Roland Merullo's Blog

January 6, 2020

On Rewriting

I always find it much harder to put together a readable draft than to polish and edit it once it's on the page. The former feels to me like pushing a big round boulder up a steep incline, and the latter like pushing it across a flat plateau once I've gotten it up there.

I know that a lot of writers have a resistance to rewriting. I understand that. It takes great patience, and a tolerance for 'hearing' your own words over and over again. (I have a chapter on that in my small writing-advice book Demons of the Blank page). And it's so easy to have a 'this-is-good-enough' mindset.

But 'good enough' isn't that appealing to agents and editors, and probably not as memorable to readers. It would be like spending months or years crafting a beautiful rocking chair and then not bothering to sand or finish the wood.

I'm in the midst of editing another WWII novel, set in Italy, like Once Night Falls, but in Naples rather than Lake Como. The research was fun; Naples is a wonderful place. The assembling of the story was a minor nightmare of infinite possibilities and the need to stay close to historical facts, but the polishing is a pleasure. I go very slowly, checking details, making small adjustments, adding, changing, cutting.

The sad truth is, we could continue to polish forever. At some point, you have to let the book go. When I get to where I'm taking commas out on one read-through and putting them back in on the next, I know I'm finished.
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Published on January 06, 2020 11:21 Tags: italy, novel, rewriting, wwii

December 28, 2019

Behind the Book: A Russian Requiem

A Russian Requiem by Roland Merullo
It all started in ninth grade. I moved from Revere public schools to St. John's Prep in Danvers, Massachusetts, and for reasons known only to God and the administrators there, was given, as one of my five subjects, Russian Language. I remember getting my list of courses and being puzzled. Russian? I hadn't signed up for Russian! I'd struggled with French in junior high; Russian sounded so much harder.

That turned out to be true. I was a terrible Russian student at St. John's, and later at Phillips Exeter, and even later at Boston University and Brown. But I loved the literature so much that I kept going, and ended up majoring in Russian Studies and getting a Master's in Russian Language and Literature.

Still, even after nine years of study, I couldn't speak well at all. But I'd put in so much time that I figured it would make sense to try to go to the country where the language was spoken. Maybe I learned better that way, living the language rather than studying it.

My wonderful grad school advisor, Dr. Victor Terras, told me about a program run by the United States Information Agency, a branch of the State Department. The USIA put together traveling cultural exchange exhibits in the USSR and they were looking for Russian-speaking American guides.

It doesn't sound like much, "traveling cultural exchange exhibit", but it was actually a very successful anti-propaganda campaign, and the exhibits themselves were like traveling museums. In those years (my first tour was in 1977 when Brezhnev was running the country), the Soviet government had extremely tight control over information that reached its citizens. With precious few exceptions, Soviets could not travel abroad. At home, the media depicted America, and the West in general, as a version of hell where police were constantly beating students, where blacks and white could not sit down at the same table, where the streets were littered with homeless men and women, where only a tiny group of Capitalists lived well, and the rest of us were a step above slavery.

Our exhibits, meant to counter that propaganda and allowed because we paid the Soviets in dollars, (a convertible currency), were huge, expensive affairs, sometimes as much as 50 container loads of displays and equipment, 10,000 square feet of various exhibits centered on a particular theme of American life.

I was hired for Photography USA, which had everything from a portrait gallery, a working darkroom, a circular slide-show, Polaroid SX-70s and other exotic-at-the-time photo equipment. It was manned by 25 Russian-speaking American guides, of which I was one. We helped set up the exhibit in Ufa, a city about 900 miles east of Moscow, and 15,000 people a day came through the doors to gawk at an America they had never read or heard about, and to fire questions at the guides.

My Russian was shaky at first, but we worked six days a week for six weeks in each of three cities, answering questions asked by a circle of visitors sometimes three and four-deep around each guide, and we often went out with Soviet friends at night, so it improved quickly. After that eight-month tour, I was called back again in 1987-88 to work as General Services Officer - basically overseeing set-up and take-down, customs clearance, and security - on Information USA, and then, in 1989-90 as Field Director of Design USA (a show that included a rotating red Chevy Corvette, a working graphic design studio, an American kitchen and lots of other beautiful stuff).

Amanda came with me on those last two tours, and did a lot of video and photo work for the show. She also taught herself Russian by walking around the streets taking pictures and talking to people and listening to guides on the stand!

It's hard for us to overstate the impact of those tours (28 months for me, over a thirteen-year stretch). We met some of the bravest, kindest, and most memorable people we've ever known, exhibit visitors who were willing, at great risk, to have us as guests in their homes, to feed us meals that cost them a week's pay or more, to give us gifts, thank us for our work. We saw, first- hand, both Soviet communism and, in the later tours, the death of Soviet communism. We stayed in Soviet hotels, ate in Soviet restaurants, vacationed between cities in Soviet resorts. We saw the country from Leningrad to Irkutsk, from Ufa to Tashkent, from Tbilisi to Kiev to Novosibirsk.

