Elena Ferrante is notoriously private. Despite the staggering international success of what are known as the Neapolitan Novels – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay – she has never given an interview and never does public appearances. Even her name is a nom de plume. In September, The Story of the Lost Child, the long-awaited fourth in the series, is to be published and this month she talked to The Paris Review, about the art of fiction including how she starts a new book.
FERRANTE: I don’t think anyone really knows how a story takes shape. When it’s done you try to explain how it happened, but every effort, at least in my case, is insufficient. There is a before, made up of fragments of memory, and an after, when the story begins. But before and after, I have to admit, are useful only in answering your question now in an intelligible way.
INTERVIEWER:What do you mean by “fragments of memory”?
FERRANTE: You know how when you have in your head a few notes of a tune but you don’t know what it is, and if you hum it, it ends up becoming a different song from the one that’s nagging at you? Or when you remember a street corner but you can’t remember where it is? That kind of thing. My mother liked to use the wordfrantumaglia—bits and pieces of uncertain origin which rattle around in your head, not always comfortably.
INTERVIEWER: And any of them could be the origin of a story?
FERRANTE: Yes and no. They might be separate and identifiable—childhood places, family members, schoolmates, insulting or tender voices, moments of great tension. And once you’ve found some sort of order, you start to narrate. But there’s almost always something that doesn’t work. It’s as if from those splinters of a possible narrative come equal yet opposing forces that need to emerge clearly and, at the same time, to sink farther into the depths. Take Troubling Love—for years I had in my mind many stories about the periphery of Naples, where I was born and grew up. I had in my mind cries, crude family acts of violence I had witnessed as a child, domestic objects. I nourished Delia, the protagonist, on those memories. The figure of the mother, Amalia, on the other hand, appeared and immediately withdrew—she almost wasn’t there. If I imagined Delia’s body so much as brushing against her mother’s, I felt ashamed and moved on to something else. Using that scattered material I wrote many stories over the years—short, long, very long, all in my eyes unsatisfying, and none having to do with the figure of the mother. Then, suddenly, many of the fragments vanished, while others stuck together, all against the dark background of the mother-daughter relationship. Thus, in a couple of months, Troubling Love emerged.