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10 Questions for Paolo Rumiz

“As she opens her front door, dressed perfectly with just a hint of retro, you see the blue flame of the samovar grumbling behind her down at the end of the hall. The tea, the smoked herring, the small talk meted out with the stately pace of a fairytale, create just the right atmosphere for talking about any theme you like. ‘How’s it going, young man,’ she says, a bit maternally, sizing you up with the Tatar gaze of a countess who has seen it all: wars, love affairs, and who-knows-what-all. Then she leads you by the hand into the labyrinths of history, with the expertise of someone who has been working there forever.” —from “Like Horses Asleep on Their Feet,” translated by Gregory Conti, Winter 2017 (Vol. 58, Issue 4)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I was twenty-one and I wrote about my first big journey to the north of Scandinavia. I would have done anything just to be able to keep on traveling, encountering places and people. That was what interested me even before writing. I was lucky, and I became a journalist. Thanks to my profession I’ve seen the world.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I need a bath of poetry to refresh my language, still too tied to journalistic objectivity. The writer I now read with the most passion is Derek Walcott. And I’m also charmed by the poetic trilogy of Blaise Cendrars that precedes the First World War.

What did you want to be when you were young?
An explorer. I was crazy about the journeys of Daniel Boone and, later, for the explorations of nature by Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin. Then, as I got older, I fell in love with geology. I would set off with a hammer, backpack, tent and sleeping bag, hunting for fossils and rocks. I came back with my pack weighing three times what it did when I left.

What inspired you to write this piece?
My belonging to an Austrian city conquered by Italy in 1918. A city inhabited by Italians who – as Austrian subjects – had fought against Italy, and so in a certain sense had lost the war. For reasons of patriotism, this history had been repressed for almost a century and I thought the centennial of the Great War was the right moment to talk about it.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
No city more than my own, Trieste, the same city that fascinated Joyce. It’s the best place for departing. It’s marginal for Italy but right in the center of Europe, at the meeting place of the Mediterranean and the midlands of my continent.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
No, no! The music of others would limit me. Creating, I have my own music that grows inside me spontaneously. I listen to that: a mixture of klezmer, the Slavic world, and German. A synthesis of the “bastard” culture that I come from.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I work in the kitchen, a big kitchen where I have my corner. I love to cook while writing. The continuous back and forth between the burners and my papers, or my computer, generates tons of ideas. The right ones come to me when I get up to do something else, not when I’m sitting there concentrating on my page. The mind has to breathe, and to breathe it needs to walk. You write with your feet before writing with your hands.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My companion. With great delicacy she tells me the things that don’t work. And she’s always right. Also, children are good judges, but more severe than adults. Them I trust.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I know a writer who saw himself more in the way he arranged his woodpile than he did in his books. I often see myself more in a good dish that I’ve cooked. If cooking is an art, that’s it, I would have liked to cook for a living. Today we cook less and less, and the less we cook the less we communicate.

What are you working on currently?
I just finished a children’s story that tells of a land where music has been outlawed but where it is still able to win over a little girl. Now I’m about to start on a very ambitious project: a song for the Europe that I love, this common homeland of ours that everyone wants to leave but that instead has ensured us seventy years of peace.

PAOLO RUMIZ is Italy’s most prolific and best-selling travel writer. The author of fifteen books in sixteen years, Rumiz has bicycled in the Balkans, boated on the Po, walked the trail of Hannibal’s invasion, and traveled from northern Finland to Odessa. This last journey was chronicled in Faultline: Traveling the Other Europe from Finland to the Ukraine. This interview was translated by Gregory Conti.

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