There is a photo that lies asleep in the memory of my cellphone. It was taken by a dear friend of mine on a sunny summer afternoon, during a day trip she took with the youngest of my sons. There is a bend in the river, and trees on the bank and on the mountainside, their reflection on the water, along with the reflection of clouds. The other bank is missing – out of the shot. In the background, a man and a woman are resting on a beach surrounded by trees with their rucksacks and towels, too small in that little picture, their faces out of focus.

That river flows in a valley not too far from my village, only an hour’s drive, more or less.

My friend sent me the photo because she wanted to share with me that sunny afternoon, the two of them reaching the river, taking a dip, diving from a rock, swimming in the cold water. I can imagine their laughter, the sound of the river, the sun and the wind on their skin, the cool shade under the trees.

It seems such a beautiful place, quiet and peaceful and still.

Nothing is moving – it’s just a photo, after all – but from the moment I saw it I knew I had a story to tell. A story about the man and the woman resting on the beach with their rucksacks and towels: do they love each other? Are they just friends? Siblings, perhaps? Do they secretly want to split up? Are they waiting for someone? Is someone else watching them, unseen? What are they thinking about? Do they want to run away, or are they about to dive in the river?

I told myself: ‘Someday you’ll write a story set on that beach surrounded by trees’. I’m not saying I’ll do it for sure: I’m just saying that I would love to do it, that today I’m still thinking about it, that something happened when I first saw that photo, when I first saw that bend in the river, that beach.

This is how my imagination works, I suppose: mysteriously, the process of writing always begins with a place. This is the power of places and landscapes – rivers, woods, cornfields, roads, paths, hills, villages, gardens, lawns, houses, a bridge, a factory, an old mine, a creek: they contain stories – dozens of them – as if they were books, and somehow they compel me to tell those stories, to write them down. Just like that beach that lies in the memory of my cellphone, places are my fuel, my inspiration.

But there is much more than that. From the first story I wrote, up until my latest novel, Can you hear me?, places have always been characters. They have always been anything but backdrops. They have their own voices – even their silence is a kind of voice, a beautiful one – their moods and their thoughts, and I can feel them. I need them. I crave them.

Can you hear me? is full of characters because it is full of places. The woods in which Elia and Stefano wander to find an antidote to the boredom and emptiness of summer are characters, as well as the hills, the abandoned cotton mill, the gas station, the old mine, the kitchens and bedrooms and porches.

The creek is a character too, the one I think about more often, as if it were one of the protagonists. When Elia’s father, Ettore, takes the girl to the bank of that creek, one August night, and forces her to sit on a trunk, the two of them are not alone: there is the water, the stones, the mud and the bushes too. There is the waterfall and the slippery rocks. The wind that blows through the leaves and the sound of the waterfall are like a cry. The creek is crying for Ettore, not just for the girl, and I can feel its compassion.

Places have their own nature. Somehow they are able to talk, act and react, even though they might seem so silent and still – in truth, they are full of life: little, barely-perceptible, sometimes invisible movements. They constantly look at other characters and constantly whisper their words into their hearts. Above all, they hide their secrets. They are a mystery, like all of us.

So, let’s go back to the photo that lies asleep in the memory of my cellphone, like an amazing, strange, ancient fish at the bottom of a frozen lake. My friend and my son – he’s only ten years old – don’t know how much it touched me, how often I take my phone, dig in its memory, find that picture and look at it. How could I explain how I feel, the impression of life, the stories that beach whispers to me?

I answered the message she sent me – ‘We’re here and we’re having fun!’ I texted I was happy for them. I wrote: ‘Wow: what a place! I’d like to go there sometime.’ That’s it. Everything else is my secret, the process of my imagination, the voices I imagine to hear, like the cry of the creek, that August night, in Can you hear me?

The man and the woman are still on the beach with their rucksacks and towel, apparently motionless. I’m sure sooner or later they’ll do something and say something, because of that place surrounded by trees. It will make them breathe and move and talk. It will bring them to life. They’ll live there forever, as Ettore – the most hidden part of him – will live forever on the bank of that creek, in the dark, near the water, hearing that place crying and silently responding to it – what a place.

Yes, what a place.

Can you hear me?  is Elena Varvello’s first novel to be published in English, translated by Alex Valente, and is out now with Two Roads Books.

Photo credit:  Federico Botta