Writing As Detective Work of the Soul

In Guest Contributors by Edward Nawotka

Editorial by Arthur Japin

Arthur Japin

UTRECHT: In the mid-1980s, two actors went to Rome, hoping to land a part — any part — in a movie by the creator of La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini.

I was one of those actors. The other was my lifelong friend Rosita. Fellini fell in love with her, and in doing so changed the course of her life. He brought her danger, despair, drugs, and an eating disorder — yet still, in some way I never could quite understand, made her happy.

I couldn’t fathom how anyone could benefit from such a devastating and destructive love. Instead, for years, I was angry with him, even though I knew that some day I would have to write about this decisive episode in our lives. The question was how. My first two novels, The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi and In Lucia’s Eyes, were written with love for their (historical) protagonists. The last thing I wanted was to write a book out of resentment or jealousy. Ever since we were students, Rosita and I have been inseparable.

She was someone who did exactly what she wanted, fearlessly, and she taught me to do the same: by being yourself, by not bothering to care what other people think.

Then Federico Fellini entered our lives.

Rosita became his last great passion; the very last feet of film he shot were in homage to her. He set her up in a small nun’s cell above the altar of a Roman church, which he had decorated by the set builders of his films. She lived in a fantasy.

She was his fantasy. A perfect Fellini character, with her voluptuous beauty and  Betty Boop-like innocence, she seemed to have walked straight out of one of his movies (or out of his dreams, which in his case often were the same). She was the spitting image of Anita Ekberg in the Trevi Fountain; she looked like all the dream-women in 8 ½, the film to which Nine offered a tribute.

Even though Fellini was happily married – to the actress Giulietta Massina: another great love, another cartoon character – how could he possibly resist Rosita?

Director's CutIn the beginning, the famous man’s admiration and attention made Rosita happy. I could see that clearly. Many years had passed since we were lovers (our parents never could believe that we didn’t end up married). Now, as her best friend and confidant, all I could do was support her. I had always admired her for knowing what she wanted. If this was what she wanted, I had to be there for her.

But Fellini’s whims made Rosita increasingly insecure. If he didn’t call, she would sit next to the phone, sometimes for days on end. He manipulated her, knowing that the delay would make her even more eager to please him. Sometimes she would get me to call to check if he was out of town. I would introduce myself as an American journalist and he would pretend to be his own maid, answering with a high-pitched voice that Signor Fellini wasn’t home.

What does a best friend do? Would it help Rosita to know that he had lied, or would it just hurt her more?

Rosita’s self-confidence began to wane. She started to believe that she wasn’t really worth the attention of a man that special. She decided to work harder to earn his esteem. She slowly lost her independence and I had to watch the beautiful, strong woman that I loved so much change into a scared little girl. Finally, she refused to leave her apartment, even for a second, afraid he would call while she was out.

In vain, I fought to get her away from him, to get her out of Rome and take her back home. I just didn’t understand how love, which ought to make people grow, could also make someone smaller. I blamed myself for being unable to stop it; but I blamed Fellini most of all.

I truly believe that he loved his wife and Rosita equally, and I didn’t understand how such a thing was possible. In order to figure that out, in order to investigate the workings of our friendship, I would have to write a novel. But how?

In my previous novels, I came to understand the main characters by identifying with them. Through historical research, ‘acting’, and empathy, I could comprehend them. They developed their own voice, and would then relate their story to me and to the reader. That was when I could begin what a French reviewer recently called my “detective work on their soul.”

To understand what motivated Federico Fellini, I would therefore have to let him talk. I would have to become him, as I had done with my previous characters. I delved into his life, the decisive role of cartoons in his youth, his career, and his subconscious. I dug up the origins of his films and the source of his passions. After about a year, I started to dream his dreams. Busty blondes, like the ones that only he could deploy in his work, started to sashay their way through my dreams.

That was the sign that I was ready.

I decided to let him speak for himself. From the coma in which he spent the last weeks of his life, he tells the story of two young actors who wander into his life in the middle of the eighties, hoping for a bit role. As he investigates his own motives and fears, he explores the workings of our unusual triangle.

And it worked. I almost immediately became him, understood him, and managed to forgive him. Along the way I also discovered how it’s possible to love two people at the same time. That, I suddenly understood all too well. (How Federico must be rocking his cloud with laughter!)

Director’s Cut is a novel, narrated by Snaporaz — the name Fellini always gave to the character in his movie that was based on himself.  He ends his story just beyond his own death, when he has forever retreated into the dream-world that had always been his inspiration.

Rosita’s story, however, goes on. After he died, she wrote her own book about this episode, went on to become a novelist, and is now, in her own country (the Netherlands), a famous writer with a wide following. Now I’ve finally come to understand that it was Fellini’s love that made her reinvent herself in this way. Perhaps he was right after all: by restricting her with his love, he forced her to fight and grow.

Rosita and I are still dear friends.

Last December, I was in Rome, where Bompiani was publishing Someone Found, my epic novel of Texas. Arm in arm, just like all those years before, we walked along the places where Director’s Cut unfolded, surprised that so much can happen in two lives, without that having the least effect on the unity of our souls.

“When you tell your readers about Director’s Cut,” she said, “and about us, just be sure to say it’s your take on that time. For me it was different. I always had Federico.”

VISIT: Arthur Japin’s Web site.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.