Jewish Telegraph, August 2023
AWARD-winning author Lisa Scottoline is meticulous with her research for her novels.
But research for her latest book, Eternal (No Exit Press, £9.99), took her to a whole new level.
The story has its roots in the rise of antisemitism in Italy during the Second World War.
“Eternal was my debut in historical fiction, and the research was extensive, more than for any of my books before,” Lisa told me.
“I love books, whether I’m reading them or writing them, and the opportunity to read everything about the Holocaust in Italy and the rise of fascism fascinated me.
“I’m Italian-American and proud of my ancestry, but I wanted to figure out why Italians had followed Mussolini.
“I read everything I could on the subject and consulted a scholar on Italian Jews, who read Eternal in manuscript for its accuracy.
“I also visited Italy several times, among them on the anniversary of the so-called ‘round-up’ of the Roman Ghetto, and I was able to attend a memorial for those victims, which was heartbreaking.
“I felt a special responsibility to get the facts correct because I wanted to honour those victims.”
Eternal is about best friends Elisabetta, budding fascist Marco and Jewish mathematics prodigy Sandro.
Sandro and Marco are both competing for Elisabetta’s heart, but everything changes in 1937 when Mussolini aligns Italy’s fascists with Hitler’s Nazis.
Philadelphia-based Lisa, who has sold more than 35 million copies of her books worldwide, said she felt a “strong responsibility to get the facts correct since the underlying history was true and involved real people and their families, who were persecuted and eventually murdered by the Nazis.
“I wanted to honour their memory by telling this story and I included, as an homage, some of the names of Roman Jews who perished in Auschwitz.
“I also explained the importance of knowing about the historical truth of the underlying events in an expansive author’s note, and I’m gratified to say that online reviews reflect overwhelmingly that even readers familiar with literature of the Holocaust learned something from Eternal.”
It was Primo Levi’s memoir Survival in Auschwitz which made Lisa want to tell the story of the Jews of Rome in that period.
“It seemed awful to me that what the Italian fascists and later the Nazis did to Roman Jews was not more widely known, especially since the Roman Jews were the oldest continuously existing Jewish community in Western Civilisation,” she explained.
“I’ve written 36 novels, so for the first time I decided to write historical fiction, and Eternal is a fictional story grounded in accurate facts about an untold chapter of world history.”
Lisa — who writes a weekly column, Chick Wit, with her daughter Francesca Serritella for the Philadelphia Inquirer — added: “What happened to the Jews of Rome was not only not well-known, and it was also important to understand that the Italian antisemitic laws were promulgated by the Italian fascists, not the Nazis.
“In fact, the fascist laws that required Roman Jews to register their names and addresses enabled the Nazis to later arrest Roman Jews throughout the city and deport them to Auschwitz.”
Lisa was introduced to the works of Primo Levi by acclaimed novelist Philip Roth, under whom she studied for a year as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania.
“There were only 15 students in the class, all of us rapt as Mr Roth introduced us to books and authors that ordinarily don’t appear in a standard English-major syllabus,” the 68-year-old told me. “Listening to him talk about a novel, deconstructing it chapter by chapter and character by character, was like taking physics from Einstein.
“I majored in contemporary American novel because of that year-long course with Mr Roth, and just being in a classroom with someone whose books I admire so much was a revelation.
“He would place any novel he assigned us in a social and political context, then discuss how those forces operated on the author and the reader, as well as breaking down the novel to its smallest parts, even why one verb was chosen for a particular sentence over the other.
“He really had the most discerning ear, and he often said that a good novelist will have not only an eye but an ear, and I understand now what he means. I’m ridiculously proud of the fact that I got an A from him in class, like the award of a lifetime.”
Lisa doesn’t know if Roth, who died in 2018, aged 85, read any of her books, but when he was being considered for the Nobel Prize, she wrote a piece about the seminar class for the New York Times.
“I know that he enjoyed it, which was delightful,” she said.
Lisa’s visit to Rome showed her the proximity of the Jewish quarter to the rest of the city and the Vatican, just across the Tiber River.
“That informed the relationship between the three friends in Eternal, who all grow up within blocks of each other, but also brought into relief that the awful persecution of the Jews under fascism and Nazism was accomplished in full view of the Vatican,” she said.
“The intimacy of the geography intensified the irony of the violence. I also took videos of the locations in Eternal, including the Nazi transit camp at Fossoli where Primo Levi himself was sent.
“The videos can be viewed on my website and they make a wonderful companion piece to the novel.”
During the Second World War, Lisa’s father Frank served in the US Air Force.
“He and my mother, Mary, were appalled by Mussolini’s fascism,” she said.
“Eternal shows through Marco why Italians followed fascism, as well as shows anti-fascism through Marco’s brother.
“My research showed that his family division, as well as divisions between friends, were very typical during that politically tumultuous time.”
But being Italian-American, did Lisa have family in Italy at the time and what were they doing during the war?
“That’s an excellent question, and I’ve never been in touch with any family over there, so I have no idea,” she replied.
Lisa is sticking to Jewish themes in her recently-published historical novel, Loyalty (GP Putnam’s Sons, £9.99), which has a Jewish main character.
She explained: “The novel is set in Sicily during the 1800s in the aftermath of the Spanish Inquisition, which expelled some 40,000 Jews from the island.
“The awful persecution of Sicilian Jews, again promulgated under colour of law, is yet another heinous story that is not well-known.
“The character of Alfredo in Loyalty exemplifies Jews who were forced to practise their religion in secret, and he hides his Jewishness, rendering him an outsider, living in heartbreaking isolation.”
Lisa has spoken to almost 50 Jewish cultural centres, under the auspices of the Jewish Book Council, across America and Canada about Eternal, Loyalty, and “the untold history they bring to light. It’s really been the highlight of my long career”.