Simonetta Agnello Hornby was born in Palermo and has spent most of her working life in London where she works as a lawyer. Her first novel, La mennulara (The Almond Picker) was greatly acclaimed and has been translated into many languages. It was awarded the Forte Village Literary Prize, the Stresa Prize for Fiction and the Alassio Prize. She has had continued success with other novels including her most recent work to be translated into English, La monaca (The Nun).
What brought you to London and drove you to specialise in your particular field of law?
I fell in love with an Englishman whom I met in Cambridge when I was learning English as a foreign language at 17 and then married him. I lived in America, in Zambia, in Oxford and then in London in 1972. I obtained a doctorate in jurisprudence in Sicily and when I returned to England I had already worked in lawyers’ offices in Zambia. I had to train to become an English solicitor and I did so while I was having my children. I worked in the City which I loved greatly, but the pressures in those days on married women with children were huge and in order to have success I would have had to put the children in boarding school and I didn’t want to do this. So, I looked for a job locally. There was one in Brixton, the London Borough of Lambeth, as a Child Care Solicitor. I worked for them for two years. I then set up my own business as Hornby and Levy, with a partner who is now Judge Marcia Levy.
Given your other commitments, why did you feel compelled to put pen to paper?
I’m very happy to be a lawyer. Of my two jobs, the one of a lawyer is more enjoyable to be honest, and more useful than being a writer. There are lots of good writers around and if I disappeared my readers would be sad for a while, but would comfort themselves extremely well. I set up my law firm and then carried it on alone, because Marcia, my partner, went abroad and then went on to become a judge. We created a school of lawyers who applied the ethos of the City to working in legal aid for the poor. I think that was worthwhile and has left a legacy of excellent lawyers all over England who were trained by us.
When did you start writing?
I started writing by chance. I never wanted to be a writer; it just came to me at an airport on the 2nd September 2000 in the form of a vision. I saw a film in my head and tried to write it. I write like a lawyer.
So you write visually?
I write visually, although lawyers are not visual. I write like a lawyer in the sense that I never give a judgement to the reader, it’s the reader who has to decide whether the character is good or bad. I try to be short and to the point, avoiding repetitions, just as I write my legal documents. The difference between the two jobs is that as a writer I can invent everything, as a lawyer I can’t do that.
Your work is chiefly in the United Kingdom?
I’m an English solicitor, and all my clients are in Britain. I’m not an Italian avvocato. I’ve been lecturing for many many years and I lecture everywhere in the world. Next year, as I’ll be 67, it will be the right time for me to leave the law, sadly: otherwise I’ll become a bad lawyer and won’t realise it. I’ll then take a course in mediation. I don’t know if I am suitable for this new career or if I will want to work as such. But I would not like to leave the law permanently yet and mediation may be useful. However, I shall leave the courtroom.
With your life in the UK, what do you miss about Sicily?
It’s very difficult to say what I miss. Monte Pellegrino, which for me, is the centre of the world. When I went to Australia and I saw the holy mountain of the aboriginals I thought “I understand them” because mine is Monte Pellegrino. I also miss people, places, the food. But, as for people, I can talk to and see them on Skype, and I can cook Sicilian food in London. The sun and the beauty of Sicily are great, but so is the beauty of London. Monte Pellegrino is my real point, I need to go back to Palermo to see it.
Your first book, La mennulara (The Almond Picker) is set in the fictional town of Roccacolomba. Where in Sicily did you locate it?
Roccacolomba in the book is in the Madonie, the mountains in Palermo Province. It’s an imaginary place, a rocky little town in the mountains. The characters came to me at the airport, as did the whole book. The setting could have been anywhere on the island, but the culture of almonds is widespread in the south of Sicily, and not in the north. I spend my summer holidays near Agrigento, so my countryside is that countryside.
How do you go about researching your books?
As I do as a lawyer, I read, I compare, I go and see, I speak.
So there’s much work involved?
A lot of work, but it’s very enjoyable. Possibly one of the best things about writing is the research.
In a way like legal research – finding your goals and aims? Yes and no. It’s like the law in so far as you have to research, but in the law I never do research for my own goals or aims, but for the client’s own aims and goals. I don’t ‘create’ or find them in the law, only when I write. The law is very limited and limiting.
Working withing the strictures of the law?
No restrictions, but instructions.
Sicily seems to invite the historical novel. Some of your books, like The Nun, have historical themes. Was this a conscious decision or simply the appropriate setting for each story?
