USA | 2014
Michael David Lukas has been a Fulbright Scholar in Turkey, a night-shift proofreader in Tel Aviv, and a waiter at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont. Translated into more than a dozen languages, his first novel The Oracle of Stamboul
was a finalist for the California Book Award, the NCIBA Book of the Year Award, and the Harold U. Ribalow Prize. A graduate of Brown University and the University of Maryland, he is a recipient of scholarships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Montalvo Arts Center, New York State Summer Writers’ Institute, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and Elizabeth George Foundation. His writing has appeared in The New York Times
, Wall Street Journal
, National Geographic Traveler
, and Georgia Review
. He lives in Oakland, California.
During my first week at Santa Maddalena, the internet was broken, I was smoked out of my bedroom by an overeager stone mason trying to fix the fireplace downstairs, and a sparrow hawk flew into a transformer up the road, leaving us powerless for the better part of the day. Needless to say, this series of misfortune and malfunction did not make it any easier for me to start revising the novel I had brought with me. If anything, the smoke inhalation and sputtering internet connection seemed to fit into a larger pattern, all revolving around me and my fatally flawed novel. I thought more than once about cutting my losses and going home. But then, sometime towards the end of my first week here, the sun came out, the internet was restored, and I sat down to write.
It was around this time that I first noticed the pale orange neo-Moorish castle at the other end of the valley. According to Beatrice, it had been built by a slightly mad aristocrat who ruined himself and his family in the process of adding more and more additions to the structure. I could see the castle from the window of my bedroom, on the second floor of the tower. And every morning when I woke, I looked out across the valley to make sure it was still there. One such morning, I was visited by a tiny yellow and blue bird that flew up to my window and tapped a few times with its beak. The bird returned every morning for the next three weeks, tapping at my window before flying off to see to other business. Surely there’s a metaphor in there, lodged between the castle and the bird, something about the folly of sitting down every morning to write, the slow accretion of sentences like the stones of a neo-Moorish castle, the fleeting nature of the muse, tapping at one’s window. But instead of forcing the metaphor, I would prefer to think of the castle and the bird as small parts of something larger.
Over the course of my time here, I unstuck myself, started revising the novel I brought with me, and laid out the bones of another. It’s tempting, as I look back on the past six week, to try to identify the secret ingredient that makes Santa Maddalena such a productive and inspiring place, to bottle whatever that might be and bring it home with me. But unfortunately, such magic can’t be contained. It resides in the castles and the birds, in Beatrice, of course, and her hospitality, in the comfortable elegance of dinner and the stream of guests passing through, in the veneration of art and the space between courses, in the cheese plates, the walnut blossoms, and the dog shit, in the pieces of pottery embedded in the road and the abandoned dresser drawer framing a view of the river. It’s in the stories of the writers who slept in that bed or worked at that desk, in the rose vines wrapped around olive trees, and in the memory of Grisha.
To all these things I am immensely grateful.