While living in London in 2019, award-winning Italian singer-songwriter Erica Mou sat at her kitchen table and set about realising a dream she had cherished since childhood: writing a novel. With Thirsty Sea, in a translation by Clarissa Botsford, about to be published with Héloïse Press, I spoke to Erica about her process, inspirations and how her novel reflects contemporary takes on trauma, self-actualization, motherhood and “messy” women.
I’d like to start with a very simple question: how and when did this novel begin?
Writing a novel is something that had been my dream since I was a little girl. But when I had the idea for this story, it felt very strange. I started from the end of the book: I pictured a woman in front of the sea taking a big decision, and I started wondering “why? What has brought her there?” Even if I didn’t write the book in reverse – I wrote it from page one to the end – the sea was my first inspiration. That is why it also figures in the title.
Thirsty Sea—Nel mare c’è la sete in Italian – is very evocative. What does it mean to you and what do you think it means to the narrator?
Maria’s life is like a thirsty sea: you can’t trust seawater because it doesn’t satisfy you, it doesn’t fulfil your needs or quench your thirst. The full sentence in the book is “thirsty sea, never trust the quantity.” For Maria, and for most of us, the main issue is what you leave unsaid in your relationships: all that is hidden under the surface and that you can’t see. We need to dive into the sea, into the book, into her life, into her personality. What she seeks in those 24 hours is another quality of water: the capacity to satiate. In other words, she’s looking for something that meets her needs since her life, up to that point, doesn’t.
Going back to that image of the woman by the sea, was that something that just appeared in your mind or was it something you had seen in a painting or thought about for a song? Was it something that you’d observed?
No, it was something that I imagined. I grew up by the seaside, and, even if I’m not a good swimmer – and that’s why Maria is in the book – I feel a very deep connection with the sea. Every time that I need to find inspiration, I find myself going back there. So maybe it was my way of jumping into the sea – metaphorically – finally writing something longer than a song.
Obviously, you’re a well-known singer-songwriter, and I was wondering how the process of writing the novel was different, and maybe also similar, to the process of writing a song or an album.
Patience was a main aspect. Writing a novel required a method and much more patience than writing a song because it was the first time that I committed to an idea for that long. When I’m preparing an album, maybe I have a concept that develops throughout and brings the songs together, but every song has a different story. I start writing a song, then I go to another one, then I go back. It’s messier than a novel. But even if it looks quite different, it’s actually not. It’s a matter of finding a way of narrating something, and I trusted the rhythm, the voice. I tried to work a lot on the sounds of the words. I’m sure that in the English translation it is a little bit different, but we tried to keep it.
That musicality really comes through in Clarissa Botsford’s translation. Could you talk a little about the relationship that you formed with Clarissa, and how you feel reading the novel in English.
It was one of the coolest experiences in my life because it was like being outside and inside at the same time. I would read it, and it would sound new to me, but also so familiar. It was like watching a cover band play one of your songs – another point of view. And I think that Clarissa did an extraordinary job because she truly understood the meaning, not just the meaning of the words, but the essence of the book. Reading it, I laughed and cried in the same parts.
We met each other after her first draft because I wanted to get to know her, and I wanted to work on the final translation together, especially regarding the poetry. I told her to change anything she needed. It was important to come up with new compound words that would sound better in English, and new words. Poetry is even more difficult than prose, of course. So, I said to her, “it’s my book, we can do whatever we want with it! Rewrite it if it doesn’t sound good in English.”She embraced it and we started playing with new words. I’m very happy that she happened to be the translator of this book.
Speaking of the poetry, throughout the book you have these lyrical entries in the different sub sections. They were very intriguing framing devices, and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about those?
I used poetry for many reasons. First of all, I needed an anchor to who I am. I needed to have a space where words were divided into lines, which is what I’m used to. And then, when I read a book, I like to breathe. I like it when the writer suggests where I can rest. The book is divided into just four big parts, so I love that you have some points where I suggest you pause to reflect. Each of those small poems are metaphorically connected to the story; they evoke what you just read or what you are going to read.