By the time of the third tour I'd already had a book accepted by Houghton Mifflin, so it seemed natural for me to write about the USSR. In 1991 I started a novel that became A Russian Requiem. It was bought by a man at Grove Press who was considered the dean of American literary editors, Alan Williams - he'd edited such luminaries as Saul Bellow - but he resigned while the book was in production. My agent moved me to Little, Brown, my editor there resigned or was fired the day the book came out, and it sold poorly and never went into paperback.

It's a fairly complicated novel - a lot of suspense, a lot of characters with Russian names - but some people (my well-read mother for one) consider it my most literary and best-wrought work. I can't say.

All I can say is that I tried to put into it everything I'd seen, felt, and experienced in the former USSR - all the beauty, all the horror, all the eccentric characters, and at the same time tried to say something about communism, and capitalism, and America, and love, and fear.

I hated Little, Brown's cover, though. Some years ago PFP reissued the novel, with a beautiful cover photo taken by Amanda, and I've had some nice notes from readers since then. It's very different from the Revere books and the Buddha books, but I've always tried to write about what I care about. And in the early nineties, our time in the Soviet Union had left an indelible mark, and so, when I went to the well, what came up was Russian water.

In 2010 we were fortunate enough to be invited back to Russia by my good friend John Beyrle. John and I had been guides together. He'd moved on to the Foreign Service, eventually becoming US Ambassador to Bulgaria and then to Russia. All four of us went - the girls were 12 and 8 at that point - and we stayed for five nights in the Metropol Hotel, where I'd stayed as a guide, and then, thanks to John's generosity, five more nights in Spaso House, the Ambassador's residence.

The city had changed to the point where it was all but unrecognizable, but we still found the Russian sincerity and generosity, and, for the girls, it was the experience of their young lives. I don't know if I'll ever go back again. My Russian is as rusty as an old hoe left out in the yard for three winters, and it's very sad for me to see the way Putin has dragged the society back into the past.

But I still speak Russian in my dreams once in a while, and still remember some great train rides and vodka-sweetened nights. So . . . maybe. And maybe there will be another book about the place, a little more water in that well.
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Published on December 28, 2019 15:15

December 19, 2019

Behind The Book: Leaving Losapas

Leaving Losapas tells the story of a Vietnam veteran who chooses to live in the Pacific islands after his tour ends, rather than coming home.

Leaving Losapas by Roland Merullo

As many of you know, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Micronesia in 1978. I went there with high and altruistic hopes, and ended up on a tiny atoll you could walk around in fifteen minutes. Way off in the distance, you could see one other small island; the rest was ocean and sky.

There were no other volunteers on my island, and no other Americans - which wasn't a problem for me. But there was absolutely nothing to do, which was a big problem. I hadn't gone into the Peace Corps to have an adventure; I'd gone to help people. It turned out that the people on this island needed very little help, and the kind of help they needed - medical care, mostly - I wasn't equipped to provide (though I did help save the leg of a young man who'd cut himself to the bone with an accidental swipe of the machete).

So I spearfished for hours every day, made circuits of the island as if it were a running track, started to carve a chess set, did battle with the coconut rats that invaded my rooms at night, contracted intestinal worms and terrible ear and prostate infections, but otherwise just sat around in the tropical heat for hours on end. I am not good at doing nothing, especially in tropical heat and humidity.

A field-trip ship came every couple of months with mail and medicine, but there were long stretches between those visits and eventually the boredom and the sense that I was wasting my life became too much for me. I gave away my snorkeling gear, took one of these ships to the main island, refused the Peace Corps' offer for reassignment to another country, and flew home.

I moved in with Amanda - we've been married for 35 years - in a ratty apartment in Allston, Massachusetts, a part of Boston.

(Please see "Low-Rent Rendezvous" from Revere Beach Elegy: A Memoir of Home & Beyond. )

Revere Beach Elegy A Memoir of Home and Beyond by Roland Merullo

I did various things to make money - drove a cab, loaded trucks, did temp work, made phone calls for St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital. And in my spare time I went to the Allston Public Library and wrote with a BIC ballpoint and a yellow legal pad.

I had carried a lot of health problems home from paradise. I had no health insurance, very little money, and I was disappointed in myself - ashamed, really - for having quit the thing I'd been dreaming about doing for a long time. Writing, and the dream of one day publishing a book, was an anchor that kept me from floating out into Boston Harbor on a tide of discouragement. I spent hours and hours and hours in that library - a very noisy place! - trying to write about the amazing things I'd seen in Micronesia, trying to describe a world that was all but untouched by human 'development'.

