Writing Fact/Writing Fiction: A Conversation with Authors Matthew Kneale and Silvia Giagnoni

On May 28, the Institute for Creative Writing and Literary Translation hosted its second event of Summer 2024, which took place on the Secchia Terrace, in JCU’s Guarini Campus. Moira Egan, a well-known poet and translator, and Creative Writing professor at John Cabot University, moderated a conversation on “Writing Fact/Writing Fiction” between authors Matthew Kneale and Silvia Giagnoni, who is also a professor at JCU. 

Both the speakers are authors of fiction and non-fiction texts. Matthew Kneale has published extensively and received many awards, including the Whitbread Book of the Year for his novel English Passengers (Penguin, 2001). He has lived in Rome for many years and the city features prominently in his writing. His non-fiction book, Rome, a History in Seven Sackings (Atlantic Books, 2017) was a Sunday Times bestseller. His latest novel, The Cameraman (Atlantic Books, 2023), follows a highly dysfunctional British family’s journey across Europe to Rome, in the spring of 1934, amid the rise of fascism.  

Matthew Kneale and Moira Egan
Matthew Kneale and Moira Egan

Silvia Giagnoni has published in English and Italian, having lived for many years in the U.S. She Is the author of Here We May Rest. Alabama Immigrants in the Age of HB 56 (Newsouth Inc, 2017), and Fields of Resistance. The Struggle of Florida’s Farmworkers for Justice (Haymarket Books, 2011). In Italian, she has published the novel Fioca (Iacobelli Editore, 2021), and the non-fiction text Oltre la Siepe. Alla Rierca di Harper Lee (Edizioni dell’Asino, 2013). Silvia has been a Lecturer in Communications and Media Studies at JCU since the Fall 2021. Her latest novel, Alabama Hunt, is forthcoming in November 2024 from Alter Ego. 

Differences between fiction and non-fiction

Moira Egan started the discussion by asking a question about genre and the differences between writing fiction and non-fiction. According to Kneale, the object of both forms is “to entertain and tell a story, to set things up so that people are intrigued as to what happens next.” The advantage of writing fiction, he continued, was that any mistake can be blamed on the unreliability of the characters and narrator, but he acknowledged that the solid bedrock of fact on which non-fiction rests can feel safer. Fiction, as he put it, “can suddenly go flabby on you,” and yet, he prefers to write fiction. 

Giagnoni explained that the urge that drives her to write non-fiction is connected to her political sensibilities and the need she feels to tell a story that is relevant and necessary. She pointed out that fiction is riskier, requiring honesty and self-knowledge: “If you are fake your readers will know.” On the other hand, writing about real people means respecting their lived lives. As an example of this, she mentioned a chronicle she is currently working on about the struggle of the former workers of the GKN company in Florence who have been fighting a legal dispute for the past three years, founding a cooperative and holding a permanent assembly. 

Silvia Giagnoni
Silvia Giagnoni

Following on Giagnoni’s answer, Egan asked a question about dealing with topical issues in fiction and non-fiction writing. Kneale responded that he doesn’t believe he starts from a topic, in an analytical way, but that he rather connects to an idea and develops it from there. The Cameraman, for instance, was born out of his passion for British Fiction of the 1930s, a period he feels has much in common with the 2020s. He was interested in the renowned Mitford family, which counted among its members very popular novelists (Nancy Mitford) and an intimate friend of Adolf Hitler (Unity Mitford), and he acknowledges he modeled the dysfunctional family portrayed in The Cameraman on the Mitfords. He said that he prefers to tell stories that, alongside topical relevance and interest, also have an element of humor “not too salty, not too sweet, like a good Amatriciana sauce.” 

On the other hand, Giagnoni’s relationship to topical issues is determined by her political involvement in grassroots movements, especially in the U.S. For instance, she is particularly interested in the way workers’ protests can change labor laws a little at a time, as she witnessed among the undocumented agricultural workers in Florida. However, she recognizes that to write fiction and non-fiction, political engagement is insufficient: you must have a good idea. 

An outsider’s view

Egan pointed out how both Kneale and Giagnoni had written extensively about cultures other than their own, and asked them to talk about their respective relationships to Italy and the U.S. 

According to Kneale, when writing about another culture, the author needs to stand back, to have an emotional distance from the text, and to this end, he always introduces into his texts English people who end up in Italy, because “I don’t feel comfortable writing as an Italian.” There is a necessary three-dimensionality to writing, where the writer is seeing through the eyes of a character who doesn’t quite understand what is happening while allowing the reader to understand more. This is the theory of mind explanation as to why humans write fiction:” because we like to play with those three dimensions of reader’s, character’s, and narrator’s point of view.” 

From left: Giagnoni, Egan and Kneale

Being an outsider in the U.S. was the trigger that allowed Giagnoni to start writing. Now, having returned to Italy after 15 years in the States, she is still an outsider, and she needs this perspective. On the other hand, she points out that postcolonial studies, and especially the work of Indian philosopher Gayatri Spivak, opened up the whole question of the legitimacy of writing as an outsider. “Can we really escape the kind of ideology we were raised in?” she asked. Although she is afraid that sometimes writers are paralyzed by the excesses of essentialist identity politics, she does believe writers must write about what they know, they must not improvise. Egan latched on to Giagnoni’s point to ask how both writers deal with identity politics and the question of who can write about whom. 

Kneale answered that he doesn’t believe writers can write about topics they have little knowledge of, but fiction is about seeing things through other people’s eyes. We wouldn’t have Othello, Shylock, or even Hamlet if that were not the case, since Shakespeare was not Danish. Kneale clarified that he well understands the issue and where the feeling of caution is coming from, but he wouldn’t like it to prevent writing. For instance, he himself wrote in the voice of an Aboriginal Tasmanian character in his novel English Passengers because, if he hadn’t, that perspective would have been missing from the book. And Giagnoni agreed with Kneale that when writing fiction, it is equally complicated not to take the risk of writing from the perspective of another. 

A lively session of questions from the audience concluded this interesting evening of literary discussion. The Institute’s events continue until the end of June.