“If you ask me how a character is created…” Giancarlo De Cataldo reveals his writing process


by Anna M. Corposanto

Nella Luce e Nell’Ombra is the latest novel by Giancarlo De Cataldo, published in Italy by Einaudi. This historical mystery set in 1814, the period of the Italian Risorgimento, has been in Italian bookstores since October 2014. We met with the author to hear how he wrote his novel and, generously, he told us everything.

Giancarlo, Nella Luce e Nell’Ombra was written with a specific aim…

Nella luce e nell'ombra

Yes, it was written to celebrate the two hundred years since the founding of the Carabinieri. It is Colonel Roberto Riccardi’s idea, a curious character for a colonel, as he directed the magazine Il Carabinieri and is also a writer. I would call him an intellectual in uniform. One of his books Sono Stato Un Numero, which is great, is the story of Alberto Sed, the last survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The idea was that Gianrico Carofiglio, Carlo Lucarelli and I would write a short novel each and Valerio Massimo Manfredi a series of short stories (forthcoming), which covered the time span ranging from the birth of the Carabinieri (1814) to our present day. Stories that centred around the Carabinieri. I was assigned the early years of the Carabinieri given my studies on the Risorgimento and my book I Traditori in addition to the script of the film Noi Credevamo by Mario Martone. After getting well acquainted with the era again, I chose to write a historical novel, yes, but to make it interesting, enjoyable, even for those who are not fond of this genre. And so I discarded the idea of a noble patriotic novel and I went with an historical mystery, with nods to Sherlock Holmes, the serial killer Hannibal by Thomas Harris, and  Lombroso, as well as the science that took its first steps in the nineteenth century. …

How did you create the characters in this novel?  

Carabinieri 1846

If you ask me “how do I create my characters?” the answer is I don’t know. I have not the faintest idea! I know they are created, and I know that in the long and complex creative journey of the story I have many ideas, all at the same time, and then there is a selection process. Some are excluded but not intentionally: they go by themselves. Up until, and I mean weeks or months, two or three key ideas remain, complete with the faces, attitudes, and ways of speaking. When I write a contemporary history I almost always have real models: faces, types, people I meet or I know, from which I steal feelings, phrases, expressions, and I work around those. Instead, for a novel that is completely fictional, like this historical mystery, the influences are of another kind: literary figures, various types of characters, even those in comics … until finally, due partly to submission pressure (the well-known submission deadline that every writer and screenwriter knows very well!) and a little because the long creative process has decanted the ideas destined to remain, you throw all of this on to paper. You go to the computer and you begin to write. At this point we are in another phase: the act of writing itself selects even further, decides and shapes, until the character emerges.

So let’s use an example: how did you create Naide? I was struck by this female character, especially when she says to Emiliano: “I’ll be frank, I don’t tolerate being held in chains. If you’re happy, I will freely be yours. As long as we both want it, or until one of us tires.” It is a contemporary woman expressing a pact…

De Cataldo

Yes, this is a pact that, for example, my wife and I gave ourselves, which has worked and continues to work happily for thirty years. On the one hand this is a rule that secularly decrees the choice of a union and works much better than enforced union. On the other hand, here is an cinematic echo, in the talk of chains between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the movie The African Queen, when they circle around the topic and say “… do you see chains around here …?” “No, I don’t see any … ” and so things work between them. But then there is another explanation, I would say a rational one, for why my character expresses herself this way: in the nineteenth century a great contribution to the Italian Risorgimento is given by some important female figures, which unfortunately have been kept in the background of history. For example, Jessie White, a wealthy English woman whose family would not allow her to study medicine, like women could in America and in Italy, where there were women in 1600 who studied medicine at the university of Padua. She comes to our country and begins to work with Mazzini, Garibaldi and then marries the revolutionary Alberto Mario: tall, handsome, blond. She is a passionately dedicated English woman, but in the artistic and revolutionary context of the era, there were many educated and cultured women, and in the years of the Risorgimento, and already in 1848, there were others who were the first instances of the emancipation of women. In the character of Naide therefore I wanted to summarize these real testimonials, which have been a discovery for me and for Mario Martone, while we were working on the film Noi Credevamo, We were surprised by how these women and their extraordinary contributions have been buried by rhetoric. We didn’t understand why we were never told about them. So, Naide definitely says something that is “out of time”, but also “in time” because an educated, rich and eccentric woman in those days could have said it.

