Matteo Bortolotti (b. 1980, Bologna) is a prize-winning author and scriptwriter for TV and film. As the name of his blog Professione Mistero (Profession Mystery) indicates, Bortolotti specializes in the mystery genre. In his most recent novel, Il mistero della loggia perduta (The Mystery of the Lost Lodge) (Felici Editore, 2012), he reclaims and Italianizes the classic whodunit, cleverly infusing it with elements of comedy and references to pop culture. I recently had the great pleasure of interviewing Bortolotti about his protagonist the other Matteo Bortolotti, the subjunctive mood, and pumpkins, among other things.
You were born and raised in Bologna. Would you say that the city of Bologna has shaped your writing in some way?
I think that a writer inevitably tells about what he knows. Bologna is a city that has pushed me to investigate its wounds, a small city that is only a little larger than San Francisco in size but has half its inhabitants. A place where one can still smell the odor of lead from the years of terrorism that have devastated our nation.
Bologna is a medieval city that pretends to be a metropolis, a magical and ancient place that continues to be a crossroads for many different realities. A lot of writers live in Bologna, many of them write mysteries and thrillers, and they have been my teachers and my brothers. Loriano Machiavelli and Carlo Lucarelli, for example, with whom I worked on a TV series entitled “Inspector Coliandro.”
So, I would answer with a YES. In many ways, Bologna has represented for me that subtle border, that razor’s edge on which mystery writers have to stay in balance.
In Il mistero della loggia perduta there is a fun mix of languages and language varieties. Who or what inspired the linguistic playfulness of the book?
Mainly, my love of language and the “codes of communication.” I like to think that writing style doesn’t make a person an efficient narrator. But as a narrator, I feel it’s my duty to know the means of language well so that they will allow me to be more efficient.
Words are lies, and yet they’re a treasure. We’re surrounded by treasure—every nuance, every difference details the world. Every accent, every dialect, every skin tone adds pixels to the photograph of reality.
This treasure, in my opinion, makes even the most absurd stories, which are often the most entertaining, seem more real.
On your website, you say that the other Matteo Bortolotti (the one who appears in Il mistero della loggia perduta and always wears a green jacket and a Hawaiian shirt) is an homage to Ellery Queen and Jessica Fletcher. Did these indisputably classic characters also influence your use of language?
In part, yes, because every story has its way of being told. For this very particular project, inspired by my blog “Professione Mistero (Profession Mystery),” I wanted to play with the topos of the Anglo-Saxon mystery novel—reversing it, putting all of the Italianness I could into it, creating a mix without precedent. From Ellery Queen, I have preserved the challenge to the reader and the salutary breaking of the fourth wall. From Jessica Fletcher, there is the lighthearted air, the desire to find mysteries with a strong verticality, stories in which you can get attached to the characters knowing that the author won’t kill them off after two episodes just to shake you up a little.
I wanted to find my method between the enjoyment and the crime, by taking back in hand the old whodunit and mixing it with the reality of this city and its secrets. And plus, let’s face it, Ellery Queen was the pen name of two cousins. Jessica Fletcher was the extraordinary Angela Lansbury, and in the novels is the excellent Donald Bain. Matteo Bortolotti, on the other hand, exists. He’s a guy in flesh and blood. The challenge was too exciting to hold me back.
Students of Italian hate the subjunctive mood. Why is the other Matteo Bortolotti so passionate about it?
Precisely for this reason. The other me is pedantic, exasperated with every one of my flaws as with every one of my good qualities. Often, among other things, I confuse my good qualities and my flaws. I’m someone who really doesn’t hold back his tongue. The doctors say I have gills under my palate, if I don’t move my tongue often I can’t breathe.
It’s stronger than me, but do you know what else is stronger? The desire not to use my tongue pointlessly. The other me is a dreamer. He would also like for the rest of the world not to express itself off the cuff, for it to become a little more responsible. Have you noticed that we live surrounded by instruments that amplify our voices, but that few, very few have a voice that breaks free from the chorus? Well, the other Matteo Bortolotti is a bore, and he has no love for the choruses, prejudices and fast-food ideas. Including the superficiality with which people use their tongues.
The other Matteo Bortolotti also hates diminutives. What is his opinion of accrescitives?
