DUBLIN PUBLIC RADIO
AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMES STEPHENS,
DPR: With us today on Book Talk is James Stephens, one of the principal characters in the novel-in-progress entitled Spell. Welcome, Mr. Stephens.
JS: Thank you for having me.
DPR: I must say it seems rather surrealistic to be speaking to you-a fictional character-rather than to the author who created you.
JS: That may be, but John Palcewski is constitutionally incapable of speaking coherently about his own work. I, on the other hand, don't mind discussing my involvement with Vittoria, which is what this novel is about.
DPR: So it's a love story.
JS: A complicated love story. It's also about the power of spells, both ancient and contemporary.
DPR: May we assume that Vittoria is the one who cast a spell, rather than the other way around?
JS: You may. She was born in the village of Buonopane, on Ischia, a volcanic island in the Bay of Naples. As a child she learned the practice of Stregheria, or witchcraft, which had been passed down in her family for literally hundreds of generations. It's an ancient belief with pagan origins that existed long before the birth of Christ. Of course all this fascinated me. Not to mention that she was a beautiful woman, with a surprisingly sweet and essentially guileless personality.
DPR: But many consider witchcraft to be superstitious nonsense.
JS: Exactly. But the practice can be traced to the invention of written alphabetical language. Have you ever heard of The Nestor's Cup?
DPR: No, I'm afraid I haven't.
JS: The Nestor's Cup was found in a tomb on Ischia, Vittoria's birthplace, in a necropolis of one of the earliest Greek settlements, established around 700 BC. On it is an inscription that says: "Whosoever drinks of this cup, fair-crowned Aphrodite will seize."
DPR: A love spell?
JS: No, a sex spell. Think of aphrodisiac.
DPR: Yes, of course.
JS: Now, the great historical importance of the cup is that it carries one of the earliest examples of writing that exactly mirrors speech, in this case Greek, the language of Homer. Some scholars speculate that it was invented to preserve the oral epics of The Iliad and The Odyssey. So to me the artifact was utterly fascinating and it had a strange resonance, like déjà vu. I felt Vittoria was a part of the weighty and complex history that surrounded it, and so in that way she captured me. And held me, even though she made disclosures that ordinarily would have sent me running.
JS: Yes. One, that she was married. Two, that she had become addicted to prescription painkillers. She persuaded me to help her escape from both. I knew this didn't have much chance of success, but then in my heart I'm an optimist. Got it from my dear parents.
DPR: So this is a story of a chap fighting long odds.
JS: You might say that. You also might say that Vittoria took me for a rather wild ride. Or into a rather tangled thicket. For instance, early in the relationship Vittoria decided that she would make an excellent subject for my next novel. The idea came to her when I let her read part of my daily journal. She was astonished that I had written down virtually everything that we had said and done the previous evening. Now, Vittoria at her core is creative and artistic. She suddenly realized that she could-through me-write a story of her life. All she had to do was present herself to me as she wished to be seen on the pages of a book. This, of course, led to her various deceptions and e-mail impersonations.
DPR: This is getting complicated. What purpose did her e-mail impersonations serve?
JS: Comic relief. Interesting material. Also a way for her to get more fully inside my head. I realized much later that her real purpose was to make sure that the love spell she'd cast on me was working.
DPR: How did she manage to get inside your head?
JS: In one instance by impersonating another beautiful and interesting young woman, and writing to me that she loved my novels, and that she desperately wanted to meet me, to make love to me. In another, she asked a cousin to check up on me. But wait. We're getting a bit off track here. These are merely diversions.
DPR: By all means, please let's get back on track.
JS: In the rescue operation I decided to begin with her pill problem, and deal with the marriage problem later. I interviewed some experts on addiction, and I read a pile of books. What helped most was that she seemed ready. After some encouragement, she agreed to get treatment. I drove her to a rehab, helped her check in. I was elated. But three days later, she left.
JS: A counter-transference problem.
