More than thirty years ago, with the aim of introducing the works of foreign writers to an Italian audience, Sandra Ozzola and her husband, Sandro Ferri, launched their prestigious independent publishing house, Edizioni E/O, in Rome. Ten years ago they launched the US branch, Europa Editions, an excellent publisher of literature in translation for North American readers. The couple also launched the publishing career of Elena Ferrante, one of their most successful authors. Senior editor Penny Hueston interviewed Sandra ahead of the publication of the final book in the Neapolitan series, The Story of the Lost Child.
When did you first encounter Ferrante’s writing? What were the circumstances?
A friend sent us the manuscript of Troubling Love and I read it straight away.
Do you know why Ferrante sent her work to E/O, a small independent publisher, and not to one of the big Italian companies like Mondadori or Rizzoli?
She knew about our publishing company. She wanted to be published by a serious, independent house. She needed a publisher whom she could completely trust, who would respect her decision to remain private. And in any case some Italian writers prefer to publish with a smaller house, where their work may get more attention, rather than with one of the big publishing groups.
How old was E/O at that time? Had you published other writers who might have allowed Ferrante to believe that you would understand her work?
E/O had been going for twelve years, and we had already published several very important Eastern European authors (Christa Wolf, Kazimierz Brandys, Bohumil Hrabal) whom Elena Ferrante admired a great deal.
Was Troubling Love the first novel Ferrante sent you? Is that when you first met her?
Yes and yes.
What was your response to Troubling Love when you first read it?
I was shaken by the violence and the raw power of the story, but it was writing of the highest order.
Do you see Elena Ferrante often? Are you friends or is your relationship more strictly professional, the relationship of writer and editor?
No, but we speak a lot on the phone. Almost every day. We are good friends.
What has Ferrante taught you about writing?
Courage and honesty.
Could you please describe the editorial process of working with Elena Ferrante?
She sends Sandro and me her work in progress, and we tell her what we think. We might let her know if we have our doubts about something, but for the most part we are enthusiastic. Then the completed manuscript is reread closely, focussing—especially in the case of the four Neapolitan novels—on any possible errors in the chronology of the story. In the meantime, she is writing, rewriting and correcting, adding and cutting passages, and each time we reflow the whole book and read it again from the beginning. Elena Ferrante both steers and follows the whole process in the most transparent way.
What do you know about Ferrante’s process of writing?
What I do know is that she doesn’t make a plan or an outline that she sticks to. It seems hard to believe, but she writes a draft of each novel in one go, and then takes enormous trouble to rework the manuscript.
Do you know whether Ferrante has written novels that remain unpublished?
Yes, I think there are some that have not been published.
Which traditions of Italian fiction does Ferrante fit into?
Elsa Morante, for example.
Can you measure Ferrante’s influence on Italian writing?
I think she has had a huge influence, not only in Italy but internationally too.
When did you first know that Ferrante wanted to write a series of novels about Lila and Elena?
We were having lunch by a lake. She told us that she would like to write a novel, perhaps a series of novels, telling the story of two friends. She also wanted to describe a big Neapolitan wedding like the one that she did indeed describe in the first volume, My Brilliant Friend.
Do you think of the Neapolitan novels as separate books or one very long novel?
We all think that they are one very long novel.
Some reviewers have divided Ferrante’s work into two periods and two styles. They argue that the style of the first three novels is different from the style of the Neapolitan novels. Do you agree?
Of course. Her style has changed over the years, in common with the work of many great writers. Her first novels were different, more focussed on the experience of a single protagonist; I would say they were more concentrated, almost claustrophobic. Whereas the Neapolitan novels represent a new direction; the atmosphere changes, everything expands, including the protagonist who doubles up, as you might say. There is an explicit ambition to reinvent her work in the tradition of great popular fiction but also, it seems to me, to give it the amplitude of the classics.
Does Ferrante read Latin or Greek authors?
I think she has read them and still rereads them.
Does Ferrante read in modern languages other than Italian?
Yes, she is a fan of Alice Munro and Elizabeth Strout, for example, among other English-language writers.
What effect do you think feminist theory has had on Ferrante’s fiction?
Feminist experience and thought are both very important for her.
Would you describe Ferrante as a political writer?
In Ferrante’s fiction, men do not have the same power or perseverance as women, though of course they are not powerless. What do you make of Ferrante’s depiction of men?
Her description of them seems to me highly accurate.
Ferrante has said that may be the most pivotal book of all—that the Neapolitan novels sprang from it? Do you agree about the importance of The Lost Daughter?
I think that’s true. There are moments in that book in which the brutal honesty of the writing achieves an intensity that is almost impossible to find in other novels.
In an interview Ferrante has said: ‘Even if we’re constantly tempted to lower our guard—out of love, or weariness, or sympathy or kindness—we women shouldn’t do it. We can lose from one moment to the next everything that we have achieved.’ What do you make of this comment?
I think this is very true.
The Story of the Lost Child is the last of the Neapolitan novels. How did you feel when you read the ending?
I was absolutely shattered to have reached the end.
Has Ferrante indicated to you whether she intends to write more novels after The Story of the Lost Child?
No. She is exhausted. Writing these four books has been a draining experience.
Do you think Ferrante has been affected by the extraordinary international success of her books, even though she has insulated herself from their public reception?
I would say that it has unsettled her, but she is happy about it.