A quick interview with Venero Armanno

Welcome to my second IFWG author interview for this year! It’s published as part of IFWG’s Uncaching the Treasure’s campaign. IFWG Publishing moved most of its intended 2020 new release titles into 2021, to offset the impact of COVID-19, in effect caching treasures. They are excited to release them from February to June 2021 ( an ‘uncaching’). The Uncaching the Treasures campaign is extensive, including partnering with quality reviewers, bloggists, podcasters, and events, both virtual and physical. Near on 20 titles will be uncached.

Venero Armanno is the author of ten critically acclaimed novels, including his recent book Burning Down (2017). His other well-known books include Black Mountain (2012), The Dirty Beat (2007) and Candle Life (2006). Further back, Veny’s novel Firehead was shortlisted in the 1999 Queensland Premier’s Literary Award; in 2002 The Volcano won the award with Best Fiction Book of the Year. His work has gone on to be published in the United States, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Holland, Israel and South Korea.

His latest novel, The Crying Forest, enters the realm of speculative fiction. Agata Rosso, a once-mighty yet now prematurely aged European witch, believes that the special gifts in a young girl named Lía Munro can restore youth and vitality both to herself and her bedridden husband. She sets a deadly plan in motion to capture and use Lía-but will the girl have enough power to protect herself, plus the father she loves so much?

Without further ado, welcome Venero!

On your Wikipedia page, it states you wrote 10 unpublished novels over 14 years before getting picked up. What made you keep going and do you have any advice for other writer hopefuls still struggling to get published? Have any of those unpublished novels been picked up since?

So yes, that’s true, I did write a lot of novels before having something published. I was young enough in those days to think I could do anything, so I launched in when I was 17/18 and started writing a horror vampire novel that I was sure would bring me instant fortune and fame. When that didn’t happen I realised I knew less than zero and that there was a long learning road ahead if I was to take this thing called writing seriously. However, still being young, I thought I could teach myself what I needed to know and do this by writing non-stop.

That part of the idea was good, but I set myself the formidable task of writing a novel a year until one got published. A novel a year doesn’t leave room for a lot of rewriting but that was part of my ignorance – I’d dash off 80 to 100,000 words, over the course of a calendar year, spend a week or two polishing what I had, then would start sending the ms off to every publisher I could find in the telephone book. This was in the late 70s into the end of the 80s, so there was no Internet, everything was hard copy on a typewriter with lots of time spent at photocopy machines and in post offices. Anyway, once I’d finish a ms I’d start on the next. I seemed to have no problem with new ideas, though maybe the ideas weren’t all that good. I wrote in any number of genres.

Once I got through my Stephen King phase, I had my Fitzgerald, Greene, Hemingway, Cheever… you understand what I mean. Rejections came thick and fast but to specifically answer your question here, what kept me going was a lot of fear – I dreaded being either stuck in an office job or spending the rest of my life working as a bricklayer’s labourer, which is what I had to do in my teens and twenties. Probably a more important point is that some rejections would have a nice note attached to it: “We can’t publish this ms but we like your writing so please send us your next book.” I recall I had lots of messages like that, so if an aspiring writer needs any greater encouragement, then they’re probably not all that serious about their craft and should think about something else. 

So any advice I might have for aspiring writers is along the lines of what I wrote above – keep persisting, keep trying. Don’t worry about time. Don’t want it all straight away. You might take years to find your true voice, something that’s original and new and completely yours. That’s what publishers are after – a new voice. You’ve got a lot to learn so give yourself every opportunity to learn it. Early success only comes to a few, and that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong in taking a longer road – because you want a writing career that is a very long road anyway, with strong foundations. That takes time and effort and every shortcut short-changes you.

Most of my unpublished mss deserve every bit of their non-publication, though I have a soft spot for the first one. It’s about a Sicilian-migrant-vampire who has an underground lair at a university and who kills students by night. In the end he gets bored with his life (i.e. I got bored with the book) and so commits suicide. Now, I’ve never read a book about a Sicilian-migrant-vampire who commits suicide. Somebody should publish it! Of the other books two did get published but in new forms. These mss became Strange Rain and My Beautiful Friend, two books that did very well, but they changed a hell of a lot from the drafts I’d first written in the 80s.

