Italy Talks | David P. Wagner

David P. Wagner combines a good old fashioned mystery with a small Italian city in his latest novel A Funeral in Mantova. We like Mantova and mysteries so when the opportunity for an interview arose we jumped. Here’s what David had to say about the country he once called home and the protagonist who has become a favorite with Italophile readers everywhere.

You spent nearly a decade working in Italy. What parts of the country did you visit during that time and which are your favorites?
While my work took me mostly to the big cities – Milan, Rome, Naples, Palermo, Florence – when on our own time we liked to see the smaller towns that are really the heart of Italy. There is nothing like getting on the back roads to seek out some obscure piece of architecture, or a work by a famous artist. Once we found a painting by Pontormo in the parish church of tiny Carmignano, in the hills west of Florence. That was much more exciting than seeing it in a major museum. Favorites? Probably the towns in the Po River Valley, like Cremona, Mantova, Piacenza, and Parma. That is the heart of the country’s agriculture, and perhaps because of that has, in my opinion, the best food in Italy. Which is saying a lot.

Before arriving in Italy (for the first time) what were your preconceptions about the country and did they hold true?
I grew up in a city with a large Italian-American population. Like most Italian immigrants, they were from the south, so my idea of Italy was slanted toward the part of Italy called the mezzogiorno. The Italian food I ate then was characterized by fantastic red sauces, especially that of Mrs. Viola who lived next door, but very different from what I would later find on menus in Milan. Slang words I heard from my friends, many of which I cannot repeat here, turned out to be Neapolitan or Sicilian, not Italian. The south is a wonderful part of Italy, but when I got to Italy myself I realized how many more regions there are. You could almost say that it’s not one country, but a whole bunch of them, each one more fascinating than the other. And they all claim to have the best food, of course.

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Why do you set your novels in Italy and why did you choose Mantova as the backdrop to your latest mystery A Funeral in Mantova?
You’re supposed to write what you know, and I knew Italy well, so it made sense to base my mysteries there. Since I’m fascinated by the small towns, I’ve set each of the books in a different one. The main character, Rick Montoya, finds himself someplace for work or play and then gets drawn into a murder investigation. I don’t think I’ll be running out of picturesque towns any time soon, and Mantova, one of my favorite cities in the north, is the latest one. Its medieval atmosphere and Po Valley fog make it a perfect setting for a murder mystery.

How much research goes into writing one of your novels and have you visited all the destinations described in your books?
I’ve spent time in all the towns where Rick finds himself, so that’s the starting point when I write. Each plot requires a bit of research, of course, especially to get the right food and wine for that area. In this latest book, since Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese plays a big part in the plot, I had to research the whole process for making it, from cows to wheels. That was fun. I also usually get on line and “drive” the streets of the town to be sure I remember them accurately.

Your readers rave about your depictions of Italy. What is the secret to describing Italian culture so well?
Probably from living there so long and being fluent enough in Italian to get into the culture more deeply than a tourist. Having many Italian friends who tell you about how things work or don’t work helps a lot as well. Rick, the protagonist, is binational and lived many years in the States, so he sees Italians like an American, but also views visiting Americans like an Italian. He notices the quirks in both cultures. If he had lived his whole life in Italy he wouldn’t be as able to see those things.

How often do you return to Italy and where do you go when you do?
Not often enough. We haven’t been back in a few years, but when we do we have to go to Rome to see old friends. Then it’s off to the small towns in the north that have been or will be sites for the mysteries. We have some good friends in the Langhe region of Piemonte that we visit, and perhaps Rick will find himself in that area for a future book. It would be easy to decide what wines he would drink in the Langhe, and for sure the book would be set during the truffle season in the fall.

What do you always pack on a trip to Italy?
An extra pair of comfortable shoes. Italian cities are, as the Italians say “a misura di uomo,” meaning you can walk everywhere. So you need two good pairs of shoes, one to change into after a day of wandering the fascinating streets of Italian towns. But always leave room in your bags for what you’ll buy and bring back.

Now that you live in Colorado what do you miss about Italy and are there any similarities between the two?
To greatly understate, Colorado, and the States in general, don’t have the sense of history that you find in Italy, and I miss that. Over there you’re living in a museum. We’re a young country, which is great, but in Italy nothing is new under the sun; they’ve seen it all before. I recall reading a story in a Rome daily about a plan to close off sections of the city’s downtown to vehicular traffic, and it was noted that the first politician to try that was Julius Caesar. Similarities between Italy and Colorado? The mountains in Italy are beautiful (see my second book, Death in the Dolomites), but we have some pretty good ones here in Colorado. The powder is better here for skiing, but the food is not the same. To state the obvious, I miss true Italian food.

