Do you know Elena Ferrante? The Italian author’s urgent, blistering fiction has made her something of a cult sensation here in America. I myself had never heard of her until this summer, when I dove deep into her Neapolitan series, an intoxicatingly furious portrait of enmeshed friends Lila and Elena, bright and passionate girls from a raucous neighborhood in working class Naples. Ferrante writes with such aggression, and such unnerving psychological insight about the messy complexity of female friendship, the real world can drop away when you’re reading her. “My work is sometimes a struggle,” says Ann Goldstein, Ferrante’s long-standing Italian translator. “It’s very intense and very disturbing and sometimes I have to walk away from the words. But then when I’m done I sort of think ‘Wait, where are those people? My life is now empty.’”
The third installment of the series, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, which catches up with Elena and Lila in their roiling 20s, was published in America this week and Ferrante is subject of rapturous odes in everywhere from Vogue to The New York Times. And yet, despite all the accolades and attention, no one really knows Elena Ferrante because “Elena Ferrante” doesn’t exist.
Here’s what is known: The author was born and grew up in Naples. Today she lives in Northern Italy. She is not so much a recluse, like J.D. Salinger, as she is private. Somehow her anonymity doesn’t reek of pretension or gimmick, but an honest disinterest in developing any cult of personality. In an era of reality TV and noxious cycles of dubious fame, Ferrante believes the work should stand on its own.
She is in fact a she, despite dogged rumors in the Italian press that the author is male. The suggestion that Ferrante could be a man is, to this reader, ludicrous. From 2005’s The Days of Abandonment, an artful rage of a novel about a middle-aged woman reeling from the sudden news that her husband is leaving her and their children, to her Neapolitan books, Ferrante brings an unforgiving clarity to the female experience. It’s not that male writers haven’t created dynamic women since time began, but rare is such exquisite attention paid to a woman’s relationship with other women, or their children who both connect and distract them from the world.
“To me it’s so apparent that it can’t possibly be a man,” said Ferrante’s American publisher Kent Carroll, who has never met or spoken with the author. “But I was at a dinner not long ago with two very well-known authors who had this big bet on whether it’s a man or a woman. I was so taken aback that these really smart people who had obviously read and liked Elena’s books would even ask that question. Like, please!”
Ferrante will only submit to interviews over email, going so far as to turn down a meaty profile opportunity in The New Yorker when the magazine insisted upon an in-person interview. Here, she endured a handful of my questions, her emailed responses as wonderfully crisp and prickly as fans of hers would expect.
EW: Why are you living out the bold decision to write under a pseudonym?
ELENA FERRANTE: Anyone who writes knows that the most complicated thing is the rendering of events and characters in such a way that they are not realistic but real. In order for this to happen it is necessary to believe in the story one is working on. I gave my name to the narrator to make my job easier. Elena is, in fact, the name that I feel is most mine. Without reserve, I can say that my entire identity is in the books I write.
Elena and Lila’s friendship is so messy and true, a great portrait of female friendship (of which there are too few in literature). What was your inspiration for these women?
I had a friend whom I cared for very much, and I began from that experience. But real events don’t count much when one writes; at most they are like getting shoved while out on the street. Rather, a story is a deep chasm of very different experiences that have accumulated over the course of a lifetime, and that miraculously nourish events and characters in the story. There are some experiences that are difficult to use, that are elusive, embarrassing, at times unsayable, because they belong to us so intimately. I am in favor of stories that are fed by these kinds of experience.
Who do you relate to more, and who gives you the most suffering?
Neither one of them came easily to me. I love Lila more, but only because she forced me to work very hard.
Has there been interest in adapting the series for movies or TV, and can you bear such an idea?
Two movies have been made from my books, a fact which makes me curious. There is talk of a TV series for the Neapolitan novels. I don’t care for directors and screenwriters who approach a book with arrogance, as if it were a mere catalyst for their own work. I prefer those who dive into the literary work, taking inspiration from it for new ways of telling a story with images.
What is your writing routine and how do you recover, particularly after writing some of the more furious interactions between the women?
I don’t have a routine. I write when I want to. Telling stories requires a lot of effort—what happens to the characters also happens to me, their good and their evil feelings belong to me. This is the way it must be, or else I don’t write. When I feel exhausted, I do the most obvious thing: I stop writing and busy myself with the thousands of urgent matters that I have ignored and without which life no longer functions.
Have you ever regretted not revealing your identity? Felt a surge of ego that made you want to throw open your window and cry “It is I who’ve created this world!”
Your image of the window is amusing. My home is on the upper floors, I’m afraid of heights, and my ego gladly avoids leaning out the window.