The Vietri Project is a novel as layered and rich as the millenia of Roman history on which it was built, and every bit as satisfying. It is a mystery and a coming-of-age novel that explores the tenuous connections between families, lovers, and strangers. Nicola DeRobertis-Theye took the time to talk with me about the experience of reading her book — one which eschews easy answers or perfect clarity for the much more messy reality of living in a world full of people.
One thing I wanted to ask about was the pace of your novel. It’s pitch perfect. And you’ve woven together all of these different timelines and story threads — the painter, Vietri, you have Elena, you never find out anything more about Chiara, we don’t find out anything more about Giancarlo and Laura.
In terms of the structure, I really wanted to play with a mystery structure. There’s a very specific genre in mysteries, novels of biographical detection. It’s one character trying to find out about the life of another character who they often don’t know personally. I thought that was the best idea for a book. I don’t want to oversell this as a genre, plot-driven novel, but I did play with that structure a lot. For example, Giancarlo and Laura seeming pretty important and then exiting the stage forever, that for me was playing with the idea of a red herring.
One of the other things I wanted the book to do was also be a guide to the last hundred years of Italian history. I wanted it to be a map so if you read this book you will come away with an idea of what happened in Italy in the last hundred years. First she finds his birthdate and knows how old he is. That leads her to the painter and those are the fascist years. After that it’s the history of the Italian prisoners of war that were in England and many other places and also the action of Italian soldiers that were in Libya and Ethiopia. After that the Years of Lead that were very traumatic for Italy. Just decades of “Is Italy going to be a communist country?” It was a kind of Cold War battlefield; both America and Russia were very focused on Italy swinging one way or another. And of course leading up to the present and the financial crisis and how that has just been totally catastrophic for a whole generation of Italians. Then the refugee crisis which I think is the biggest moral challenge of Italy and much of Europe now.
You’ve written a mystery about intimacy, that gives us a narrator who refuses to be intimate with us — especially at first. I think what you did is so interesting. I was wondering if we could talk about that.
I think that when I was writing this character, a lot of how I was thinking — I think intimacy is totally right to be such a central concern of the book. She’s very thoughtful and she’s very smart, and she spends a lot of time examining things. At the same time, she’s very lacking in self-knowledge. She’ll do things that surprise me and surprise her.
I didn’t even realize at first, that I didn’t know her name. We get everybody else’s name constantly, and her name — it’s on the back of the book. And maybe once or twice throughout. It’s an interesting technique to distance us. I’m curious how much of her lack of intimacy, even with herself, comes from her relationship with her mother.
She is someone who is estranged from her own mind. She is not totally in touch with her past and her relationship with her mother. When it comes to her mother, it’s obviously a traumatic memory for her. Her mother was institutionalized. And it’s the double edge of having someone who is supposed to be a caretaker for you be a source of potential — if not violence, then uncertainty and stress when you’re at a vulnerable age. Then for the rest of her teenage years and her early adulthood, it’s really a matter of her feeling a lack of a mother and a lack of guidance. A relationship with someone so important that’s driven primarily by guilt. Then the shift in their relationship where she goes from being the vulnerable one to being the one with more power over the relationship, which is also a bewildering thing that happens to young adults.
I wanted the reader to be very immersed in her own mind, especially in the beginning of the book. And she hasn’t really developed an external shell of an identity that she wants to project into the world in the way that lots of people have by that age. Whether that’s a good thing or not, she’s very vague, even to herself.
The other thing is that she is named after her grandfather, her mother’s father. Whenever I could I threw in Italian names that read as different genders in the different countries. I thought that was a really interesting identity puzzle. I think a lot of what she ends up exploring is these categories of humans and how we use them to in some cases take away from people’s humanity and in other cases just sort people into places they might not sort themselves.
You mention “if not violence,” but throughout the novel, intimacy, closeness, and trust is really weaponized. And there are so many points where she describes intimacy or the potential for destruction through intimacy. With Laura and Giancarlo. With Andrea and the churches, that’s such a betrayal of her trust time and time again. And at the end, when you say about Roberto, “Still, there was a tenderness when he spoke him, this legless widowed father he hadn’t seen in five years, one I didn’t understand.” Because his father was violent and presumably abusive but he still has so much love and tenderness for him. Could you speak to that — how intentional that was versus how much that just sort of came up in the writing?
I’m not entirely sure how front of mind it was while I was writing. I probably would have said that I thought the violence of the book was more contained in the historical episodes she discovers during her search. But at the same time, she’s a twenty-five year old woman in the world and — for many, many people but particularly for being female — there’s a reward/risk calculus that you’re running at most times, specifically when it comes to intimacy. Do I walk home or do I wait for the bus? When it comes to intimacy it sounds like I’m talking about sexual violence but that’s not explicitly something I was trying to address in the book. Even broader than that, it’s really hard to be emotionally intimate with people. For this narrator, particularly, she thinks she’ll experience it as a loss of self or a loss of autonomy or an increased ability to be wounded. You fall in love and you date a boyfriend and you could break up and that would be really painful. That’s true for all humans and many many situations. The choice to not engage in any of that is also a very risky choice in its own way.
