When a writer’s book takes on a life of its own in a foreign country
Six months ago, I woke up to an email in my inbox, written in Italian and addressed to Signora Powell.
I had no idea what the message said. My screen was a random collection of almost recognizable words — felicitazioni, libro, Comunicazione ufficiale, premio — everything on the edge of comprehension, and yet still eluding my grasp.
It was a perfect summary of the strange journey I’ve had this past year in Italy.
In 2018, I published my novel, The Big Disruption, on Medium (and later as a print book). It was Medium’s first book deal, and because I had worked as a VP at Google, there was a lot of attention for the novel, which was a critical but comic look at Silicon Valley.
There were press interviews and podcasts; people saying I was too hard on Silicon Valley, and others saying I wasn’t harsh enough. There were tech pundits who believed I had written a tell-all about Google (even though I had written the book while at a start-up), and others who thought the book was so outlandish that nothing could possibly be true. Everyone wanted to know my opinion on tech censorship, market dominance, and violations of user privacy.
As the person who wrote the book, all the takes felt simultaneously true and false — and also entirely out of my control. I disliked the attention and wished I could be entirely anonymous. I wanted to live my life as normal Jessica, not as Jessica, the pundit with hot takes on the latest Valley controversy.
The good thing is, the media doesn’t focus on anything for all that long. After a few months, people moved on from my book and my life got back to normal.
But then a curious thing happened: an Italian publisher bought the rights to The Big Disruption.
I was charmed by my Italian publisher from the moment they made the offer. Their owner was a leader in Italy’s surrealist poetry movement and their barebones website was a middle finger to modern web commerce. My book would be in real Italian bookstores, but as for Italian Amazon? Well, I was told it’d get there eventually…
To someone who had never thought her scribblings about Silicon Valley would become a novel, having one’s book published overseas was icing on the cake. And to do so in partnership with a surrealist poet? Amazing. I signed immediately.
A whole production began at the publisher’s headquarters in northern Italy, and I felt completely divorced from it, in the very best way. Over the course of a year, I received only one clarifying question from the translator. Later, a beautiful book cover was sent my way. And then came the book itself — thick paper and all those Italian words I didn’t understand but were supposedly mine.
La grande distruzione came out in Italy during the pandemic. Almost immediately I began to get media requests, just as had occurred following the U.S. release. Knowing that no one in Europe was particularly fond of American technology companies, I braced myself for the kinds of tech-critical questions I had received in the US.
I did one interview, then another, and didn’t really think I said anything different from what I had said two years earlier in America. But who knows? The interviews were a bit of a blur, always early in the morning, in between breakfast and Zoomschooling my kids. I remember talking about technology and unintended consequences; at another point I talked about the different regulatory difficulties start-ups face in Europe and the U.S.. It all seemed pretty straightforward.
I didn’t read the published interviews. For one, they were often behind paywalls, or delivered as PDFs that were hard to put through translation software. But also, I had learned my lesson the first time around. I decided it was better to not know how one’s complicated, contradictory feelings towards something that might get simplified in a 500-word article.
Plus, I liked the idea that there was a Jessica who existed in Italy and was separate from me, the Jessica in the U.S.. A Jessica who didn’t have to care about whether a former co-worker hated her for criticizing the technology industry, or if a new co-worker was thinking everything they said to me would become fodder for a new book (side note: I would never do that!).
But soon after those first interviews ran, I received an inquiry from Italy’s largest newspaper:
“We read with interest your recent interview in [Publication X]. Would you consider writing an opinion piece on your theory of ‘slow capitalism’?”
I hadn’t said anything about slow capitalism. In fact, what was slow capitalism? Like…capitalism, but slower? A society that’s less McDonalds and more Olive Garden? A business that screws over the consumer, but takes a long time to write up the invoice?
I was so confused I didn’t write back. But then more requests came. I was asked to write essays; I was invited to address several Italian CEOs in a private roundtable. A leading women’s magazine wanted to know what it was like to be a leading woman.
And then there was that email with the word premio.
It turned out that Italian Jessica, a leading woman and pioneer of slow capitalism, had won a literary award.
It all seemed like a master troll by the literary and publishing elites: “Let’s make this tech worker squirm by dressing her up as a public intellectual. Let’s tell everyone she has found a new way to tackle capitalism!”
But nope, it wasn’t just the publishing folks. The tech folks were in on it too. An Italian start-up blog wrote to me:
“You’ve said before that you don’t care if your start-up ever grows. Can you tell us more about that?”
But I hadn’t ever said that. What founder — or any small business for that matter — would ever say they didn’t want their business to grow?
Just what did people think I had said? What philosophy had I coined? What were Italians (or at least a handful of Italian journalists) looking for in that surreal, pandemic year, and how had I come to represent that idea for them?
Had all of this happened in the U.S. I would have found the misattributions or misinterpretations uncomfortable; the making of myself or my supposed philosophy exaggerated and unnecessary.
But because it has all transpired at a distance, I’ve watched it as though it were happening to someone else — the Italian Jessica. These accomplishments of mine are not wholly mine, happening in a world which I both am and am not a part of.
This past fall, I traveled to Italy for a conference in order to speak alongside European Union Commissioners, Joseph Stieglitz, and, no joke, Dr. Fauci. After participating in a panel on technology, I, a Leading Woman, also addressed the young leaders of the future.
I am pretty certain that I didn’t rise to the occasion or meet the expectations of a public that has given me more credit than I may be due. But I did discover that La grande distruzione is finally available on Amazon Italia. I’m confident that slow capitalism had something to do with that. If I ever meet Italian Jessica, I plan to ask her for an explanation.