Vancouver writer Jane Callen discusses her debut novel with AW’s Lucy Black.
Lucy Black: Much of the narrative takes place in Italy and it feels as though you have an intimate knowledge of the setting. Please share with us your decisions to place the book where you did and how you managed to detail such specifics about the locale.
Jane Callen: The novel started as a short story in a Ryerson workshop which was well received and I was challenged by my instructor and fellow writers to continue working with the character Kat. I liked her as much as they did but was at a loss of what to do with her next. Since 2011 I had travelled each September to Italy, a country I have come to love. An unframed painting recently purchased from a street artist in Rome was leaning on a shelf in my bookcase. I walked over to it and asked Bernini’s elephant, do you want to be Kat’s next adventure? The story took off from there.
I wrote ten iterations of the novel between 2016 and 2021. When I returned to Italy I included one of the places where Kat lived in my itinerary. I’d walk through her neighbourhoods and take photos that I used as jumping off points later. Well into developing the work I realized this was not adequate research so for three years I returned to Italy for a month in the spring with one purpose; research and capture material for the book. I spent a month exploring Venice, the Guggenheim Museum where the painter is installed, even attending events there. I became friends with a resident on Torcello who allowed me to take photos and spend time in his home. It became Kat’s home in the story. I even stayed overnight on Torcello so I could experience the dawn and dusk as she would. I purchased a Friends of the Uffizi pass and spent a month studying the Madonna and Goddess paintings that Franco used as inspiration for his work. I resided in an apartment on the top floor of the Levi building in Piazza della Repubblica where Franco lived. I took rides on the carousel every time I visited the city. In fact, the photo used on the book cover is one of mine. I stayed at a hotel beside the elephant statute each time I returned to Rome. The Pantheon was already my favourite monument in that city. I shopped in the central market and walked the streets of Florence with Kat as my guide. I observed Italians in public spaces to learn their social habits. I spent so much time researching the caribinari online that the local station in Florence contacted me to ask if they could be of assistance! Beyond that when I returned home I found Italian actors who were reminiscent of my characters and watched their films repeatedly to get a feel for their movement and other characteristics. I took Italian language courses and befriended my instructors. They became subject matter experts. Reading this you might think I was obsessed with my characters but rather it was pure pleasure. The work exposed me to layers of Italy I would never have discovered travelling as a tourist.
LB: Your character Massimo demonstrates a real duality. He is fiercely protective of his daughter while at the same time, he actively promotes the creative genius of his unfaithful son-in-law. Please speak to the complexities in creating a character such as Massimo and what considerations you had to navigate when writing his character.
JC: Massimo is a complex creature but, in some ways, easy to understand. He is bounded by traditions and rules. Kat’s opposite, her nemesis. As lawless and unbounded as Kat’s psyche appears to be, Massimo’s is set in layers of historical precedence and appreciation of his position in Italian society. Massimo Alighieri is a descendant of the poet Dante. For Italians, Dante is the creator of the Italian language and the father of Italian thought. Massimo is secure in who he is. A wealthy man of high social rank.
He follows, when it suits him, the daunting challenge of living a bella figura life, which means a life in which all actions are committed to the highest good and executed with social grace. On the outside he is a master of this belief system. Internally, he uses its power to his best advantage over others. He is a true Machiavellian.
Massimo is also an Italian male and they are a macho lot. Even the enlightened ones. He loves his only child. Because she is a woman he protects her but does not imagine furthering his legacy though her. Instead, he indulges her many whims, leaving Chiara rudderless when she meets up with life challenges.
Still, Chiara manages to bring a talented artist into the family and for this Massimo is grateful. Franco will be his son. As an outrider struggling on his own, Franco welcomes Massimo’s embrace.
Kat is a plot twist Massimo wasn’t counting on when he took Franco under his patronage. The artist had mentioned the Canadese, but she was in the past and Massimo is under the impression that relationship ended in failure. When Kat returns Massimo is put off his game. At first he judges her by his standards, but Kat does not fit. It was a challenge to decide how they would deal with each other; each character was forced to act outside their usual patterns to gain advantage. And each had unique qualities that could help Franco realize his dream. As the story moved forward I was guided by their shared goal, the painter’s success, and by what each character could or might do to win control of Franco’s destiny.
To me, Massimo is more terrifying than Kat because he has wealth, power and position to wield. His fatal flaw is he fears and protects himself from women ever since his own wife walked out and left him with a mewling infant. He cannot gauge Franco’s depth of feeling for Kat or hers for the artist. He is blind to their true relationship because it is not within his personal experience. That lack in him allows Kat to gain advantage.
LB: Kat is not a particularly likeable character in the book. There were times when her actions were entirely self-motivated and cruel and yet she is the driving force of the story. I am intrigued by the ways in which you reveal her motivations and foibles. How difficult was it to write this figure and what advice do you have for other writers who wish to shape a fictional persona with such complex characteristics?
