A photo of Donna Leon, author of Give Unto Others, side-by-side with the interview title, 21 Questions, on a fuchsia and grayscale background.
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‘Unlike Dickens, Trollope understands women’: 21 Questions with Donna Leon

To mark the release of her 31st Commissario Brunetti novel, Give Unto Others, Donna Leon speaks about her life in literature, from Wind in the Willows to Barchester Towers.

Few authors get to see their characters become icons of literature, but Donna Leon finds herself in the esteemed company of authors such as Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. Like Holmes, Poirot and Marple, her Italian detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti – “a surprisingly neat man, tie carefully knotted, hair shorter than was the fashion,” as Leon first described him in her first novel – was, until 2022, the subject of 30 crime novels and a German TV film series. Now, it’s 31.

This week, Leon is releasing Give Unto Others, in which the iconic Venetian detective must negotiate where the line is between criminal and non-criminal, throwing into question not just right and wrong but on which side, exactly, the character of his police colleagues – and his own scruples – fall.

To mark its release, we asked Leon our 21 Questions about life and literature. Below, she explains why Trollope trumps Dickens, passes along the best writing advice she’s ever received, and reveals the ‘inspiration’ behind her latest book.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

At the moment, Trollope. Unlike Dickens (please forgive me) he understands women and, more importantly, shows that his male characters usually cannot. He also manages to make the disagreements among the residents of a small city seem epic.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

The Wind in the Willows. I still, after all these years, feel a strong admiration for badgers.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

Great Expectations.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

'Unlike Dickens, Trollope understands women'

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States was the first book I read to suggest that the US was not the disinterested, selfless homeland of the free.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

I spent four years supposedly teaching Iranian air force cadets to speak English but, in truth, playing tennis.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

“Read novels, and read them carefully.”

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, because of the savagery with which he treats academia.

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

'Read novels, and read them carefully'

There are many books I feel relieved at having not read; no guilt.

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

An impoverished, retired academic.

What makes you happiest?

Listening to Baroque opera, well sung and played.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

Making blackcurrant jam.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

A flat surface upon which to rest my computer.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

'[I love] Baroque opera, well sung and played'

Because I’ve never watched them, it is always embarrassing to hear people tell me how much they enjoy the films made of my books. But like – I think it’s Wemmick’s Aged P – I smile and nod.

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

Judith Flanders, and she would, I hope, cook.

What’s your biggest fear?

Falling down stairs.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

A time machine to take me back to the first performances of Handel’s operas.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

Barchester Towers.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

No.

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

Espresso.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

Bleak House.

What inspired you to write your book?

Six heavyset men with large moustaches, fedoras, and a decidedly menacing aura lined up outside the door to my home. As I emerged one sunny lilac-scented day, the tallest one lumbered over to me and, bending down, whispered into my ear, “We don’t want you to forget the deadline for the new manuscript, sweetie,” placing, it seemed to me, special emphasis on “dead” in “deadline.”

 

Give Unto Others is out now.

Donna Leon photo by Diogenes Verlag
Other photos: iStock.com/Jamakosy / iStock.com/-Ivinst / iStock.com/YakobchukOlena
Image design by Flynn Shore / Penguin

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