Cassy's Corner- Women's Fiction Festival!!!
Folks: Please welcome Elizabeth Jennings to our blog today. She is a multi-published author, not to mention, a wonderful person. Liz has a fantastically interesting background that she shares in her post below.
PLEASE read to the end. She describes the Women's Fiction Festival in Matera, Italy. I have been twice. It is a jewel. Consider it one of the "to-do's" on your list. Somehow Liz and her colleagues have figured out how to combine an incredible location with an intimate and accessible international group. There are fantastic sessions, agents, editors, and really great people. That's not to even mention the food and wine. Plus, our very own Christine Witthohn is a wonderfully generous supporter of the conference.
For mystery or suspense writers, there are separate and exciting opportunities. One year I joined the group for a private tour of the police station. We learned tons about the mafia, surveillance, how drug runners are tracked, how people entering the country are followed on computers, the list goes on. We even listened in on a live broadcast of men who were being bugged.
If the idea of Italy scares you, not to worry. All of the sessions are simultaneously translated into English by a team of the top of the top translators. Who, I should say, donate their time as a commitment to the conference and the people who manage it. When I returned for my second year, I was greeted by the organizers, the translation team and Liz as if I were family. That's much of the way with Italy. The first time you are welcomed, the second time your are an honored guest, and the third time you are family. With this group I jumped to family.
Liz is now traveling in France. That means she will be 6 hours ahead of East Coast time. She has generously agreed to check in as frequently as possible, but there might be a lag time, including responses into tomorrow. Don't let that delay your participation. So, with that, please keep reading and welcome Elizabeth Jennings. This is a pleasure.
I moved to Matera, a small city in southern Italy, many moons ago. At first, I was not a happy camper. At the time—this was the late 80s, early 90s—the city was a dusty backwater, the Sassi long deserted, stray dogs prowling its weed-infested alleyways, only a few rickety street lights dating back to the 50s faintly lighting up the massive Sassi district at night.
An artist friend of mine once likened the Sassi homes of the time—abandoned thirty years before—to the southern Italian equivalent of the Munch painting The Howl, because most of the doors and windows were gone and all you could see were dark openings like a silent, eternal scream.
The town seemed to be entirely populated by 4’11” gnomes with dark wrinkly skin and no teeth. And all men. Ancient, gnarly men, everywhere. In the streets, in the main square and above all, in the bars, blue with smoke. There was no place where women could meet and have a cup of tea and a chat.
My Italy was completely different. Florence, where I went to interpreter’s school, and later founded a company and bought a bachelorette pad, was incredibly international and sophisticated, with world-renowned Renaissance architecture and… colors! Brick red, Pompei yellow, the dark green of cypresses, the church facades of pink and green striped marble. The Tuscans were like me—ironic and irreligious. In direct contrast with the straight-laced, religious and literal-minded Materani. And contrasting with Tuscany’s vivid colours was the palette of beiges and tans of the tufa stone houses.
I’d also lived in Milan, where I went to university. Milan-Matera. The contrast could not have been greater.
When I married and moved to Matera, I was working as a simultaneous interpreter, mainly for the European Commission, the European Parliament and various UN agencies. I travelled at least two weeks a month, often more. I was ‘settled’ into Matera in much the same way a UN fonctionnaire would ‘settle’ into Nairobi or Hyderabad on mission. Making the best of a bad situation.
And then…things started happening. Very fast. A city that for centuries—millennia, even—had been isolated from the major currents of history since the decline of Hellenism (this is Magna Grecia) was all of a sudden brought happily into the modern world.
In 1993, the Sassi district—one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements on earth—was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Big complexes in the Sassi were restored, according to very strict criteria. Instead of a blur of endless gray-white with those gaping doors like toothless mouths, facades were restored using new tufa stones, and the gorgeous details of the moldings became clear, a cityscape unlike any other on earth. The ancient cobble-stoned streets were ripped up, laid with fiber optic cables and then repaved with the exact same cobblestones, numbered and replaced in the same sequence. The 21st century underneath the 12th century.
The restored homes were stunning, many covered by design magazines, and an entire professional class moved in, right next door to the few remaining illiterate peasants still living in medieval circumstances in the Sassi. It made for a very interesting mix.
Amazingly beautiful hotels sprang up, the Locanda di San Martino, the Casa di Lucio, Hotel Sant’Angelo…and now Matera has a plethora of very beautiful hotels and B & Bs. Foreigners go crazy staying there—in stunning, artistically restored caves, with wifi and air conditioning and spas and underground swimming pools in former grottoes.
Restaurants serving the finest food in the world in restored caves brought throngs of Materani and foreigners. Journalists went wild discovering the local cuisine, healthy and made with strictly local produce. A locavore foodie’s delight.
The entire city sprang to life, almost overnight. Cultural associations and musical associations provided a year-round cornucopia of concerts and plays, most of the concerts in heart-rendingly beautiful cloisters or churches. In the evenings, Matera’s streets are filled with youngsters, and families, out enjoying the balmy air. In the summer, the Sassi became as lively as the Plaka in Athens, with concerts and art shows and food fairs, people staying out until 2 or 3 in the morning.
