Anna Lawton, born in Italy, is a writer and a former university professor. She is a specialist in Russian film and is the author of two novels, Family Album and Amy’s Story, and a number of nonfiction books. Her publications include The Red Screen: Politics, Society, Art in Soviet Cinema, ed. (Routledge, 1992) and Imaging Russia 2000: Film and Facts (New Academia Publishing, 2004).
She earned her PhD in Russian Literature at UCLA. As a professor, she taught courses in literature, cinema and visual culture at Purdue University and subsequently Georgetown University until she retired in 2013. At some point in her career, she took a leave and went to Moscow, where she worked for USIA at the American Embassy as the Deputy Director of Public Information and Media Outreach and the Editor-In-Chief of the magazine Connections. Back in DC, she alternated between teaching and working at the World Bank as the managing editor of the magazine Development Outreach.
She also served on the Advisory Film Committee of the National Gallery of Art. Toward the end of her academic career, she ventured into the private sector and founded the publishing house New Academia Publishing, which is today a successful enterprise.
Writing has been an important activity in all her jobs over the years. She is the author of three scholarly books, edited volumes, and numerous articles and essays in academic collections.
Now her second novel, Amy’s Story, has just been released.
Although inspired by some real places and circumstances, it is not autobiographic. It is pure fiction.
About Amy’ s story:
Amy’s Story unfolds on the background of American history, from the late 60’s up until 2011, and takes us through the timeline of how Italian-native Amy, full name America, creates her success story.
Amy experiences love, friendship, obstacles, success, and more as she moves from Italy to New York City to live near her American father. Following in her father’s footsteps, Amy becomes a successful publisher. Her story is intertwined with Stella, her childhood friend, whose unfinished memoir she intends to publish. As Amy edits the manuscript, Stella’s life is revealed as she also leaves Italy with her American lover Jim, a heartthrob who conceals his sensitive nature under a bravado façade.
Stella faces career achievements, setbacks and heartbreaking love as her journey runs parallel to major historical events―the Vietnam War, student protests and the Kent State shooting, the birth of radicalism and feminism, presidential elections and assassinations, immigration, the Watergate scandal, up to the 9/11 attack and beyond―providing an interesting commentary on the highlights in history that influenced the development of American society over the past 40 years and brought about the current outcome.
Additional captivating characters complete the picture and sustain the action: Steve, Stella’s husband, conformist and uninspiring; Nik, a passionate and extravagant Russian intellectual; Rosa, once a maid at Amy’s grandmother’s country estate and now married to the owner of a New York pizzeria; and others.
Stella’s memoir never gets published, because Amy transforms it into a successful novel. This twist has readers re-imagining the entire story, and seeing it from a surprising new perspective.
-Anna, during your professional career writing has been a relevant activity, what is writing for you?
I have to distinguish between scholarly writing and fiction writing. It’s not the same thing. Scholarly writing is more “scientific,” so to speak. It requires rigorous research and a constrictive scheme. Fiction allows for the free flow of ideas and a good deal of imagination, although an organizing design and strict discipline in its implementation are absolutely necessary. I wrote numerous essays and a few scholarly books in my academic career, but that was part of my job. Fiction, instead, is something that has been with me since I was a child, and it became an activity when I was well in my fifties. I must say that writing fiction for me is sort of a call.
I don’t have to decide to sit down and put words on paper, I feel an urge to do it because the words are already in my mind and want to come out and get manifested.
But this spontaneous impulse must be accompanied by a process of organization and structuring that has to be learned. Some people may have imagination and good ideas, but without a deep knowledge of literature cannot become writers.
-I guess that Russia is a kind of passion, what does Russia mean for you?
Russia at the beginning meant Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Blok, Pasternak… in a word, literature. I was captivated by the aristocratic country estates, the alienating urban environment, the balls in glittering halls, romance and tragedy, battles and duels, political struggle, the great epic of the revolution, and the characters, villains or heroes but profoundly human. Then I went to Russia many times over the years as a professor of Russian literature and cinema, and later as embassy staff. So, Russia became my profession. In Soviet times it was a gloomy place on the surface, but underneath there was a great intellectual turmoil, a tremendous creative energy that expressed itself in writings and paintings that could not be printed or exhibited. In those underground circles I could find an echo of the characters and situations I had found previously in the great novels. The fact that it was a police state enhanced the excitement because it was like living in a thriller, but also strengthened the human ties. Then there was the big change, much longed for and enthusiastically welcomed. It turned out to be a disappointment. I lived in Moscow for 5 years in that period and witnessed the gradual transformation of the way of life. More poverty and misery at the beginning, but gradually the emergence of an enterprising middle class, more consumer goods, and freedom of expression. The close society of old was cracked open and ceased to exist. Russia has now acquired many features of the West, but has also lost some of her charm.
-Where does the idea for the novel Amy’s Story come from? Was it something growing up inside of you gradually or did it suddenly come up one day?
When I start a novel I have a plan in my head. But I do not put it down on paper because I need the freedom to follow my inspiration.