DPR: Say again?
JS: She was assigned a counselor who had just been dumped by his wife. When Vittoria talked about being a married woman in an affair with a famous novelist, well, it made the guy mad. She felt his anger, and she knew he would never be able to help her. Not too long after that, I had a rather unpleasant encounter with her husband, Enrico.
DPR: That must have been interesting. From a novelist's point of view, I mean.
JS: Enrico had hired a detective, who gave him my address. One day while Vittoria and I were in bed in my apartment, we heard a furious pounding on the door. I put on my robe, went to see who was making all the racket. I opened the door. He said, "Are you James Stephens?" I said yes. "I want my wife, right now." Enrico took a step toward me, an evil glare in his eyes. I raised my hand. "Whoa!" I said.
DPR: Was blood shed in the incident?
JS: No, the poor guy just stopped in his tracks. I merely said, "Leave us alone," and shut the door. Enrico stayed out there, pounding and making threats, and finally one of the neighbors called the police. He left before they arrived. Now, I was rather glad this had happened.
JS: Because I was convinced he wouldn't be able to tolerate his wife having an affair, and would throw her out. That would neatly take care of the bad marriage problem, in my view. But I was wrong. Nothing happened. We all just returned to the status quo.
DPR: One doesn't think of Italian men as being that tolerant.
JS: In Southern Italian culture, family comes ahead of anything else. Such indiscretions are easily overlooked. In any event, I turned my attention to getting her help for her addiction. That's when her father, Giancarlo, came into the picture. He got wind of Vittoria's problem by way of her sister. He came up with a plan. Which was that he would put Vittoria in a rehab in Italy, and then afterward she would go to Ischia and take over the management of the family's vineyards.
DPR: Sounds reasonable.
JS: At first Vittoria refused, because she did not trust him. She said he was a rather canny devil, always had a card hidden up his sleeve. Furthermore, she had little desire to take on the management a grape growing operation. But I told her that if she were truly serious about beating her pill habit, she'd take advantage of the treatment Giancarlo was offering. I said that perhaps this was the best solution of all. After rehab, I might just join her on the island. Finally she agreed.
DPR: Did the treatment succeed?
JS: Turned out she was absolutely right in not trusting her father. Giancarlo did not take her to a rehab. Instead he put her in a remote monastery on the coast of Northern Italy, where she was to stay for a year. He believed that isolation, prayer and just a bit of Divine Intervention would do the job.
DPR: Didn't she object?
JS: Of course. But there was nothing she could do. In Italy it's called "Padre podesta," which in effect means that a father has an absolute right to do such things to bring a wayward daughter back in line, even if that daughter is an adult. She was permitted to write only once to her son, Antonio. She asked Antonio to let me know that she slept in a small cell. No TV, no radio, no telephone. She didn't know exactly where that monastery was, but they had sailed for about a half hour in a hired boat from the village of Porto Fino.
DPR: Do we feel a rescue coming on?
JS: How could I resist? I booked a flight the next day for Rome. From Rome I took a train to Porto Fino. I asked a clerk in the tourist office where I might find a nearby monastery that was accessible only by boat. "Ah, yes," he said. "The monastery of Santa Frutuosso. The boat leaves in just five minutes." When I got there, I saw a group of tourists listening to a lecture by a tour guide whose name tag said she was Franchesca. When Franchesca concluded her talk I asked her if she would be kind enough to direct me to the head monk. She replied there was no head monk in this monastery. "In fact," she said, "there are no monks whatever here." Why? "Because it is now a museum." When I explained to Franchesca that I was looking for my girlfriend, whose father had locked her up, she laughed. "Such things are no longer done in this country," she said.
DPR: So then?
