The following exchange between Auntie Poldi, the seductive protagonist and enthusiastic amateur detective of Mario Giordano’s Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, and her nephew, who’s living in her house trying to be a writer, encapsulates the heart of this delightful book:
“You find a dead body and flirt with the chief investigator. You’re simply—”
“No, totally cool.”
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt editorial director of fiction, Helen Atsma, bought Auntie Poldi as a result of “simple but long-term relationships.” The relationships Atsma is referring to go back to her early career: she knew Mark Richards when she was at Grand Central Publishing, and she and Jason Bartholomew had side-by-side cubicles at Little, Brown, where Atsma was an editorial assistant and he worked in rights. “I’ve known him forever, and he has a good sense of what I like,” she says.
Fast forward, and Richards is the publisher of John Murray—a U.K. publishing house founded in 1768 (Lord Byron, Charles Darwin, and Jane Austen are just a few of its authors) that is presently an imprint under the Hachette’s Hodder U.K. umbrella—and Bartholomew is the rights director at Hodder U.K.
When Atsma hears from these longtime associates, she listens. “One of the first books I bought when I came to HMH two-and-a-half years ago was given to me by Mark: The Loney by Andrew Mark Hurley,” she says. “It had been published by Tartarus, a very small press in the U.K., in a 300-copy print run. Mark noticed it, John Murray republished it, and it went on to get an unbelievable amount of press, win a Costa Book Award (in the first novel category), and sell 100,000 copies in the U.K.”
Atsma bought U.S. rights and published it in 2016. A PW staff pick for best summer books, it sold respectably well here.
This story is similar to that of The Loney, in that Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions was also published in the U.K. in the summer of 2016 and released as an e-book in the U.S. that fall by a small press, Bitter Lemon. (The original German edition was published in 2015 by Lübbe.) Auntie Poldi got excellent U.K. reviews and U.S. trade reviews.
“Mark, as usual, had his ear to the ground,” Atsma says. “He noticed the reviews, republished it as a hardcover in the U.K. in January 2017, and scooped up world English rights.” And then it was sent to Atsma.
From the UK, Richards tells me “I read it after The Times made it their crime book of the month – I thought it sounded fun, and interesting, and I knew of Bitter Lemon. I read it and loved it – it manages the trick of being a big-hearted and funny book about a woman rediscovering her love for life (and for Sicily, and food, and men), while not being at all cloying. The key, I think, is in three things: one, Auntie Poldi herself, who is just the most wonderful character –she has a lust for life that is infectious, and enough cod philosophy to keep anyone going for a lifetime. Two, the fact that it’s narrated by Poldi’s nephew (hence Auntie Poldi), which allows what is essentially an omniscient narrator to narrate the action, bringing irony and wit to the situation, and allowing Poldi to interrupt her own story to insult her nephew about his lack of girlfriend. And three, Sicily itself, which has a starring role, and shows itself in all its Mediterranean (and only occasionally seedy) glory.
I honestly felt like I was on holiday when I was reading it, and I thought I wouldn’t be the only one, so I contacted Bitter Lemon and asked if they might consider sub-licensing the book, which I’m pleased to say they did. Not too long afterwards, we sold US rights to Helen, who fell in love with it in the way we had. It had been a paperback originally – we reissued it in hardback, picking up some more reviews (The Spectator wrote that ‘the whole book is alive with a tan of lemons to set the senses zinging’, while the Times Literary Supplement called it a ‘masterly treat’); before republishing it in paperback. We’re publishing the second Auntie Poldi novel around the time that Helen is publishing the first.”
About selling rights, Bartholomew says: “As we all know, the publishing industry churns out thousands of books a year. All anyone wants—author, agent, editor, and rights seller—is to find the right publishing house to make your book crack through the noise and sell. I have known Helen for years—we worked together during our 20s. Since then, we have both moved on, but I always wanted to find a book to sell to Helen. I have followed Helen’s career and know of her many successes for upmarket, offbeat, reading-group fiction.”
“As a rights director, my job is to try and know as many editors as possible across the North American publishing landscape,” Bartholomew says. “For every book I submit, my goal is to simply match the book with the right editor. I sold A Man Called Ove to Simon & Schuster a few years ago, and I know that was a book Helen really enjoyed. Auntie Poldi feels like a similar book to Ove—it is not an obvious choice for an American audience, but in the right hands a foreign book of this quality could become a bestseller in North America. Helen felt like the perfect editor for Auntie Poldi.”