A year or so later, in the fall of 1979, just before we got married, we moved to Martha's Vineyard so Amanda could take a job teaching Spanish at the high school there. I found work with a carpenter - but only three days a week, so I would have time to write. After one difficult school year, and one bleak island winter, we decided Martha's Vineyard wasn't for us and we moved up to Williamstown, Massachusetts, where I coached the Williams College men's freshman crew team (for no money!) and Amanda found work first as a waitress, then as a bartender, and finally as a photographer at the Clark Art Institute.

I started my own handyman business, which was so unsuccessful at first that I had plenty of time to write - in the Williams College Library this time, or in our cold apartment wearing my down jacket. At one point I was so discouraged, and still so sick, physically, that I took the 400 pages I'd written since coming back from the islands, carried them around to the dumpster behind our humble, unfurnished, and freezing apartment, and threw them away.

Do I regret doing that? YES!

But through carpentry I met a wonderful man named Michael Miller. Michael had been in the Marines and had never gone to college, but he was - and is - one of the best-read people I've ever known. While doing a small job on the house where he lived with his wife and infant son, I told him I was trying to write, something I revealed to almost no one in those days.

He offered to read what I was writing - mostly poetry and essays then. One night a week for several years we went out for a beer or a meal and talked about books. He read and marked up my pages, and he was nothing if not honest: He'd X out whole pages and scribble "BULLSHIT!" at the top. Or he'd circle a paragraph and write, "You have a great gift!" He recommended books and films, and kept telling me that, even though I was in my thirties, I wasn't too old to make a career of writing. Lots of writers hadn't published their first book until middle age or older.

He was, in other words, a kind of angel, an incredibly generous and wise man who taught me about writing and about life. (You might like his new book of poetry, Lifelines , published by Pinyon).

As, error by error, I learned the trade, my one-man carpentry business became more successful. Amanda was hired at the Clark. We bought a four-room house, two miles down a dirt road in nearby Pownal, Vermont. I'd come home after a day banging nails, have dinner, wash the dishes, then go down into a corner of our unfinished basement and write until I was too tired to go on. We had a dog we loved, a house of our own; we were putting money away, but I was pretty much obsessed by the idea, that impossible dream, of making a living as a writer.

After one of our beers - at the Williams Inn - Michael said to me, "You should write a novel."

"Michael," I told him, "I can't get a story or a poem published. I can't even get a ten-line "tip" published in a carpentry magazine to earn twenty-five bucks, and you're telling me to write a novel!"

"Well, some people are sprinters and some people are long-distance runners," he said. "Maybe you're a long-distance runner."

Those words made a huge difference in my life, though I kept sending out essays and poems and "tips" and getting back nothing but rejections. In January of 1984, I had a funny little essay published in the "My Turn" column of Newsweek. I was paid $1,000 for that piece - a spoof on the number of television replays during a football game - which was more than I made in a month of building decks and hanging doors.

That bit of success and Michael's advice encouraged me to start the book that would become Leaving Losapas. I set it in Micronesia, on an island very much like the one where I'd served, but I didn't want to have the main character be a Peace Corps volunteer.

In February of that year, using some of the thousand bucks (Amanda and I used another part of it to take a vacation in Puerto Vallarta; plane flights were cheaper then.) I made a trip to Chico, California, to see a Peace Corps friend, Russ Hammer. While I was there (helping him out at his streetside flower stand during the busy Valentine's Day rush) I read a very small article in the local paper about Vietnam veterans who were living up in the Sierras.

Probably because of what they'd been through in Southeast Asia, these men wanted nothing to do with society, but chose to live in a way not so different from the way the Micronesians live: they hunted and fished and grew food. I'd had two cousins who fought in Vietnam; the plight of returning vets had a special emotional resonance for me. And so I decided that would be the reason why my main character, Leo Markin, was living on a tiny atoll in the Central Pacific.

In 1986, having ruptured a disc in my lower back, and working in constant pain (Anyone ever had sciatica? Anyone ever tried to do carpentry for eight months while having sciatica? Fun!), I decided to try something crazy and convinced Amanda to go along. I sold my truck, she took a leave of absence from the Clark, I took out every penny I had in the bank and we went to live in Mexico for three months so I could finish the novel and let the back heal (I did, it didn't).

We lived in five-dollar-a-night fleabag hotels, were a bit hungry at times, but she kept busy taking photos, and I kept busy pounding out the last part of the first draft of my book on a manual typewriter we'd bought there. We spent a month each in Merida, San Luis Potosi, and Mazatlan, had a few adventures, met some nice people, and came home broke.

But I had a finished book.

Back surgery in 1987 effectively ended my carpentry career and I will always be grateful to my friend, Peter Grudin ( Right Here )- someone I also met through carpentry - who lent me his only computer during my recuperation, and taught me how to use it. He's been a supporter of my writing for almost thirty years now.

