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Maria Allen

19 June 11 words: James Walker
The latest successs story from the NTU MA in Creative Writing chats about her EMBA nominated novel Before The Earthquake.
"For a girl at that time to be pregnant and unmarried would have meant utter ruin and, just as importantly, great shame for her family and extended family."

Before the Earthquake is set in the heart of rural Italy at the turn of the last century. It tells the story of fifteen-year old Concetta Salierno who is injured in the earthquake and awakes from a coma to find she is pregnant but has no recollection of who the father is. Concetta is hastily married off to avoid the social stigma and in doing so has to confront an awkward present while trying to piece together her past. It is a beautiful, evocative story that featured as a Book at Bedtime as well as being a hot favourite for the East Midlands Book Award. We caught up with Maria Allen to discuss her life in publishing, crafting the novel on an MA at Nottingham Trent University, and her Italian roots. Bella.    

Tell us a little bit about your time working in publishing....
I worked in publishing for about three years. I started off interning at a literary agency, then went on to work briefly in the foreign rights department of a medium sized publisher and then spent the remaining time working as a literary scout.  A scout’s job is to know about all the books that will be coming onto the book market - usually over the next couple of years - and to match these books to his or her clients’ lists. It gave me a really good overview of the British book market.

Did this help you in deciding how and what to write about in your novel? I ask this as you’ve seen both sides of the coin and so have a better understanding of what publishers want.
Not really. I had started the novel before working in publishing and the ideas for the novel and even the way those ideas played out subsequently weren’t really affected or changed by my experience in publishing. Of course I had read a lot of new novelists’ work while working as a scout and I had a feel for the quality of what was expected to break into the market.

How important was doing an MA in helping you write the book?
Enormously important. I did my MA at Nottingham Trent full time over a year and I didn’t work or have any other distractions so I was able to dedicate myself to kicking ideas around and trying them out in workshops. I really felt like I could experiment and lots of exciting ideas seem to come to me at odd times of the day and night. I got the idea for Before the Earthquake part way through the year and was able to develop the idea and start writing some of the novel for critique in workshops. My dissertation was essentially the very first section of the novel.

Nicola Monaghan was on the same course as you. Did you find her early success frustrating or did this inspire you to continue with your work?
I was very happy for Nicola and it was encouraging for everyone doing the course that she had early success because publication felt that bit closer for the rest of us. It was possible! Nicola is really driven though and a prolific, as well as a really talented, writer. It did feel like she opened up the way for us and she was certainly always very keen to help us out and offer support.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers? 
For me, being around writers and being part of a writing community (such as on the MA and now being a member of the Nottingham Writers Studio) was and is really valuable. It gives you, reflects back at you, a sense of your place in the writing firmament. Critical feedback from other writers who are going through the same issues as you helps you to fix what you need to fix in your writing and you also get a measure of how your work could be received on a bigger stage. These groups can help you acquire and develop the confidence to push forward with your project and you can get practical advice on how best to get your work out there to agents and editors. Writing in isolation is, I think, very hard.

"It was great to have the novel selected for Book at Bedtime. I listened in every evening and it was a fascinating experience although sometimes slightly unsettling."

The novel is set in southern Italy at the turn of the last century, how did you go about researching this period?
This was the fun bit. I went out to southern Italy on two occasions and interviewed a number of people (mainly older relatives) about how life would have been in their youth. One of my great aunts is 104 so her childhood took place not that long after my protagonist’s would have taken place so she was the expert on how the working day throughout the year would have unfolded. I did some research in libraries in the area and read quite a bit of material that described various superstitions and festivals and local traditions. Listening to people’s accounts though made it real for me and also witnessing the place itself, the kinds of structures, for example , where a family of ten would have lived - simple two-room dwellings where humans and animals lived together. For a few weeks I was able to inhabit that village and imagine how it would have been back in time.

How does it feel to see the book dissected in public?
Generally, the reaction has been positive and people seem to have responded particularly positively to the sense of the book being an authentic description of how life would have been in that area of the world at that time.

And your family?
Unfortunately, most of my Italian relatives have not been able to read the novel as it hasn’t been translated into Italian. I would be quite curious myself to know how they would react!

In the novel a fifteen-year-old peasant girl is injured in an earthquake and loses her memory. She finds herself pregnant but cannot remember who the father is. Can you tell us a little bit about how much of a stigma this would have been?
For a girl at that time to be pregnant and unmarried would have meant utter ruin and, just as importantly, great shame for her family and extended family. As part of my research, I did look at church records going back several centuries and I did find on at least one occasion ‘pater ignotus’ recorded next to a birth indicating that the father was unknown. Something like that really got me wondering what kind of terrible life that woman and her child might have had as a consequence. Being practical people, though, I am sure that solutions of the kind described in the novel would have been found to cover up the scandal.

You get a real sense of the relationship between the people and their environment in the book. Can you tell us a little about this way of life and do you think this is something missing in modern Italy or does it still exist?
Up until even as late as the 1950s, some parts of southern Italy remained as they had been for many centuries: poor and mostly rural, the people dependent on subsistence farming. The connection to the land and the seasons dominated their lives and people escaped by emigrating or moving northwards to other parts of Italy. These villages today are very different. There was a major earthquake in 1980 in the Campania region of Italy - where the novel is set - and it changed the landscape. Villages no longer look like they did a hundred years ago as unsafe buildings have been demolished and modern churches and town halls and apartment buildings have been constructed to take their place. Of course mass emigration has meant a lot of these villages had shrunk in size in any case and those people that still live here don’t work the land in the way they once did. There is still a strong sense of localism in southern Italy and, for those that have emigrated, nostalgia for their home environment and the strong bonds that people shared. Overall, though, for those that lived through those times, there is the acknowledgement that life had been too harsh and they have mostly grasped the economic and upward mobility opportunities open to them whether in Italy or abroad.

You made it on to the Book at Bedtime. How did that feel and did you listen in?
It was great to have the novel selected for Book at Bedtime. I listened in every evening and it was a fascinating experience although sometimes slightly unsettling. I have all the words in my head and I know the rhythm of them and hearing someone else reading them, sometimes to a different rhythm, felt strange. It was the closest I’ve come to being in someone else’s head while reading my novel. 

You were previously shortlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize and now for the EMBA. How important are prizes to writers and is this the most validating thing for you? 
Prizes are a useful way of having attention drawn to your work. I’ve been really flattered that Before the Earthquake has been considered for prizes but I also feel that people’s responses to books depend on so many variables and personal preferences.

Given the success of the book are you worried about being labeled as a ‘historical writer?’ On the same note, will Italy be the setting for future work?
I don’t see myself as a historical writer. The book just happened to be set at the turn of the last century. I can certainly see modern Italy being a setting for future work…

The winner of the East Midlands Book Award will be announced at the Lowdham Book Festival on 20 June. For more information on other events, please see the Lowdham website.

Maria Allen’s website
James Walker’s website


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