I have a clear vision of the opening and a general idea of the ending, and I know what the kernel of the story is. It is that kernel that will materialize in the creative process. One essential thing for me is to hear the characters’ voices. I need to hear their speech in order to write dialogues that ring true. I need to feel the characters’ presence around me and, if I do, I’m able to place them in the proper environment and let them suggest the action. At times I’m surprised by the turn the story takes, as if the story were writing itself. Which is, of course, paradoxical because I’m firmly in charge. But it’s true. And this charges me with enormous energy.
-About feeling a “stranger” in your own country, did you have ever experienced this sensation anytime?
I can sympathize with the difficulties today’s immigrants are encountering. I did encounter some myself. However, I was lucky enough to come to the U.S. not because of poverty or war displacement. Not because of necessity, but because of choice. My family in Italy was quite well off, and I grew up in a comfortable middle-class environment surrounded by art in all its forms. My grandfather was an art photographer, my father was a musician, actor and stage director, my mother was an actress and a painter. What brought me here was a romance with a young American who later became my husband. We were still students at the time. Although I was not in the disadvantaged condition of the typical immigrant, it wasn’t easy at the beginning.
The worst challenge was a sense of displacement.
My English was adequate, but far from perfect. In those days I got to fully appreciate the essential quality of language as an individual identifier―probably that had something to do with my becoming a writer. I cannot say that I was ever subjected to discrimination, but I was certainly perceived as a foreigner. Therefore, I did my best to assimilate. Now I feel as comfortable here as I do in Italy. Italy has remained my childhood home, a place to visit when I feel like being pampered. America is my home as an adult, where I can live my life to the fullest and strive to realize myself.
-The novel introduces political themes and some interesting episodes that make us think about immigration and social justice. In your opinion, writing a novel implies having a compromise with society?
What I put in my novels is who I am. Among other things, a concerned citizen and a history buff. I’ve been living in the United States for forty-plus years as a citizen, and I’ve experienced the changes that took place over that period of time. Some good, some not so good, but all significant in the way they affected our lives, our values as a nation, and our position in the world. I wanted to capture all that in a novel. But I also tried not to overwhelm the narrative. The historical background is important, but the love story has to be on the foreground in order to keep the reader immersed in the fictional narrative.
The theme of immigration runs throughout the novel and raises questions that are on the forefront of the current political discourse.
The other events I refer to had a tremendous impact on how American society evolved over the past forty years. I noticed a transition from a society grounded in unshakable principles, and therefore comfortable with a solid sense of identity, to a society shaken by doubt, in search of a new identity, and gradually becoming affected by a good dose of cynicism. In other words, turning more European, regrettably, I must say. At the present time our country is divided on the most fundamental issues, and I wanted to look for the causes of the current polarization by tracing a path through a series of events―the hippie revolution, Vietnam War, student protests, the birth of radicalism and feminism, presidential elections and assassinations, the Watergate scandal, up to the 9/11 attack and beyond. The novel ends with the Obama administration which marks the culmination of this process.
No surprise that after it the pendulum swung back with the inevitable election of Trump. But this should be the subject for another book.
-Do facts and fiction blend in your novel, or are they distinct elements?
In my novel, facts and fiction blend. There is no real distinction between these two dimensions, because even historical facts become part of one fictional universe.
In other words, they are used fictitiously. The aim of the writer is to create the effect of verisimilitude, so that the reader would “suspend her disbelief” and immerse herself in the fictional story. On the other hand, having achieved this goal, many writers, and I’m in that number, devise a stratagem to jolt the reader out of the fictional universe and remind her that she’s reading a text, an artificial construct, and therefore should look at it with a critical eye. This is what happens in my novel toward the end, where a twist in the narrative changes the whole perspective.
-Why becoming a publisher? What are you learning about literature and writing from this new point of view?
After having published several books with prestigious university presses, I felt the need for an alternative way, a press that would provide a more efficient and dynamic system, unencumbered by bureaucracy. That was fifteen years ago, and at that time the introduction of digital technology in the publishing industry opened the door to new ventures. That’s how I started, and the rest is history. At the beginning it was an academic press, and pretty soon production expanded to include nonfiction, fiction, and poetry.
The new thing I learned is how to combine literature and business.
In this context, books are not just something to enjoy, but also a commercial product. However, my commitment is to quality first of all, and therefore our selection is rigorous. We publish for a niche audience, rather than for the mass market, placing quality before profit.
-In our blog we think that in every person life it happens that one day a book in your hands can change your life forever? What is the book that changed your life?
I cannot think of one single book that changed my life, but certainly some books have inspired, moved, taught me, and motivated me to write throughout my life. The first book that mesmerized me when I was just a child of 6, was a volume of Greek mythology with large illustrations. I couldn’t get enough of those fantastic tales, and probably I already experienced the magic of literature, which can take you away into an imaginary world while conveying fundamental truths.
Thanks Anna for your time and this generous interview!