At Lunch with Donna Leon
by Elaine Petrocelli

Book Passage, Corte Madera, California

I actually enjoyed my recent plane ride to Italy because I was immersed in Uniform Justice.  The miles flew by as one of my favorite detectives, the complex and fascinating Commissario Guido Brunetti, uncovered murder and corruption at a military academy. My husband, Bill, and I were on our way to Venice where we would interview Donna Leon.

As arranged, we found her waiting for us at the newsstand in the piazza. She was easy to find because she looks just like her pictures, including the stunning streak of white in her black hair. She graciously invited us to her apartment. The courtyard of the ancient building was filled with beautiful plants and the fragrance of blooming jasmine. Of course someone’s laundry was drying overhead. Donna Leon said, “ I hope you don’t mind, the apartment is up sixty-two steps.” By the time we reached the top I was dripping sweat but she remained cool and composed.

The apartment is filled with treasures from all over the world. Donna claims that she is absolutely without ambition. “I just wanted to have fun and a nice life. I think for a period of about fifteen years I never lived on the same continent. I taught English and sometimes in desperation English as a second language. In the eighties I was in Saudi Arabia for nine months and it was so awful an experience I decided I would stop roaming around and move to Venice. I managed to get a job at the University of Maryland, which has a contract at the American military bases (in the Veneto). It allowed me to live as an Italian and work in English.”

In the early ’80s Donna Leon and a friend were in the dressing room at La Fenice chatting with the conductor and his wife. They began to talk of wanting to murder a certain conductor. Something clicked. “And since we were in a conductor’s dressing room, I thought hmm where, how? . . . So I wrote a book. The book sat in a drawer for a year and a half until a friend of mine nudged me. When I say I’m without ambition, I really mean it. This friend nudged me into sending it to a Japanese mystery contest. And when the letter came back I didn’t know what it was. I was invited there and it won.”

This led to a two-book contract and soon Donna Leon’s career in crime fiction was flying.

We spoke of  Guido Brunetti, the detective who was born that day in the dressing room of La Fenice. In each book we learn more about his background and about his family and friends. Donna Leon’s comment was, “Well he’s a grown-up and he has a life.”

We spoke of crime fiction and of book reviews. Donna Leon reviewed crime fiction for several years for the Sunday Times of London. She likes books by Laura Wilson, P. D. James, Ruth Rendel, Reginal Hill, and Frances Fyfield. She prefers to have the violence take place off the page. “I don’t think it’s good for us to read that stuff, more so to write that stuff. I’ve never had a television and I don’t go to the movies so I am perhaps more attuned to the vision of violence. I just can’t do it.”

I couldn’t resist mentioning that I had noticed a book by the great Jan Morris on her dining table. “She’s divine. Pax Britannica, the footnotes, there’s so much. It’s so good to read  people who really know how to write and she’s one of them. I just finished the new Jane Smiley. Did you read the new Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake?”

 I had to pinch myself. I was sitting in a gorgeous apartment in Venice discussing great writers with Donna Leon.

Book Passage has been importing her books from England. This is both inconvenient and costly. Fortunately that will soon be remedied. Atlantic Monthly Press will publish Uniform Justice in fall 2003, and A Noble Radiance will be released in a Penguin mass-market edition. Then in spring 2003 we’ll get the Atlantic Monthly Press edition of Doctored Evidence at the same time that it’s published in Britain. Each year there will be a new hardcover book along with more paperbacks.

I want to know if Brunetti’s feisty wife, Paola, is based on Donna Leon. “Somewhat, yes. She teaches English literature and she has a lot of my crazy political ideas.”
How about her parents? “The count is wonderfully ambiguous. Like people, we think they are something and then they’re not.”

I wonder how the Venetians take to her books? “They’re not translated into Italian and they won’t be. That’s my choice because I do not want to live where I am famous. I think the reason I don’t like it is that is creates a certain kind injustice. . . .  I don’t like being approached by people in a deferential way. That goes against my ideas of social intercourse. And it always makes my alarm bells ring. It just makes me feel creepy. I went to the Rialto this morning and then I went to the post office and I was stopped three times by German speakers. I don’t want to be famous. The postman calls me tu and makes me walk down all sixty-two steps to get the mail just like everybody else. I like that.”

Donna Leon’s books are translated into over twenty languages. They are wildly popular in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Her latest book hit number one on Der Spiegel best-seller list within days of publication.

She does author appearances in those countries, but always with music. “The reason I’m glad about the success is that it allows me to get people to listen to music. We do a lot of programs where I read and they sing. I’m happy to do that. I’ve had offers from a number of opera houses to do coproductions because my name will drag in borderline people who might not have been interested in a concert. And I’m very happy to do that. Otherwise I try not to do anything anymore. I don’t need to, but music needs it. Classical music has fewer and fewer listeners every year.  Classical music is in serious trouble. The recording business is in serious trouble. It used to be ten percent, then seven percent. Now it’s between three and four percent.”

“I think it’s the failure to teach music in school. It’s somehow a failure of people of culture, whoever they are, to be willing to pass on musical culture to younger people. And somehow opera has picked up a snob appeal. And so young people will not venture to the opera because they see it as alien. They’ll go to a museum because that’s sort of harmless and you can’t make a mistake. You can’t clap at the wrong place in the museum.”

Baroque music, especially baroque opera, is her passion. “Intimate Baroque music is never pretentious.” Her work with the Il Complesso Barocco, conducted by Alan Curtis,  keeps her traveling. She was in Switzerland yesterday and tomorrow she’ll be in Barcelona listening to a mezzo-soprano.

The soprano who had committed to sing with the orchestra in September has cancelled and now Donna Leon is off in search of the right voice to take the role.

As we leave Donna Leon and set off under the Venetian sun, I’m anxious get on the train and dive into another novel by Donna Leon.