A book that had begun on Valentia Island was finished on the island of Ischia – The Irish Times

The remote, untamed, storm-lashed coastline of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way has inspired many a writer for hundreds of years. I too found it inspiring as I sat at my desk on Valentia Island, with the rain hammering against the window and monstrous waves lashing against the cliffs across the bay in Portmagee. I was writing my second novel at the time, so the ability to sit, uninterrupted, in a place of such exquisite, rugged beauty offered the promise of unbridled creativity. The only issue was that I was charged with writing escapist fiction set in the height of summer on the idyllic Italian island of Ischia, and we were deep in lockdown, sequestered to our homes and only permitted to leave for exercise or groceries.

It was spring 2020 and day by day we grappled with the uncertainty and the realities of living lives bound by punitive, unprecedented restrictions. It was a new, disquieting reality and we had no choice but to learn to live with it. We oscillated from being glued to news reports of global devastation and despondency, to wanting to stick our heads in the sand and pretend it wasn’t happening. But we couldn’t because every element of normal life had been suspended and forbidden. Schools and churches were closed, pubs were shuttered and what was once a simple trip to the shop was now weighted with limitations on time, space and people.

And so, in the throes of lockdown, on the surf-pounded west coast of Ireland, facing the spectacular Kerry cliffs that loom 300 metres above the Atlantic Ocean, I got to work. I already had the premise of the story, one of Dubliner Lily Ryan attending her best friend’s destination wedding in Ischia, and what happens when the unexpected happens. I worked with my agent in London to refine the storyline and subsequently got the full approval of my publisher, Little Brown, all of us working remotely from home the entire time. Now all I had to do was write it, as the sea foam, lashed from the waves far below, whipped past my window.

As a writer of destination or escapist fiction, the goal is to transport the reader temporarily to a breath-taking location and have the experience be as authentic as possible. In order to do so, the destination itself becomes as important as the protagonist or any of the lead characters. Just as location is crucial in a film, the same holds true in books, as the destination, if accurately conveyed, will help ground the reader in the story and provide a sense of place. So, if I manage to take you from armchair to sun-dappled terrace or limpid blue sea, then I’ve done a decent job.

The challenge that I faced was attempting to do so from the wilds of southwest Kerry, as winter held on firm, reluctant to give up its grasp on nature. Until, in early April, everything changed; by a stroke of luck, the weather broke, and Ireland was suddenly bathed in the sort of sunshine and temperatures that wouldn’t be out of place in the Mediterranean. It continued for months and everyone and everything possible moved outdoors. Neighbours and friends held socially distanced gatherings in back gardens, and physical activity became a pleasure instead of a wind-whipped, rain-slapped exercise in endurance.

On the now sun-soaked island of Valentia, it suddenly became infinitely easier to contemplate and shape a story based on an Italian island in the midst of summer. The winds dropped to a light breeze, the thunderous waves subsided, and the bays transformed to a glittering sapphire blue. It felt like an apology from the weather gods for plunging us into an unyieldingly severe and aberrant set of new rules for life.

I had been to Ischia the previous year, and that trip had solidified the notion of having it be the setting of my second novel, One Italian Summer. Long overshadowed by its busier, showier neighbour Capri, Ischia offers a low-key, emphatically Italian alternative off the coast of Naples. Somehow it has managed to stay largely below the radar of the international travel set and as a result has not been a victim of mass tourism. In fact, it might just be one of the most authentically Italian places that exists today.

But, in attempting to convey the magic of a place, there is ultimately only so much one can do from memory. To truly capture the essence of a place, one has to feel the heat, smell the air, taste the summer. So, when Ryanair hinted (despite government threats of airport blockades and nasty fines) at the resumption of European flights from July 1st, I booked the first flight from Cork to Naples and hopped on the next ferry back to Ischia. There, at San Montano resort, a real place where the fictional story unfolds, I drank in the lifestyle unique to Italy; the cultural differences that define a place, the traditions of summer, the food, the wine, the language. I wrote frantically, documenting everything I saw, felt and tasted. The book that had begun on Valentia Island, was finished on the island of Ischia. Two islands geographically and culturally disparate that when bathed in sunshine, felt far more similar than they were different.

One Italian Summer by Catherine Mangan is published by Sphere

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