Historia talks to Sarah Day about science, Italian fascism in the 1930s and her HWA Debut Crown shortlisted novel, Mussolini’s Island.
The HWA Debut Crown celebrates new voices in historical fiction. Have you always been interested in history?
Yes, for as long as I can remember – growing up, my bookshelves were filled with various collections of myths and legends, so I think the storytelling aspect of history has always appealed to me. I also loved science, and thanks to our education system, reached that awful point at school where you have to decide whether you’re a ‘humanities’ or a ‘science’ person. I’ve always been both, or something in between. I ended up being ostensibly a scientist, but cramming in as much history as I could into the mix, and I think somehow that led to me viewing history as a bit of a guilty pleasure! My Natural Sciences degree involved mainly archaeology, geology and the history of science, so I was definitely partly a historian all along.
How did the initial idea for Mussolini’s Island come about?
Completely by chance, as I was browsing the BBC website, I came across an article by Alan Johnston about the San Domino prisoners. I was just coming to the end of another project, and on the lookout for a new one – as usually happens, this wasn’t an idea I saw coming! I was so fascinated by the set up – the huge injustice of their situation, their isolation, and the stark contrast between the tiny island they were taken to and their home in Catania.
The book deals with the persecution of gay and bisexual men in fascist Italy in the 1930s – what attracted you to that particular period?
I started with the idea, rather than the period, so I found myself in an era I wasn’t actually very familiar with. I hadn’t studied the build up to the Second World War, or Italian fascism, in great detail before, and I think that was part of the appeal – the opportunity to immerse myself in learning something new, and to shed some light on a relatively untold story in an otherwise very well known period of history.
Historical research: a pleasure or a chore?
I love it! I’m extremely chaotic though – if I do too much before starting a novel, it runs the risk of becoming a non fiction account, too constrained by facts. So after the initial research, I tend to jump in and construct the bones of a story fairly early on, and then read around it to build up layers of detail. For obvious reasons, this can cause some issues! It’s still something I’m working on – that balance between authenticity and story telling.
Did your research turn up anything unexpected?
I think in a way the whole process was unexpected – I was so surprised that I had never heard about San Domino and the prisoners who were sent there before. I was fascinated by the concept of ‘confino’ – those of whom the fascist state disapproved could be sent to small islands or remote towns with very little legal process, as a way to ‘remove’ them from society. The Second World War is taught a lot in schools, but I don’t think we learned much about Italian fascism and its history – the treatment of LGBT people within that system, even less so.
One of the most useful sources I found was a book called La città e l’isola by Gianfranco Goretti and Tommaso Giartosio. It’s a really fascinating historical account of the 45 men from Catania around whom my book is focused – what happened to them before, during and after their imprisonment on the island. Unfortunately, it’s in Italian, so I spent a painstaking few months translating it with the help of my Dad, who’s learning the language. I live in fear of someone telling me there’s already an English translation on the market…
Antonia Senior, one of our Crown judges said, ‘Our shortlisted writers, although very different in subject and style, all share a talent for making the past holler to the present.’ Were you conscious of any modern day parallels when writing the book?
Where to start?! I think this is one of the reasons I became so fascinated by this period in history – there’s so many parallels with the present day. A global economic crisis, a sense of impending doom in Europe, politicians using that to excuse extreme policies, prejudice and political divisions on the rise – it all sounds a bit too familiar…
One of the themes of my research, which I was very keen to weave into the book, was how obsessed Italian fascism was with gender and idealised gender roles – this is of course one of the reasons homosexuality was so threatening to them. They wanted men to be brought up as soldiers, and women to produce children, so anyone who challenged those ideals was considered dangerous. At the same time, of course, their narrative of gay men was one of weakness, so they faced a paradox – did they portray them as threatening, or powerless? You still see this kind of rhetoric all the time. So much of what’s happening all over the world, from the appalling treatment of gay men in Chechnya which hit the news earlier this year, to threats to women’s reproductive rights in America, is a reminder of how beliefs about what people ‘should’ be can be incredibly dangerous.
What was your path to publication?
It was fairly conventional, which is to say, I did what all the blogs and writing guides tell you to do! I’m always keen to point this out – you really don’t need a secret inside knowledge of the industry. Agents do read unsolicited manuscripts, and if they like them, they do get back to you.
When I finished my first novel in 2013, I sent it out to a handful of agents, and was lucky enough to be signed by the brilliant Juliet Mushens. That book has yet to find a home, so Mussolini’s Island was the second book we worked on together. That’s another thing that’s worth pointing out – the first book won’t always be the one! It’s really important to keep going, and take the rejections as an inevitable part of the process.
What advice would you give someone starting work on a first novel?
Other than the above – I think the most important thing is to write something that really fascinates and excites you, and be open to wherever that takes you. There’s a lot of advice out there about what the market is looking for and what types of books are in or out, but in the end, you have to be excited about your book before you can ask anyone else to be. Sometimes the best ideas take you by surprise!
Do you have any favourite historical writers?
Absolutely loads! One of my favourite historical novels is Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. I love the complexity of the characters, and the weaving of historical facts with fiction.
What do you think the historical novelist can add to the study of the past?
This is a really fascinating question – and a difficult one to answer! For me, the power of historical fiction is the freedom it allows. Novelists are free to explore strange, quirky corners of history, untold human stories and even alternative histories, all of which might otherwise be forgotten or left unimagined. Whether your readers are historians or not, I think this is so important – there are so many historical subjects I never would have heard about had I not read them in fiction. I’m sure there must be lots of academic research which began with reading a novel.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
My second book is a bit of a fragile creature at the moment, so I’m a bit superstitious about saying very much! As with Mussolini’s Island, it’s based on true events, but with a largely fictional storyline. I think I’m learning that’s something I need – I’ve tried in the past to use real lives as plot, and got in such a muddle over constructing a narrative that works. This way, I get to leave behind the bare facts for a while, and focus on building a story that works.
And finally, just for fun, can you describe your book in five words?!
That’s a tricky one! I think ‘love and defiance under fascism’ about sums it up.
Sarah Day lives in London, where she works as a science communicator at the Geological Society. She has written columns for a variety of publications, including the Guardian and The Vagenda. After graduating with a Masters in the History and Philosophy of Science from Durham University, she studied Science Communication at Imperial College London. Mussolini’s Island is her first novel.
Join us for the first ever HWA Crowns Award Ceremony where we will be awarding the winners of the HWA Endeavour Ink Gold, HWA Debut and HWA Non-Fiction Crowns as well as the Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition prize. 7th November 2017 in London. More info here.