JS: I tried three other monasteries in the area, but at each they told me that no young woman named Vittoria was in residence. Absolutely not. They seemed surprised by my inquiry, so I had to conclude they were being truthful. When I got back to Rome I decided that rather than flying back to the states, I'll go down to Naples and catch a ferry for Ischia. I thought I might as well get acquainted with Vittoria's birthplace. I wanted to see Buonopane, the village where she grew up. Also I wanted to see the famous Nestor's Cup, which was in a museum in the nearby village of Lacco Ameno. I ended up staying for two weeks. I went all over the island, mostly on foot. I've traveled alone often in my life, but that was about the most lonely trek I ever took. I kept looking for her in the places she had earlier described to me, but of course she never appeared. Reluctantly, I returned to New York.
DPR: Surely this is not the sad end of a boy meets girl story, is it?
JS: Hardly. After a few weeks of silence, Antonio called and said he'd just gotten a letter from his mother, postmarked Milan.
DPR: She had escaped?
JS: Of course. With the help of a man named Allesandro, the brother of one of the monks, who had come to the monastery for a visit. Allesandro was an internationally famous fashion photographer, on the staff of Italian Vogue. He told her she'd be perfect as a model. So she went with him to Milan. She said in her letter to her son Antonio that she was living in a villa with two other models and was going all over Italy on photo shoots. And, she added, "Please tell James thank you for being such a good bridge."
DPR: What did she mean by that?
JS: Very early on in our relationship, before her spell took hold, she asked me what my feelings for her were. I knew she wanted me to say that I loved her. But for obvious reasons I held back. I said, "Perhaps God has put me in your life not as a destination, but a bridge." This did not please her at all.
DPR: Payback's a bitch, as you chaps say in America.
JS: That it surely is. In any event, what followed were three, four weeks of silence. I expected her to write to me, or call, but she didn't. I assumed that she had gotten caught up in an insane high fashion jet-setting whirlwind. I imagined that she became one of Allesandro's drug-stupefied sex slaves, or worse. I believed I had lost her. So I felt I had no choice but to set about trying to put her out of my mind.
DPR: You began dating, I presume?
JS: More or less. I got a letter from an elegant young woman named Marion who described herself as a closet writer who supported her fiction habit by singing. She enclosed a publicity photo, and an invitation to one of her performances at the Starlight Room of the Park Plaza. She said she'd read all of my novels and was quite drawn to the character of the implied author who lurked beneath the surface of the prose. This was after about six weeks of not hearing from Vittoria, so I accepted.
DPR: One thing led to another?
JS: Not exactly. I enjoyed Marion's performance, and also the conversation we had later at the bar. Then we had lunch. Then dinner. She asked me if I were involved with anyone, and I could rightfully have said no, I was not. But instead I heard myself saying, yes, I was involved-such as it was-with Vittoria, and then went on to tell Marion the entire story. "So exactly what do you feel for her?" Marion asked. Again, I heard myself speaking. "I love her," I replied. That was the first time I had acknowledged it, which surprised me. Then Marion said, "Well, that ought not prevent us from being friends." I agreed.
DPR: Seems you are about to drop the other shoe.
JS: You're quite perceptive! I didn't know it at the time, of course, but Marion actually was Vittoria's cousin and very close friend. I mentioned earlier that Vittoria engaged in impersonations and deceptions, because she wanted to provide interesting material for the novel she expected me to write about her, and also to find out if her spell was working. Well, Vittoria had called from Milan and asked Marion to get in touch with me. And put me to the test, so to speak.
DPR: Vittoria must have been delighted to hear that her spell was working.
JS: Well, no one heard anything from Vittoria for a long time. Then Antonio called to tell me the bad news. Vittoria was in a hospital in Milan. She'd been in a taxi, on her way to a photo shoot, when it was broadsided by a lorry. Her head had been struck violently, which resulted in a concussion and profound amnesia. Vittoria did not know who she was, and she had no memory of anyone else. She'd been in the hospital a month, when a fellow model finally tracked her down. Antonio said that his dad was on his way to the airport. Enrico was going to bring his wife back home.
DPR: This tale has many twists and turns.
