MILAN — The Cold War, national and sexual identity, patriotism, the role of women, coming out — and plenty of horses — are only some of the ingredients that make Christina Lynch’s first solo novel, “The Italian Party,” intriguing and compelling. Set in Siena, Tuscany, during the spring of 1956, what starts as a tale of newlyweds Scottie and Michael Messina turns into something altogether different, a spy story with a good dose of mystery — and different kinds of love. Lynch, a former Milan correspondent for WWD, W, M and Scene — all under the late editor John Fairchild’s watch — draws from her own experience living in the Italian region for four years in the late Eighties, early Nineties. Once back in Los Angeles, she was on the writing staff of “Unhappily Ever After;” “Encore Encore;” “The Dead Zone,” and “Wildfire.” Published by St. Martin’s Press, “The Italian Party” will be on sale starting today.
In a phone interview from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada — where Lynch now lives, surrounded by her beloved horses — WWD discusses with the author how living in Italy helped her shape her views, how fun it was to be around Gianni Versace, how the Internet was a thing of the future, and how she lived “in terror” of writing yet another book “fetishizing Tuscany” — something she clearly deflected.
WWD: How did you choose the core subject matter for your first novel?
Christina Lynch: When I was living in Italy, people would talk about U.S. interference in Italian politics and I just didn’t know enough. Years later, I felt a lot of guilt for this and partly [with the book] I wanted to set that right but be entertaining at the same time. The years that I spent living in Italy were so formative for me, I am a different person because of the time I spent there. I miss it, I am very grateful to Italy and Italians.
WWD: You carefully describe the clothes the characters wear, often in relation to particular moments in their lives. Do you think your experience at the Fairchild publications served you well for this purpose and do you think you have a special eye for clothes?
C.L.: I think the years that I spent working for W, WWD, M, and Scene affected my eye and the way that I look at clothes. When I was writing about what Scottie and Michael wore, I was definitely remembering those days, going out on previews, writing down to make sure you got the colors precisely, the type of the fabric and the weave. I remember in the early days, when I first started working at WWD and I didn’t know much about fashion. I remember we had those huge green encyclopedia of fabrics — no Internet at the time.
WWD: When did you arrive in Italy?
C.L.: I came in October 1987, I was on staff for two years as Milan correspondent. Then I lived halfway between Florence and Siena and that came out of a story that I did for M. I had to do a weekend getaway. We didn’t even have a fax then, it was all phone calls and telex machines. You’d type into this machine, could only write one sentence or line at a time, it would spew out this paper and you couldn’t go back, once you hit send on that line. When the story was done, it would be 30 feet long, you would feed it back into the telex machine and send your story to New York.
One day, I got a call from [editor] Kevin Doyle at M asking me for a weekend getaway story I had promised. That must have been at some point in 1988. I think it was [interior designer] Niky Rovis who gave me the name of [restored 16th-century farm estate] La Volpaia. With photographer Donato Sardella, we drove down, got lost and got there after midnight. The next morning, we woke up in this beautiful place. We were on a deadline and had to get back to Milan, and I remember leaving and saying to myself, I wish I could live in a place like this. Why can’t I? So I filed the story, went back for a visit, and then spent almost four years living there at the inn, still freelancing for Fairchild, but [La Volpaia] needed someone to tend to and ride their horses, so it’s M ’s fault that any of this happened [laughing].
WWD: Did La Volpaia inspire you for any of the locations in the book?
C.L.: No, they are not directly linked to La Volpaia because the book is set so long before, but it gave me a sense of the place. I would go riding, that was my job, to go ride around and I really got to know the countryside, I would ride through vineyards and farmyards. It was perfectly legal at the time, nobody was ever surprised by my appearance — they were surprised I was an American riding a horse [laughing]. Friends living near Montalcino now tell me you can’t really do this anymore.
WWD: How long did it take you to write “The Italian Party?”
C.L.: I started the book in the summer of 2013 and finished in the spring of 2016.
WWD: What was the main reason to write the book?
C.L.: That’s a good question. I should know this. It just felt like the right moment. After the Magnus Flyte [a pseudonym for the writing duo of Lynch and Meg Howrey] novels, which were fun, the whole time I was thinking I wanted to do a solo novel. I had done a Master of Fine Arts program at Antioch in L.A. in 2013 and started teaching. It seemed like the right moment to start a solo novel. Of course I wanted to set it in Italy, because you know it’s going to be a years-long process. With the Magnus books, they were set in Prague, Vienna, a little bit in Venice. I was really missing Italy, and I knew that if I set it in Italy I would be able to go and research it there.
