Anastasia Rubis writes about trailblazing journalist Oriana Fallaci in debut novel

by CINDY STAGOFF
oriana fallaci novel

The cover of “Oriana: A Novel of Oriana Fallaci.”

Anastasia Rubis of Montclair triumphs with her engrossing and romantic debut biographical novel “Oriana: A Novel of Oriana Fallaci” (Delphinium Books, 368 pp., $27.99), which will be published on March 19.

This is the first novel based on Fallaci, the tenacious Italian journalist and author, who was born in 1929. Set in the evocative landscapes of Greece and Italy, Rubis’ captivating narrative portrays her as a groundbreaking journalist who demanded that her voice be heard in male-dominated and dismissive newsrooms.

Rubis will read from and discuss “Oriana,” March 21 at 7 p.m. at Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, and April 27 (time TBD) at Succed2gether’s Montclair Literary Festival at Montclair State University. She will be part of the festival’s “Remarkable Women” panel discussion, which also will feature Shannon McKenna Schmidt (writer of “The First Lady of World War II: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Daring Journey to the Frontlines and Back” and Elizabeth B. White (co-writer of “The Counterfeit Countess: The Jewish Woman Who Rescued Thousands of Poles During the Holocaust”).

The novel opens in Fallaci’s book-filled apartment in New York’s East 60s. Elegantly dressed and always smoking, Fallaci meets with a young Hollywood producer who proposes a movie documenting her life. Now in her 70s and battling cancer, Fallaci recounts her difficult childhood, work and fiery relationships.

While talking with him, her mind wanders to thoughts about her beloved and deceased lover, the Greek politician and poet Alexandros Panagoulis. We hear about how they first met in the 1970s when she interviewed him and, later, shared a brief but passionate romance that ended tragically when Panagoulis died in a suspicious car crash.

ANASTASIA RUBIS

Rubis beautifully portrays their bond. Both principled idealists who fell deeply in love, they had a profound physical, emotional and intellectual connection. Fallaci was in her 40s; Panagoulis, in his 30s.

Fallaci starts out, in “Oriana,” as a young reporter for the Italian paper Il Mattino dell’Italia Centrale in 1946. Later, she challenges power and convention as a writer for the Italian magazine L’Europeo.

As a young girl, she had joined Italy’s Resistance, working alongside her father Edoardo Fallaci, a cabinet maker and activist, by acting as a courier for the partisans in their war against the German occupiers and Benito Mussolini. Disguised by her innocent, pigtailed appearance, she carried grenades and messages in the basket of her bike. Her early lessons in challenging authoritarianism strengthened her and prepared her to ask provocative questions of powerbrokers.

As a war correspondent, she acted with bravery covering The Indo-Pakistani War, Middle East conflicts and others. In “Oriana,” Rubis describes Fallaci’s harrowing experiences covering the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, where she was shot by Mexican soldiers and left to die, as well as the Vietnam War.

Fallaci interviewed and often intimidated world leaders from the 1960s to the 1980s, including the Ayatollah Khomeini, Haile Selassi, Muammar Gaddafi, Deng Xiaoping, Yasser Arafat, Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi. She interviewed impactful artists, too, including director Federico Fellini and actor Marcello Mastroianni.

Kissinger wrote in his memoirs that his 1972 interview with Fallaci was “the single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press.”

“Oriana” takes us to some stunning moments in Fallaci’s career, including her interview with Khomeini in which she confronted him about his status as a tyrant and about his regime’s treatment of women. Before the interview, she wrapped herself in a chador, as demanded by the Islamist regime. She asked about the injustice of making a woman hide under the chador, arguing that covering reinforces inequities. Khomeini told her that she wasn’t required to wear it because the dress is for proper women. She removed the chador and he left the room.

While journalists like Barabara Walters and Mike Wallace became famous in the United States for their searing interviews, Fallaci is less well known. This novel should introduce her to a wider audience, giving this brave journalist her due.

In an author’s note, Rubis expresses disagreement with Fallaci’s controversial post-9/11 writings. Fallaci has been criticized for her books about Islam, as well as her statements about the LGBTQ+ community and same-sex marriage. She died in 2006, a beloved figure in journalism, with bestselling books in Italy, but also with detractors.

I talked to Rubis about her fascinating novel.

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Q: When did you first become interested in Oriana Fallaci? Why were you drawn to write about her? What lessons can we learn from her life about purpose, love, ethics?

A: I discovered Oriana Fallaci on a Greek island in the 1980s. I was browsing in a souvenir shop when her book “A Man” popped out at me. It’s a memoir of her great love with Alexandros Panagoulis and his fight against the dictatorship of the 1960s and 1970s in Greece. The story never left me, and I started devouring her other books.

