It is one of the great if-a-tree-falls-in-the-forest scenarios in the literary world when a long-gestating book eventually becomes a success — after being turned down by two publishers — but the author does not live to see it make it to print.
Does that vindicate an author in death who did not find such satisfaction in life? Colwood author Steven Price used the process of writing his new novel, Lampedusa, as a way of better understanding this complex query, and what could potentially go through the mind of an author who is screeching toward the intersection of art and life.
Price’s novel blends fact and fiction around the life of Italian author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, whose only book, The Leopard (Il Gattopardo), was published to great acclaim in 1958, one year after Tomasi died of lung cancer.
Though Tomasi could not find a publisher interested in releasing the book when he was alive, it has never been out of print in 50-plus years, and remains Italy’s top-selling novel. “But he wasn’t alive to see it,” Price said, during an interview. “Is that artistic success or is that artistic failure? He died thinking that it was never going to be published.”
Price’s novel connects the lives of two key princes, only one of whom — Tomasi — is real. The prince at the centre of The Leopard was a fictional character based in part on Tomasi’s great-grandfather, Don Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi, one in a line of minor princes in Sicily. Giuseppe Tomasi was the last member of his family to carry the title of prince, and when his family’s longstanding palace near Palermo was bombed during the Allied invasion of Sicily, he began writing The Leopard as a means of preserving his family’s legacy.
Asked if the book being published scored a victory for Tomasi, Price replied:“What does success look like for an artist? In his case, it’s such a fraught question, because he produced this beautiful novel at the end of his life. He tried to get it published and it was rejected twice. He died 10 days after receiving the last rejection. It’s easy to understand, as an artist, the despair that you feel when this thing that you have put so much effort into, and that you yourself believe in, is not going to get a fair reception.”
Price’s previous novel, 2016’s By Gaslight, was met with unanimous praise, and was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The national bestseller quickly established Price as one of Canada’s top writers. There is pressure with Lampedusa to repeat his previous success, but Victoria-born Price was casual and calm about it during our interview. At a Metchosin coffeeshop, not far from the home he shares with his wife, author Esi Edugyan, and their children, Cleo and Maddox, he spoke with confidence about the nature of Lampedusa, and how he knew it was time for this particular story to come alive.
“You start to learn a little bit about your own process as you go, and I’m coming to think that I’m a writer who works best when I can see the form or the shape the storytelling needs to take.
“I’d admired The Leopard for years and re-read it many times, and I knew about his life a little bit, and I was reading through The Leopard at one point, and I could not only see how his prince, his main character, resembled him, but how the last years of his life while he was writing The Leopard fit so beautifully the actual structure and shape of the novel he’d written. You could almost remove part of that novel and plug in a part of his life. As soon as I saw that shape, I could see the book.”
The slow, sometimes laborious, process of bringing a book to life is the ultimate hurry-up-and-wait exercise, Price said. The writing and editing of his new novel took two years, almost from the time his publicity tour for By Gaslight wound to a halt. Price said he has already begun writing his next book, even though the promotion of Lampedusa is barely underway.
The book, in stores Aug. 31, will bring Price to Munro’s Books for a launch party on Sept. 18. He will be happy to finally see some forward momentum, having done his last edit on Lampedusa in April.
“Books take so long to reach this point. You live with it for a year, and when you’re pretty much finished, there’s still a year of final edits and copy edits, and proof-reading before it goes into production. By the time you hit this point, a lot of writers are already started a new project. You’re alone with the work for a really long time and then, by the time you’re no longer alone with it, you’ve moved on.”
Price changed gears with Lampedusa from the large, plot-heavy By Gaslight. It was a refreshing change, to tackle an era (1950s Sicily) and topic (the lion-in-winter phase of a writer exhaling his final roar) with so many pathways on which to travel.
Price, who taught in the University of Victoria’s writing department for 10 years, has done his share of editing, but he relied on the skills of his editor at Penguin Random House Canada, Martha Kanya-Forstner, to help keep Lampedusa on track. He also found Edugyan to be of great help, having performed the same service for her during the writing of her novels.
“Part of what you see in your own work are all the ghost paths you didn’t take, all the choices you were faced with. You chose X instead of Y, but Y is always existing there. It’s harder to see a solid shape that you can work with. When someone presents you with their manuscript, and you’re reading it, all you have is what is in front of you. It’s so much easier to see exactly how it’s working.”
Price took liberties and wrote what Tomasi could potentially have been thinking when his life neared its end. That was the intriguing part for Price — to explore the what-ifs and why-nots many authors feel while writing a book. That Tomasi’s final product has become one of the most celebrated books in history made the exploration all the more fascinating, Price said.
“It’s not that this lacks plot, but the plot is attached to the biography of a person who has already lived. I could see the form. As soon as I could see the parallel between the work of art that he created and his own life, it seemed like it was making some interesting link or connection or commentary about art and life, and how life is reflected in the art and vice versa.
“Sometimes, a book feels like a long, flat thing that is laid out in front of you, and I think it’s really valuable for the writer to know what is three-quarters of the way down the line.
“In my experience, knowing the end is not always valuable. You don’t want the book to be written before you dive in.”