The Written Image: My Brilliant Friend

Jen DeGregorio
From the September/October 2023 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Italian author Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet novels have become an international juggernaut, selling more than 15 million copies in forty-five languages and inspiring adaptations across artistic genres: an award-winning HBO series and several staged productions. Not only popular but critically acclaimed, the books have been reimagined once again as graphic novels, the first one of which, My Brilliant Friend, will be published in English in October by Europa Editions. Italian artist Mara Cerri was tapped to illustrate this latest version of Ferrante’s beloved series. Cerri’s art appears with text adapted from Ferrante’s language by Italian writer Chiara Lagani, translated into English by Ann Goldstein, who also translated the Neapolitan Quartet for Europa. A multidisciplinary creator of animated films, children’s books, and designs for publications such as the Washington Post, Cerri discussed her artistic practice, the challenges of rendering an esteemed novel in images, and her experience working with one of world’s most elusive authors—Elena Ferrante is the pen name of a writer who wishes to remain anonymous. Europa Editions editor Edoardo Andreoni translated Cerri’s comments from the Italian for this interview.

A page from My Brilliant Friend. (Credit: Europa Editions)

Whose idea was it to make a graphic novel version of My Brilliant Friend? How long did this project take from start to finish?
The idea of creating a graphic novel based on Ferrante’s novel came from Giovanni Ferrara, director of Coconino Press in Italy. It was he who made the proposal to me and Chiara Lagani. Giovanni knew that Chiara had adapted My Brilliant Friend for the theater and produced it with her theater company, Fanny & Alexander, and that I had created the animations for the documentary Ferrante Fever, directed by Giacomo Durzi. I believe that Giovanni’s proposal was the natural interweaving of many different threads—something that a perceptive publisher like him would come up with. It took about two years from the initial proposal until the publication of the book by Coconino in 2022. Two very intense years, during which Chiara and I had the opportunity to work alongside people of great professionalism and humanity: Davide Reviati, a cartoonist and illustrator whom I admire immensely and who introduced readers in Italy to the then largely unknown language of comic books; the graphic designer Leonardo Guardigli; and Giovanni Ferrara himself.

I see that you illustrated a children’s book by Ferrante, La spiaggia di notte (Il Baleno, 2007), published in English by Europa Editions in 2016 as The Beach at Night. How did you come to work with Ferrante on that project?
I had read a few novels by Elena Ferrante, Troubling Love, The Days of Abandoment, The Lost Daughter, and the essay collection Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey. I was completely enraptured by Ferrante’s writing. I felt that it vibrated with a profound understanding of reality, one that seemed closely connected to my own life experience. I had already collaborated with Ferrante’s Italian publisher, Edizioni E/O, designing covers for the children’s imprint Il Baleno, which at the time was directed by Giovanni Nucci. Il Baleno was publishing very interesting authors, including one of my favorite authors and illustrators, Wolf Erlbruch. At a book fair in Rome dedicated to independent publishing, Nucci asked me to illustrate Elena Ferrante’s first children’s book, La spiaggia di notte. I also owe this opportunty to Fausta Orecchio of Orecchio Acerbo Editions, who recommended me to Nucci. It was a very important moment in my career. With Sandra Ozzola, the founder and owner of Edizioni E/O, acting as intermediary, I corresponded with Ferrante via e-mail. I wanted to know what her expectations and desires for the book were, and I told her what images came to my mind reading the story, as if to ask her permission. I was happy and excited, but also slightly nervous about the responsibility of illustrating the work of an author I felt was so powerful. At the same time, I felt an entirely new and thrilling sense of freedom.

What was your approach to illustrating My Brilliant Friend? How did you make decisions about the aesthetic of the illustrations, the color palate, and other artistic considerations?
I wanted the line and the technique to have the same quality as the writing, which often feels material and rough. The physicality of Ferrante’s writing was a natural inspiration for me. The close collaboration and dialogue with Chiara, who adapted the text, was fundamental. As a playwright, she has spent her life in the theater. Listening to her talk and read passages from the book gave me further insight into the text. I found great inspiration in her interpretation and her voice, as if I were listening to a “living” script.

The colors of the illustrations are linked to the rhythm of the story; each narrative segment has its own dominant color. The first illustrations are gray and earthy, introducing the reader to the Neapolitan neighborhood. The trip to the sea is drawn in pastel and airy colors. The tunnel that Lila and Lenù go through reveals a different, almost dreamlike world; crossing into it is like a rite of passage and rebirth. The scene of the “smarginatura,” the dissolving of margins, is illustrated with fluorescent and bright colors that cut through the dark sky above the buildings. They are colors that have a narrative and symbolic function. The panels are painted in acrylic and India ink on paper, without digital support.

