Niccolò Ammaniti, glass of Campari in hand, confesses to being a chronic idler. "I like to write ten pages, 100 pages. But this is terrible," he states in his endearing second-language English. His Italian publisher has corralled him up from Rome to Milan to finish his new novel under duress. It's been five years since Ammaniti's psycho-drama I'm Not Scared became a modern classic, spawning a celebrated film and hitting the international bestseller lists, and now they're getting impatient.
We meet in the terrace bar of his lakeside residence to discuss his 1999 novel Steal You Away, which has only just been released in the UK. The hotel sits in a suburb nicknamed Milano 2. This is a Berlusconi development and like its owner it is, in Ammaniti's words, "regressing slowly". It's a huge fake-tan toned complex: all piped Euro-pop and uniform apartments. At the next table, a gaggle of pensionable golden girls foghorn gossip, big hair quivering over bigger mouths, to a backdrop of flaking plaster. "There are these holes where the very old ladies fall down and no one remembers for three or four years," Ammaniti laughs with a feral intensity that belies his boyish appearance. "It's the perfect place for the end of the world."
Ammaniti's Italy is one far removed from the tourist tick-list of Venice, Rome and the Amalfi cliffs. Instead he focuses on rural backwaters worn down by poverty and isolation. "I like very much to describe landscapes and places where you go and you're alone," he explains. "You can take a bike and stay in a place that is your place. And I also don't like to talk about the bourgeoisie, they are not very interesting. When you just move your eyes from the centre to the borders you find very interesting stories. I like where people live not very far from a big town like Roma because they have this need... You have a lot of frustration and frustration is the best way to start a story."
In Steal You Away a group of very frustrated dreamers remain anchored to Ischiano Scalo, a small hinterland town bookended by the sea and the Via Aurelia, the motorway that stretches down the Italian coast. There is a Dickensian array of characters but two disparate males come to the fore. Pietro Moroni is an 11-year old crushed by the domestic claustrophobia cooked up by his alcoholic father and mentally disturbed mother. He desperately wants to leave town at the same time that Graziano Biglia returns, intent on settling down. Graziano is an ageing Casanova with a penchant for virgins and listening to the Gypsy Kings: his life is "sex, drugs and... no, you couldn't call it rock'n'roll... and flamenco." Their stories converge to a devastating climax, one that is entirely unexpected, and morally ambiguous.
"I decided to write a story where there is a duel not between the bad and the good but between the two good. Only one can survive," says Ammaniti. He clearly likes his anti-heroes, frequently weaving a seam of black humour into their fate. And the worst is still to come: "In the new book my goal is to write a very horrible man, worse than Graziano. He kills a young girl but if you really stay with this for the whole book you understand why and you feel pity, and this is very important. It's very important for me to write characters, bad characters, yes, but this bad is in all the readers."
The huge success of I'm Not Scared was partly due to its universal theme (a child who has to grow up fast after discovering his parents have the potential for evil), so does he see himself as more than simply an "Italian writer"? "I hope so," he says tentatively, "but it's very important at this moment to describe Italy, because there are not a lot of people who try to do this. The movies and TV here do not want to put problems inside the stories, they are very tranquillising." The political element, Ammaniti concludes, is not something he aims for, but rather a result of the natural flow of storytelling. "For me it's very important to describe a mythology, how the people live and feel and desire, and when you describe this desire, in some way you are also describing a society and a political situation." He sums up his reaction to the end of Berlusconi's reign simply: "I am very happy."
Another source of happiness comes in the unlikely form of a fish tank. If he hadn't made it as an author, he assures me, there was always a future as a fish farmer: "I have six aquariums in Rome. For me it is a passion, sweetwater fish." It takes a bit of brow-furrowing before I translate "sweetwater" into tropical. "You go into a pet shop and you buy them because they're red, or green, or pink and then you put them all inside and there are fish from different parts of the world. Some from East Africa, some from Orinoco, from Brazil, and they start to live together in a very strange way and they change their needs." He could almost be describing Pietro, Graziano and the other breeds of loser that dart around Ischiano Scalo.
His current project examines another kind of bucolic landscape: "where you don't have a sense of where one village finishes and one starts, millions of little concentrations of houses and between them there are factories." And these stark horizons are to be speckled with an angry cast: "These people start to hate, they hate those from another country who take their work in the factories. And if you say they are racist - yes. But why? They are very poor in a very rich country. I wanted to look at this and one other thing," he announces, eyes widening, "I want to look at their strange relationship with God. And this book is somewhere between the hate and the God!" So it's a dark multi-narrative, socio-political, drama with an undercurrent of religious ardour? No wonder he's been taking his time.
With that he springs up like a sprite, heading off to a publisher's meeting. A few minutes later I notice him wandering by the lake, peering into the murky water. Idling, perhaps, or maybe just examining another ominous fishy situation in the name of research.
'Steal You Away' is published by Canongate (£12.99). To buy a copy for £11.99 (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897