It’s very linguistically inventive, and Maria’s voice is so incredibly strong. Did that voice, similarly to the image of the woman by the sea, come to you fully formed or was it something that developed gradually? Was the novel always going to be in the first person?
Was it always going to be in the first person? Yes. That was how I started, and I kept it like that. But the character wasn’t fully developed when I started writing. Nothing is fully developed when you start writing! You have an idea, you know where you want to go, but as in life, you need to stay flexible and allow for detours. The more I wrote, the more I got to know Maria.
There are a couple of very big reveals at the end of the novel, which I won’t spoil, but did you know what those were going to be from the beginning?
I knew them. I started from the last big reveal, and then other elements came in during the process. But the main topics were clear in my mind.
In terms of the chronological progression, the novel starts at dinner time and ends the following day at snack time. Could you talk a little bit about how the book is structured?
I wanted the story to be set in a very short period of time because I think that a day can change your life. It doesn’t require much time to resolve a situation where you feel trapped. I wanted it to be in 24 hours. I also wanted it to be set not only in one day but in one place because, even if Maria goes back and forth in time and space, and moves around her little city, we are in her mind. I wanted the space to be just one: a brain and a heart, a body, a person. And just one day.
I thought of dividing the novel in meals, first of all, because I’m Italian (I’m joking!) and then because Maria complains a lot about the lifestyle she’s used to, this lifestyle of rituals and making decisions around the table, where, actually, nothing happens. Everything is postponed, and life just goes on. She gets angry at the beginning of the book when she reflects about the fact that the world divides time into four seasons but, instead, we have meals. It was a formula; the meals are like the four seasons of her life. I started from dinner because I wanted to end at snack time, the merenda, because Maria also has a complicated relationship with food. She needs to embrace the only meal that is really a treat, like when you’re a child. It’s a meal that connects her with her childhood, and also with the freedom of choosing and pleasure.
Over the course of the book, Maria works through a jumble of memories, keeping the original, life-changing event that plunged her into a state of guilt almost till last. Meanwhile, one of her favourite clients needs gift ideas for his wife with Alzheimer’s, a disease that famously robs its sufferers of their memories. Could you talk a little about the role of memory in this book — as something simultaneously oppressive but also something that binds us to the people we love?
That’s a very good question, I never actually thought about the difference between Maria and Enrico, her client, regarding this. Maria would love to forget. For years, in her family they’ve been pretending that they’ve forgotten what happened in the past. But Enrico is afraid of being forgotten by his wife. Enrico mirrors Maria: he shows her what she isn’t, but could be: a person who is capable of loving, a person who is capable of caring and who can give and receive. Maria is able to give but she’s not generous in the other direction, because being capable of receiving is an act of generosity too, and she can’t do that.
Regarding time and memory, she prefers to give everything away. She needs to find the space within her to hold onto the past and to her feelings. She says in the book: my mother put my sister’s life inside mine, so I don’t have enough space for anything else. I’m full. I have two lives in one body so how can I keep other things with me?
I think that Maria and Enrico learn a lot from one another, but time is always an issue. She says at the beginning that we give too much importance to time and not enough importance to space, which is something I agree with. When I feel anxious about the future, or also about the past, which is more absurd, I need to think about space more than time: “where am I?” rather than “when will I be there?”
Speaking of spaces, London is a very important location for Maria, it’s where she comes alive. It’s also where you wrote the book, so could you tell me about the importance of London to you and to Maria.
For Maria, London gave her an alternative family. There, she finds her best friend, a girl who is completely different from her. Ruth is much more free. And it’s the place where Maria starts wondering about the relationship she could have had with her sister by finding a sister who isn’t related by blood. It’s also the place where she starts to question this block of marble that she feels in her chest, this anchor to the ground, this gravity she feels.
What did it give to you, creatively, being in London?
London has also been a very important city for me because I was creating an album there, an album I released recently. I was able to write the two things together, the book and the album, because London is a very inspiring city full of interesting people and places. Also sometimes, when you need to describe something that is very close to you, you need to step back to see things clearly, and that’s what happened to me. I wanted to write a book set in the places that I know the best, Puglia in the south east of Italy, and in order to do that I needed to look at it from afar.