What do you hope a graphic novel version of My Brilliant Friend can add to readers’ understanding of the original novel? Why make a graphic version of the novel at all?
Because every form of language has the power to reveal new points of view of a story. This is intrinsic in the very nature of comics and graphic novels, since they draw on the symbolic power of images. From the collision between words and images, new narrative circuits are generated, associations that act deeply on the reader. I have been profoundly changed by the experience of illustrating My Brilliant Friend, because somehow the journey made by Ferrante’s characters Lila and Lenù has pierced through me.

You mentioned corresponding with Elena Ferrante for your work on The Beach at Night. What advice did she have for you as you worked on your illustrations for My Brilliant Friend? What is she like?
Coconino Press sent the first twenty drawings for the book to Ferrante via Edizioni E/O, and included a short letter from me and Chiara, asking for her opinion. Her reply was very encouraging; she was happy with the work. I felt an intimate contact, much affection in the way we shared this story.

Can you talk a little bit about your background as an artist?
Reading and drawing were the activities I loved most as a child, something amazing that I could do on my own. When I started working in publishing as an illustrator, I felt that secret joy possessing me again, like an inexhaustible resource. After attending the Urbino Book School, I exhibited my works at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and at the illustration biennials of Bratislava, Slovakia, and Lisbon, Portugal. Since 2002 I have been working as an illustrator of children’s books for some publishing houses in Italy and abroad. I have also published books that I both authored and illustrated: Dentro gli occhi cosa resta (Fatatrac, 2004), A una stella cadente (Orecchio Acerbo Editions, 2007), and Via Curiel 8 (Orecchio Acerbo Editions, 2009). Together with animator Magda Guidi I created an animated short film based on my book Via Curiel 8, produced by Sacrebleu Productions of Paris. Some of the animation sequences from Via Curiel 8 were included in Ferrante Fever. It felt like a natural development, since I had drawn for the short film after reading Ferrante and illustrating The Beach at Night, and there are definitely echoes of Ferrante’s writing in my work.

Directing and designing animated films has always been part of my work as an illustrator. I also made a second short film with Magda, Sogni al campo, presented at the Venice Film Festival in 2020 and coproduced by Withstand Film of Italy and Miyu Productions of France. I was lucky enough to collaborate with wonderful writers such as Paolo Cognetti; author of The Eight Mountains; Andrea Bajani; Nadia Terranova; and Davide Orecchio. The book I created with Terranova, Il segreto, or The Secret (Mondadori Ragazzi Editions, 2021), won two important prizes in Italy: the Andersen Award and the Youth Strega Prize. For a few years, until about 2016, I collaborated with the U.S. illustration agency Riley Illustration, thanks to which I created illustrations for campaigns by United Airlines and Barnes & Noble and for some magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post.

What are your plans as an artist moving forward?
Chiara and I will work on the subsequent books in the Neapolitan Quartet. The second, The Story of a New Name, should be released in Italy in 2024. The stage show based on our graphic novel version of My Brilliant Friend [in which images from the graphic novel are projected on stage while Lagani reads the accompanying text]—called L’Amica geniale a fumetti, or My Brilliant Friend: The Graphic Novel—has been performed in various Italian cities during the last year and will continue touring with Lagani’s Fanny & Alexander theater company. We are considering putting together a Chinese version of the show to accompany the publication of the book in China and hope to do the same in other countries.

In 2024 two other books I illustrated will be published in Italy by Orecchio Acerbo Editions as part of a new series called “I Terremoti.” The authors of the two books are very special to me: Nadia Terranova, the author of The Secret, and film director Alice Rohrwacher, whose movies have touched my soul. For Alice, I’ve already made the poster of her movie Happy as Lazzaro. In the future I hope to work again on animated movies.

Is there anything else that you’d like to share that we haven’t asked you about here, regarding My Brilliant Friend or anything else?
Creating this graphic novel was a fascinating experience because it offered me the possibility of going very deeply into the narrative mechanisms of the novel. It was a great learning experience. Chiara and I are now working on the second book. The challenge is to be able to find a formula for editing the scenes that is authentically derived from the novel but takes advantage of the potential of the graphic form. It is also necessary to take care to do justice to all the major themes of the novel. It’s a beautiful responsibility.


Jen DeGregorio is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.