Books·How I Wrote It

Why Steven Price's new novel imagines the final years of Lampedusa, Sicilian prince and author of The Leopard

The Scotiabank Giller Prize-longlisted novel Lampedusa is about the making of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's 1958 literary masterpiece The Leopard.
Steven Price is the author of Lampedusa. (McClelland & Stewart)

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the prince of the Italian isle Lampedusa, wrote just one novel in his life. He did not live to see it published. He died in 1957 at the age of 60, having been told that his manuscript was "unpublishable."

To say The Leopard later defied these expectations would be an understatement — it became one of Italy's bestselling novels and is now considered a masterpiece.

B.C.-based novelist Steven Price has read The Leopard many times over the past two decades. Inspired by the book and the enigmatic man who wrote it, Price has written a fictionalization of the making of The Leopard, titled Lampedusa

Lampedusa is on the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist. The winner will be revealed on Nov. 18, 2019.

Below, Price shares the ideas and research that went into writing Lampedusa.

Memory and The Leopard

"For 20 years, I read and reread The Leopard, finding something new in it each time. It was only a few years ago, when I read a biography of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, that I realized how much his own life resembled his fictional prince in the book. My novel started to dream itself up when I understood that.

For 20 years, I read and reread The Leopard, finding something new in it each time.- Steven Price

"All of my writing, on some level, is about memory. Lampedusa's novel is so concerned with memory, with the way time passes, that I must have felt some echo of what was already in me in his book — which kept me going back to it again and again."

Exploring Sicily

"The research about Lampedusa himself began with the biography. Then I read everything I could get my hands on. I read dozens of prefaces and forwards, often written by Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, his adopted son. I watched films and read nonfiction about Sicily itself, including a wonderful book about Sicilian food.

"Later in the process, I went to Sicily and managed to visit many places that are in my novel. I even met Gioacchino and his wife, Nicoletta, for a wonderful afternoon and evening. They were both incredibly lovely and kind.

"They live in Palermo, in the palazzo that Lampedusa occupied at the end of his life. He used to describe it as his house, but not his home. His beloved childhood home was bombed in the war and destroyed. After the war, he managed to scrape together enough funds to purchase half the palazzo, which was inherited by Gioacchino and restored by him and his wife. He took me on a lovely tour of the palazzo and we talked about the building and his memories of Lampedusa.

"One of the most interesting things I discovered — which required me to go back into the book and change things — was I hadn't realized the degree of poverty that Lampedusa was living in at the end of his life. The palazzo had no running water. The plumbing was terrible. The ceiling in the great ballroom had collapsed in the bombing and the windows had blown in — and they'd never been able to afford to repair it. I hadn't realized that degree of destruction."

Gregor Craigie spoke with Victorian author Steven Price, about his new book, Lampedusa. 9:22

The ambitions of Lampedusa

"Lampedusa's life poses a lot of questions for writers. He lived his whole life dreaming of writing a book. It was only later in life — after he grew ill — that he sat down and actually did it.

"A lot of people talk about when they retire, they would like to write a book. Lampedusa did exactly that — around the age of retirement, he sat down and wrote a book. What he wrote was a work of genius, a masterpiece and it's outlived himself and all of its critics. It continues to be read today. It's an exquisite novel and deeply moving.

Lampedusa's life poses a lot of questions for writers. He lived his whole life dreaming of writing a book.- Steven Price

"There's something in there that's a little heartbreaking — to think about how ill-treated the manuscript and the novel was in his lifetime. For a writer, it's a heartbreaking story. He deserved to understand, to feel while he was alive, the encouragement that he would have gotten."

Steven Price's comments have been edited for length and clarity. You can read more interviews in the How I Wrote It series here.

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