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Author Talk: March 9, 2018

David P. Wagner is a retired Foreign Service Officer who spent nine years in Italy. With this wealth of experience, it’s no surprise that he decided to write a mystery series that takes place there. A FUNERAL IN MANTOVA is the fifth installment, and marks the return of Rick Montoya, an American from New Mexico self-employed as a translator in Italy. In this interview, Wagner discusses the series' Italian inspirations, shares his thoughts on being both a reader and writer of mysteries, and talks about the feedback he has received from fans that has proven to be most helpful to him.

Question: You were stationed in Italy for nine years while working in diplomatic services. What sorts of duties did that post entail?

David P. Wagner: I was always in the public affairs office, which in the Foreign Service has two sub-specialties. One is press work, dealing with the local media and acting as the spokesperson for the embassy. The other is cultural affairs, and that includes exchange programs like Fulbright, libraries, American speakers and cultural events such as exhibits by American artists or concerts by American musicians. If that sounds to you like the most interesting and fun work you can get as a diplomat, you are correct. It was also a great way to meet fascinating Italians and get into some beautiful buildings.

Q: Prior to creating the Rick Montoya Italian Mystery series, had you tried your hand at writing any other crime novels?

DPW: There were several Rick Montoya mysteries that didn’t make the grade before COLD TUSCAN STONE was accepted, but rejection is part of the road to getting published. I always tell aspiring authors that there is no such thing as wasted writing, that anything you work on improves your skills, though another part of me wants to forget those early attempts. But to answer your question directly, Rick was in the game right from the start.

Q: A FUNERAL IN MANTOVA is the fifth book in the series. Do you feel your craftsmanship has improved since the first novel? Was there one book in the series that proved to be a particular challenge?

DPW: My writing has definitely improved, but much of the improvement is thanks to my editors at Poisoned Pen Press. They nudged me in the right general direction as well as pointed out quirks and ticks in my writing style that I didn’t notice myself. They still do. But I’ve found that writing is like any other skill --- except perhaps golf --- in that the more you do it, the better you get at it. In that regard, it was certainly the first book in the series that was the most challenging. Despite earlier rejections, I was still groping around to find the correct formula for all the things you have to do right, like plotting, character development, pace and atmosphere. After that, I knew I could do it, so the others were easier.

Q: Did you ever consider remaining in Italy permanently? Or was a Colorado return always part of the plan?

DPW: Italy is great, but you can’t beat the USA. We also wanted to be closer to family after spending decades overseas, and as it happened, that turned out to be a good reason. Living in Italy as a private citizen is very different from being there with a diplomatic ID in your pocket, so we have been content to make return visits when we can. We meet up with our Italian friends and try to cross a few more sites off our list of places we missed in previous years. But it is always a pleasure to come back home.

Q: Every mystery writer began as a mystery reader. Who have been some of your influences over the years, and in what manner?

DPW: Like so many fans of mysteries, I started with the classics of the golden age of British crime writing. Later I moved into contemporary British writers like P.D. James and Ruth Rendell. Even now, if given a choice, I will opt for a book that takes place overseas. That includes ones set in Italy, of course, and there are some very good writers like Michael Dibdin and Donna Leon. What I admired in their writing was the way they got Italy, and especially Italians, right, and I try to do the same in my books.

People often ask me if, being a writer, I read differently. I guess the answer is that I’m more appreciative of good writing and less patient with the rest. But by reading both, and noticing the difference, I hope my own writing improves. So just about everything I read has an influence on my writing. I should add that I’m a big fan of comic crime novels, like Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder books and various series by Lawrence Block. I like humor and try to work it into the Rick Montoya books.

Q: There is wealth of lore within your Rick Montoya novels involving Italian cuisine, local customs and the peerless architecture. Were your nine years living in Italy sufficient to fuel the series indefinitely, or will you need to undertake a return there for research sometime soon?

DPW: The best part of Italy is the small towns, so I decided that each book would take the readers somewhere a bit off the beaten tourist track. In all cases, they are places where I’ve spent time, either when I lived there or on later visits, and usually both. Volterra, with its layers of history and spectacular art, was a logical first one. Then I took Rick up to a ski town where we used to vacation ourselves, and after that to Bassano del Grappa, a wonderful city on the edge of the Alps. In the fourth he goes to Orvieto, a classic Umbrian hill town, and for the new one he is in Mantova, perhaps my favorite city in Lombardy outside Milan.

The Italians use the word suggestivo to mean evocative or scenic. There are dozens of places I’ve visited in Italy that can be so described and will make perfect settings for future novels. So I don’t think I’ll be running out of them any time soon.

Q: What sort of feedback have you received from fans of the series? And have you ever incorporated any of their suggestions?

DPW: The best feedback I get is when a reader tells me that he or she now wants to visit the city where a book takes place. That is very satisfying to me since it means I’ve created a positive image in their minds. They also say they’ve read what my protagonist has at his meals --- it’s Italy, so he eats out a lot --- and they want to have what he’s having.

As far as suggestions, one reader, who was a professional translator, wrote to me that I was blurring the difference between an interpreter (who deals with the spoken word) and a translator (the written word). Rick Montoya, my protagonist, works at both when he’s not sleuthing. Since hearing from that reader, I have made it a point to use the correct term when describing Rick’s professional activities.