“Bernini’s Elephant”, a noir set in beautiful Italy: interview with the author Jane Callen

VANCOUVER – A noir story, set in Italy, written by a Canadian in love with the “Belpaese”: it’s called “Bernini’s Elephant” and it’s the debut novel by Jane Callen, a writer who lives in Vancouver but travels to Italy “every time the fate allows”. The beautiful country and its people are in fact often present in the writings of Jane, author so far of stories published in Grain Magazine, Montreal Writes, Spadina Literary Review, CV7 Short Fiction Anthology Series and White Wall Review, as well as essays published in Accenti Magazine (excerpts of her writings are at www.janecallen.ca). 

Jane – who is also a member of The Writers’ Union of Canada, Federation of BC Writers & Association of Italian Canadian Writers – agreed to answer our questions, telling us about herself and her debut novel which will be released on May 1st for “Guernica Editions”.

How you discovered your passion for writing?
“I have been writing my entire life, either on paper or in my head! I went to university to study journalism but that didn’t feel right so I switched to sociology. I had a successful career managing the development of training for high tech companies when a downturn in the economy lead me to re-think what I wanted to do with my life. I decided to chase the dream for a change, applied to Humber University to study creative writing. One story led to another…”.

Your first novel is a “noir” set in Italy: why did you choose this literary genre and that location?
“I actually didn’t choose a genre, rather I developed a story that appealed to me. It was others who called it noir, although the writer of the blurb on the cover calls in genre-defying!”. I write about locations I know and love, in this case Italy which has been my passion since I first discovered her a decade ago. Besides, that way I can return again and again to do research! What can be better than sipping a Pinot grigio in piazza della Rotonda in Rome, watching the comings and goings of the foot traffic and calling it research?”.

You have a deep love for Italy… which are the reasons?
“Oh so many. Somehow Italy fills in the gaps in my soul that modern life in Canada does not. Walking on the cobbled pavers of ancient Pompeii, I am connecting with history. Immersing myself in the beauty of the art, savoring cuisine cooked with the freshest ingredients and love, exploring the ever changing terroir under the brilliant Mediterranean sun, these experiences make me feel more alive. I took the DNA tests for ethnicity and there is no evidence of Italian blood in me but I do have French Norman roots and they spent a lot of time in Italy so I am still hopeful that Italy is my ancestral home!”.

You love to cook Italian recipes: what is your favourite one?
“My favourite dish to eat in Italy is Spaghetti alle Vongole. Spaghetti with Clams! I watched in Vernazza (one of the five villages of Cinque Terre in Liguria, edas the fisherman brought the morning catch in a tupperware bin to the cook of a small café on the beach. He looked into the bin and wrote the lunch menu on a chalk board, Spaghetti alle vongole. It doesn’t come fresher than that. At home I enjoy making pasta dishes. My favoutites being Spaghetti Carbonara (with pancetta and topped with a raw egg yolk) or Cacio e Pepe. I have tried making Spaghetti alle Vongole but it’s not the same. An Italian chef told me not to bother because Mediterranean clams are completely different than those we have in the cold waters of Canada. The Italian ones are small and sweet. Deliziose!”.

What do you admire most about Italy?
“A characteristic of Italian life that I particularly admire is the desire to make the best possible quality of whatever product or art is being created. Cheese and wine come to mind but on my last trip I learned about the rice farming, the concerted effort to develop improved varietals with the goal of producing the highest quality rices in Europe and ultimately world wide. Such a small thing, a kernal of rice, but such a huge dream. And that is how my work-in-progress novel, finds itself set on a rice farm. I want to explore the challenges of this industry while fresh fictional characters manage to get themselves into more noir coloured adventures”.

All that remains is to read the novel and dive into an Italy that perhaps only the eyes of a non-Italian person can see.