First Language(s): Italian
Second Language(s): English, Spanish, French, Portuguese
Elena Traina is a multilingual author and a researcher in Creative Writing Studies. Her debut novel Amarantha was published in English translation by Kurumuru Books. She teaches Creative Writing in English as a Second Language with Scuola Holden, Fondazione Universitaria San Pellegrino, Escuela de Escritores and Escrever Escrever. She is currently pursuing a PhD at Falmouth University, UK.
What was your favorite book as a child?
Little Women by Louise May Alcott and Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling. The former, I guess, because I had so many things in common with Jo March. I was a proper bookworm and tomboy, which also led to my reading Captains Courageous quite obsessively. I liked stories featuring boys going on adventures and learning the ways of the world, often finding themselves in funny situations. Of course, later on, I found out girls could do those things, too, but they weren’t featured as much in the books that I enjoyed the most.
I tended to prefer literature originally written in English, as I was very in love with the language since a young age. Even if I read those classics in translation, I found it exciting to spot some linguistic quirks (like the translator’s notes in Little Women explaining puns, or the English name of the fishing vessel in Captains Courageous, “We’re Here”).
The third book that was immensely influential to me was Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo, as I have always felt a strong sense of social justice, and I adored the elaborate style in which it was written (well, and translated). My two volumes have been vandalised by a plethora of dog ears (yes, sorry, I am one of those people who collect fancy bookmarks and end up dog-earing their books instead) and quotes underlined in pencil (sorry, again).
What was the original reason or motivation why you started writing creatively?
It just felt like something someone like me would do. My role model being Jo March, I never questioned that one day I would be writing my own stories and novels, too. Funnily enough, I started with poetry, when I was eight years old. I told my mum I wanted to be a poet, and she rolled up her eyes and said “Ossignure” (lit. ‘Dear Lord’). Then, at eleven, I wrote my first novella, the story of a group of Italian kids going on study holiday to Cornwall… though it was nothing like “A Cultural Exchange”. At that age, I had never been to England or on a study holiday. So, I just imagined that they went on all sorts of adventures: think Stonehenge, summer solstices and magic, because, well, I just loved that sort of Arthurian imagery — though I did make a huge mess of history, folk tales and epic stories. And geography, too. For one, I believed Stonehenge was in Cornwall...
What was the most adventurous or thrilling thing you ever did/experienced?
I was always scared of driving. But one year, when I was 24, I travelled to Easter Island and the guy who picked me up at the airport told me that he couldn’t really drive me to the campsite (I found out he was an alcoholic, but that was another story…) and also that if I wanted to visit the island, there was no other way than by car. He offered to lend me his pick-up truck, which had its rear window and one of its side windows broken. I think the most adventurous thing I have ever done was to drive that rustbucket clunkerwagen on top of Rano Raraku volcano on my own. Not especially adventurous for the average 20-something, but I felt very proud of myself, and the whole trip had a sort of life-changing impact on me.
Do you listen to music while reading or writing?
It depends. Never if I am reading or painfully generating new raw material, as first drafts are really hard for me.
If I am line-editing, sometimes I put on film soundtracks (jazz renditions of Ghibli film soundtracks, horrendously specific, I know) to help me focus.
Other than that, my projects are often full of music per se. My debut novel, Amarantha, came with an original soundtrack I composed and recorded with a bunch of folk musicians. I often get asked whether I had it in mind that readers would listen to it while reading the book. The answer is not really, because I myself don’t listen to music while I read, I find it a disservice to both arts. It was more meant like a complementary experience to enjoy afterwards. But that’s just how I would take it.
The project I am currently working on has its own soundtrack (British indie rock from ‘80s to mid-2000s), and I often put it on before I work on it, to put myself in the right mood. I sometimes interrupt my writing to listen to a song, to double check on its melody or tone or lyrics, which I often quote in this novel. And then, six songs later, I haven’t written a single line, and I am not at my desk anymore, I am somewhere else entirely, probably dancing and singing out loud.
A Cultural Exchange
Issue Fall '23