What is your favorite Italian dish?  
Sophia Loren.  If you mean food, it is almost impossible to name one, but let me give you two.  In Rome you can’t beat a plate of Spaghetti all’ Amatriciana, especially on a cold day, with the house red and some crusty bread to use as a scarpetina to get all the sauce off the plate.  But a dish I always recommend for people travelling in the north is tortelli di zucca, with the caveat that the best are served in Mantova.  Rick has them there in the latest book, of course.  The idea of pumpkin filling in pasta may sound strange to many people, but tossed in butter and sprinkled with grana, it is heaven.

How did you become a Novelist? 
After years of writing tourist material about the small towns in Italy I decided I wanted to add my own stories to those places, and since I like mysteries, that was the genre I picked.  That was about a dozen years ago.  I wrote about five complete books before Cold Tuscan Stone was finally published, so what they say about an aspiring writer having to live with rejection is true.

What are your sources of inspiration?
I start with the location, picking a favorite Italian town that most readers will never have heard of but should some day visit. The first book takes place in Volterra, in western Tuscany, so it was a natural to have a crime that involved their famous Etruscan artifacts and took Rick into their renowned Etruscan museum. In the third book, Rick has an interpreter job at an international art seminar in Bassano del Grappa, near Venice. The plot involves missing works by the town’s most beloved artist, Jacopo da Bassano. Bassano’s famous covered bridge also offered a chance for some violence that I couldn’t resist. So I start with the setting, think about what the town is known for, look for a good place in it for a murder, and go on from there.

Who are your favorite writers and what is your absolute favorite book?
As you would expect, I read mysteries, and especially ones that take place in Italy. In that category are my big three: Dona Leon whose protagonist is the Venetian Commissario Brunetti, Michael Dibdin and his Aurelio Zen character, and the Montalbano books of Andrea Camilleri that take place in Sicily. I’ve read all the Leon and Camilleri books and look forward to each new one. Alas, Dibdin died in 2007. Favorite book? Impossible to say. I love comic crime novels, like the caper books of Donald Westlake that feature hapless burglar John Dortmunder. Lawrence Block has two series I enjoy, the Keller books about a professional hit man, which sound grim but aren’t; and the Bernie Rhodenbarr burglar books.

Who speaks better Italian Rick Montoya or the author?
After nine years in Italy my Italian was pretty good, but Rick is totally bilingual and works as a translator and interpreter. So I’m not in his league.

Why did you choose to make Rick a translator?
It allows me to play with words. One of the fun things I do in the books is throw in Italian phrases that I find interesting, like Italians reinventing the umbrella rather than the wheel, or that the Italian equivalent of “once in a blue moon” is “every time a pope dies.” I love that stuff, and it’s Rick’s job as a translator to love that stuff, so it’s a good fit. In this latest book, his New York-raised employer is annoyed that the cop hadn’t called him first about something, and says “What am I, chopped liver?” Rick finesses that one and translates it as “Mr. Rondini thought he should have been called.” That shows that we have crazy phrases in English, and that it isn’t always easy to interpret them.

Could you imagine Rick settling down with Betta (or someone else) in Italy one day?
One of the running themes in the book is Rick being unlucky in love, to use a trite phrase. Being good looking, smart, and with a sense of humor, he is not lacking for female companionship, but there’s always something that sours a relationship. At this point in the series – and who knows what female character might appear in the future? – the only one that I could see him settling down with would be Betta, who appears in book three, Murder Most Unfortunate, and is there again in the next one.

What advice would you have given Rick before his fulltime move to Rome?
All the previous times Rick was living in Rome, the last being in high school, his father was working at the American embassy and Rick carried a diplomatic ID in his wallet. I would have told him that living as a regular resident, which he will do now since he’s got Italian citizenship, is different from being an embassy brat. To begin with, he will not have dipolmatic immunity and can get arrested, and sure enough he’s faced with that very possibility in the first book. Also, caro Rick, the embassy will not be taking care of so many things for you, like dealing with Italian bureaucracy. You’ll have to get your own work permit, pay taxes, and stand in a lot of lines. Finally, even though you have an Italian mother and speak idiomatic Italian, the Romans will always consider you an American. And those cowboy boots you love to wear will only reinforce their belief.

David P. Wagner’s latest novel A Funeral in Mantova
is available March 6 from The Poisoned Pen.

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Preparing a trip to Italy? Enter for a chance to win David Wagner’s new novel A Funeral in Mantova, a Moon travel guide, Florence: The Paintings and Frescoes, and a package of delicious Italian goodies!

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