The ancient Italian city is the perfect setting for a book, writes author Penny Feeny…
I arrived in Rome on a dark and sticky August night with a suitcase and a portable typewriter – but my letter with arrival details lay unopened inside the apartment (the perils of snail mail). I sat on the stone steps outside the building and waited. Luckily another flatmate called by to collect a bag to take on holiday. If she hadn’t I would have been homeless for a week. As it was, I had the run of the magnificent Trastevere apartment to myself: five enormous rooms, a kitchen with an oven and a bathroom with a full-size bath – both highly unusual features in Rome in those days!
There were four of us in the flat. Eva, who rescued me, spoke six languages, but her world revolved around the office and her (married) Italian lover. Caroline had a job at the Vatican but wasn’t allowed to say anything about it; Marilee was a translator, who was also ‘collecting material’ for the books she planned to write. Many expats were would-be writers because Rome was such an easy place to live cheaply and indulge in fantasy. I typed regularly on my Olivetti: a journal of discovery and observation, filing it away in a drawer.
Well, they say nothing is ever wasted and it’s true. Back in England, as my children grew up and I finally began to write again, I found I was setting more and more of my short stories in Italy. And loving it. Conjuring up the sights and scents and emotions transported me back (I’m a sucker for nostalgia) so it seemed logical to set my first novel there too. I chose the location of That Summer in Ischia partly because it suited the plot and partly because the island isn’t as well-known as other Italian tourist destinations; it’s incredibly beautiful and unspoiled.
There’s not much as exciting as seeing your first novel in print or the sheer physical pleasure of turning the pages. But when all your energies are focussed on publication, you don’t necessarily think about what happens afterwards. Sales for instance. Waterstones weren’t stocking my book. In May 2011, the chain was being sold so copies sat in their warehouse and, even in my home town of Liverpool where there are two branches, readers had to place specific orders. In another sense, though, the timing was lucky: the ebook revolution was taking off. The novel rose to the top of charts and was Amazon’s best-selling title that summer. It became apparent that tens of thousands of people loved Italy as much as I did and wanted to imagine being on holiday there – despite the tribulations some of my characters experienced!
The success of That Summer in Ischia meant the publishers wanted another book set in Italy. Now I was able to follow my heart and write about Rome. I had updating to do of course – a wonderful excuse to revisit – and obviously there have been changes. Rome today is busier, cleaner (and more expensive); dilapidated buildings have been carefully restored; traffic isn’t so chaotic. But the knock-out effect of passing monumental ruins on a daily basis never fades; there are still plenty of individual shops and glorious open-air markets, atmospheric bars and restaurants; the Romans themselves are (a bit like Scousers) direct, friendly and convivial, with an irreverent sense of humour.
In The Apartment in Rome my ex-pat protagonist Gina is fighting to stay in her flat in Trastevere when teenage Sasha, a student on a language course, stumbles into her life and disrupts it. The pleasure of writing the book was not only in reliving the fun of being a resident of Rome, but also rediscovering it through the eyes of a first-time visitor for whom everything is new and exciting. And the experience has a profound effect on Sasha too!
When the past comes to your door, what can you do except let it in? Gina’s life is good. She is independent. She loves her adopted home in Italy and she is passionate about her work as a photographer. Maybe her lover isn’t all she might hope and her beautiful apartment is in need of repair, but you can’t have everything all the time. And anyway, she’s all wrapped up in her latest artistic project, shots of the young men who arrive in Italy as refugees, destitute and vulnerable. Until one day, Sasha, a lonely British teenager at summer school, crosses Gina’s path, and unwittingly sets her world spinning. Sasha’s innocent romance creates complications neither of them could have imagined, leading Gina to wonder, can she come to terms with her past?
Penny Feeny was born in Cambridge. Following a career in student journalism, Penny moved to Rome to work among leading conceptual artists, such as Alighiero Boetti and Richard Long. She has now settled in Liverpool and has freelanced as a copywriter, editor and broadcaster. Penny’s short stories have been widely published, prize-listed and broadcast.