Right Here by Peter Grudin

I'm grateful, also, to another carpenter/writer, the novelist Dean Crawford ( The Lay of the Land , who offered to introduce me to his agent, Susan Lescher.

The Lay of the Land by Dean Crawford

At that point - early 1987 - I was called back to work on USIA exhibits in the former USSR. Amanda left her job and joined me on that thirteen-month adventure, and, hoping that Susan would agree to take me on, I worked on polishing the book in my few off hours.

We were still over there, behind the Iron Curtain, when she took me on as a client. When we returned home - it was the fall of 1988 by this point, and I'd been working on Losapas for four years, from Mazatlan to Moscow - we moved to the house where we currently live, on a paved road in the hills of Western Massachusetts. One fine Friday afternoon Susan called to say that an editor at Houghton Mifflin had read the first half of the book and loved it. He promised to read the rest over the weekend and let us know on Monday.

On Monday she called with the bad news that the editor didn't like the second part very much and wasn't going to make an offer. That was probably the most disappointing phone call of my life. "But," Susan said, "and this is unusual, he liked the first part enough to say he'd be happy to talk about the second half with you if you want to give him a call. I know you're disappointed, but I think you should take him up on that."

It took me a full day to recover and to build up the courage, but then I called the editor - John Sterling - and he mounted a very convincing argument as to why the second half of my novel didn't work. He said he'd be willing to consider it again if I rewrote it.

So I did.

It was a huge, difficult, and complicated rewrite, that took six months and every ounce of self-belief I had. When I finished, I naively carried the manuscript to the Houghton Mifflin office on Park Street and handed it over in person - to a secretary who, sensibly enough, wouldn't let me go upstairs.

Four months later, John Sterling invited me to Boston and made a very low offer on the book ($7,500), but it felt like five hundred thousand to me. He introduced me to the woman who would edit it, Janet Silver. I left the offices and floated around the city on a cloud. Janet did a wonderful job, as did the publicist, Lorie Glazer. The book came out in 1991, had great reviews all over the country, an embarrassingly nice blurb from one of my literary heroes, Robert Stone, ( A Flag For Sunrise but it sold modestly, only about 6,000 copies in hardcover.

A Flag For Sunrise by Robert Stone

I'd always thought I'd be "all set" once I had a book published, that I could, as the saying goes, quit my day job. That wasn't the case. But I'd worked on that book for six and a half years, at times holding to the thinnest filament of dream. Amanda had been amazingly supportive - as she still is - during that time, and, though I wouldn't be able to 'quit my day job' for another ten years, that day was the start of something.

I always mark that date - June 29th - with a dose of gratitude and a bit of pride, and remind myself of Churchill's famous dictum: Never, ever, ever surrender.

Well, that's the truncated version of a much longer tale. I hope it's of some interest - maybe to the writers among you.
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Published on December 19, 2019 09:27

December 15, 2019

Fighting for justice without giving in to hatred is an extremely difficult moral challenge

[An excerpt from the December 2014 Newsletter]

Wherever you pitch your tent in our politically and socially divided land, and whatever holiday you celebrate in the last weeks of the year, I extend my warmest thoughts to you for an enjoyable season and a healthy and peaceful New Year.

For us, the holiday is Christmas. I like the lights and the music and the traditions, and I've always liked the stories associated with the religious aspect of the season - Christ's humble birth, the mysterious intuition of the three wise men, angels and shepherds and happy new parents who are also, maybe, a little bit afraid. Of course, our crazy commercial appetites have taken the wise men's reverent generosity and turned it into things like the stampedes on Black Friday and the financial pressures of showing our kids we love them by showering them with the gift-of-the-year and assorted other things nobody really needs.

But somehow, within the foolishness of all that, I am able to hold onto a scrap of quiet satisfaction. I was raised among generous, fun-loving relatives and I like giving things to people I care about. I don't mind the holiday gatherings as much as I used to. Food, family, friends, a glass of vodka, time off from work for most of us - it's hard to be a Scrooge about those things.

Not so hard to be Scroogish about, or at least upset by, the news in the latter part of this year. However you look at the events in Ferguson, Staten Island, and Cleveland, it's obvious that, so many years after the abolition of slavery, we haven't yet been able to make a true, deep, and lasting peace across the national racial divide. Of late, I've also been more aware than usual of the male-female divide, the liberal-conservative divide, the rich-poor divide, and of a swelling tide of anger in the country I care so much about.

"Why so angry?" Rinpoche asks Otto in Breakfast with Buddha, and I've been pondering that same question a lot these days.

Are there legitimate grievances involved, real reasons for anger in those areas?

Yes, obviously and of course.

Is violent anger and hatred productive? Does it actually move us in a direction of addressing those grievances?

