What was it like working in Wassaic alongside mostly non-writers?
I loved that, actually. I like the fact that it's not a writing community, but an open community for people working in various mediums. It’s less of a sect somehow, more open-minded, more over the borders of the various mediums.
You're trained as an actor originally, right?
So you're used to that cross-disciplinary thinking.
Absolutely. I mean, it was a long time ago. I haven't acted for probably 20 years.
But what I especially loved, one of the reasons why I thought Wassaic would be a nice experience for us, is that it's a project that tries to connect to the community. I wouldn't have wanted to go to a more secluded artists residency. And I know it's not easy. I live in a rural community. But I talked to the lady in the shop a bit about it, Sharon, and she had a good point: it changes the economics of the place. Whether people send their kids to the Art Nest or not, it has an impact on the community — and it wants to have an impact on the community. It doesn't want to be secluded.
That's something you talk a lot about in your book: shifting demographics. Early on you write, “I thought of all the Tuscan pensioners sitting on benches in the sun. I kept flooding my social media accounts with photos of the well-groomed hat wearers. Obviously a hip and trendy population didn’t belong here in the calm and unruffled life Tuscany was known for.” But then in the pre-interview questionnaire I sent you, you said: “The demography of these towns is changing very much. And it has to. Otherwise in a couple of decades time — between people moving to the city and Italy's low birthrate — nobody will be left (apart from tourists). Tuscany as a sort of huge natural Disneyland is a true horror vision.”
So these places will and need to change, but you’re worried they won’t change in the way they need to.
Yeah, Venice is the best example: you need a population who’s staying there not just because they do business with tourists but because they do other things. Otherwise you sort of become a facade, like a theater play. You know, “we want to put a few hat wearers there because it looks good so the Instagram people can take a few pictures.” But it sort of loses its soul and its spirit.
So we need things like the Wassaic Project. Not just another hotel that closes for the whole winter. Because it's so different in the countryside. There’s this thing that Sergio says: people in Berlin have more in common with people in New York, or London, or Buenos Aires than with people in their respective hinterlands.
Do you think that was always true? Or do you think that's becoming increasingly true today?
I think it’s becoming increasingly true.
On the other hand, if I look at our kids and the internet, it's a very different upbringing. Our kids are connected, so in a way it's actually easier to have kids growing up in these places.
And with remote work on the rise it might also become more viable to settle or remain in the countryside without having to forego a career.
Let’s jump back to your training as an actor. Does that play into your writing process at all now? Or do you think of those as entirely separate pursuits?
The more I write the more I realize that it does. For 10 years of my life I mostly read plays. So when I read novels I like a tight structure, and a good pace, and I’m not much into descriptive writing. As a reader I don’t have a lot of patience. I need to know, okay, where is this going? And that I think has a lot to do with acting. Dialogue is important for me — that the dialogue is clear-cut, and quick, and moving the story ahead.
In Wassaic, we started to work on a screenplay together actually. That's something you can do: even though Sergio writes in Italian and I write in English, it's such a distilled form that you can still work together. A novel, there's just no way you could do that.
The book itself is structured somewhat like a play. You have this prologue, and then you can read “Summer” as Act One, “Fall” as Act Two, etc.
Exactly. I often talk about it as a film. There’s a German word I can’t quite translate into English: “filmreif.” “Reif” means “mature,” like a fruit can be mature when you want to eat it. So “Filmreif” basically means you can just take this and put it in a film.
Like “film-ripe” — ripe for film.
Has the transition been smooth from the book to the screenplay, then?
Can you talk a little bit about that process?
There are loads of factors. I have one vision and then you work on it with somebody else, etc. But it also has to do with the political situation at the moment. It’s not sugar-coated, the book. It’s a very honest story. And it’s one thing to share the difficulties I encountered while running a refugee home in a book that allows for a certain amount of detail — the narrator’s reflections, different point of views, etc. — so you can sort of handle the tricky bits. But how do you do that with a film? I mean, I think it’s important to tell complex stories that challenge the villain/victim narratives we’ve grown accustomed to in this field. But how do you that in a way that can’t be manipulated too easily, or used for some political party?
Born in Switzerland in 1972, Katja earned a degree in performing arts in Zurich and worked for a few years as an actor in the German-speaking countries. In her mid-twenties, she traded Shakespeare and Goethe for a backpack and never looked back.
Living in Italy since 1999, Katja has worked as an olive picker, wedding planner and life coach before running a refugee home in a small Tuscan hilltop town. Her memoir 'Across the Big Blue Sea: Good Intentions and Hard Lessons in an Italian Refugee Home' has been optioned for a film and was a Guardian Best Summer Book.
For updates from Zenka Films and Katja's journey as an entrepreneur, read Startup with 50 on Substack.
Katja is the mother of two teenagers and together with her family divides her time between an olive grove and a national park beach in Tuscany, and a winter campsite in the Swiss Alps.
2018–2019 Winter Residency