Oriana’s voice is unique: It’s honest, emotional, forthright, and she says things I didn’t know you could say! She had the courage to speak her mind, which I didn’t at the time, and I aspired to have her guts and confidence. Oriana rose from humble beginnings to become the best journalist in the world, yet she had poignant setbacks in her personal life. That really resonated for me, that we don’t get everything even if we are superwomen and work really, really hard.

Oriana was born in 1929 when there was no role model for being at the top of your profession and being in love or having a child. She was driven by purpose: she went to Vietnam seven times as a war correspondent, she got shot in Mexico City covering student protests of the Olympic Games. Oriana believed life is for doing something, and her “something” was fighting for human rights through the written word.

Q: Do you think her provocative and in-depth interviews were impactful? If so, how?

A: Oriana’s interview style revolutionized journalism. Until then, interviews of powerful people were generally puff pieces; Oriana introduced tough questions, embarrassing questions, provocative questions. Often, her interviews influenced world affairs. For example, Nixon got angry at Kissinger for the things he said in Fallaci’s interview and refused to see him for a time. I believe her interviews are studied in journalism schools.

Q: How did fighting against the fascists as a child at the side of her dad change her?

A: Fighting in the Italian Resistance against Hitler and Mussolini toughened up Oriana. At age 14, she was forced to surmount her own fear while delivering a grenade or carrying secret messages in her braids past German checkpoints. Later, as a journalist, she was not intimidated and could ask a dictator to his face why he murdered innocent people. Her wartime childhood shaped her, but she also said it was a limitation: She saw conflict everywhere, oppression everywhere, and it was hard for her to be at peace.

Q: Do you think her childhood experience propelled her to challenge corrupt power and become a journalist?

A: Oriana loved to read as a child and wanted to be a novelist, but her parents discouraged her. Her mother steered her toward medical school, so she passed the test and enrolled, but then her father was in a car accident and couldn’t work, so Oriana dropped out to earn a living.

The desire to be a writer never left her, so she went to a newspaper and asked for a job. Initially, she was relegated to human interest and “women’s topics,” but eventually, when she elbowed her way into covering world events and politics, she absolutely challenged power because of her wartime childhood in the Resistance. Oriana said that when people acted superior around her, she got nasty. She rejected the idea of hierarchy from her socialist upbringing, and she viewed world leaders with skepticism. (She thought), “Do you really deserve all this power?”

Q: Given her early activist leanings, do you think her journalism was another way to remain an activist and dedicate herself to social and economic justice?

A: Absolutely! Oriana wanted to be a writer, so she went into journalism, but she carried her parents’ legacy, their commitment to social and economic justice, all her life.

The cover of Oriana Fallaci’s book, “Interviews With History and Power.”

Q: Do you have a favorite interview or two of hers?

A: “Interviews with History and Conversations with Power” is still in print, and Christiane Amanpour has said it should be required reading for all journalists. I agree.

Here are some zingers from Oriana:

To Kissinger: “You once even stated that Nixon ‘wasn’t fit to be president.’ Has this ever made you feel embarrassed with Nixon, Dr. Kissinger?”

To Gaddafi: “I believe you are not, in fact, loved in this country and that people applaud you out of fear.”

To Arafat: “You don’t at all want the peace everyone is hoping for.”

And from “The Egotists,” Oriana’s collection of artist and celebrity interviews (now out of print) …

To Mary Hemingway: “This is the first time you’ve admitted Hemingway’s suicide. Until now, you’ve always maintained his death was accidental.”

To Norman Mailer: “You mean to say that even your obsession with sex is due to a lack of cultural riches?”

Q: Do you think Fallaci has something to remind us about the value of fact-finding, challenging dogma, truth in media reports and in our daily lives?

A: Yes. Oriana saw journalism as a calling and was obsessed with truth and accuracy. Today, in this climate of AI and alternative facts, she would protest loudly in her informed, irreverent style.

Q: Are you working on a new book?

A: Yes. I’m halfway through a second historical novel that takes place in the ’60s and ’70s on a Greek island.

Q: Why did you end your book after Alexandros died?

A: It was a natural place to end: end of the relationship, end of her (full-time) journalism career.

Q: I think this novel would make for a lively, significant movie. Any interest in turning it into a film?

A: Yes! I’m very interested in a film. I first wrote this story as a spec screenplay 20 years ago and got the interest of a Hollywood studio head. I even arranged for him to meet Oriana in her Manhattan townhouse and they discussed who would play her, but she died shortly thereafter. A story about two passionate, star-crossed lovers set in Italy and Greece in the ’60s and ’70s … that’s my kind of movie.