I don't think so.

I think it deepens the divides - all of them - alienates the "Other", whoever that other might be, and while it seems, in the moment, a perfectly legitimate outlet for the frustration that comes from generations of inequity, I don't see any evidence that violence, fury, divisive speech, revenge, or hatred moves us so much as a millimeter in the direction of a just, peaceful, harmonious society.

I'm not advocating the idea that if we all simply smile at each other everything will be fine.

Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Aung San Suu Kyi, the brave Soviet/Russian dissidents of years past and times present, workers who risked and sometimes lost their lives so that we'd have decent wages and safe working conditions, women who broke old stereotypes so that - for one small example - my daughters are now able to participate in sports programs and aspire to every kind of career and lifestyle - they are all examples of people who had real grievances and who found the courage to stand up and bring about change.

But when those movements toward fairness take on a cargo of hatred or divisiveness, my own sympathy for the cause is eroded.

Fighting for justice without giving in to hatred is an extremely difficult moral challenge. I listen to talk radio sometimes on my late-night trips home from a speaking event, and the mockery, ridicule, name-calling, divisiveness, convenient bending of the truth, and brutally one-sided thinking makes me have to wrestle with my own anger. It makes the Loud Ones feel good, that kind of talk. There's often the stink of the bully to it, the urge for power, victory, vengeance, the need to have an Enemy. There's a satisfaction in feeling that you and your cronies are right, and that the oppressive Other is the cause of every wrong.

I try, in my own work and despite my own failings, to be a force acting against all of that. I have white characters marrying black characters ( In Revere, In Those Days) and loving brown characters (Leaving Losapas). I have people with old-school mindsets struggling to be open to the full humanity of a homosexual child (Revere Beach Boulevard). I have caring and strong men and brave handicapped women (A Little Love Story). I have people struggling with addiction (The Return). I have Jesus coming to earth and running for president on a platform that tries to respect both right and left and foster dialogue (American Savior). I have strong women (Fidel's Last Days, Vatican Waltz, A Russian Requiem) and people trying to climb out of the grip of abuse and poverty (The Talk-Funny Girl). I have, I hope, open-minded and respectful discussions about spirituality (Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner with Buddha), and I try to put in a measure of humor (Golfing with God, Taking the Kids to Italy, The Italian Summer, and others) because humor can be medicine for the sometimes self-righteous attitudes that plague us.

I have the good, the bad, and the ugly, but, like most serious novelists I try to make them individuals, not clichés, not types, not representatives of a certain gender, race, or class, but actual, complicated, human individuals. I try to see the world that way, too: each person a human being first, and then woman or man or black or white or Asian or Hispanic or Native American or straight or gay or liberal or conservative only as a secondary characteristic.

I do battle, in my books - and in real life - with my own prejudices and slanted attitudes, my own assumptions and close-mindedness, the limits of my own empathy and courage. That battle is what life is about, it seems to me, or at least a big part of what life is about. I try to laugh at myself on occasion, try to feel others' pain to the extent humanly possible. And, even in times like these, maybe especially in this season, I try hard to avoid oversimplifying the massively complex predicament that is human life and to avoid the false salve of finding someone else to blame for all America's troubles.

Wherever you stand in that conversation, whichever ring in the human circus you inhabit, I send - in this season and beyond - an abundance of good wishes to you all.
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Published on December 15, 2019 09:00

December 9, 2019

Writers' Conference in Italy

If you are interested in being part of our second annual Orvieto Writers’ Conference, please email me at Roland@RolandMerullo.com.

The conference will run for six nights and seven days, from May 28 to Jun 3, 2020, and will be held at the beautiful Locanda Rosati, an agriturismo, or Italian country inn, just outside the marvelous small city of Orvieto, an hour north of Rome.

The Locanda offers simple, elegant rooms with air conditioning, linen service, and free Wi-Fi, along with three delicious meals each day—a buffet breakfast with fruit, yogurt, coffee of choice, cakes, cereal, eggs, etc. A lunch buffet that is usually a variety of vegetarian dishes, salads, sometimes pizza. And a phenomenal four-course dinner with appetizer, pasta course, meat course, and dessert. There is unlimited local white and red wine at both lunch and dinner, and the Locanda’s chef can prepare meals for people with various dietary preferences and restrictions— vegetarian, gluten free, vegan, etc.

There is a full-size outdoor swimming pool, sitting rooms, two patios, and very nice grounds.

In addition to the food and lodging, the conference fee includes optional meditation and yoga classes every morning, one wine tasting at a nearby vineyard, and four hours of daily writing workshops held, weather permitting, outdoors, in an ivy-covered arbor on the property.

* One morning during the week will be devoted to a talk on the intricacies of publishing, given by Emma Sweeney—just retiring from decades as a premier New York literary agent. During the afternoon, she will meet one-on-one with writers to answer questions about the publishing process.

