Behind 'P.O. Box Love'—a novel as the result of a coincidence
by Paola Calvetti
Paola Calvetti is an Italian novelist and journalist. P.O. Box Love, translated by Anne Milano Appel, is her first novel to be published in the United States. Told in letters, it is the story of high school sweethearts (and star-crossed lovers) Emma and Frederico, who get a second chance at love 30 years later.
P.O. Box Love is a story that I had been pondering for years. I wanted to write about lovers of all ages, something for people who believe in “second chances” and are looking for a “feel good” experience (on the page!). I also wanted to write about an independent bookstore. This is what I had in mind when I sat down to start the novel.
From that day on, the novel literally came to me, page after page. And every time I came against an obstacle, or a doubt, something would happen to dissolve it and convince me to go one with the next chapter!
It was a truly incredible experience.
Walking around Milan, I found this tiny little card shop and thought, "That's it! That is how Emma's bookstore would be!" A bookstore that would sell only love stories because ultimately the entire history of literature is one long, continuous love story.
I didn't know what profession to give Federico, though. I knew that he had to be Emma's age (50), because they were classmates in high school, but he had to live far away so that it made sense for them to write each other long letters. Then one day I woke up and thought: an architect. I knew nothing about architecture though, and that frightened me a bit (I always try to write about what I know). So I started to research architecture and the very first article I found was on the revival of the Morgan Library in New York, which the architect Renzo Piano had just finished. It occurred to me that even though I had been to New York many times, I had never seen the Morgan Library. The article was fascinating, and while I was reading it I thought: now that is where Federico will work. I wrote a long letter (by hand of course!) to the architect Renzo Piano, telling him about my intent to set a part of my novel against the construction of the library and asking whether he would talk to me. He answered in the kindest way, inviting me to speak to his right-hand man, Giorgio Bianchi, who could tell me all I needed to know about the preparation and the five-year process of the rebuilding. I knew then that I was on the right track.
Then I began to look to mythology for a little-known love story to use as an archetype. I didn't know any offhand. Which country has given the world legends to love and build on? Brittany!
That area of what is now France is full of mysteries and legends like King Arthur, Merlin the Wizard and Morgan the Fairy. It was July and all the hotels and houses were booked though. I couldn't find any place to sleep there. I called a friend who had a house in Brittany, and asked him if he knew of a place I could rent for July and August. He answered with one word "Impossible." Of course I told him that nothing was impossible. Ten minutes later he called me back . . . an English couple cancelled their reservation on a house in Concarneau! I packed my bags and left immediately!
Then I had to find a legend. It was a cloudy afternoon and I was visiting the town. I stopped for a cup of tea and began wandering along the cobblestone alleys. I happened to enter an old second-hand bookstore run by an elderly man. I found the courage to ask him if he had any books about Britanny's legends . . . maybe a love legend.
"Of course,” he answered, “Jean and Jeanne!” He stared at me, surprised I didn’t know the legend of the two menhirs, or statues, in the small and beautiful island Belle-Ile-en-mer. Once a year the two stones are transformed from stone into flesh so they can love each other.
So I went there by boat and fell literally in love with the legend . . . I had found my archetype. Then I decided that Emma and Federico would meet once a year on the island Belle Ile, just as Jean and Jeanne do. On April 10.
The next summer I spent a month on the island doing research. The book started materializing and I was impelled from discovery to discovery, coincidence to coincidence . . .
Which was the only book by Jane Austen which I was allowed to see during my visit to the Morgan Library?
em>Lady Susan, which was written between 1793 and 1794, acquired for the Morgan by Belle da Costa in 1947. As chance would have it, it is an epistolary novel.
I couldn't find anything on Belle da Costa in June of 2007, but while I was in New York, the first biography of her was published!
When my U.S. publisher asked if there was any high-profile person who might be willing to give me a quote, I immediately thought of the Italian actress Isabella Rossellini. That same night, August of last year, a friend of mine invited me to dinner and who was there?