Ph. Patricia Niven
Your novel comes across as a love letter to the city. Tell me about your relationship with Florence.
I don’t really have a relationship with Florence, believe it or not. I developed the rapport in the writing of the book. I got the idea in January 2015. I’d just done a very basic Renaissance art course at the National Gallery in London and I had some spare time before embarking on a publicity tour of the book that was coming out at the time. So, I came to Florence. I was there for 10 days on my own in the Santo Spirito square, at Palazzo Guadagni. That was where it started. I love the square: it was very quiet and it felt very me. One day, I was in this restaurant and I saw some photographs of the flood. The owner brought out a couple of books and he told me about the markers and started talking to me about the Mud Angels. That was the point where I met the story or, as I call it, when the story met me. I’m somebody who only has one story at a time. My next book was already contracted and I knew what that was going to be, but I didn’t know what would come afterwards. So, I had this sort of “Unnamed Florence Project”. I did the next book, and then Brexit happened, which was devastating with all that anti-European stuff. My thought was, I’ve got Florence and I want to write something that is incredibly pro-European and joyous because the politics were divisive. For a while, I did try to push the story away because I didn’t know Florence, I had no contacts there, and I thought There have been enough books written about Florence. Who needs another one? Yet that initial spark wouldn’t leave me, so I surrendered to it.
What happened next in the process?
I started to travel to Florence more regularly, two years of figuring out what it was that I wanted to write about and how I would do it. I was very lucky actually because I was put in touch with a wonderful art historian called Stella Rudolph, who went to the city as a Mud Angel and never left, got married and set up home there. One of the turning points was when I managed to secure a small grant and spent a month staying on the square in January 2019. That put a lot of my fears aside. Then I realised that all I’d done in that month was pick up my own habits from London and bring them to Florence. Nothing changed! You live the same life just in a different city, but it’s prettier and smaller. And I thought Of course, that’s it, you do the things that make you feel safe. I met a couple of expats and they explained how they had felt quite lonely for the first couple of years, that the Florentines were not as open as those who come from Emilia Romagna, for instance. And I thought, That’s great because I don’t want to write about Italians, per se. I wanted to write about the mid-part of a community.
As a reader, you come to care for the characters in the book, for Peg, Ulysses and Evelyn in particular. How do you shape characters that resonate so deeply with readers?
It might have something to do with my previous career in acting. I know how to inhabit that kind of space. I actually started off with Ulysses. It made sense to me that he would be a young soldier because my grandfather was in the 8th Army. Now that I’m in my fifties, I’m getting better at writing characters. You’re very aware that every experience in your life sits within you: the people you’ve met and the things that interest you. By the time I hit Ulysses, I had met a bespoke globe maker in London, which was ideal. That feels as though it fits with Florence. All characters need the foil, that’s the point; the person that’s going to show them who they are. Often, in my books, it’s somebody whose class is different because I write about class and opportunity. I was reading Florentine Art under Fire by Frederick Hartt, who went around looking for the art that had been sequestered during the Second World War. In the book, he comes across this place for lunch in the hills that’s frequented by Italian custodians, French captains and a couple of English spinsters as the bombs are exploding around them. My reaction was, What do you mean there’s a couple of English spinsters having lunch as the bombs are falling in Tuscany! What a start! So, I have my two lovely lesbians who are having a fight, which would appeal to me because I am one. Suddenly, I had two characters in Tuscany during wartime and it’s obvious that they’re going to meet. I feel strongly about women having the right not to be mothers, a space that Peg would inhabit. What was important was that the men would walk into that space, something else I feel strongly about: good men inhabiting the feminine space, which is what this book also focuses on. The men bring up the kids, the men are in the kitchen. This isn’t an issues book, by any means. It’s organic, but these characters reflect the things that I want to say at that moment.
What about Claude the parrot? He’s a character in his own right.
I didn’t think about Claude until I brought Ulysses back from the war and he walked into the pub. He’s walking down the street and sees the pub sign. It had to be a crappy pub. In my mind’s eye, the pub sign was almost hanging off and I had to come up with its name. Something unromantic, like the Stoat and Parot, spelt wrongly. So, when Ulysses walked in, of course, a parrot was going to be there! I liked the idea that the parrot should speak, but at this point in time, he’s mute with post-traumatic stress. Without being heavy handed, Claude’s representative of the trauma that has happened to them, that we don’t see. They’re getting on with life because that’s what people did, but he’s there suffering in the corner. With a bit of love and Ulysses’ return, the parrot finds his voice, which is really what Ulysses’ return did for them all. They were waiting for him, in a way.
Your novel was published during a spell when we had the luxury of time in which to digest your sublime words about this city we love. The result was almost transformational in your treatment of the theme of beauty as restorative…
You’re absolutely right. It’s a bit of luck, it’s timing and the work of a publisher. As I said, I wrote the book because of the loathsome politics in my country at the moment. There’s a positive, joyous, unifying response to that. Of course, I didn’t know what was coming, but I was in touch with my art historian throughout that initial brutal lockdown in Italy. I would put down the phone and carry on writing and thinking, I wonder if my book will eventually help people go back to Italy? It’s an odd thing to look back on, but I am really glad I wrote the book when I did. It gave me an incredible focus. Beauty and gratitude go together, and they enrich us. When everything is taken away, suddenly you can see a shaft of light on a building, and it just stops us to remind us that there is something more.
Still Life is an epic accomplishment. Are you working on anything new at the moment or are you taking a break?
I’m not writing at the moment, no. It was a big book. I usually get ideas when I travel and, of course, I haven’t been doing that. I usually start writing again about a year after publication, that’s the pattern. For now, I’m just looking forward to coming back to Florence. It’s not quite closure because I’ll always come back, but I’ve got a lot of things to be thankful for writing about the city and the people I’ve met. I want to see them and thank them. There needs to be some closure to make room for what comes next. Florence might not be everyone’s favourite city, but it really gets under your skin? It’s a strange relationship.