In addition to writing, you’re also a teacher at the University of QLD. How does teaching affect and inform your writing work and vice versa, particularly with your latest, The Crying Forest? 

I won’t complain because I love my job and I’m very happy to have it, but of course it certainly takes up most of my time – meaning I have less time to write. This could be a good thing actually; maybe it’s better to be forced to slow down, though I would have liked to have written more books over the last twenty years that I’ve been at UQ. Having said that, though, teaching creative writing forces me to engage more with the form – to really think about what I’m doing and how. It also gives me a direct look at readers i.e. students who love reading. Why do they read? What are they reading? Which books do they avoid like the plague? All of this is really interesting for a writer. It’s true that a teacher can learn more from their students than vice versa.

You’ve written novels for adults, young adults and children, as well as several short stories. How do you think trying out these different modes has shaped your writing, particularly your current novel?

I think writing short stories is one of the best ways possible to find your voice and to learn and improve your craft. The end of my little tale above about all my unpublished mss is that around 1988 someone said to me, “You spend a year or two writing entire novels that don’t get published… why don’t you try short stories instead?” It was a lightbulb moment. Yes indeed. Why not write short stories and send them out and get rejected (or maybe one day published) even faster? So then I embarked on a campaign of always having stories in the post to editors at whatever magazines or competitions I could find. That was my real start, when stories started being accepted and I started winning some prizes. My first published book was in fact a collection of these stories, Jumping at the Moon, not a novel.

This sort of writing experience does affect all my novels, including The Crying Forest. How? I think because it gives you the tools for shaping sub-plots into their own discreet arcs. The difference is that these sub-plots (which are stories in themselves really) have to feed into the main plot of course. However short story writing skills help you/me actually make those sub-plots so much stronger (I hope!).

You were born in Brisbane to Sicilian parents. Does that background influence your writing in any way, particularly with The Crying Forest? If so, how?

Yes, all my writing is informed by the migrant experience. Of my parents coming to this country when they were young (they met here and married) and me being a child of a father and mother who didn’t understand much about their new country at all. I’d be a completely different writer without these experiences, or, more likely, not a writer at all. It’s the outsider syndrome—growing up I never quite felt part of Australia even though I was born here. The family home was very Sicilian and the family and friend network was also almost purely Sicilian. So in a way it was as if I was new to this country as well: home was one world, outside of that was something completely different, and I really didn’t fit in. So as something of an outsider one becomes very observational: of everything around and also of the past, if I can put it that way.

Many of my books are based on Sicilian history and research, and The Crying Forest ultimately came together in the same way – I was researching something completely different and accidently came across myths and legends that weren’t Sicilian (but from the north, in Friuli) but that had resonances in Sicily. These legends had to do with witches and werewolves, and so my research deepened, leading me to think, well, Australia is a country of migrants, what if these legends had travelled across the seas with the migrant diaspora? That was really part of The Crying Forest’s germinal idea—and where I live, in an area that was once completely rural and has its own forest lands, felt like the perfect place to take up these mythologies.

Are there particular themes and ideas you return to again and again in your work? Why do you think that is? Do you revisit such ideas and themes in The Crying Forest?

As you might have gathered by now, recurring themes have to do with the migrant diaspora, leading to themes of loss and belonging—and, even, of the longing for the old world left behind. I’ve always felt sort of floating between two cultures – not quite part of one or the other, so that forces me back to writing inside these themes.

You’ve written in a diverse range of genres. What sort of books and authors inspire you and why? Are there stories you’d compare The Crying Forest to?

I think The Crying Forest is a sort of literary supernatural tale, in that characters’ emotions, their relationships and personal baggage really drive the plot—as well as a lot of “real” history. So I’d consider books in the same ballpark might be The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova and even The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. But that’s setting myself a very high bar!  A writer/reviewer I was just speaking to said the book reminded him very much of the writing my Peter Straub, and I can see that – If You Could See Me Now and Ghost Story in particular.