And what about Gualtiero Lancefroid? The detective that you describe in this passage that I’ve chosen: “That man seemed to possess a precious gift. He could read the signs that each of us encounters in every moment of our life and guiltily ignore. He was able to interpret those signs and put them in order, to extract the secret language, decode the meaning. There was no witchcraft behind it all. Only a keen, superior mind.”


In this passage are the three themes that have led me to create this character. The first: in Rome 1846, the most reactionary of Italian cities, the Pope promotes a congress of the arts and sciences. It turns out that it is a period of great fermentation and scientific progress: steam is already established, there is gas lighting, there are the first chemistry experiments, someone is already working on the classification of criminals, the police are established (good old Marx said “thanks to criminals, criminal law was born”). In short, scientific and cultural progress is already a component of the Risorgimento and the revolutions of 1848 confirm that the world is changing, and the politics and the old states must take note. The second is the emergence of abductive reasoning, that is, man’s ability to understand signs, information and arrive at a solution through a shortened path: an intuitive path. Abduction, in summary, is the method that binds deduction (from large to reach the small) and induction (from small to get to the big) with the intuitive ability that few but extraordinary minds possess; when there is a person of exceptional nature. This is what inspired Arthur Conan Doyle in the creation of his infallible and famous detective. The third: Gualtiero is my homage to Sherlock Holmes. I created him inspired in a fun way by this detective par excellence. In short, this character is for me the sum of all these real issues, history and science, united with the inspiration of a great literary figure created by a writer, in this case Arthur Conan Doyle.

And Emiliano Saint-Just? The protagonist of your novel?

sherlock holmes

Here obviously, the protagonist is collective. You will know well that, according to the sacred rules of dramaturgy, when there are four people doing the same thing the protagonist is one. It is clear that each character will have a different weight than the others, for example Emiliano is certainly less “powerful” than Naide and Walter, but he is certainly the catalyst character, one that brings together all three protagonists of this novel, who share and pursue the same goal. I consider them a team. But this trio is also a metaphor: after all, what was the real Risorgimento to which these people belong? It was a meeting of culture (Gualtiero), passions (Naide) and military (Emiliano) and therefore, the three main characters of my novel embody all these elements.

And this metaphor was already in your mind while writing the novel?

Well, now I’ll reveal something to you: the first plan for this novel was to be called Divided by a Flame. And it was the story of two brothers who loved the same woman. One was reactionary and the other a patriot and I wrote about fifty pages of this story. It was awful, deathly boring. I discarded it saying “I don’t like that, it’s not coming together … they don’t have that lightness I am looking for … indeed, it’s the lightness that is the key to making this story.” So the answer to your question is ‘yes’ because clearly this metaphor was already inside and it came out, but also ‘no’ because clearly I was not aware. There is an unconscious part to writing.

Do you become conscious through what the reader perceives and sends back to you?

Look, when a writer has finished something, the work is no longer his. He detaches from it because it has to go to the readers. Sometimes they find meanings that are actually there, sometimes those that are not there at all, at times they surprise you, and other times you explain what you did. They challenge you because what you did is not exactly as they would have liked. But that is part of the game, and if a writer puts himself in the game, he must also accept all this.

And Diaul? Tell me about this character …

Romanzo criminale

He is the classic serial killer. Here is a psychopath who kills women. Serial killers existed then and criminology studied them, and although the definition of serial killer is contemporary, from the FBI, it is not arbitrary to think that even in Turin in the 1800’s there could be a serial killer phenomenon. If modern psychiatry was born on the studies of hysteria, the first lunatic asylum experiments are made during the French Revolution and even the Marquis de Sade was subjected to them. Between 1866 and 1870 they began to collect data on several murder cases, I remember in particular the work of Lombroso. But in the case of my serial killer, there is a detail that sets it apart: his psychopathology is linked to a political project. He is a reactionary who opposes progress. And what makes reactionaries and fundamentalists go on a rampage? (And as you see, it is very current …) Women who study, who express themselves, who shirk their duty as mothers and wives. The woman who is emancipated becomes the target of their violence. It is also like this for Diaul, who kills women wearing a mask with a menacing silver beak, which also has a symbolic reason: he wants not only to kill, but instil panic. In fact, his mask evokes the devil of popular traditions in the Piedmont countryside and generates a collective fear, regardless of the heinous crimes committed.

Banner De Cataldoto be continue …….