La zia marchesa (The Marchesa) and La monaca (The Nun) are both set in the nineteenth century. The Marchesa is the story of a great great aunt of mine who had been maligned by the family and died without children. She left her considerable wealth to my grandfather and his brothers, not the sisters. The family and her husband treated her badly so I wanted to put right the wrong done to her by them and by Pirandello who wrote Tutt’ e tre about her. It was a nasty novel, unworthy of such a great writer. So I wanted to put something right. Also, because of the period I had the opportunity of explaining the origin of the Mafia. That’s important because many Sicilians don’t know it, my mother didn’t know it. And if you think you don’t know the origins of something you imagine that it can never change. In fact we can change if the state wants and if we want. La monaca is historical too. But I really wanted to write a story about two characters: an Islamic girl obliged to marry today and a nun who was obliged not to marry two centuries ago. The nun was so powerful that she kicked out the Islamic character.
She took over the story?
You have a foot in two cultures, both with island mentalities. What are the differences and similarities between Sicily and England?
They are incredibly similar. The island mentality is interesting; the British are terrified of being invaded and haven’t been for more than a thousand years now. We are terrified of being invaded and still are. It’s a sad story. The British are incredibly conceited and so are the Sicilians. I think it comes from being an island. We’ve a very strong sense of the clan, with a powerful male figure. Most of the aristocracy in Britain survives on the male tail and we have the same. We have the influence of the Normans which is enormous in Britain and lasting in Sicily. The concept of family is very similar. My husband was better than papà, to be honest, and modern, but his concept of the family was very much like my father’s – the male provider, the mother looks after the children. We differ: the Sicilians have sarcasm, the English have humour. That’s very important.
Can you explain that?
Sarcasm is when you laugh at others and humour is when you laugh at yourself. Also, the British have got more method and, therefore, they get the NOBEL prizes. We Sicilians have a very intuitive intelligence which sparks but then stops when we question why we should do that. The British have developed a sense of community and working together, I think because of the weather. When the weather is bad you have to join together or you don’t survive. We Sicilians have been blessed and cursed with such wonderful weather that we don’t need to do much to survive. People and families can live on their own. We really have no tradition of working together, of setting up cooperatives, having share companies, of business enterprises that are not family run. Fights over inheritance in Sicily rank above most others. It’s one of our immense downfalls in business.
Commentators have mentioned the concept of Sicilies, in plural, rather than Sicily? What do you think?
No, I don’t believe in Sicilies. I don’t understand and am happy not to understand “Sicilianitudine” or other such words. What I’ve said is that the Mafia is in western Sicily and that eastern Sicily was without the Mafia, but I really don’t divide Sicily in two because it isn’t this way. Others may divide it into all the villages which couldn’t be reached from other parts until recently, but, although the Siculi were the original inhabitants of Sicily (in eastern Sicily). I do think there is a tremendous similarity between all Sicilians, everywhere; you can begin with the food which is very similar, or the language. I can understand the Sicilian from anywhere.
That’s interesting; I was going to ask you about the role of place and dialect in your work. As a translator I think there must be an art to capturing these nuances in any translation. How do you see the work of a translator?
Let me say from the very beginning that I consider the profession of translation as one that is maligned and not given the consideration that it deserves. It’s an incredibly difficult job. We owe, I owe to translators my knowledge of ancient Greek literature, of poems, of books from all over the world. A bad translation can kill a book, a good translation can actually make it better than the original. This is the work of the translator. My book is my book: if somebody makes a film of it, it’s his film, if he makes a play, it’s his play and if he makes a translation, it’s his translation. I think the translator must be free to do what he wants, that’s important. He can ask questions to the author and the author has got to reply, but it’s not his job to check the translation. It’s not for me to say if it is a good translation, but for the publisher who appoints the translator, whether or not in consultation with the author or his agent. I find it very difficult to read myself in English because both my translators, I’ve had two, use words I don’t understand, they give a style that isn’t mine, I think, but it’s their book.
Have you written in English yourself?
I wrote a book in English that has never been published in English. I rewrote it , I didn’t translate the book; I verbally read it aloud and put it into Italian. What was extraordinary was that when I was reading, when I was talking, I was saying different things from the written word. I would shorten dialogue or change it. I would also change descriptions. There was a description of St James Park, which in English was full of clouds, but in Italian I only wrote of the luminosity, the clouds didn’t fit. So you have to give freedom to the translator, but within limits, obviously.
Finally, you mentioned that Sicily can change. Do you think the recent election (2012) to the Sicilian Regional Assembly signals the path towards a significant shift?
I really can’t talk about politics in detail. I know a little bit about the leaders. My personal view is that change must be fundamental, sustainable and sustained by everybody, but we are very far from that. Corruption, which is endemic in Italy, thrives in Sicily thanks to the Mafia and the will of the government of Italy and the Region to let things go. We’ve got a former president in prison, as you know, for Mafia related crimes. This fact is quite an extraordinary indictment of politicians. It takes a lot to change, but we can. I think we have to work from the bottom up and have a huge common will. At the moment we are struggling to survive.