Q. Do you have any personal experience with blindness?
A. Thankfully, I don’t – although I’ve always valued the fact that my near-sightedness gives me more than one way to see the world. The kernel of the descriptions of blindness in the story date back almost ten years, to a church retreat when I was assigned a room with a woman who worked for an eye doctor. Over the years, she had learned to read patient tests well enough that she could diagnose problems herself, and sometimes knew that a patient was destined for blindness before the doctor told them. This was a difficult weight for her to carry, and she spent several hours explaining different varieties of blindness to me in extraordinary detail.
For years, I struggled to write about this experience. It just never seemed to fit. But over time, my writing went through a shift. Instead of trying to manage the trauma of the world through my work, or even to bear witness to it, I got interested in creating new worlds. Pain still had a place, but it was transformed. And the simple stories of modern patients struggling as they lost their sight finally emerged, reborn as The Blind Contessa.
It’s my hope that The Blind Contessa’s New Machine might do a tiny bit of this work in the lives of its readers: give them permission to find the world just a little more beautiful, a little more strange, a little more wonderful than what we think we can see.
Q. What's your connection with Italy?
A. When I wrote The Blind Contessa's New Machine, I'd never been to Italy. But as an American writer, I had a problem, one that Nathaniel Hawthorne talked about eloquently in his introduction to The Blithedale Romance: the modern history of America is so recent that we don't have a romantic past. In the landscape of imagination, the Mediterranean still has pagan gods lurking in its olive groves. The British Isles are haunted by the ghosts of druids, monks, and kings. Africa's oral histories have taken on magic in centuries of retelling, and China's dynasties are full of mythic heroes. But for all its fire, hope, and tragedy, modern American history remains resolutely grounded in the real world. No god gives us our kings: we create our leaders ourselves, and unmake them as we please. And even though Americans' patience with history is notoriously short, our story is still not long enough for time to have turned our founders into heroes or gods. No matter how we squint, they are only men, like us. This may be the essence of America's genius, but for a fiction writer interested in magic, it poses a real problem. It's an interesting problem, since for much of its history "America" has been a magic word in the mind of the world, but the fact remains that if an American writer wants to play along the boundary of the real and unreal, it's a very difficult task to accomplish on American soil.
As Hawthorne laments:
"In the old countries, with which Fiction has long been conversant, a certain conventional privilege seems to be awarded to the romancer; his work is not put exactly side by side with nature; and he is allowed a license with regard to every-day Probability, in view of the improved effects which he is bound to produce thereby. Among ourselves, on the contrary, there is as yet no such Faery Land, so like the real world, that, in a suitable remoteness, one cannot well tell the difference, but with an atmosphere of strange enchantment, beheld through which the inhabitants have a propriety of their own. This atmosphere is what the American romancer needs. In its absence, the beings of imagination are compelled to show themselves in the same category of actually living mortals; a necessity that generally renders the past and pasteboard of their composition but too painfully discernible."
But in the geography of the imagination, perhaps no place is richer than Italy. It owns the myths our stories are built on, the grandeur of the Roman empire, the pomp and mystery of the Catholic church, the stubborn fragility of Venice, heaven and hell in Dante's verses, the forms of both man and God from Michaelangelo's hand, Leonardo's ingenious machines, Marconi shooting up a flare from his ancestral hills to announce the invention of modern wireless technology -- all against a landscape of extraordinary beauty. The story I chose to tell did take place in Italy, but Italy itself allowed me great freedom in the way I told it. Everything imaginable has happened there, so everything you can imagine is possible.