Saturday, June 16, 2001
T h e w o n d e r o f y e w
Guido Mina di Sospiro arrives seven minutes late. He telephoned to warn of his delay, but he is mortified. “I am so very, very sorry,” he says, taking my hand. “I am never late.” Beautifully dressed, with a carnation in his buttonhole, Guido is a true gentleman. A Marchese from an ancient Italian family, Guido was a musician, a filmmaker and a reporter before he lived in a vacuum for 12 years in order to write. But having made two films, the first when he was just 19, he fell out of love with Hollywood. He can’t understand how intelligent people can produce the films they do.
“They’ve all sold out,” he says. “People are buried alive. They’re servants of the system.” He hates modern novels too, with all the navel gazing and introspection, so his own book, The Story of Yew, a mystical tale about a 2,000-year-old female yew tree, is scientifically accurate, and is based on years of painstaking research.
An inspiration: The charming writer Guido Mina di Sospiro is both a perfectionist as well as a prolific writer whose life becomes absorbed by the topics of his books.
“I wanted to tell the tale of a matriarch with her offspring, and that’s simple enough. But I had to have botany to be scientifically accurate; natural history because the tree is in Killarney National Park which is a very peculiar place; zoology because there are lots of animal in the park. Irish history, which I adore, and archaeology because it is set at the center of a Franciscan monastery.” And there were the unanswered questions to explore, like why the Romans never invaded Ireland, so much of the book was written using imagination.
“You could say I’m a shaman who comes out of a cave,” says Guido, who hides away to write in his studio in Florida. Explaining that his musical background made him an expert at orchestration, there are four pages of Acknowledgements, listing many of the world’s top botanists and naturalists who helped make the book authentic. “I believe that knowledge is mania,” he says, explaining that by the time he sat down to write his tale, he knew more than the experts.
Guido’s obsession with trees began when he inherited his grandmother’s house on Lake Como, where there are some monumental registered trees.
“An English girl as a guest was pointing out all these trees because the English know their trees and want to show off, saying ‘this is this and that is yew’ and I thought, ‘Oh, that is a good title.’ The pun could be that The Story of Yew is also the story of humankind because it has encroached on their kingdom.”
Looking for the setting for his story, Guido tried England, Wales, and Scotland, before going to Killarney National Park on the advice of Aidan Brady, then Director of Glasnevin, in 1991.
“When I stepped off the train I thought I was stepping into a fairy tale,” says Guido. “It was March. There were no tourists. Cormac Foley showed me round and I thought, ‘Ah, the story is written.’ You had the yew wood, Muckross Abbey, Serpent Lake where St Patrick banished the last snakes, and a castle with two yew trees embracing each other. When I’d finished inspecting and exploring we would go to this pub and this man Danny Cronin, who was 77, would tell me legends and lore for hours and hours on end.”
“Once all knowledge was divulged through stories,” he says. “Like Greek-Roman mythology and the Bible. And from the beginning of the modern world, it’s been essentially non-fiction doing that.” Beautifully produced, with wonderful pen and ink drawings, The Story of Yew is distilled into 146 pages, with a compendium to draw in academics who might be put off by the idea of a story.
Most of the writing of The Story of Yew, was completed by 1991, but there has been much re-writing and polishing since. And meanwhile, Guido has completed another scientifically based book, From the River, as well as an astounding six novels, all based on research. And this prolific output can make him pretty hard to live with.
“Writing From the River, I went into fasting for five months. I was having Cuban coffee, which is very strong, cigars and mangoes. And nothing else.”
Guido’s wife has had to forbid him from socializing when he is editing because he cannot switch off.
“I realize most of what people say should be deleted because it’s so silly. And I’m there remarking out loud, saying ‘that’s not logic’. I can’t help it. You’re cutting 12 hours a day, saying ‘is that comma really necessary?’ and then you go out. About 98% of what people say is unnecessary. Your brain and your soul is working like a Ferrari, and suddenly you’ve got to be a Uno.”