* Morning workshops will be run by Roland Merullo (see RolandMerullo.com)

* Afternoon workshops will be run by Robert Braile (former Boston Globe book critic and long-time environmental journalist for the Globe, the New York Times, and numerous other publications. Bob has taught at Dartmouth College, Phillips Academy, The Goddard Writing Workshops, and The Waring School). He was with us in the 2019 conference, and is a superb and beloved editor and teacher.

Writers of all levels of ability and experience are welcome. We will meet you where you are. The atmosphere is relaxed and always respectful, but there is also serious writing advice for those who want it. We occupy the entire Locanda (11 rooms) and have dinner every night at a long table. Comments from last June’s writers are available.

Airfare to Rome and train fare between Rome to the Orvieto station (about $10) are your responsibility. We will give you travel advice, pick you up at the station on the first day, return you there on the last day, and drive you back and forth to Orvieto during free hours if you wish to take advantage of the sightseeing and shopping there (great ceramics and white wine). Non-writing spouses/friends/significant others/adult children are most welcome—at a reduced rate—and can participate in all activities except the workshops.

For fees and further information, kindly drop me a note at Roland@RolandMerullo.com. At the present time, we are already half full, and people will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. I’ll hope to see you in Italy.

You can see:
- the inn here: https://www.locandarosati.it
- and the city here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orvieto
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Published on December 09, 2019 16:00

December 6, 2019

Grateful For The Gifts In Our Midst

[written for the Boston Globe July 2013]

I find myself wondering why we don’t have a Children’s Day, one unofficial holiday that formalizes our appreciation for the non-adults among us. Maybe the card and gift companies just haven’t thought of that yet. Maybe most parents are still emotionally and financially depleted from the materialistic orgy that used to be known as Christmas. Or maybe we feel we already spend enough of our waking hours acknowledging our children: driving them to ballet class or hockey practice, regulating their use of a baffling array of electronic devices, guarding them against insult, illness, and failure, or simply earning enough money to feed and clothe them.

On most days, you don’t have to look very hard to find examples of parental affection. In a café last month, killing time before picking up one of my daughters from school, I watched a new mother carrying her small son around the room. He was a restless little guy, inquisitive and energetic, and you could see, in the way the woman held and looked at him, the very essence of love. On the soccer sidelines, most mothers and fathers are encouraging and proud, having taken time away from household chores, golf, work, or recreational shopping to stand there and watch their kids burn through the unrenewable energy source we call youth.

That same love is painfully obvious in the lives of single parents and those working multiple jobs, in mothers and fathers with handicapped children, and in the pediatric hospital corridors. Any mom, dad, uncle, or aunt who’s ever experienced a very sick child, or, worse, a chronically or critically ill one, knows how the brutal mystery of life’s apparent unfairness rips at the insides.

That awful feeling is nothing less than the tearing of the fibers of love’s flesh. It’s a torment second only to the torment of losing a son or daughter. It’s also a tangible measure of how much we care.

Then, of course, there are those who don’t care so much. We’ve all seen them. There are fathers and mothers who have everything they need in the way of material goods and yet choose a lifestyle that minimizes time spent with their children. Some parents hit, some scream, some criticize mercilessly, some flee the responsibility entirely, and some just don’t pay attention.

To one extent or another we all take out our insecurities, dissatisfactions, and unfulfilled needs on our kids: They’re easy targets. We dislike our body, our job, our spouse, our debts, our boss, or our own mother or father, and that sly anguish gets passed along in ways that are hidden or all too obvious.

In “The Drama of the Gifted Child,’’ psychologist Alice Miller writes, “Only if we become sensitive to the fine and subtle ways in which a child may suffer humiliation can we hope to develop the respect for him that a child needs from the very first day of his life onward if he is to develop emotionally.”

The Drama of the Gifted Child The Search for the True Self by Alice Miller

And yet, children are continually being humiliated — by bullies in the classroom and by overbearing parents, coaches, and teachers. The ultimate example is the plague of sexual abuse, a societal sickness, a planetary disgrace, a blight on our collective spiritual life that has consequences so deep and far reaching we can’t begin to measure them. Somehow, most children survive, physically and otherwise, and stand among us like monuments to human resiliency.

This isn’t a call for “helicopter parenting,’’ or for the kind of self-indulgence that encourages catering to a child’s every whim and behavior. That’s not love; that’s laziness. Or, more precisely, it’s the parent hoping to salve his or her own wounds by trying to protect the child from every pain, real and imagined.