Q: Do you have any thoughts about Alexandros and his resistance against the 1967 dictatorship? Was he a hero to your family?

A: I wasn’t aware of Alexandros until Oriana wrote about him. I studied ancient Greek history but not modern history. Through cousins, I got my hands on the sole biography of Alexandros in Greek. I was appalled at what Greece went through during the military junta, at the suppression and killing of so many innocent people. From my summer home, I can see across the water to Makronissos, which is an uninhabited isle today but is where they exiled dissidents from 1967 to 1974. Alexandros endured five years of torture and imprisonment by the dictatorship. Today there is a statue of him in Athens, but during his lifetime he suffered greatly for freedom.

Q: What drew Oriana to him?

A: His courage. He reminded Oriana of her father, of the heroes of the Resistance in Florence who selflessly fought against fascism. She loved Alexandros’ idealism, his refusal to give in, his belief that everybody is somebody and nobody should be mistreated. They both came from humble roots and had respect for everyday people.

Q: Describe Fallaci’s interview with Ayatollah Khomeini that you discuss in your novel when she removed her chador. Quite a wonderful moment.

A: What’s rarely mentioned is that Khomeini said something to Oriana that caused her to remove the chador. She had gone through hoops to borrow the long, cape-like garment and wear it to meet him, but when Khomeini said that she was not obliged to wear the chador because it was “for young and respectable women,” Oriana took it off. Khomeini jumped up and left the room, but Fallaci didn’t move from the carpet until his son promised to get him back the next day to finish the interview. Oriana’s 50-page introduction to the Khomeini interview is fascinating: she was on standby for 10 days waiting to meet him; she had to “marry” her interpreter to be allowed in the room with men.

Q: Can you talk about her interview with secretary of state Henry Kissinger that you document in the novel?

A: Kissinger kept taking calls from Nixon and interrupting their conversation. Oriana asked if Vietnam had been a useless war and, to her shock, he agreed. She asked him what accounted for his reputation as a Washington playboy — that he was more popular than the President — and Kissinger made the mistake of likening himself to a cowboy who rides into Moscow and Peking all alone to save the day. The editorial pages and cartoonists went nuts characterizing Kissinger as the lone ranger, handling international relations without the help of the President. Obviously, Nixon was peeved. In his autobiography, Kissinger called it his worst conversation with any member of the press.

Q: Was Oriana a feminist?

A: Oriana lived like a feminist before there was a movement. She considered women’s liberation the greatest revolution of her time, but she also believed women should be free to behave any way they wished — to cook meals or not, wear bras or not, live with men or not. Freedom of the individual was her guidepost.

Q: How long did it take you to research and write the book?

A: It took four years to research and write “Oriana,” but 11 years to publication. The process was arduous but typical for a first novel, I think. I worked with two different agents and in the end sold it myself to an independent publisher. I am what they call “unagented,” which sounds ominous, no?

Q: Did you draw on your memory of Greece in the ’70s?

A: Yes, I spent summers a few miles down the coast from where Alekos (Panagoulis) and Oriana met when she interviewed him at his home. Most of what I write is about Greece and Greeks — I can’t help it. My parents were immigrants, I love the country, and I find so many stories there and in the Greek American community.

ANASTASIA RUBIS

Q: What helped you develop the dialogue in the book?

A: From screenplay writing, I’ve gotten practice with dialogue and it comes easily. Oriana had a distinctive voice, so reading her works and watching her on video helped me capture her voice on the page.

Q: Was the Montclair writers’ community supportive over the years? If so, how?

A: Living in Montclair has been invaluable to me as a writer. I got to meet real women who were writing and publishing — and bestsellers, no less. I attended readings at Watchung Booksellers for education and stimulation. I formed a small writing group from my grad school days at Montclair State with friends Janis Hubschman and Dr. Jim Nash. The late Louise DeSalvo was a mentor; Laurie Albanese, who writes historical fiction, and Alice Elliott Dark are great supports.

Q: When did you start writing? Why?

A: I loved to read as a child and that led to wanting to write, but like Oriana, I diverged into a paying job, which for me was advertising and PR. On the side, I wrote novels and screenplays in my 20s and 30s but never sold one. Later, when my father died from cancer and my younger sister did, too, I realized this is it, no dress rehearsal. I left advertising and dedicated myself fully. Being older and wiser today, I have the capacity to withstand rejection, which I didn’t have when I was younger. Now, I don’t take it personally, I just think “next.”

For more information, visit anastasiarubis.com or harpercollins.com/products/oriana.

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