Atsma’s first reaction was, “A crime novel? In translation? From Germany?” She admits that it seemed a little quirky, but “Jason and Mark have such great taste, and, not far into it, I was completely smitten with the character.”
And so was I. I don’t read crime novels. I can’t follow the plots, and I lose interest early on. I like blood and violence (especially on screen), but mystery? My reaction is a doddering: “Who’s that? What happened?”
But Auntie Poldi is all about Poldi, and, like Atsma, I’m crazy about her. She’s my new role model: a lusty Bavarian of Italian ancestry at that stage of life blessed with complete freedom. (“You know, sometimes I’m glad Peppe and I didn’t grow old together,” she says at one point. “When I look at couples like that I’d sooner have topped myself.”) Having turned 60, she decides to spend her last years drinking herself to death near family with a view of the sea. For me, the woman is an inspiration, and chances are good she will find a wide audience.
Poldi is an atypical leading lady. Older women are often portrayed as clever but not often seen as vibrant, independent, and yes, overtly sexual. Willful and mildly alcoholic (she starts the day with a prosecco), Poldi has a thing for men in uniform, particularly police uniforms, and even when she deems them too young for her, she’s happy to appreciate their presence. Her handyman falls into this category; when he goes missing, she sets off to solve the mystery, with a little romance with the chief investigator on the side.
As Atsma says, “I never saw such a character—smart, fun, sexy.” She adds that she read it like any other submission, “but from the first page I thought, I love this, and just had my fingers crossed that it would hold up. It was so fresh. I’m always surprised how few submissions are both smart and lighthearted.”
HMH, Atsma tells me, is looking to do more commercial fiction, and this one was an entertaining page-turner. “Fiction right now seems to be either timely—plugged into what’s happening: the refugee crisis, racism—or else it’s something escapist, and this was clearly escapist,” she says. “It just took me away—like going on vacation in Italy.” Atsma was especially pleased with the blurb from Francis Mayes (Under the Tuscan Sun), who said Giordano “brought Italy to life.”
Giordano’s background is not so dissimilar to Poldi’s. The son of Italian immigrants to Germany, he was born in Munich and lives in Cologne. Giordano grew up speaking German, although he spent holidays in Sicily with family. Auntie Poldi is his first novel translated into English, and he captures Poldi’s Sicilian mind-set in all its frustrating charms: the Mafia is “an invention of those Fascists in the North”; “For Sicilians, joie de vivre rests on two pillars: good food, and talking/arguing about good food”; “Always overdress—moderation is a sign of weakness”; “A Sicilian man can endure anything with fatalism and a bella figura (a fashionable appearance that includes a pair of good shoes and the right make of sunglasses).”
“My favorite thing about this book is the thing an editor always hopes for: that people on the inside are reading it and loving it,” Atsma says. “I paid a modest amount for the book, and while those big books that get sold at auction for big money are also fine, there’s something satisfying and really fun about a book whose popularity grows in-house—a kind of purity.”
Atsma was speaking to me from her family’s home in Silverton, Ore., where she was on vacation. When she publishes, she tells me, she likes to think of markets outside New York City. She grew up in Oregon and bought books at Target, and, though she’s aware that there are great indie bookstores in the state, there are also other outlets where people shop for books. “I like to think about the whole country when I’m doing a book,” she says.
Promotional plans for Auntie Poldi are moving ahead: HMH is bringing Giordano to Winter Institute in Memphis in January and printing 4,000 galleys. The announced first printing, according to Lori Glazer, HMH executive director of publicity, is 75,000 copies.
Readers will be excited to know that this book is the first in a series. Atsma has bought U.S. rights to the second installment, Auntie Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna, which is scheduled for U.S. publication in March 2018. Atsma promises that, as expected when it comes to Poldi, there will be copious amounts of wine in the Vineyards of Etna.
Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions is published in 9 territories:
Czech Republic, Euromedia
France, City Editions
Germany, Bastei Lübbe
Italy, Newton Compton
Slovakian Republic, Ikar
UK, Bitter Lemon Press, John Murray
This article has been corrected to reflect an updated number of copies for the first printing; a previous version stated 50,000 copies when in fact it will be 75,000.