There is no such thing as completely protecting our children from pain. But there is such a thing as taking them for granted. So maybe, despite the ways in which the card and gift companies would surely corrupt it, Children’s Day isn’t such a bad idea after all — one day a year to do more explicitly what many of us do all the time: be grateful for this gift in our midst.
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Published on December 06, 2019 20:10

December 2, 2019

A Deeper, Subtler, Type Of Satisfaction

Thirty-five years ago, in 1984, I was making my living running a one-man carpentry business in Williamstown, Massachusetts. A few years earlier, my father had found me an old Sears van at auction and had it fixed up and repainted. In that van I carried around a modest collection of tools from six months working with a carpenter on Martha's Vineyard during the one awful winter we lived there, and four years of intermittent odd jobs and small projects, after each one of which I'd try to buy a new tool. I had a regular ad in the local newspaper that brought in enough work to let me pay my share of the bills (Amanda was bartending then at a restaurant that no longer exists, The River House, in Williamstown. We'd just bought our first house - for $40,000 - a four-room cape two miles down a dirt road, just over the border in southwestern Vermont). I took whatever offers came along: painting, decks, steps, shingling, simple repairs, easy tile jobs, even a bit of masonry and roofing.



One evening that summer I had a call from a woman who told me her name was Nancy Doherty. She said she lived in a big house on South Street that needed work. Could I come over and take a look and maybe give an estimate?

It turned out that Nancy was married to Joe McGinniss, the famous author of, among other books, THE SELLING OF THE PRESIDENT. The house they lived in, a gracious and rambling old creature, had carpenter ants in the raised back deck and a lot of structural rot there. It was a fairly big job, by my standards, and I was glad to have the work.

The Selling of the President by Joe McGinniss

By then I had been writing seriously for about seven years and desperately wanted to make a career as a writer. But, I never used that word in describing myself; the dream of the writing life meant too much to me.

One of my rules was that I would never say I was a writer until, or unless, I published a novel. And another of my rules was that I would try not to 'use' people, that I'd avoid making the acquaintance of well known writers just for the purpose of cultivating contacts in the publishing world.

So, though Joe and I had a number of conversations during the weeks I spent fixing up his house, I never mentioned my secret passion. He was working hard on the book that would become FATAL VISION, a tragic story that became a big bestseller and ended up making him and Nancy some real money. But he was worried about money then, and worried, I think, about his career, and on breaks from his desk, he'd come outside and talk to me about the book, and I could tell it was a very difficult time for him, a very difficult book to get right under that kind of pressure.

Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss

I finished the job late that summer and, in October, got word that I'd been invited to the Edna St. Vincent Millay artists' colony in Austerlitz, New York. One full month of lodging, food, and a place to write, all expenses paid. It was the first piece of news I'd had that made me think I might actually have a shot at becoming a published writer. Before that, with one or two exceptions, I'd had nothing but a long list of rejections and many hours of doubt.



The residency was scheduled for February. I wrote longhand in those days, then typed up the manuscripts on an electric typewriter. The day I left for the Millay Colony I went down to the stationery store in Williamstown and bought some supplies. As I was leaving I happened to bump into Joe. He asked me what I was doing. I told him about the Millay invitation and he seemed both surprised and sincerely pleased for me. "When you finish the novel, let me take a look," he said.

I did send him an early draft of the novel and he did read part of it, but I didn't hear much beyond a short, encouraging note.

Thirty years ago, in June of 1989, that same novel, LEAVING LOSAPAS, was finally accepted. I'd been working on it for five years by then, and been working at writing - mostly at night and on weekends - for eleven years. The editor at Houghton Mifflin asked if I knew any writers who might provide a blurb. I mentioned Joe's name, and Joe was generous enough to read the finished book and give me a beautiful quote for the jacket. From that point on we stayed in touch fairly regularly. In January of 1993 he turned down a teaching job at Bennington College, but recommended me for the position, and I ended up teaching Literature and Writing there, meeting some very fine students and fellow teachers, before resigning in protest of faculty firings at the end of 1999.

Leaving Losapas by Roland Merullo

Joe was a complicated guy, as the saying goes, and he made some mistakes in his life and career. (Who among us, upon honest reflection, has not?) But he was also a superb writer, a big-hearted guy, a fan of the underdog, a doer of many favors, and I was certainly one of the beneficiaries of his kindness. He died a few years ago and Nancy asked me to be one of the people who spoke at the memorial service in New York. I was honored, naturally, and I hold onto a lot of good memories connected to that day, and to Joe and Nancy.

I remember certain things he said over the course of our acquaintance. One comment in particular sticks in my mind, because my novel, ONCE NIGHT FALLS, was released yesterday by Lake Union Publishing.

Once Night Falls by Roland Merullo

"On the day your book gets published," Joe said, "You expect a parade to go by your house. Fire engines, marching bands, the whole show. But that doesn't happen."

