Donna Jo Napoli has seen more than sixty books in print. In her latest offering, The Wager (Henry Holt, April 2010), a well-bred Don Giovanni squanders away his wealth and is cast into the life of a beggar in the aftermath of a series of natural disasters. Until he meets a mysterious stranger who bets him a magic purse that he cannot go “three years, three months, three days” without washing or shaving or changing his clothes.
Ms. Napoli describes her writer’s journey from the book’s conception through publication.
What inspired you to write The Wager?
Jack Zipes sent me a terrific book of his back in 2003 (Beautiful Angiola: The Great Treasury of Sicilian Folk and Fairy Tales Collected by Laura Gonzenbach. New York: Routledge, 2003). I spent the next several months pawing through it and when I closed it, the character that wouldn’t leave me alone was Don Giovanni della Fortuna. The fairy tale was brief — a couple of pages. But it crawled under my skin. So I was off and running.
How long did it take to write it, and what was the process like?
Ah, this is quite a tale. I actually wrote a blog about this for tor.com. It’s kind of spooky.
With all my other stories, I began writing them when I knew I could take a long period of time to do pretty much nothing but write. (I teach at a small college, so my breaks from going to the office are in summer time and over the winter break between semesters.)
I started writing The Wager in early December of 2004. I was plowing along very productively, writing about a tsunami that was caused by a massive earthquake in 1169 in Sicily (a real event that year – Mount Etna erupted; the ensuing earthquake leveled Catania and the accompanying tsunami washed away a large part of Messina), when on the 26th of December a major tsunami hit many countries on the Indian Ocean. The results were devastating and tragic. I couldn’t return to my story. I simply couldn’t. I didn’t know what was going to happen next in my story, and I wouldn’t take the chance that something dreadful would happen in the world of my story and then something dreadful might happen in the real world I lived in. I didn’t return to that story for years. So the first draft of The Wager took me over four years – a huge contrast to my other stories.
I’m not entirely sure why I was spooked. I know that writing about a tsunami does not cause a tsunami. I don’t indulge in magic thinking.
Most of the time.
But when I was writing that story, I was inside 1169, a time when ideas about the way the world worked were laced with mysterious forces that could turn you and your family and anyone you loved upside-down at the slightest provocation, and there was hardly any way of knowing for sure what counted as provocation. Evil beckoned and I was vulnerable to that evil.
What allowed me to return to the story was the very passing of time. In fact, enough time for Don Giovanni to get to the point where he could take the wager and then win it. Enough time for me to know that nothing that had happened in the years following the 2004 tsunami was connected to my 1169 world. But the funny thing is, I didn’t even realize that that’s exactly the amount of time that had passed – that the lapse in my writing this story matched the number of years and months and days necessary for Don Giovanni to prevail – until I sat down now to write the blog for tor.com. My unconscious must have kept track. Maybe some part of me was still living in Don Giovanni’s world that entire time, patiently counting the minutes.
What traditions most influenced your personification of the devil?
Oh, I don’t think like that. Of course I know that everything I’ve ever read or has been read to me influences the way I write. But I don’t read literary criticism and I don’t think of literary or even cultural traditions within which a story resides. Sorry.
I think I worked from my own fears of what evil must be — It has to outwit us. And it has to be dogged. So the Devil in my mind must be insidiously clever and eternally bored.
At first, Don Giovanni is not a very sympathetic character, but as he experiences the life of a beggar, he begins to show great compassion for others who endure similar lots in life (sans the peculiarities of his magical wager). Did the character’s actions ever exceed your expectations or otherwise surprise you?
Absolutely! I’m so glad you asked. When I started out, I wasn’t attached to Don Giovanni at all. I was wondering when a character would appear on the page that really grabbed me by the heart. I longed for such a character. And only slowly did I come to understand that Don Giovanni was changing, and so profoundly that he had me breathless. I didn’t expect it at all.
I’ve noticed that mosaics are a recurring theme in your works. How has that come about and what’s their meaning for you?
Oh, I simply love them. I love the way all the little pieces fit together to make a whole picture that you can’t really see until you step away. I love the artist Chuck Close for that reason. When I go to Venice, I sit on the floor of the cathedral and just run my fingers over the mosaics. And they’re so shiny in Italy — I love that, too. Maybe I’ve got a bird spirit — a crow or something — I’m drawn to shiny objects.
What aspect of this story most delighted you, personally?
Probably Don Giovanni’s transformation. But I also really like Mimi. I liked that she yearned to be something that society said she couldn’t be, and she could see the yearning in others. She was so decent to Don Giovanni, without ever lying. I respected her.
What aspect surprised you the most?
Again, Don Giovanni’s transformation. But when I did the research for this story, I was surprised to find that this was the period in which public parks and public baths started in Palermo. It surprised me, because the attitude toward the public had been quite neglectful of such things as their esthetic enjoyment and their cleanliness and health. That surprise, clearly, worked its way through me and came out in Don Giovanni’s behavior once he was settled in his own villa.
What do you hope your readers will take away from the experience of reading this book?
Ah, usually all I want is for a reader to have a good ride. I tell stories, after all– just stories. But this story matters to me in other ways. I find myself lately looking at the huge disparity of wealth in our country (and lots of others) and wondering where it can lead. If you take a good look at the underbelly of poverty and if you’re honest, you have to realize that if you are not poor yourself it is largely due to luck. We can work hard; we can have good skills; and still, with lousy luck, we can wind up in the gutter. And once you’re there, it is very hard to get out. Don Giovanni was thrust there — and it gave him a perspective he probably never would have had otherwise. And that perspective made him decent. So you can guess what my hope is — quite lofty, indeed — I want to help my reader gain a perspective that leads to decent behavior.
That sort of links back to one of the central themes of the book. “What can money solve?” Where do you feel the answer to that question lies, and what new truths did Don Giovanni’s journey illuminate for you?
I believe money can solve a lot, but, like any wonderful resource, it depends on how it’s used. There’s a difference between gathering tons of money and buying yourself and your loved ones fancy cars, and, instead, using the money to make life better (and, sometimes, even possible) for others. I know people in America, in my little college, in fact, who earn over $100,000 and complain about being strapped for cash. The median income in America is around half of that, and their income puts them in the top quintile. The area around my college has many neighborhoods in which one can live very well on that income. But they moan, sometimes eloquently. And these are not nasty people; they consider themselves enlightened. There is something very wrong about our attitudes toward money in America when people like that think of themselves as deprived. They aren’t hungry. They can pay their medical bills. They have a good roof over their heads. And plenty, far too many, in our country are hungry, can’t go to doctors, don’t have a roof over their heads. We view absurdities as necessities (just open anyone’s closet and count the number of pairs of shoes). . .
I feel very sure that even past the end of the book, when Don Giovanni has regained his strength and beauty, he will continue to offer his home as a resource to others, and he will continue to fund events and institutions that benefit everyone. He’s lived poverty. Some people climb out of poverty and surround themselves with riches; others climb out of poverty and help others to do so, too. Don Giovanni’s in the decent group. He becomes a Mensch. Don’t you love him?