An Evening with Donna Leon

My March 12 post mentioned Donna Leon’s latest book, Transient Desires, her thirtieth in thirty years. I’ve always enjoyed her mysteries, and her Commissario of Police, Guido Brunetti, is my idea of a perfect hero: a clever, compassionate and literate man with an interesting family.

This past Wednesday evening Ms. Leon was here in Bern, and I listened to her read from Transient Desires and answer questions. Given Corona distancing, there was no way the seats could be packed, but well over a hundred excited people were there to hear her speak from the stage of Bern’s elegant concert theater; I was as excited as anyone.

Something she said that particularly fascinated me was her answer to the question of how she created Brunetti.

I wasn’t planning a series of books when I started Death at La Fenice, just a single mystery. But even writing one book takes months, and I knew I’d have to spend all that time with my main character. Did I want to be locked in my head with a depressed loner, an insecure alcoholic, or someone with serious mental problems, which describes a lot of detectives in popular mysteries? Of course not. If I had to hang out for months with this guy, I was going to make him someone I’d enjoy being with, someone who liked the same books I did, had lots of friends, loved his family and city, and felt sympathy for other people’s pain. That man became Brunetti.*

Hearing this, I felt Ms. Leon had put into words my own thoughts about my detectives. Although there are many gripping and prize-winning books out there featuring ghastly protagonists (one example is Maurice Swift in John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky), I haven’t outgrown a child’s longing to find at least one lovable main character in any piece of fiction I read. Giuliana Linder and Renzo Donatelli were created to be good company for me and—I hoped—for anyone who read my books: people we could enjoy spending a few hours with.

Ms. Leon fielded lots of questions about her characters, plots, future plans, and writing style. Another response that made an impression on me was her description of the way she creates her books.

I don’t do outlines. I start with a germ of an idea, something I’ve read in a newspaper, perhaps, or a story I’ve heard from friends, and I sit down at the computer to build on that. I try to write five or six hours a day, but I’m easily distracted, because I have so many other things going on in my life. As soon as I get up from the keyboard, my book is gone from my mind. Only when I’m at the computer, focused on my characters and key ideas, does the story flow out of my mind onto the screen, the plot shaping itself as I write.”*

This process is very familiar to me. I already knew that I am what is referred to as a seat-of-the-pants writer rather than an outliner. But it was a pleasure to discover that a woman whose mysteries I respect so much creates fiction the way I do. After years of producing high school, college, and graduate-school papers, not to mention a PhD dissertation, thanks to meticulously planning, I tried over and over without success to outline my first mystery from start to finish. In desperation, I simply began to write—and realized that I’d found the answer to my dilemma: to place myself among my characters, “watch” what they were doing and saying, and let the story grow out of their actions. In my case (I don’t know about Ms. Leon) I do pick the murderer before I begin—although as I progressed through one of my books, even that cornerstone changed.

If you’re interested in reading more complete reviews of Donna Leon’s latest book, try

*This is a paraphrasing of Ms. Leon’s words, but it reflects her statements accurately.

The Giudecca, a neighborhood of Venice that features in Transient Desires.
This photo is from the website of Monica Cesarato, who blogs about Venice.

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