Donna Leon's love affair with Italy began in the mid-1960s when she visited for the first time. She returned frequently over the course of the next decade, while working as a teacher in such far-flung paces as Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, England, Iran, and China. In the 1980s, the New Jersey native made the decision to move to Venice, where she still lives.
Leon's writing career began accidentally. One evening, following a performance at Venice's famous opera house, Teatro La Fenice, Leon and some friends were discussing a certain conductor they all heartily disliked. Someone jokingly suggested killing him off; and when the conversation turned to how, where, and why, suddenly the idea for a dandy murder mystery took shape in Leon's mind. Published in 1992, Death at La Fenice introduced Commissario Guido Brunetti, the melancholy Venetian policeman who would go on to star in a series of witty, intelligently plotted, and critically acclaimed detective novels.
Brunetti is, indeed, one of the most appealing characters in crime fiction, and one of the pleasures of the series is the revelation of new and surprising facets to his personality. Intellectual, introspective, and world weary, he is also happily married, totally committed to his job, and a lover of classical music, good food, and jokes. But, above all, Guido Brunetti is "Venetian to the bone" -- born into and shaped by a society filled with cultural contradictions. Through her detective's eyes, Leon illuminates the central paradox of Venice: Beneath the ravishing beauty and civilized veneer lurks a core of insidious and utterly pervasive corruption. Brunetti's cynicism stems from his inability to stem the tide -- although, bless his heart, he never stops trying.
Elegant writing, deft characterization, and lots of local color elevate the Brunetti novels above run-of-the-mill series, and Leon's reputation has grown with each installment. But although her books are international bestsellers, they have never been translated into Italian. The author explained why in an interview with National Public Radio: " I do not take any pleasure whatsoever in being a famous person. The tenor of my life would change if these books were translated into Italian, because I'm completely anonymous here." Anonymous in Venice, perhaps. Elsewhere, Donna Leon is a rock star!
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An opera buff with a passion for baroque music, Leon has written the libretto for a comic opera entitled Dona Gallina.
For a few years, Leon reviewed crime fiction for the Sunday Times.
In Germany, several of the Commissario Brunetti novels have been adapted into television mini-series.
A woman of strong opinions, Leon reads voraciously for topical issues to use in her novels. Among the serious matters she has written about are industrial pollution, human trafficking, illegal adoption, and corruption in the Catholic Church.
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In the summer of 2003, Donna Leon took some time out to talk with us about her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
It is impossible to think of one book that was most influential.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen -- It explains how things work between men and women.
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray -- The heroine is deliciously bad in an era when women were not meant to be.
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James -- The heroine is good, yet still not dull.
The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa -- It gives an accurate view of Sicilian society, then and now.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy -- A marvelous heroine trapped between two inadequate men.
Judgment in Stone by Ruth Rendell -- The best mystery, and Ruth Rendell the best mystery writer.
Any of the Patrick O'Brian sea novels -- I adore well-written historical novels.
Agamemnon by Aeschylus -- Tells us all we need to know about pride, hatred, and revenge.
The Iliad by Homer -- It is honest about warfare in an age that isn't.
Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer -- Makes wonderful fun of romantic love.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I don't go to the movies because I don't like films.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I listen to Handel's vocal music, almost exclusively.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I was extraordinarily lucky. I wrote a book because I wanted to see if I could write a mystery. Someone nagged me into sending it to a contest, which it won, after which I was offered a two-book contract, thus requiring the writing of a second book.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Donna Leon had to say:
Any of the twenty Patrick O'Brian books, because reading one will assure the reader that the other nineteen have to be read, and there goes the summer.
Richard Powers' In the Time of our Singing is the best book I've ever read about music and what joy it is to make it.
Fourteen Byzantine Emperors by Michael Psellus -- Though it was written
more than a thousand years ago, this account of the rulers of Byzantium suggests that ignorance, vanity, and hypocrisy are not recent phenomena
among the men who rule us.
Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss -- It's unlikely that a book about
punctuation and grammar could provoke belly laughs, but this one does. Often.
The Leopardo di Lampedusa -- This account of the decline of a noble Sicilian family explains more about Italy than does any other book I can think of.
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Not a cheerful book, but at times a wonderfully funny one. Listed as sci fi, but really prophecy.
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth -- Luckily, I've got a lousy memory, so it's been long enough to allow me to wallow in these 1500 pages again. It's Dickens in India, and it is bliss.
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi -- Beyond my powers to praise, this is a love story to literature and to the author's much-tortured country.
A People's Tragedy by Orlando Figes -- From the very beginning, the Russian Revolution was flawed, both in its makers nad its goals. This one will break your heart.
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray -- Becky Sharp is one of the best bad women in literature. It's refreshing to read about a woman who does what she wants and has no taste for fools.
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|Donna Leon Home
Good to Know
|In Our Other Stores|
Signed, First Editions by Donna Leon|
|Death at la Fenice, 1992|
|Death in a Strange Country, 1993|
|The Anonymous Venetian, 1994|
|A Venetian Reckoning, 1995|
|Acqua Alta (A Guido Brunetti Mystery), 1996|
|The Death of Faith, 1997|
|A Noble Radiance, 1998|
|Fatal Remedies, 1999|
|Friends in High Places, 2000|
|Uniform Justice, 2003|
|Through a Glass, Darkly, 2006|
|Suffer the Little Children, 2007|