Matteo Bortolotti is a writer, and like all writers he holds himself in high regard. Typically, this is a type of tortoise shell that protects from emotional fragility and sensitivity. For the other me, this isn’t the case—he really believes it. He’s very sure of himself, maybe because often questions himself. He’s so sure of himself that he calls Giovanni Pascoli “colleague,” and Pascoli was one of the greatest poets of our Risorgimento (Unification).
This is why he doesn’t like diminutives. Everything that “makes him small again” makes him uncomfortable. Editors and television executives are already seeing to making him feel small again and hurting his self-esteem. Plus, if Zio Morte, his ex professor of Art History, is the one calling him a “scrittorino (little writer),” he doesn’t accept this at all: He is even more of a braggart than Matteo.
The accrescitives like “scrittorone (great writer)” or “librone (great book),” these, I think, would embarrass the other me. It would trigger a type of internal inadequacy. He would start to ask himself, “And what if I’m not so great?” “What if my book doesn’t have all the pages of a Wilbur Smith novel?” He’s eccentric, the other me.
Charlie Brown and Linus fans want to know: How did you choose the phrase “Grande Cocomero!” for your writing?
Because Matteo Bortolotti, the other one, is the only character in history aware of being inside a book (on the other hand, he has the same name as the author), and he doesn’t like to curse, swear and say bad words. He maintains that being a “family” character, he doesn’t want the editor to end the series because of vulgarity. And so was born the idea of finding an exclamation all his own. And since he is a true geek, a voracious reader of comic books, I chose the strip par excellence. We’re all a bit Charlie Brown and a bit Linus. Matteo resembles them because he keeps the security blanket of the writer on him, but he knows very well that investigating true crimes is more dangerous than writing about them. And he also knows that he’s not doing it because of a taste for adventure. He does it because he has a kind heart and wants to help the old Police Chief.
Besides, the Great Pumpkin is a good divinity to whom to entrust this character. Halloween and mystery often go arm-in-arm. Jack O’Lantern is an old acquaintance of Matteo’s… Did you know that Halloween has a good part of its origins in Italy? Even the use of the pumpkin!
You wrote a film called AmeriQua (about a lazy American college grad who has some hilarious misadventures in Bologna) in a combination of Italian and English. Why did you decide to incorporate English into the film? Was it just because of the context? Or was there some other reason?
The film was born in English. The first version came directly from the pen of the person who is also the protagonist, Bobby Kennedy III. I was involved later, and together with Bobby we worked on mixing our styles, our respective insanity, rewriting everything and enjoying ourselves like crazy. The macaronic English of the Italians is a principal component. It’s an explosive, ungrammatical, rough comedy and full of stereotypes that we enjoyed playing with. I hope the public enjoys it too. It’s a small film made from the heart. And I have to say that no film has ever shown what we showed of Bologna in AmeriQua.
Plus, it has Giancarlo Giannini. Having had the honor of writing a part for him, meeting him—for me it was a priceless experience.
When can we hope to see another intriguing mystery featuring the other Matteo Bortolotti?
Il mistero della loggia perduta did well. It won a prize that is now hanging… in the real pizzeria in which the novel was situated. It was created with the intent of being the first of a long series inspired by my blog “Professione Mistero (Profession Mystery).”
A second story with Matteo Bortolotti as protagonist has already come out in an anthology, the proceeds from which were given to the territories of Emilia-Romagna devastated by the earthquake (Scosse. Scrittori per il terremoto, Felice Editore, 2012). We danced a lot, last year, but none of us were prepared for that irrepressible mambo.
The second novel is already ready. It’s about a girl who was found dead in a ditch. A Jane Doe without identity, at least until Matteo discovers some clues on her skin. And plus there are sorcerers, advertisers, full moons… Matteo will also have a new literary agent. Actually, he’ll discover that he was won at a poker game between literary agents.
And so goes the market in Italy. The life of a writer is hard. Great Pumpkin!
Personal Note: I can’t thank Matteo Bortolotti enough for his enthusiastic participation in this interview. He’s too nice!
If you would like more information about Bortolotti, I highly recommend that you visit his website (it’s intriguing!), his blog (it’s unreal!), and his Facebook page (it’s unearthly!). Also be sure to check out my post on Il mistero della loggia perduta. This book is a scream!
Good Grief! One question still remains! Why do the Italians call the “Great Pumpkin” the “Great Watermelon”? As Bortolotti would undoubtedly respond, “Mystery!”