WWD: Was there a reason for writing about this specific era?
C.L.: It was a combination of things. In the Fifties, before I was born, my parents lived in South America, but they are not around for me to ask them and I have never been to South America. Another time, maybe. I was thinking about when I moved to Milan aged 22, what that felt like to be immersed in a new culture. The Fifties meant going back to the origin of the American interference, it really started in 1947 but that felt too early for me. [That] was a watershed year, 1956 — there is even the book “1956 L’anno spartiacque,” [by Luciano Canfora, in the acknowledgments].
WWD: Do you think the subject matter is timely now?
C.L.: Yes, it’s very timely. As a culture, now people in the U.S. are hearkening back to the Fifties as these wonderful times. In a way yes, and there was an economic boom, bur for many people it was not a great time. For women, minorities, people who are gay, it was not a great time.
WWD: To wit, you address coming out.
CL.: As a culture, I felt we didn’t talk about what it meant to be gay in the Fifties and now with legalization of gay marriage there is a risk we forget how they were persecuted. In fact, it was illegal for a government employee to be gay. I didn’t know that there was a Lavender Scare [the mass firings of homosexual people in the Fifties from the United States government]. I found out about this during my research. It was at the same time as the Red Scare, hunting people suspected to be communists. The same was done with gays and a lot of people don’t know that.
WWD: You touched very delicate issues, from an Italian point of view. You didn’t describe Italy as it is usually seen through the eyes of an American. It felt genuine and not like a fairy tale.
C.L.: It means a lot to me, I really didn’t want to be another person just writing about how beautiful Tuscany is, and that’s why in part I set it in Italy. Tuscany has been fetishized and made a commodity for Americans. In any stores, you see Tuscan paint colors, ciabattas, things that are so Tuscan and clearly ignore the place, the actual reality and why it looks like it does today, its political history. It just bothers me. I don’t want to disappoint the very people I am writing about. I really wanted to go deeper.
Communism remains such a Boogeyman in American culture, right? When I lived in Italy in the Eighties, I had friends who voted communist, friends of all sorts, with different political views. The fact that in Italian culture you have a really wide range of parties in the political spectrum — putting aside the gridlock — it was exciting. I learned a lot about the history of communism, what it grew out of and how very separate it was from Soviet communism. It’s interesting to take a look at that in a more nuanced way.
WWD: I found it so insightful when you describe Scottie fainting in the store and all the women whom she felt had always ignored her help her out.
C.L.: I do the same thing with her character as the rest in the book. When you meet Nonna Bea, at the beginning, she’s the stereotypical Italian grandmother, dressed in black, obsessed with food and cleanliness, but then a passage later in the book, it talks about her and the role of Italian women through history. That’s the more serious part, to get Americans to do that, to see the stereotype and go deeper. What is the history of women in this culture?
WWD: Do you miss journalism?
C.L.: Yes, I do! I think all the time about how much fun it was to come up with what I wanted to write about or get assignments and just go do it. Write about food in Bologna, people making the salami, cheese, it was fascinating. I would go up to Ratti to learn how silk was made — knitwear and children’s wear, that was really fun to learn all those things. It’s a profession that is the best for people who are naturally curious. My time at Fairchild was glorious — the dream job. That was the golden era, Milan was booming and, as usual, you don’t quite realize how fragile the moment is. I think about Gianni Versace, how great and fun he was to be around. All the designers, Franco Moschino, Gianfranco Ferré, how great and fun to be around them — and they are gone. It’s really sad.
WWD: Would you ever consider writing about that?
C.L.: I have thought of writing about a young fashion journalist. That’s definitely a possibility. I am not working on it right now, but I think it would be really fun because that was such a magical time for me.
WWD: What’s next now? Are you working on another book?
C.L.: Yes, but it’s a bit blurry still — I am not being coy — it’s not fixed yet. It takes place in Italy during World War II involving an American woman war correspondent. I’ll go to Anzio and Cassino in June.
WWD: And you are teaching?
C.L.: Yes, five writing classes this semester. I teach English composition and literature at a community college [of the Sequoias]. I really love it.