JS: Made to order for a novelist, wouldn't you say?
JS: Anyway, I did not like thinking about Enrico going to Italy to claim his property. Which is exactly how I envisioned it. I imagined all he had to do was show his marriage certificate to the hospital authorities and they, despite her protests, would merely hand her over. Turned out this is exactly what happened.
DPR: Antonio filled you in?
JS: Yes. He said that when his dad showed up and announced he was her husband, she shook her head. "No!" she shouted. Enrico said he had pictures to prove they were married, with a son. She said, "How could I have married such a man!" But despite all that, Enrico was given permission to take her out of the hospital and to the airport for a trip back home. She had no choice. That's the way it still is in Italy.
DPR: What about Allesandro?
JS: Apparently he'd written her off after not hearing from her in several weeks. Or maybe he didn't want to assume responsibility for an amnesiac. Who knows? Vittoria ended up back in America, in her husband's house in Long Island. This is when the situation got verrrrry interesting.
DPR: How so?
JS: Enrico got the idea that Vittoria's amnesia actually was a great opportunity.
DPR: For what?
JS: To court her for the second time. To win her love. She had no memory of him, nor of all the things that had led to the disintegration of their marriage. So here, he realized, was a clean slate. He could start over, and avoid the mistakes he'd made in the past.
DPR: So you and Enrico were rivals for the fair maiden's hand.
JS: That's a way of looking at it. I found the whole thing absolutely fascinating.
DPR: And, again, excellent material for fiction.
JS: Precisely. But remember, I was by then firmly in the grip of her spell. So it wasn't just a story I was pursuing. I didn't want Enrico to reclaim her. I wanted her to remember what she felt for me before the accident. Well, the first thing Enrico did was to spread the word about what had happened, and soon the house was packed with concerned relatives, including Vittoria's father, Giancarlo. Those Italians surrounded her, all shouting at once, trying to get her to remember the role she occupied in that extended family. It was quite a scene.
DPR: And what did you do?
JS: I printed out all of my journals that described our romance. I put them in a three-ring binder, along with a number of photos I'd taken of her. Then I asked Antonio to persuade her to meet me. She reluctantly agreed. I showed her the binder. She leafed through the pages, astonished. But I was encouraged by the fact that she did not find me loathsome and disgusting-as she found Enrico when he showed up in the Milan hospital. What particularly intrigued me was that she had no memory of sex, or of romance. I bent over and kissed her gently. "How did that feel?" I asked. "Not bad," she replied.
DPR: So who finally won, you or Ginacarlo?
JS: All her memory gradually returned. I resumed my role as her lover. Giancarlo again looked the other way, and as before, he continued to pay Vittoria's pharmacy bills. Antonio sent me e-mails to keep me informed of what was going on. All of us went right back to where we were in the beginning. Nothing much had changed.
DPR: And so what's ahead?
JS: I intend to finish writing this novel.
DPR: But wouldn't you agree that so far there isn't much of a dramatic ending?
JS: You may have heard the aphorism that what's important is not the destination, but the journey. Anyway, when the book is done I'll do everything I can to help Vittoria break her drug habit. Maybe I'll get her father involved again, this time more constructively. I might try a few other things as well.
DPR: After all that has happened do you seriously believe that you'll succeed?
JS: I do. And what's more, I'm the sort of guy who never gives up. Ever.
John Palcewski has enjoyed an eclectic career as a photojournalist, music and drama critic, magazine editor, literary fiction writer, poet, and fine arts photographer. His most recent work can be seen in Pierian Springs, Archipelago, Magaera, Stirring, Adirondack Review, Aileron, Branches, Electric Acorn, Moonword Review, Samsara, and Tryst3. An expatriate American, he lives in a vineyard's villa on Isola d' Ischia, a volcanic island in the bay of Naples, Italy.
Contact John Palcewski at: Palcewski@hotmail.com
August 30, 2002