By EDWARD NAWOTKA
Originally published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
July 6, 2007
Donna Leon rarely gets writer's block - she's consistently produced a new Guido Brunetti mystery each year since 1992 - yet whenever she does, she merely steps out of her front door for inspiration . . . and finds herself inside the setting of one of her novels.
"Venice is one of those rare cities where you can walk everywhere you need to go," she says, noting that the exception is in July and August, when the tourists descend in hoards. "Then you just have to find a way through them or leave town."
Leon, who was born in New Jersey, left America more than 40 years ago for teaching stints in Iran, China and Saudi Arabia, eventually settling in Italy two decades ago. With her fine red cashmere sweater and her manner of emphasizing each point with a wave of her hands, she appears more genuinely Italian than any of the Sopranos clan.
Now 64, Leon has a well-edited life: She doesn't own a television (and thus, has no opinion of "The Sopranos"), says she'll stop writing as soon as it stops being fun, and travels whenever and wherever she wants - most often to see opera. Opera so consumes Leon that she helped found her own orchestra to perform rare Baroque compositions.
So, it comes as a shock to learn that whenever Leon needs a bit of rousing musical motivation, it's not Handel or Mozart or one of the great Italians she fires up on her iPod, but Thomas Arne's "Rule Britannia" (Rule Britannia! / Britannia rule the waves) and "God Save the King."
Leon's aversion to tourists is shared by her brooding sleuth, police commissioner Brunetti. Though Leon's 16 novels have been translated into 29 languages, she refuses to have them translated into Italian. "It's so I can maintain my privacy," she says.
In the U.S. the Brunetti books are gaining popularity among those who appreciate the compelling characters, romantic backdrop and bracing plots - often without tidy or happy endings.
Leon regularly tackles issues relevant to Italian society, as in her latest book "Suffer the Children," in which a trio of Carbinieri abduct an Armenian child from the apartment of its adoptive father.
"The Armenians who have come to Italy in recent years are for the most part the criminal element - drug dealers, pimps," Leon says. "So to make this child sympathetic was a bit of a twist."
Sensibly, Leon says that there are two topics she will not write about: local Venetian politicians or the mafia.
"The politicians and bureaucrats can make your life very difficult," she says. "As regards the mafia, well, there's just too much to know, it's too complicated. . . . They're involved in everything. Plus, at this point, it really is a cliché."