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April 7, 2009

The original idea for Dante’s Numbers

Authors are thieves and liars, and the better we do it, the happier you lot are. Some people steal real characters and stories then weave some fabrication around them. I’m a little different. I lift a piece of Italy’s rich heritage and try to turn it into a modern myth that says something about the way we live now.

Here, in chronological order, are the cultural gems I’ve purloined from Italy in the first six titles in the Nic Costa series: Caravaggio and the history of martyrdom (A Season for the Dead); Dionysian mysteries (The Villa of Mysteries); Hadrian’s beautiful temple the Pantheon The Sacred Cut); the glass making industry of Murano (The Lizard’s Bite); Mithraism (The Seventh Sacrament); Caravaggio again, in detail (The Garden of Evil).

That’s one of the many great things about Italy. There’s so much to steal. And plenty left to go round in the future too.

For years I’ve been wanting to do something about Dante Alighieri and The Divine Comedy. For years I’ve been wondering… what exactly? As usual I began thinking about this book just around the time I was finishing its predecessor, in this case The Garden of Evil. The Comedy is a very complex piece of work, but at its heart is a simple real-life love story. Dante loved a woman called Beatrice Portinari. Beatrice didn’t love him, and to make matters worse died young. In the Comedy she is his guide through the afterworld, an icon of spiritual love and paradise, one with which she’s obsessed.

Dante’s work has a cinematic quality to it. The story, particularly the Inferno section, is highly visual and has clearly influenced many horror works, on the page and the screen (and soon, I’ve just learned as a video game too). So my starting point was this…

Let’s imagine an elderly Italian director of notorious horror movies has pillaged Dante to produce a big budget, CGI spectacular, one that has upset deeply Dante’s literary fans. Let’s imagine, too, that a nasty tragedy befalls one of the cast members, the actor playing Dante, who is murdered in a way that resonates with the author’s own death.

With me so far? I liked this. It would open with a premiere in the lovely park of the Villa Borghese in Rome. The rest of the story would play out in the same city, and at the famous movie studios of Cinecitta. It would be Italian through and through. Or so I thought until a certain invitation dropped in the inbox.

More of that tomorrow when I reveal to you how the best laid plans of authors and men can go astray… But if you are in the vicinity of that wonderful store Book Passage in Corte Madera, northern California, this evening do stop by because at 7 pm we’re launching this book. And Book Passage is a part of this story too.

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