Out of Twenty, Genni Gunn, Author of Solitaria, Answers Nine Questions

Genni Gunn

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! As I awaited the responses to this interview, I heard that Genni Gunn had been long listed for  Canada’s prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize. This, quite frankly, came as no big surprise to me as Solitaria exhibits gorgeous writing and characterization. Genni was gracious enough to answer nine questions.  Here is what she had to say about reading, writing and her daily three page minimum.

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

I’ve been writing for as long as I can recall, although I’ve also had a parallel life as a musician. As a child, I wrote and bound little books of stories, which my sister illustrated, and we sold these to our indulgent parents, who praised us with unrestrained abandon. (Incidentally, my sister Ileana Springer is the artist whose painting is on the cover of Solitaria.) As an adult, after a number of years of working as a musician, I returned to writing – not that I had ever stopped – but I returned to it with serious dedication. I did not want to spend the rest of my life in bars, playing music, but I could see myself writing stories forever more.

I write in multi-genres, and I enjoy them all immensely. Some ideas are perfectly rendered as short stories, others are much too large and become novels; some only make it to poems. I work on several projects at once, so I’m never bored or stuck. I write books about things that intrigue me, about questions that I’m trying to answer. I’m interested in human dynamics, relationships, in the function of memory in our lives, and in how we distort memory and recreate ourselves as we age. At their core, I think all my books contain a secret, something to uncover to arrive at a greater truth.

I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

I’m very disciplined, in that I write at least five or six hours each day. When I’m working on a novel, at the end of the day,  I stop writing mid-scene. That way, when I begin the following day, the writing comes easily, because I know what’s coming next. When I’m in the first draft of a new novel, I give myself a 3-page minimum to achieve each day, and I include notes and research in this count. Of course, not every day is a perfect writing day. So, when the writing is not going so easily, I find hundreds of banal things that must be done, such as tidying my desk, or weeding the garden or washing the car, etc. And I’m perfectly capable of convincing myself that these things must be done now. I think we can call it an avoidance tactic. This seems to be germane to the creative process.

Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?

I absolutely must read while I’m writing. In fact, I often judge how well the work is going by how much I’m reading. Although I normally read literary fiction, writers who dazzle with their craft, when I’m writing, I’m not particular at all. Anything will do: books of all types, magazines, newspapers, flyers that come in the mail unsolicited, trashy magazines in the checkout aisles, almost anything that has text on it will have my attention. It’s as if I’m replenishing the words that daily spill out of me onto the page.

What was the most interesting thing that you found out while researching this book that you ultimately decided not to include?

I discovered an interesting wartime incident that is rarely mentioned, yet is one of the most disastrous air raids that occurred during WWII: On December 2, 1943, a German air raid destroyed ships in the Bari,Italy harbour. The 17 vessels sunk were Italian, British and American. It is not the raid or the destruction that is surprising to me, but the fact that one of the American ships was secretly carrying mustard gas (which killed all the crew). The Americans claimed it was there as a deterrent. However, seeing as no one knew about it, how could it have been a deterrent?

I constructed a scene in which two of my characters just happen to be in a restaurant overlooking the harbour when the raid occurs. In the end, however, I took out the scene, because it wasn’t adding to the story I was telling, and came across as a blatant author intrusion.

In the past I have visited a blog called Daily Routines and it’s all about the schedules of writers and creative people.  What does a typical day look like for you and how do you manage a busy schedule?

A typical day – if I’m not traveling, and I really really love traveling– would begin around 7:30 or 8:00 a.m.with a latte and the newspaper which I read standing up in the kitchen, for no apparent reason, other than habit. Then I go up to my office on the second floor, and I sit at my desk and write. Of course, I multitask like everyone else these days, by answering email or phone at regular intervals. I often work on several things at once, so I might work on one project, then take a break, replenish the coffee, and go to another. I’ll do this till 4:00 or 5:00. Interspersed with the writing are all the other commitments that come with being an author, such as interviews, readings, festivals, bookclubs, blogs, etc. and all of this requires organization. Somehow it all gets done, often to deadline.

Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be?  How involved were in choosing the name of the book?

I wish I could tell you that I had the title right from the start, but actually, other than one of my books (Mating in Captivity) I’ve never had the title until the end, and even then, it’s been a teeth-biting experience settling on one. For Solitaria, I had about three working titles, all of which really did not work. I came up with endless possibilities that were nixed (and I’m glad they were) until one day, suddenly, the word, Solitaria, came into my head, and I knew it was perfect, not only because it was in Italian, and because in Italian, the word solitaria not only means solitary, but shut-in, and lonely. These descriptions suited all my characters.

 Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first?

I usually begin with an idea and then, I research that idea until something concrete comes from it. The writing of Solitaria, for example, was quite a long process. I went back to Italy every year for five years and interviewed a lot of people, some my relatives, others people who were of the same era, and who would have lived through similar times.

As well, I read a lot of books and researched the times for about a year. I particularly chose books written by Italians during the Mussolini regime, because I wanted to know what people thought about. History books give us someone’s 20/20 hindsight version of events, but literature gives us what people were thinking about during those events. For example, Christ Stopped at Eboli, a memoir by Carlo Levi is an essential work about that era.

Turning all this research into a story was the difficult part. I had to invent a story that would explore the issues I was interested in. Sometimes, historical facts can direct the narrative in surprising ways. I keep myself open to possibilities, and I continue to research while I write.

If you could have everyone read five books, which ones would they be?

I will name five books, but my list could change daily.  There are so many categories of books, and I could pick five out of any of them. For example, mythology. I think everyone should be familiar with the mythology of their own culture. So much of what we read is infused with it.  Poetry. I can’t even begin to single out five poets.  Short Story collections. Classic 18C novels. Classic 19C novels. Creative Non-Fiction. I could go on forever. Too many books, too little time. However, having said this, here are five books that have stayed with me years past the reading of them: The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut, In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, The Body Artist by Don DeLillo, and The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

What’s next?

I’m about two-thirds of the way into a new novel, and am also working on a collection of stories set in exotic locations, with gothic elements to them.

I have a copy of Solitaria to giveaway to readers of Linus’s Blanket. Just fill out this form, and I will pick a winner (to be notified by e-mail) sometime next Thursday.

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About: Genni Gunn is a writer, musician and translator. Born in Trieste, she came to Canada  when she was eleven. She has published nine books: three novels—Solitaria, Tracing Iris and Thrice Upon a Time; two short story collections—Hungers and On The Road; two poetry collections— Faceless and Mating in Captivity. As well, she has translated from Italian two collections of poems—Devour Me Too and Traveling in the Gait of a Fox by renowned Italian author, Dacia Maraini. One of Genni’s books, Mating in Captivity, has been translated into Italian. Two more are forthcoming next year.

Genni’s latest novel, Solitaria, is on the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist.



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  1. Thank God, I have read The Road and Digrace. Not sure I truly understood Disgrace. Need to go back again for a reread. Glad to hear she is a writer who must read. I can’t imagine an author writing well without reading books. Great interview, Nicole. Victim? Yep, you crossed out. Funny.

  2. Marg – It’s the fact that Pattison played Cedric Diggory so differently than Edward in the Twilight movies that has me hoping he has more range than I’ve previously thought. (fingers crossed)