My husband and I had a son and I discovered that Matera is absolutely the best place on earth to raise a child. Clean air, clean streets, the safest city in Italy, as per official statistics. It is the most amazingly child-friendly place. My son spent his entire childhood with beaming faces bending over him telling him how bello he was.
And the bars and coffee shops—now there was an embarrassment of riches where I could meet up with my friends. Elegant coffee shops serving excellent coffee, where all it took to become a regular and be served with extra special solicitude bordering on pampering was to show up twice.
I was still travelling, on an industrial level. While Matera was blossoming, the two cities I know best, Brussels and Florence, were declining. Brussels fell prey to the developers. Does anyone remember how elegant Avenue Louise used to be—all those exquisite 19th century mansions lining the broad avenue? All torn down and replaced by concrete and glass office buildings. Downtown, around St. Catherine, used to be a charming Flemish village and is now an anonymous blob of ugly buildings. And Florence—ah, now that is a tragedy. That superbly proud and elegant city, full of bookshops and literary cafés and incomparable museums where you could bask in the greatest art in the world in relative solitude, gone. The city filled up with day-trippers and drug addicts and garbage, a day-long line to see the David, to the point that it is no longer a desireable place to live or even visit.
Matera, with its pristine air and fabulous food and friendly people and pedestrian streets was looking better and better.
Hating now the travel necessary to work as a simultaneous interpreter, I became more and more a translator and then finally succumbed to the dream I’d cherished all through my bookish childhood—to become a writer.
It took a long time to get published, and I was helped every step of the way by writers’ organizations and later, by writers’ conferences. I attended a number of writers’ conferences in the US and was simply amazed at the concrete help offered, the incredible insights into the publishing industry that were available nowhere else, at the camaraderie of writers, something so precious in this solitary life of a writer.
In February of 2004 I ‘met’ Maria Paola Romeo over the phone. At the time she was the editorial manager of Harlequin Mondadori, the Italian Harlequin and is now one of Italy’s top literary agents. She asked me to translate an Italian novel into English. I did and we became phone friends. She published romance and I wrote it and we often discussed the market, the nature of writing, what needed changing. I told her that I thought Matera would make a perfect venue for a writers’ conference. The idea started taking shape and form. I was plugged into any number of writers’ organizations and discovered that there was enthusiasm by American writers to come to a writers’ conference and retreat in Italy. Maria Paola knew the publishing industry inside out and was in contact with a number of editors and agents, both in Italy and abroad.
I was put in contact with the third component of our little group, Mariateresa Cascino, in April of 2004. A media expert, she’d just come back from three years in the States and was footloose and ready for a challenge. A week after I’d met her and explained in very vague terms what Maria Paola and I were thinking, she came back with a budget, a business plan and a couple of sponsorships. The fourth partner, Giovanni Moliterni, runs the most charming indie bookshop I’ve ever seen, with an eclectic mix of books under a vaulted, frescoed ceiling.
And so, in September 2004, the first Women’s Fiction Festival was held. It was a mix of public literary festival and private writers’ conference. Writers came from all over, from the US, from the UK, Germany, Austria, Italy—even Australia. The whole concept of a writers’ conference is new to both Italy and Europe. Our writers’ conference is now well-known throughout Europe, as, understandably, editors and agents love to be invited to a stunningly beautiful southern Italian city where we stuff them with fabulous food and wine and serenade them with the local pizzica music. Everyone—whether writer, editor or agent—is blown away by the beauty of the city of Matera.
We arrange one on one meetings with top agents and editors and a number of books have been sold at the WFF, one hitting Italian best-seller charts. Our editors are from such prestigious houses as Penguin, Random House and Random House Germany, Mondadori, Feltrinelli, Grand Central Publishing, Kensington, Sourcebooks, Rowohlt Verlag and many more. A sort of mini-Frankfurt and international mini-RWA in the sun, with incredible food and wine, where deals are struck on an immense terracotta terrace overlooking a wild-looking canyon.
No wonder we’re so popular. The 7th WFF will be held from September 23-26 of this year.
How do we afford this, you ask? Well, registrations, of course, some private sponsorships and the addition of public funds is the answer. We have set up an amazing editorial powerhouse in this beautiful but remote southern Italian city. While the Festival is on, we are the coolest thing around. We get lots of very good press. Matera is now on the publishing map.
Local politicians appreciate this without quite understanding it. I shouldn’t be harsh because clearly the skill-set necessary to survive and prevail in southern Italian politics does not necessarily include an understanding of literature and publishing.
When we explain that we have set up essentially an international book marketplace in Matera, I can see their brows scrunch up, as if receiving a message in Martian on a shortwave radio with patchy reception.
Every once in a while, however, you get the enthusiast who reads. One excited politician absolutely wanted us to invite Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987).
It’s a lot of fun, and very useful. Do think of coming.