Mussolini's Island by Sarah Day ** Blog Tour Guest Post**

Welcome to my turn on the Blog Tour to welcome the paperback publication of Mussolini's Island by Sarah Day. I am honoured to welcome Sarah to Books, Life and Everything to talk about Writing your First Novel but before I hand over to Sarah, here's a little about the book.

Italy 1939. Francesco has been imprisoned on the tiny island of San Domino, among a group of men that include his lovers, friends and enemies. One of their number has betrayed them all to the fascist police, and they are determined to find out who.

    Before long Francesco meets Elena, a young island girl desperate to escape her cloistered existence. She is dazzled by the beautiful young man, and cannot help but pin all her hoped on him.

    As Elena discovers the truth about the prisoners, the fine line between love and hate pulls her towards an act that can only have terrible consequences for all.  

Welcome to Books, Life and Everything, Sarah- now over to you!

Like most ‘first novels’, Mussolini’s Island wasn’t actually my first. It wasn’t even my second - or my third, if you count my 1991 epic, The Magic Paintbrush (self published and hand illustrated, limited edition). First novels are usually, I suspect, a bit of a myth. Behind them is a saga of failed attempts, near misses, disappointments and gritted teeth. What emerges looks like a carefully executed plan, and it’s easy to think the path must have been an easy one – the reverse is usually the case!
By the time I came to write Mussolini’s Island, I had written one complete novel and, before that, one complete mess. The mess has never been read by anyone – thank goodness! – and was the sort of book I thought I should be writing – a contemporary setting, with lots of my own personal experiences woven in. Characters were based on family members and friends, settings were places I remembered from my childhood. Write what you know, as they say.

It wasn’t going well when, completely by chance, I came across an odd, fascinating story, about an eighteenth century scientist who had travelled with Vitus Bering, of Bering Straits fame. I could see straight away that his story might make an interesting novel. I very, very much did not want to be the person to write it. I knew nothing about the time period, about sailing, about Siberia. Despite a background in history, I had never even imagined attempting to write historical novels. Besides, I was still labouring over my great magnum opus, which was refusing to arrange itself into anything resembling a coherent book. I had invested so much time in it already, I couldn’t bear the idea of letting it go.

In the end, I became so alarmed by the idea that someone else might write that Siberia novel first, I decided to give it a go. I set down the first book, and instantly felt lighter. I spent a wonderful, completely immersive two years teaching myself what I needed to know for this new project. I bought books with strange titles like ‘The Shaman’s Coat’ and ‘An Introduction to German Pietism.’ That book didn’t end up being published, but I had caught the bug. Why write what you know, when you can have so much fun writing about what you don’t?

I stumbled on the true story behind Mussolini’s Island – the persecution of 45 gay men from Catania, and their imprisonment on a tiny island in 1939 – by equally random chance. I read an article which told some of their story, and immediately felt that same itch to research. Again, I was in the dark. I knew very little about fascism, the early twentieth century or the history of gay rights in Italy. I don’t even speak Italian, which became a problem when I realised most of the research material didn’t exist in translation. I dived in anyway, fascinated to find out more.

I read and read. I visited the island and met a man who remembered the prisoners being there. I typed words I didn’t understand into google translate and painstakingly translated passages. After a lot of research, and countless missteps and rewrites, Mussolini’s Island was published earlier this year. It’s a book I never would have dreamed I would write – especially not if you’d told me about it six years ago, when I was still staring forlornly at that first, shambolic attempt at a novel. Had I not given myself permission to abandon it, I know I would still be staring at it now, no further on. The most important lesson I’ve learned since then is to follow your instincts. Don’t write what you know – write what you want to find out.

Thank you so much Sarah for that insight. I found the book fascinating. especially as I visited Catania in May, so I was able to remember the feel of the place and recognise some of the buildings you refer to.

Catania and Mount Etna c. Books, Life and Everything

My Thoughts

I was surprised by Mussolini's Island. I'm not sure what I was expecting but found it to be a real glimpse into a period of history that I knew little about- Italy during the rise of Fascism under Mussolini. Shifts in time were dealt with seamlessly and I soon found myself immersed in Francesco's plight and the complicated web of secrets and lies he had been forced to weave. Little by little, you learn more about his parents and his boyhood but I still wasn't ready for the final reveal. 

Catania Cathedral c. Books, Life & Everything
    Based on true events in Italy in 1938-9 when homosexuality was regarded as a 'contagion' by Mussolini's fascist regime, we follow the story of Francesco who is imprisoned on the island of San Domino along with the other 'arrusi' who have lived in the shadows of Catania by night. His sexuality has not been his only secret.  He came to Catania with his mother from Naples because of the actions of his father. Unable to acknowledge who he really is, he has tried to eradicate all details about his father. 

Roman Amphitheatre in Catania c. Books, Life & Everything
Fear and intimidation underlies life in Catania and San Domino, with War looming in Europe. It extends to the inhabitants of San Domino and its effect is seen in the behaviour of Elena's father. Treachery, loyalty, hope and despair sit side by side throughout. Despite its horrific treatment of the 'arrusi', Francesco tries to uphold his father's advice to never give up- 'non mollare'. It is an impressive debut novel.

In short: a book to be enjoyed on many levels - I  loved it. 

                                                               About the author

Sarah Day credit Lou Abercrombie

Sarah Day lives in London, where she works as a science communicator at the Geological Society. She has written columns for a variety of publications, including The Guardian, and The Vagenda. After graduating with a Masters in the History and Philosophy of Science from Durham University, she studied Science Communication at Imperial College, London. Mussolini's Island is her first novel.

You can follow Sarah Day here:  Twitter    |  Website 

Thanks to Millie Seaward, the publishers, Headline, and Sarah Day for a copy of the book and a place on the Blog Tour.

    Check out the rest of the Tour!



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