In terms of that “block of marble” that Maria’s been carrying for more than 25 years, to what extent do you think she gets to free herself of the consciousness of that event?
We don’t know … I should write a sequel to understand it! We can say that the process where the marble starts crumbling has started. She’s started to release small pieces of this block, and I hope that Maria will continue to do that even if I will never write a sequel of the book. I hope that if she were a real person, she would keep going. She’s not totally freed at the end of the book, but it doesn’t matter. What I wanted to do was to describe the moment when things stop being a certain way and become something else. She says “it doesn’t matter how many years the sea needs to become a mountain, layer after layer after layer, at one point you stop calling it the sea and you start to call it a mountain.”
In an article I wrote about Thirsty Sea for the Héloïse Press website, I talked about Fleabag in relation to this character, but I was also thinking about the narrators of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, and, though I didn’t write about it, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You. Were these books, shows, and characters in your mind at all as you wrote? Maybe we could also talk about why so called “messy” women are increasingly prevalent in literature at the moment.
I must confess that I saw Fleabag only after I read your article. I really loved that series and I think it can be retroactive inspiration. Sometimes you don’t need to see or read or listen to certain things to feel its influence because we are part of a cultural moment, and we share ideas – it’s like they are in the air. We live in a specific time, shaped by specific ideas that create global movements, they don’t belong to one single person. Sometimes it happens that you find another person in another corner of the world doing the same thing that you’re doing at the same time. It’s not magical. It’s just being sensitive, feeling what’s happening around you. I’m sure that all the titles you’ve mentioned inspired me even if unconsciously.
Why all those messy women? It’s very complicated but I suppose it’s because this is who we are. And we’re in a time when we don’t like to hide this part of ourselves. Luckily, we are beyond that, and we need to embrace it. I’m a big fan of contradictions. I’ve tried to understand my mother all my life, and all her contradictions. I always find it so difficult to describe her, and then I start thinking about myself and how afraid I am to be defined in a word. Sometimes they ask you, especially regarding music, which kind of music you do. I don’t know! This is a very hard question and I don’t know the answer. Or they ask you to describe yourself in three words … I’d prefer to jump into a river!
Even the word – messy – is meaningless when we just mean contradictory. But there’s an expectation that characters, especially female characters, be very consistent and hew to a formula, as in life.
But with art, as well, you want to know what you are going to experience. When you open a book or when you turn on the television or when you go on Spotify, for example, you want a playlist that can reassure you; you know that you will listen to twenty songs that are more or less the same. So, we tend to make playlists of everything. And this is because you don’t have the time to explore. If you want to understand something complex, like the life of another person, you need to take time to do that. You have to speak with them the first time and then again and again and again, in order to have a full picture. And when we talk about products, like cultural products, I’m sure that we tend to have a sense of what we will find because we don’t have the time to stay and explore. It’s something I love about kids: a kid will watch and rewatch and rewatch the same movie 25 times. And we lose that. When we grow up, we don’t have time to develop such a deep love for objects or for art.
Could you say a few words about your own literary interests? Which books and which writers have inspired and influenced you over the years?
That’s one of those questions that only after you answer it, you find the right answer … So I’ll go with a wrong one. I can say that one of the books that really changed my way of thinking was L’Étranger by Camus. The book wouldn’t leave me even after I finished it. And that’s the first example that comes to my mind when I think of a very complex character. The protagonist is so weird, you hate him, but also you want him to stay alive; you hate him, but you understand him. How feelings are represented and explored in books is something that really impresses me – of course, it’s a masterpiece, and that’s why …
Do you know the writer Oriana Fallaci? She was a journalist, and I read something she wrote when I was younger. And then as soon as I finished writing Thirsty Sea, I read her novel Letter to a Child Never Born. It’s a book that really moved me and is somehow in mine. And then I can say Carver, Italo Calvino – I did my degree dissertation about him – and many, many others …
It’s interesting that you mention the Fallaci novel, which I didn’t know, because I did want to ask you about motherhood. It’s another thing that I’m noticing a lot in literature, a certain ambivalence around that subject. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about this subject, and your treatment of that very complex relationship between mother and daughter.
