One question I am frequently asked is, “where do you get your inspiration?” or couched slightly different, “why was I drawn to write about Naples?”
I suppose answering those types of questions will be different for each writer. I have knocked together a couple of responses I gave during the recent blog tour of The Alcoholic Mercenary.
Why I Write About Naples
I spent my career working as a writer and editor. When a contract came up in Naples, I had been in a three-month lull, so I jumped at the opportunity. I was not so much drawn to Naples as thrust into the furnace by an accident of fate. The city was dirty, corrupt, and overrun with criminality, and I loved it. More of a surprise: my wife loved it too. In fact, we loved it so much that we lived there for many happy years.
Having been a writer for so long, writing about a location of such contradictions was out of my control: I could not resist. By contradictions, I mean such things as it being one of the most OC-infested areas of the world, yet the local people are some of the kindest (including the criminals). Core d’oro, the locals call it, or heart of gold. For instance, when we arrived, a gangster invited us to his sister’s wedding, which turned out to be the opening scene of The Godfather, even down to the local folk music and strange dancing. I am sure, somewhere on the grounds of the sprawling restaurant, a Don was conducting business as we dined on a sixteen-course dinner.
The Alcoholic Mercenary is mainly based in Pozzuoli, the primary urban centre (or commune) where my wife and I lived. We lived in a fishing village called Lucrino, on the outskirts of the Commune di Pozzuoli, a few kilometres up the coast. In the photo, Lucrino is the village crawling up the dormant volcano, Monte Nuovo. I took the photo from the restaurant where the gangster’s wedding was taking place.
Unlike in Northern European countries, the criminality in Naples is not bound by education necessarily: at the bottom end of the spectrum, the uneducated, unemployed masses, who, by the very nature of their society, turned to the mafia to make a living (I use the past tense because I am not sure if it is still the case) versus the educated few, who stuck their noses up, those with a puzzo sotto il naso — or a stink under their noses. A good education is available to those with money and not necessarily brains. Being taught to know better does not preclude Neapolitans from the criminal class. As an example, we had a friend who was a doctor. He was involved in an OC scam, where disability certificates were sold. He was quickly caught because he sold a certificate of blindness to a guy who was subsequently arrested for speeding up the motorway. After being stopped, the police discovered he was without a license, tax, or insurance and — it later transpired — without the use of his eyes. How anyone so intellectually challenged became a doctor should be a mystery. It’s not because it’s possible to resit your exams in Italy until you pass (as long as you can afford it). Our friend didn’t graduate until he was forty-two.
One of my many anecdotes about the contradictions of Naples involves another friend asking me to help him find his Persian Grey. I agreed. He told me the cat had gone missing in his local area, and we stopped by his house to run an “errand” before beginning the search. The errand turned out to be his retrieving a Colt .45 from a shoebox under his bed. Searching involved knocking on his neighbours’ doors and demanding the return of his cat with the Colt visibly protruding from the waistband of his chinos. We never found the cat. My friend confessed to asking for my help because, at 6’2, the locals considered my height sufficiently threatening that the Colt never needed to be drawn. Only believable when you learn that in Naples back in the nineties, the average height of men was 5’4. The contradiction of searching for a fluffy feline with — what was really — a cannon stuffed in his chinos never fails to astound me.
Of course, as a historical fiction author, research is paramount. Researching The Alcoholic Mercenary’s locations is probably the most problem-free of my projects to date. As I wrote earlier, I lived in the Commune di Pozzuoli for many years and know it very well. I suspect Pozzuoli has changed very little, despite returning to Ireland in 2006. I first visited the town in 1975 while on a month’s holiday. When I returned to live there in the early nineties, the first thing that struck me was how it had remained fundamentally unchanged. The whole area is known to live in a time warp. For instance, the local economy is barter-based because of a lack of employment. The doctor mentioned earlier was paid for home visits with local produce: half a pig or a demijohn of wine, to name but two.
Other areas I describe in the book include the airport at Capodichino and Bagnoli NATO base. I flew in and out of Capodichino on countless occasions. In fact, the scene where Rachel arrives on the apron to feel the heat through her shoe soles is based on my own arrival. I also used to teach Shakespeare to the children of serving US Navy and Jarheads at the high School on Bagnoli NATO base. As such, I witnessed the rundown nature of the interior firsthand. I also bought stuff in the PX on the base, possible because of Mary, my next-door neighbour’s, goodwill. Mary was a US Navy meteorologist based at Capodichino Naval Support Activity command.
I did use a well-known map app as a pro-memoria to street layouts, but that was all.
Another question that arose out of the blog tour was how I used my experiences as inspiration for The Alcoholic Mercenary.
