Q&A: The journalist who outed bestselling author Elena Ferrante

Photo by Christie Chisholm

One of the great literary mysteries in recent history was apparently solved on Sunday morning. In an article published in the New York Review of Books, Claudio Gatti, an Italian investigative reporter, claimed he had discovered the true identity of best-selling pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante.

Ferrante is best known for a quartet of books, the Neapolitan Novels, whose success has propelled her to great fame even as the author chose to remain anonymous. Gatti pieced together a persuasive case using financial records to point to Italian translator Anita Raja as the writer.

The revelation has been met with outrage–the overwhelming consensus being that the famously private Ferrante didn’t deserve to be outed.

Gatti told CJR his piece was, in part, a response to Ferrante’s latest book, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, which will be published in the US on November 1. In it, Ferrante recounts details about her life that Gatti claims are false. On Monday, Gatti defended his work, speaking to CJR from Rome. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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What drew you to this story, and what was the process you went about to investigate Ferrante’s identity? 

I started as a reader. As an investigative journalist, I tend to read a lot of nonfiction, but I started reading the first of the quartet, and then I read the second the third, the fourth. I loved it.

Then in the last year and a half, every time somebody met me [in New York], and found out I was an investigative journalist, they didn’t ask me about the young prime minister of Italy or if the oldest bank in the world—the Monte dei Paschi de Siena—is going to survive the banking crisis, they asked me only one question: who is Elena Ferrante? 

I really felt this is ridiculous. It can’t be that complicated to find out, so I decided to look into it. I became obsessed when I started reading the Italian version of Frantumaglia, which is coming out in November in the US. This was published after Sandra Ozzola, one of the two owners of the publishing company, wrote an open letter to Elena Ferrante [in 2003] in which she said readers deserve “a more general response, beyond the newspaper interviews [that Ferrante had conducted by email]…Out of a healthy desire on the part of your readers…to know you better.”

Now, I’m accused of violating the privacy of Elena Ferrante? But the first person who violated the privacy of Elena Ferrante was Elena Ferrante! [She] wrote a book that is supposed to be autobiographical and was full of false information.

What’s your response to those who say she’s entitled to her privacy? That she’s not a mafia boss or politician, but just a writer of fiction?

No, she’s not. But she’s a major public figure. Do you know who the Italian minister of the economy is?

No.

Do you know who the CEO of the Italian oil company is?

No.

But you do know who Elena Ferrante is. What I’m saying is, the biggest mystery about Italy from outside Italy is, “Who is Elena Ferrante?” It is a major issue, not that I made it such. When readers buy books by the millions, they have a legitimate desire to know more about who wrote the book. I’m not saying that; Sandra Ozzola said and wrote that.

On November 1st, you are going to have an entire book about her life. She writes about being the daughter of a seamstress from Naples, about having three sisters. Nothing of that is true. So my feeling is they violated the privacy, because you cannot have your cake and eat it too. You are fueling the frenzy, the curiosity about her personal life, by the pieces of information that you are giving, and then you complain when somebody finds the real information. Explain to me how that works?

This isn’t the first example of this sort of reporting. We’ve had mysteries about authors like Joe Klein, who wrote Primary Colors, and Thomas Pynchon. Why do you feel like the reaction to this has been different than in those cases?

I think there is an issue of female readers who saw this as a misogynistic attack. They feel, rightly so, that [Ferrante] is a champion of women’s issues and is a deeply intellectual feminist. They say that I attacked her by exposing her, because she is a woman.

If you know how investigative journalists work, we start with the mystery, not with a target. I wanted to know who Elena Ferrante is. The number-one suspect in Italy was Domenico Starnone [Raja’s husband and an author]. She was the number-two suspect. When I started working on this, I had no idea if Elena Ferrante was a man or a woman, so tell me how I could be misogynistic? I think it is defensive and ideological for many female readers to see a sign of what they experience in their life, which is a misogynistic world, but it has nothing to do with my work.

Do you have any regrets about doing this story?

Absolutely not. None whatsoever. I’m an investigative journalist. All the people that hate me for what I wrote [in my previous investigations] are bad people, and I don’t mind the fact that they hate me.* If Elena Ferrante ends up hating me, I would be sad because I respect her. I like her. I like her work. That’s the sad part, but I don’t regret anything.

I only wish that as much attention had been paid in social media to some of my other investigative pieces, like the one about the extraordinary rendition of an Italian citizen, or about the dominant players in the multibillion-dollar business of smuggling human beings from Africa, or the bribes and kickbacks paid by multinational corporations, or about the possible role of a CIA contractor in arming Islamists in Libya and Syria. But the people who criticize me for wasting my energy investigating a writer never paid any attention to these stories. Now they go crazy because I applied investigative journalism to a more popular issue.

In my second story [about Raja], I found incredible details about family members, about parents sent to the extermination camps. I’m convinced that by doing that, I enhanced the work of art that are the books of Elena Ferrante. You tell me what work of art, any art, has been ruined by knowing more about the author. I believe that normally it is enhanced by knowing who the author is, his or her background, his or her history, his or her cultural references.

My contribution was much larger than just saying it’s Anita Raja, but people only focus on that. I went to Anita Raja and her publishers and told them I found the evidence that she’s the biggest beneficiary of the commercial success of the books. I believe we should talk, because otherwise I will be forced to present the evidence in order to make my point. But she didn’t want to talk to me.

My interpretation is that it’s a male-female issue. I had a debate with a female professor of creative writing on the BBC, and she accused me of being misogynistic. I found it ridiculous because I had no idea who Elena Ferrante is when I started.

It seemed that you went to great lengths to show that the financial benefits with to Raja, and not her husband. Was that something you focused on?

In Italy, at least, many people thought that the two of them wrote the books together. I wanted to say that I’m sure there is a cooperation between them in whatever they do, but that the books were not formally co-authored. 

What about her personal preference to remain private? 

It is her personal preference; we know that. But then if it is, you don’t fuel the frenzy with Frantumaglia, you just say “I’m sorry, I’m not giving interviews.” But no, they talk, they give interviews, they write a fictional autobiographical book, and then they say, “I want to keep my privacy.”

Explain to me how knowing that Elena Ferrante is Anita Raja would change anything for readers. I really don’t get it. Why would it change anything? People read the books because they are fascinated by them. I don’t see what argument she could have to claim that she needed to be out of the public eye to write fiction. She had no reason to hide anything. I’ve proven that there is no autobiographical information in any of her books. How can the ability of Ferrante to capture the inner lives of women in any way require her to be shielded from the public sphere?

*The bracketed text was not part of the original interview. After publication, Gatti contacted CJR to explain that he had meant to refer to people who hated him for his past reporting; the words in brackets were added at his request.

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Pete Vernon is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.