By Gary Kriss
Piero Degli Antoni’s bucket list would barely fill a thimble.
It has only three items, less if you don’t count the redundancies,
“I want to sell a million copies of my book,” Antoni, a 52 year-old prize-winning Italian novelist, says. “Then I want to sell another million copies of my book. And then I want to sell two million copies of my book.”
The “book” is his latest BLOCK 11 (St. Martin’s Press, October 2012), which is set in 1944 Auschwitz. Whether or not it sells in the millions, BLOCK 11 has one thing going for it that Antoni’s other seven books didn’t: a larger potential audience because it’s been translated into English. Although new to the American market, BLOCK 11 came out two years ago in Italy and last year in France, Russia and Spain.
“Ten prisoners have to choose who among them will be shot at dawn,” Antoni explains. “The others will be saved. But, if they do not, they will all be killed.”
The ten, rounded up following a successful escape, are locked in an empty building in the camp’s Block 11, where they must make their horrific decision. Antoni, a Milan-based journalist and lawyer, says he want readers to know what it’s like “to spend a night of terror in Auschwitz” and to vicariously experience “the devious criminal perfidy of the Nazis.”
Always fascinated with World War II, which he calls “the most epic battle of good against evil in the story of humanity,” Antoni waited until he “finally found a good story to tell,” and pounced on it.
“I think the theme of this book—to live and die in Auschwitz—interests readers all over the world,” he says. “World War II is an open wound.”
But he also had a personal reason for writing the book. “For me, the memory of the Second World War is still very much alive,” he notes. “My father and my uncle were partisans and my grandfather was an opponent of fascism.”
And Antoni is tremendously excited over his book being marketed in America, which he has visited many times and loves. “I cannot forget that Americans freed us from fascism,” he says. “Without them my parents probably would have been killed and I would never have been born.”
He realizes, however, that readers in American might differ somewhat from those in Italy, where he is well-known and regarded for his “very unusual thrillers”. “
“Italians are very fond of novels in which the protagonist is a police officer investigating a crime usually committed in a small or middle-size town,” he says. “Cops are usually placid, food lovers, reluctant to use weapons. It’s ‘a literature very different from the adrenaline and violent American or Swedish tradition.” And for Anton, the increase of violence in thrillers “is not a development that I like.”
To research BLOCK 11, Antoni read “only memorials of prisoners of Auschwitz for two years” and “spoke at length with Nedo Fiano, a survivor,” who corrected any errors when the book was done, He recalls that Fiano “was moved and said I was able to render the terror of the camp even better than Primo Levi.”
Although Antoni holds that author’s shouldn’t preach in their books, he admits that BLOCK 11 does contain a message, namely “that it is not right to forget some horrors, but at the same time, that the sins of the fathers should not be passed on to children.” But, he quickly adds, “my book can be read only as a simple, tasty thriller.”
And how does Antoni view a thriller? “In a thriller, the protagonist is a man who has lot of things happen to him that complicate his life and put him at risk,” he says, distinguishing it from a mystery “where the protagonist goes around in search for trouble.”
Like Hemingway, Antoni credits journalism, an occupation he’s still engaged in, with teaching him “to use essential words and no more of them than necessary,” although he’s aware that s that if this isn’t done carefully, “it leads to a certain superficiality in writing”.
He also cites Raymond Carver, Philip Roth, Isaac B. Singer, Paul Auster, John Irving, Simenon, Giorgio Bassani, Alberto Moravia Vargas Llosa, Jorge Luis Borges.and Massimo Carlotto as important influences. But his favorite writer at the moment is Jonathan Franzen, whom he calls “an absolute genius” and believes FREEDOM “is the best book of the last ten years.” He turned to Franzen “to learn the precision in the narrative, the love for details”
Creation, sometimes accompanied by jazz playing in the background, takes place on a laptop, sometimes used in bed, more often on a desk that is “a disaster,” cluttered with “plenty of objects—phones, pencils, pens, iPods, sheets, invoices and bills and a lot of slips of paper” to remind Antoni of things “which then I never do.” (Antoni, who proclaims that “the most beautiful thing in the world is ski mountaineering,” once spent three hours traveling to a perfect location only to discover he forgot his ski boots.)
Believing that his strength as an author can be seen in “the plot, the rhythm, and the twists in my books,” it’s no surprise that Antoni begins to write “only when I planned the entire book, scene by scene.” Then he shifts to character development, which requires more effort. Throughout the entire process, he pays particular attention to creating “a compelling sense of setting, explaining that “it’s crucial to establish an environment for readers so that the story becomes more vivid.”.
Antoni, who lives in Milan where he is also a lawyer, gives his wife the finished product to read, as well as his agent, Vicky Satlow, and his screenwriter friend, Paola Caccianiga, who, he says, also “gives me some suggestions when I’m fabricating the plot and the characters.”
And is he good at taking criticism, considering that he mentions “getting angry too easily” as his worst trait? “Sometimes I have suffered,” he says. “Often they were right.”
Now that BLOCK 11 has been translated, Antoni hopes some of his other books will follow suit. “He points to THIN ICE, which takes place in a tent in the Himalayas, 7000 feet about sea level, where five climbers, blocked by a storm try to reconstruct a mysterious climbing accident that happened ten years earlier. “It would perfect for American readers,” he says.
Meanwhile, Antoni, working on his next thriller, “which the victim is … the Pope!” He says he gets bored writing the same kind of story, “sSo every time I try a new path,” which is “my little attempt to revolutionize the genre.
As for that bucket—ah, thimble list. Antoni, who holds “don’t bore the reader” to be an inviolable rule, nevertheless points to Stieg Larsson as proof that “even a boring book can sell millions of copies!”
Piero Degli Antoni is an italian lawyer, Milan-based journalist, and author who won the Premio Azzeccagarbugli in the best thriller category for Italy. BLOCK 11 is his eighth book published in Italy, the first in Usa. It is published in Spain, France and Russia.