Over the years, I had many experiences: from being asked by the local boss to go out in a Zodiac as a smuggler to owing a favour because a mafioso returned my stolen motorbike. I could write about the execution of two informants in the foyer of a neighbouring apartment block (palazzo) or eating in the restaurant where Maradona allegedly bought his cocaine. Or I could write about a friend’s father committing suicide when the local clan kept burning down his tailor shop because he wouldn’t pay for protection.
For the sake of this article, I shall restrict it to one story told directly in The Alcoholic Mercenary.
An aspect of Organised Crime that is common throughout the world: from various mafias and tongs to the IRA, is the concept of punishment. Any unauthorised crime tends to be dealt with swiftly and brutally. This is no different in Naples.
While we lived in Lucrino, there was a heroin addict who was known to do a bit of selling on the side. He bought his supplies from African drug dealers operating in the city’s hinterlands. They sold their drugs in cul de sacs laid out where no houses were ever built (also in the book). I know this because my bike broke down outside Lago Patria, and he offered to tow it back for me, but he had to run an errand first. The errand ended up being a cat and mouse chase around empty streets (and by empty, I mean streets without houses) with a car full of African drug dealers. In all my experiences, this was the scariest. The drug dealers in their Fiat Punto (four of them) were definitely armed and not affiliated because in Naples in the nineties, racism was rife. No one would deal with the Mau Mau (a derogatory term for African criminals). Affiliation was vital because it meant some form of control: a set of rules, if you will. The car chase ended up in a houseless cul de sac. After which, it involved exchanging a small fortune (payment for the tow) for a condom full of heroin that the dealer had tucked away in the side of his mouth.
The guy who offered a tow was skinny and always wore an open shirt and a grimy vest. He had a greasy ponytail and a broken-down Fiat 500.
Apparently, his drug dealing was unauthorised because he was kneecapped outside our local bar one Saturday morning while drinking an espresso. Its audacity would seem astounding, except no one would act as a witness, not even the victim. After his punishment, I only saw the dealer once more, hobbling down the street with a removable cast on his leg and crutches. I can only assume he either moved away after that or failed to heed the warning.
This episode is told in The Alcoholic Mercenary when Boccone kneecaps an “unauthorised” drug dealer along the seafront of Pozzuoli.
So, Why Did I Begin
Another question on the blog tour was what inspired me to write The Alcoholic Mercenary (as opposed to which experiences), such as outside influences, other authors and so on.
I always struggle when asked what the inspiration is behind my latest book. How far back do I need to go? Should I write about my favourite authors, personal experiences, passion for creative writing and all its figaries? Or should I just write that living in the village of Lucrino drove me to write books based there?
For me, a passion for writing begins with a passion for reading. The inspiration behind any book — be it the first or the last — must start with that passion. I remember reading The Lord of the Rings while bedbound with the mumps. I read the book in a week and began my first scribblings after putting it down. I was twelve. Of course, reading Epic Fantasy nearly fifty years ago has little direct bearing on The Alcoholic Mercenary. Still, it did mean I now have the tools to write, which I probably would not have otherwise had.
Authors directly influencing TAM could include James Ellroy (for his Noir writing style) and Andrea Camilleri (for his tongue-in-cheek portrayal of Southern Italian law enforcement). There are, however, many more writers who have inspired me over the years. I must have read thousands of books since I put down LOTR. My reading tastes are not bound by genre. I could list every author I read if the article was not set at a particular word count. Still, it is, so I will condense the spectrum: I read Stephen King’s Carrie during the seventies in one night while babysitting, and, in contrast, I read Twelve Caesars by Suetonius over several days while researching a historical novel set in pre-Christian Ireland. Why? Because the Roman historian Tacitus claimed Agricola invaded Ireland while governor of Britain. That claim is the premise for a trilogy I am currently working on.
So, what inspired me to write TAM?
I touched briefly on my time living in the village of Lucrino. My wife and I lived next door to a meteorologist in the US Navy, Mary, and her husband and child. Many more US Navy rankers were residing in the area. Because we spoke Italian and tried to fit in, we were accepted into the local community. The Americans were not. Our neighbour’s car was broken into every night until they stopped locking it and left nothing of value in it.
On the other hand, we would go out, leaving all the windows open and not burgled once. That said, my motorbike was stolen one night, but a “friend” returned it the following day with notice of a favour owed. In the nineteen-eighties, that friend had been hauled off to the merchant navy by his older brother because he was the bodyguard of an intended murder target.
So, we have the ingredients that inspired me to write TAM: a young man in trouble, saved by an older brother; a woman in the US Navy thrown into the cauldron; a place of contrasts and conflicts. And finally, while we were living there (and Schengen had not been introduced), we had to report to a Police Inspector to get our visas renewed. The inspector in question was a well-dressed Franco Nero lookalike — inspiration for Bobbi Laconto, my version of Montalbano.