There is a time in your life when you are around thirty, and when you understand that you are an adult now. You start rethinking your relationship with your parents, and we start thinking about ourselves as future parents. Maria is at that point in her life where she now needs to take full responsibility for what she wants to do, and she can’t keep blaming her parents for something that happened to her. She has a very complicated relationship with both parents, maybe because her mother loved her for two and her father stopped loving her somehow, so she wants to find a new balance between her mother’s overabundance and her father’s nothingness.
I can’t understand the feeling of a mother losing a child, that’s why, in the book, I decided to treat the argument from the sister’s perspective. I couldn’t write a book about Maria’s family from Maria’s mother’s point of view. Maria is very angry with her parents, but we only know her side of the story because it’s a book written in the first person. She feels their mother loves her too much and her father loves her too little, so they are both wrong. But who knows if the way Maria perceives this makes her parents’ love justice?
I think that mother and daughter relationships are something very complicated. I lost my mother when I was twenty-three, so I can’t imagine how our relationship could have changed in time. I remember when I was eighteen, nineteen years old, I was so afraid of her. She was very strict, and I had an image of my mother as a very serious and demanding person. She expected so much. But then, when I was twenty, I discovered another person, a person who was full of life, full of laughter and irony that I had never understood before. It was as though she felt that her job was done, I could go into the world by myself, so she relaxed, and we started to know each other better. I always think about how many things I still don’t know, and that I could have understood later on. If she were alive and I was a mother, I could watch her being a grandmother to my kids and have seen how our relationship would have been as peers. I won’t have this opportunity, but it doesn’t matter, that’s what happened. I can experience it with my father, of course, and I love our changing relationship. But that is something that is very fascinating to me, how our parents are people, not only our parents, and how we are able to know them from different angles as we grow up.
At the end of the book, Maria is making a big decision but there’s also a quite unsentimental aspect to the way that she deals with it, How was that aspect of the book received in Italy?
In March 2020, when the book came out, of course it was forbidden to hold public events, but then in the summer things started to happen and I did a lot of presentations, like fifty presentations in two months – it was a very crazy time because people wanted to do lots of things after the first wave of the pandemic – and I had questions from the audience from very, very angry men. They were asking me if there would be a sequel, if I was sure that was the end … and I was trying to tell them that they had misunderstood the final section. So I said “let’s see. Who knows? Whatever.” It was something that generated a lot of debates at presentations. And also some unexpected reactions. Like my boyfriend, who didn’t read the book before it was printed, he told me, “It’s tough. But this is who she is.” Many people told me they hated the protagonist or loved her. There wasn’t a unique reaction to the final part. But there were many, many angry men.
Finally, are you planning on writing any further novels and do you see yourself alternating between music and literature going forward?
This is what I love to do; those two things really complete me. And they have allowed me to express myself in different ways, so I’d love to keep doing it. Now I’m touring, but I’ll also be in the UK to promote the book … I have opened a file on my computer for a new book. I just need to take my time because I chose a difficult subject, so I don’t know if I will commit to this idea. Writing is something that requires both things: inspiration and hard work. I need to find the right time to stop and to fully commit to it. It’s not there yet. It will come.
Just out of curiosity, roughly how long did it take you to write Thirsty Sea?
How long? It’s a nice question because the answer is 9 months!
Thirsty Sea, translated by Clarissa Botsford, will be out with Héloïse Press on May 17th. You can read an extract here.
Erica Mou studied Literature, Publishing and Journalism at the University of Bari. She is a singer-songwriter with numerous international awards. Thirsty Sea, winner of the Readers Award of the Lungano Literary Festival 2020, is her debut novel. Twitter: @ericamou
Laura Allsop is a writer and editor based in London, with a specialism in art and culture. Her writing has appeared in AnOther Magazine, ArtReview and The Guardian, among other titles.