To anyone who asked, my answer was simple: “I’m going to move to Rome and write novels.”
I’m not sure that anyone took me seriously. It sounded like a fantasy rather than a realistic life plan. But I’d fallen in love with Rome during a 3 week internship at Keats-Shelley House in Piazza di Spagna the year before, and I’d been trying (and failing) to write novels for years. I’d even joined the Failed Novelists Society at Oxford. Now, at the age of 21, I was ready to combine my two passions and become a writer who writes, rather than a writer who daydreams.
In 2013, after a year of working and saving up in London, I moved to Rome. I lived in a grotty little apartment in Testaccio, with a bathroom the size of a shoebox that flooded regularly, and flatmates with whom I was unable to communicate. I was ecstatically happy.
Most people choose their apartment because of the price, or the proximity to public transport, or some other practical reason. I’d chosen mine because of the cemetery. I was just around the corner from the Cimitero Accattolico (the Protestant/Non-Catholic Cemetery), burial place of my idols and literary inspirations, the Romantic poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Keats and Shelley had both left England to live (and die) in Italy. Shelley produced some of his greatest works while living in Italy, before drowning at the age of 29. Keats, on the other hand, was already dying of tuberculosis when he came to Rome, and wrote nothing in the last few months of his life. He was just 25 when he died, in a room overlooking the Spanish Steps.
Of the two, I hoped to be more like Shelley, taking inspiration from Italy and writing as much as possible. Although I didn’t plan on dying an untimely death, I often thought about their ages – 29 and 25 – and felt I ought to be writing more, and ideally producing some kind of masterpiece before I got too old.
In the mornings I would work on my novel, either in my bedroom or sitting on a bench in the cemetery, and in the afternoons I taught English at a private language school. A side note – although you’re unlikely to get rich teaching English in Italy, it’s a great way to earn a living while still having time to work on your creative projects. Many of the English teachers I know in Rome are also writers, musicians or artists.
I wrote a novel. Hyacinth I, the story of a king faking his own death and escaping to Venice, was rejected by every literary agent I sent it to, though the harshest critics were my own parents. Eventually I gave up, and decided I would have to write something else. Something set in Rome – something about ruins, foreigners, heatwaves, a past on the edge of the present…
In Exile was born on the metro, somewhere between Sant’Agnese and Conca d’Oro. I imagined Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, being reluctantly re-born in 20th century Rome, and waking up amongst the tombstones in the Protestant Cemetery. He would meet a teenage girl, Grace, who would overcome her fears to become his most devoted follower. This would be the start of a new cult, a Bacchae for the modern era set in the ruins of Rome.
I knew how it started, and I knew how it ended (bloodily, of course). I didn’t have a middle yet. But over the following year I worked steadily on the novel, filling up notebooks with illegible biro scribbles, and somehow a story grew.
When I finished In Exile I went through the usual routine of submitting to agents and getting generic rejections. Somewhere around rejection #65 I had the idea of trying independent publishers instead, and sent the book to the UK publisher Unbound. They accepted it immediately, and said they would publish In Exile as an e-book and paperback. The catch? I would have to crowdfund the publication, finding around 200 people to pledge to buy the book in advance. A daunting challenge for an unknown debut author... I don’t have 200 friends, regardless of what Facebook says, and trying to convince total strangers to buy a book that technically doesn’t exist yet is no mean feat.
I’m now 26. I’ve outlived Keats and haven’t yet been published, let alone written a timeless masterpiece. But I’m proud of In Exile, which is the product of years of compulsive reading and writing, and the result of my love affair with Rome. It’s a story that should appeal to italophiles, fans of The Secret History, and anyone who’s ever wondered what would happen if a Greek god started a modern-day cult while going through an existential crisis.
(And if you happen to find yourself in Rome, the wine is on me…)
Alexandra Turney writes about life in Rome on her blog, Go Thou to Rome.
You can also find her on Instagram and Twitter.
If you enjoyed this guest post, you may also like to "dare un'occhiata" at these ones:
Guest Post: My Story with the Italian Language
THE ITALY EXPERIENCE: Canadian Expat vs. American Exchange Student
If you books and Italy are what do it for you, check out these posts:
Book Buzz: Return to Glow by Chandi Wyant
Book in Progress: Italian Ways by Tim Parks
Recommended #Italy Reads: At Least You're in Tuscany by Jennifer Criswell
Recommended Reads: A Zany Slice of Italy by Ivanka Di Felice
And finally, if writing intrigues you, read ten very short stories which are now available as a cute collection in my first eBook: This Sweet Life. You can download it for FREE in my store! Or read the included pieces as individual posts:
Creative Writing: The Letter R (Explicit)
Creative Writing: Dear Italy (A Love Letter)
Creative Writing: Airport Arrivals
Creative Writing: Tanqueray and You
Creative Writing: A Thousand Lives
Creative Writing: A Sunday Kind of Love
Creative Writing: Perfect Strangers in Switzerland
Creative Writing: Rooftops and Rome
Creative Writing: The Morning After in New York
Creative Writing: Mulberries in Sicily