Before writing The Night Falling, I went on my first ever overseas research trip: to Puglia, in the far south of Italy’s ‘heel’. I wasn’t sure what I’d find – whether all traces of the inter-war era I was interested in would have been wiped out. Puglia is an increasingly popular tourist destination, and I worried that I would find only modern hotels, deluxe villas, and pizzerias.
But the South of Italy is still poor, sadly – though Puglia is by no means as poor as it once was, or as poor as neighbouring Basilicata. Its landscape is as hard, dry and harshly beautiful as it has ever been. I’d been hoping to find a few remnants of ancient peasant houses: I saw hundreds. These unique, conical dwellings, called trulli, dot the landscape, abandoned, open to explorers. Only in the town of Alberobello, now a UNESCO world heritage site, are they still largely inhabited, although some have been converted into holiday lets. Most sit empty in the fields their residents once worked, ruined and infested with lizards. I found a gas cooker left behind in one, proof of relatively recent occupation.
The trulli really are just huts. Hovels. It’s hard to imagine whole families living in them, as they would once have done, as it’s hard to imagine whole families living in a single rented room in the towns of the agricultural interior. These people, at the time I was writing and for generations beforehand, lived in abject poverty. Prevented from owning land by an antiquated system called latifundism, they had no choice but to sell their labour for a daily rate, at the mercy of drought, the harvest and the profiteering of tenant farmers. After the First World War, the returning men took a stand. A peasant Socialist movement was formed, and won a few key battles – like contracts of work, and fixed wages – before the answering Fascist movement suppressed it with sheer brutality.
This struggle, in 1920-22, was the culmination of centuries of conflict between rich and poor in the area – between those who owned the land and those who broke their bodies working it. The homesteads of the rich – huge, fortified houses called masserie – are a testament to years of threat and violence. I was lucky enough to be invited into several masserie, whose owners were only too happy to talk about the history of their homes. The interiors are elegant, airy, and removed. They sit behind thick, high walls and all of them have guard posts at the gates. They were built by men in constant fear of attack from bandits, raiders, and starving workers.
Many families I met had lived in Puglia for generations; many had parents and grandparents who would remember the events I was to write about in The Night Falling. Far from being a distant memory expunged by modern development, Puglia’s hard past is very much alive, and the architectural bones of its battles still scatter the ground. It was fascinating to see the exact places I would go on to write about – to sit a while in a deserted trullo, listening to the hot wind humming through its ancient stones; to see the dry landscape from the lofty windows of a masseria; to walk through the same twisted olive groves and parched crops my characters would have known. Puglia is still alive in my memory, and I hope that this troubled era comes alive anew in my novel.
Katherine Webb is author of best-selling historical novels including The Legacy and A Half Forgotten Song. her latest, The Night Falling, is out now.