ON A Monday in late October, I trek from my apartment atop the Aventine Hill, across the Tiber River and up the Janiculum Hill to the American Academy in Rome (AAR) to meet with the winner of the 2016 Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize in Literature, one of two eleven-month fellowships in literature awarded by the AAR each year, to learn about the opportunities available to writers hoping to spend their own four seasons in the Eternal City.
Matthew Neill Null, author of Honey From the Lion (Lookout Books, 2015) and Allegheny Front (Sarabande Books, 2016), meets me inside the McKim, Mead, and White building--a century-old villa that serves as the center of the AAR--past the marble-manteled fireplaces of the billiards room, and into the small bar (in Italy, a bar is both coffee shop and pub). Small framed sketches and paintings of past fellows fill the high walls, forming a bright checkerboard of tradition and fame.
"I'm obscure; I'm published by independent presses. There are many other glitzier names out there," Null says, describing how thrilled he was to discover that he had been selected for the Rome Prize by the American Academy of Arts and Letters last year. "This is really the great honor of my life as a writer."
Null notes that many of his literary heroes have written in the work spaces upstairs or relaxed with vino bianco or tea at these same small tables. "Ralph Ellison, Francine du Plessix Gray, Padgett Powell, Sarah Manguso," he says, listing some of his favorites. I lift my glass and sip my Aperol spritz and imagine Ellison's nasal twang--his meld of Oklahoma radio announcer's staccato and public intellectual's Brahmin drawl--holding forth beside us.
Null, who was previously the writing coordinator of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, is here with his wife, writer Tal Zamir, and their one-year-old son, and Null speaks glowingly about the support he and his family have received since arriving in Rome. His stay at the AAR began with a three-week crash course in Italian, intensive language work that has helped him navigate the city and accomplish tasks like submitting his immigration documents at the post office. "The first month was a lot of language classes and day care," Null says. "It was fine to spend the time in the beginning, to take the time to get comfortable in the place, and I'm writing now, so it's good."
Null is at work on a novel about a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (CoE) dam project that flooded a valley and submerged several villages in West Virginia, Null's home state. His grandfather was in the CoE, and in the AAR dining room, Null found himself bonding with Kristi Cheramie, an Ohio State University professor and a fellow in landscape architecture whose grandfather was also in the CoE. Cheramie had researched memorial sites erected by the CoE to commemorate tragic flooding in Louisiana, and her discussions with Null further fueled his enthusiasm for the subject of...