Do you think that her search for Vietri was her way of saying, “I want to know someone else, finally,” or “I want someone else to know me and this is a way to get closer to my family without them knowing that I’m closer to them?”
It’s almost an attempt at a shortcut. She wants to know how she should live life and she thinks he’s a wise person; a lot of it is just wanting someone to give her the answers. That would be great. This is maybe what happened to Millennials under capitalism, or our stage of capitalism. This sense that there should have been goals that were given to her that weren’t. And of course, there aren’t really shortcuts, you really do have to, unfortunately, decide what your values are and how you’re going to live according to them. This search for Vietri was an attempt at a shortcut and by the end she’s realized it is important to have people in your life and it is difficult to build up those relationships.
But in the beginning of the book she really doesn’t believe that her choices matter. By the end of the book, it sounds so simple but this is a really hard lesson to learn when you’re younger, your choices do matter, they do affect people around you, even if you think no one cares about you. And you do have to take responsibility for them.
She consistently does these things that feel very out of character. She steals documents as she’s accumulating clues for who Vietri is. She pretends to be Chiara, she lies on the forms that she fills out, and she steals the envelope from Signora Elena. She refuses to even acknowledge that she’s done it until she is completely alone. It almost feels as if she’s waiting for privacy to acknowledge the way that she is changing. And she refers to the privacy as safety. It happens multiple times and each time she has the same reaction to it, which is “I don’t really know how I did this.”
It’s one of those patterns that seems obvious to you now that the book is written but I don’t know that I can say how intentional it was as a story choice but that is something that is deep in her character, the need for privacy and aloneness. Her need for aloneness is the main obstacle to her being close with her Roman family. I describe them as certain flocks of fish or birds. They take comfort in being around each other. I think for this character, in particular, that would be extremely hard. To just never be able to go off and read at a cafe by yourself.
It just feels like she feels so much safer, even in a crowd, when she’s alone. We’re all so alone now, we’re all so isolated. It’s a funny time for this book to come out. She would do really well with the pandemic.
It also connects to what we were talking about earlier: intimacy means vulnerability. The more intimate you are, the more people can wound you. I think for all people intimacy is connected to vulnerability. But particularly for her, she had such a solitary childhood.
I was an anthropology major so I had to take a lot of physical anthropology classes. We’re very hardwired to be social people. Even the most solitary among us, you do need some sort of interaction, which this pandemic has reminded people.
In the book, you describe schizophrenia as being an effort to create a coherent story out of all the information that you’re getting. Which honestly, to me, felt like writing. You’re choosing all of this information, and how do you choose what pieces of this matter to the story, and what is real, and what is just irrelevant? I’m so curious how much of this is just there in the book versus intentional.
That was a bit more intentional. As I was writing I knew that books themselves were a huge theme, and stories. It really does come down to: we all create stories, one way or another, even if we’re not writers. And that’s a very human impulse and one that is important to recognize, especially as you’re deciding how to live life.
The other travelers’ stories — the story about the woman who leaves her new husband — I don’t want to give anything away, because that was such a jarring and important moment. I couldn’t tell you why it was important, but it felt important. Even the way she reacted to it, “Yeah, people just tell me their stories, and this is just another story.”
With Maria’s story, that was one of the things that I felt like I don’t quite know what this is doing here, but I wrote it really early. I felt strongly that even if I didn’t know exactly what it was doing there, it was really doing something. Writing is really mysterious and if not spiritual then there’s lots of mysteries that you just can’t really explain where things came from. I just always felt strongly that it needed to be there and it needed to be quite close to the beginning, in the first third of the novel at least. I’m kind of shocked, I always expected someone, like my friends who read it or my agent or the editor, to say “What is this doing here? The reader is going to get impatient; it doesn’t have anything to do with the main character.” And no one ever.
There’s a line about people telling her stories, and I don’t think I’m one of those people, but I definitely know people, like my mother. People just see her and go up and start telling her stories. That’s so mysterious that that happens in the world, but I’ve seen it and I have no explanation for it.
There are some people, even if they, themselves, don’t open up all that much, people perceive them as opening up. But for me it was the ants when I felt like I was starting to get more of her feelings. The ants in the apples were so well done.
I think it’s very true that she’s very emotionally disconnected from her own actions. Hopefully by the end she starts to come out of that a little. But that is a protective shell in response to her own past. I’m glad you liked the ants; I liked the ants.
It was so small and so perfect. It felt like such a tender, intimate moment between mother and child that the mother probably never recognized. It was lovely. It was sad.
That was, again, one of the earliest pieces of the book that I wrote. That scene was just always there.
This book is so compelling and it’s not really like anything else I’ve read. I’m sure it would have been easy at some point to say, “I’m going to make this a simpler book,” but that wasn’t what this was and I’m really grateful for that. Thank you for taking the time to talk about it.
Nicola DeRobertis-Theye was an Emerging Writing Fellow at the New York Center for Fiction, and her work has been published in Agni, Electric Literature, and LitHub. A graduate of UC Berkeley, she received an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, where she was the fiction editor of its literary magazine Ecotone. She is a native of Oakland, CA and lives in Brooklyn, New York.