JC: In the beginning I was drawn to Kat’s actions, her willingness to break rules but I did not understand her motivations. After writing her for a time it came to me that Kat was a person not unlike many people I have known. She lived a shallow but materially successful existence, but at some point she wants more. She has no emotional language with which to build a deeper life but it calls to her, this need. Once entangled with the artist, he becomes the embodiment of that yearning. Her behaviour is an exterior manifestation of her changing interior world.
Developing a complex character like Kat, I would suggest exploring both their interior and exterior lives. No anti-hero is all darkness. And angels, even Mother Teresa, have their demons. In the end Kat is human. Flawed, lawless and passionate but great fun to write!
LB: Tell us a little about your key priorities when working on this manuscript.
JC: Because much of the story takes place in a foreign country with its citizens as main characters, I was on constant watch to be authentic in my portrayal of both the location and her people. Kat is Canadian so her POV is the lens by which we view the story but I worried about stereotypes and false interpretations. I sought feedback from Italians I knew, especially ex-pats living in Canada who understood both countries and could validate Kat’s point of view.
LB: Share with us a little about your go-to support group. Do you have trusted supporters who you bounce ideas and early drafts with? Are they writers?
JC: Bernini’s Elephant began as a short story in a workshop with Ryerson University and grew to a novella at another workshop at the University of Victoria. So in the beginning other writers and instructors gave me feedback on characters and plot. As I moved deeper into the novel I depended on two early readers who were close friends and lovers of fiction. Neither were writers but I trusted them to be honest with me from a reader’s perspective. They were also patient, reading through the ten drafts that became the final novel.
LB: What is the most valuable piece of writing advice you have ever been given?
JC: When I was explaining to my then undergrad creative writing student daughter the many reasons I could not possibly pursue a writing career she responded, we are told in class that writers write. They don’t make excuses or find reasons not to. They write. So either you are a writer or you aren’t. Which is it?
She called me on my BS and from that point onward I devoted serious time to my writing.
There is of course a craft to writing which I have been taught over the years. That training is so very helpful when a writer decides what stays on the page and what doesn’t.
LB: Please tell us a little about the writing spaces or environments that work best for you. Are there particular items that you like to have in place?
JC: I can work almost anywhere but I need to be alone and I need silence. Saying that, I admit I am sitting on a patio over looking the hill town San Gimignano right now and there are barking dogs, church bells ringing and cars roaring by and I am unperturbed. It’s music and chat that interferes with my thinking process. Also, I need an organized writing surface, I don’t function well in chaos. An interesting view helps when words fail me. And coffee.
LB: What do you consider the most important part of the writing process?
JC: Once I have an idea that grabs my attention, I write the first draft. Get the skeleton down. I take a no holds barred approach to that first draft. Just get it down, no filters, no censors need apply. After that I edit and edit and edit. I do my re-writes with particular focus. Characterization, dialogue and continuity being a few.
LB: Do your characters ever speak to you or have a say in what happens in the manuscript?
JC: Early on in my writing I had a dream one night in Rome. Poirot and Moriarty (literary characters) approached me in the dream accompanied by the protagonist of my work in progress. The characters told me that my protagonist felt trapped because I never let him have a say, never allowed his voice to come through. I woke up and thought those characters aren’t even by the same author! Still, maybe they had a point. Since then I listen to the people in my stories. I try not to veer too far from their preferred choices. In this particular story it was put to me at one point to make the sex scenes more explicit. I declined, not because I can’t write such scenes. No, because that was not Kat’s sensibility. I would have been betraying her.
LB: How was the title chosen for your book? Who had input and what were the deciding factors?
JC: The book was without a title through the first two drafts. I was speaking with one of my first readers when she suggested it was time we call it something other than Kat’s story. We threw out a few ideas and then she said, well it all starts with Bernini’s Elephant, why not that? I wrote the title on the paper in front of me, said it out loud several times. Yes, I thought, we might have the title. I tried it out on a few people. They liked it too. Done. Once the book was accepted for publication, I waited for someone to tell me they wanted to change it. I had heard the title is the first thing to go but that never happened. For that I am quite thankful.
Jane Callen lives in Vancouver and travels to Italy when the fates allow. Italy and her people feature frequently in Jane’s writings.
Bernini’s Elephant, Jane’s debut novel, was published by Guernica Editions in 2023. She is developing a collection of short stories, some of which have appeared in Grain Magazine, Montreal Writes, Spadina Literary Review, CV7 Short Fiction Anthology Series and White Wall Review. Jane is currently marketing a contemporary memoir recounting the struggles of a Maestro in Milano to keep Tango alive during the pandemic. Tango on the Waves is a collaboration with Antonio Iantorno of Italy. Website: www.janecallen.ca