Writers who have had a huge impact on me I’ve already mentioned: from Stephen King to Graham Greene, F Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I’d add Truman Capote, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Oscar Hijuelos, Ray Bradbury (who I had the immense pleasure of meeting once, in a Parisian bookstore) and Haruki Murakami. In fact at present I’ve just been rereading The Illustrated Man, The Golden Apples of the Sun, The Martian Chronicles, plus The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and South of the Border, West of the Sun. I love going back to my literary heroes.

Tell us more about The Crying Forest. What inspired the novel?

In 2001, newly-married and with my wife Nic pregnant with our first (and only) child, we travelled from our rundown inner-city Queenslander-style home to see an even more rundown old house in an outer-west suburb I’d never even heard of. We went because we’d seen a picture of a house in the real estate pages of a newspaper, and I’d never seen anything like it. The place was like some Gothic old English country manor that a louche rock star would buy and fill with drugs, booze and groupies.

We discovered the place was located on land that once had been part of immense hectares of farming property. Built in 1932, it sits at the top of a small hill and was (and still is) nicely isolated. With all good sense thrown aside we bought the property and moved in.

Some people, tradespeople for instance, don’t like to be alone in our home; we however find it inviting and perfectly peaceful. It became the “red house”—Rosso House—of The Crying Forest. And that forest itself is nearby; overgrown trails are where I walk my dog almost every day. So, for that matter, is the wider fictional region the book calls “Grandview”.

So in terms of inspiring the novel, other than a very spooky home, an isolated property and endless state forest, another thing that informed this book were the wild packs of escaped dogs in our region, howling at night and raising hell, plus the proliferation of deer—an introduced species not native to the region. Dogs and deer wage their own battles. It all just seemed to cry out for a novel about the supernatural, and I’d wanted to write this book for years, even though it was well outside of my usual genres.

What was the hardest part of writing The Crying Forest? What was the easiest? Did you have to do any research?

All novels are hard, in their own way, even the ones that come pouring out. The Crying Forest did come pouring out… I wrote the first draft longhand in a series of notebooks, then revised and revised endlessly on my computer. The hardest part was finding the time to write. Work at the University can be very intense, and the more senior I become the less extra time I have. So there were a lot of 4am mornings, doing as much as I could before getting ready to head off by six or so.

There was plenty of research for this book, a process I always like very much. While reading texts about several things I wanted the book to touch on I came across information about Italian witches: this interested me because when I was growing up my parents would take me to our local Sicilian witch if I needed medical attention, not a traditional doctor. I remember this crazy old crone treating me for neck aches (which she made worse) and a broken finger (thanks to her, it’s still crooked). My parents used to talk about the way this woman’s potions could cure all manner of illnesses, and that she was more knowledgeable than any fool-doctor with medical training. Remembering her, I read more about witches (and werewolves) in Sicilian and Italian mythology, and in particular I discovered the Benandanti: 

“The benandanti (Good Walkers) were members of an agrarian visionary tradition in the Friuli district of Northeastern Italy during the 16th and 17th centuries. The benandanti claimed to travel out of their bodies while asleep to struggle against malevolent witches (malandanti) in order to ensure good crops for the season to come. Between 1575 and 1675, in the midst of the Early Modern witch trials, a number of benandanti were accused of being heretics or witches under the Roman Inquisition.” (from Wikipedia)

It really didn’t take too much imagination to put all these disparate elements together: house, forest, Italian folklore.

What do you think’s different about The Crying Forest to your other books? 

I’ve only published in the supernatural once before, with My Beautiful Friend in about 1995. So The Crying Forest is a real departure into witches and werewolves, and people with special powers.

What’s next on the writing horizon for you?

I’ve got two novels on the go which are more my own traditional sorts of works, but I’ve got more of The Crying Forest planned, if circumstances allow me to go that far. I’m not one for sequels but I feel like there are more stories to come from these characters, some really fascinating threads that I’d love to explore. The book is mainly set in Brisbane, Australia, however many of the characters are European—I’m excited to follow them into places like Rome, Sicily, Barcelona and Paris… you know what the writer’s imagination is like!

Thanks so much for your considered answers Venero! I’m pumped to read your novel now! For you readers out there keen too, you can read more about the novel here (and watch a cool book trailer). The Crying Forest is available for purchase in all good ebook and print outlets. It is distributed through Gazelle (UK/Europe), Novella (Australia) and IPG (North America).