These days, after twenty plus publications, I understand what he meant by that remark. It's not that I take a new publication for granted. I don't. Just the opposite, in fact: you've put months or years into the book, you've gone through all the various stages: the agent sends it out, you wait for news, you get bad news, and terrible news, and then no news, and then maybe good news, you sign a contract, meet the editor, you discuss changes, you make changes, you go through the tedious work of re-reading various copyedits and galleys, you fill out the publicity questionnaire, you may receive pre-publication reviews, and if they're good you're happy, and if they're bad you're depressed.

You wait.

And then the big day arrives and you can't help but feel a strange mixture of pride, fear, and hope. Usually, though, nothing happens on that day. Often, the success or failure of the book has been determined long in advance, and has at least as much to do with the publisher's commitment as with the quality of your own work. You can't help hoping the phone will ring, though, or an email will show up, and something magical and life-changing will fall into your lap. You can't help peeking out the window, wondering if, just this once, there might be a parade.

But there is no parade, as Joe counseled.

There are, though, subtler satisfactions: the feeling of having finished something that required a large degree of self-discipline and self-belief, of seeing your book published; then maybe some positive reviews, or wonderful notes from readers, or you get invited to speak someplace and earn a little money that way, or the book gets optioned for film. Sometimes the sales are good and you end up receiving royalty checks for years and years.

It's an odd business, much less straightforward than carpentry, where, if you do a good job the customer pays you and mentions you to others. There are no agents and publicists and editors and critics and sales and marketing people standing between you and the bank. It's just your work, with usually one or two people to please.

This is certainly not a complaint. Carpentry is much harder on the body, and it, too, can involve waiting for the phone to ring - along with other woes like cranky customers and tricky jobs. I feel blessed and fortunate, and I am grateful to the agents, editors, publicists, and copyeditors and all the other people at the publishing houses that have helped put my work into the world. I feel especially grateful to people like Joe, to friends who introduced me to agents, read my pages, lent me a computer, bought my books, invited me to read someplace for pay, provided a blurb, mentioned a book to someone else or proposed it to a book club.

On publication day there's a feeling of accomplishment, sure: the writer knows better than anyone how much work and sacrifice and frustration and worry went into those pages. At the same time, though, while someone might write a book alone, no one makes a book alone. I always thank Amanda first, for her patience and support, but, really, there are countless other people to thank, too.

The friendship of those people, their efforts, their generosity and good wishes - that's what writers have instead of a parade. I'm at peace with that. I imagine Joe McGinniss was, too.
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Published on December 02, 2019 18:03

November 26, 2019

Happy Thanksgiving

I have always truly loved Thanksgiving. No one is excluded from that celebration. It doesn't matter what you believe in or how many gifts you can afford. You can dress up if you want to, but you don't have to. You can watch a great parade from the comfort of your own home. Food, family, friends, gratitude — everything a holiday should be. The only thing I don't like is that, in these parts at least, Thanksgiving often signals the end of golf season and the beginning of snow season.

I'd like to share an excerpt from the greeting I wrote for the November 2016 edition of our newsletter.

Happy Thanksgiving. I send my best wishes to you all.

Roland

***

I've spent enough time in less luxurious places — the former USSR, Mexico, the islands of Micronesia — to be thankful for what I have and for what surrounds me. It's still so easy to take it all for granted, so easy to pay attention to what we don't have, what we feel we should have, but I've known enough difficulty in my life to be grateful for the small mercies, even things as basic as a mostly painless day, a good conversation, a solid night's sleep, a meal with friends.

Though not unique in this regard, the writing business is one in which it's particularly easy to place envy before gratitude. There's no empirical standard by which to measure one's ability, so it's tempting to look at other writers and think "I should have won that prize, been given that healthy advance, been praised in a review like that one."

I do what I can to keep those thoughts at bay. I'm mostly a glass-half-full kind of person anyway, and that attitude carries over into my working life. I know how lucky I've been in the writing world. Yes, I've worked hard at it for almost forty years, and yes, Amanda and I have taken and continue to take some big risks in pursuit of the artistic life, but I've been lucky. I know writers with more talent who have not had even my modest amount of success, or who've been ignored entirely by the New York book-making machine.

I have a wonderful family, decent health these days, good friends. I live in a place where — unlike so many who lived in the USSR and still live in places like it in the world - I can go to sleep at night confident that someone won't knock on my door and drag me away to be interrogated or sent to the camps; a place — unlike the outer islands of Chuuk — where, if I'm ill or injured, I know I can get medicine or see a doctor almost immediately. Except for intentional fasts, I've never been truly hungry, not for a day. My work — not without its stresses and frustrations — allows me to spend a lot of time with Amanda and the girls, to play golf or hit the gym on a weekday, or write from breakfast until bed, my choice. And I've had a lot of wonderful letters from readers — this past week especially, for some reason — and they always bring with them a little dose of feel-good and the sense that I am where I'm supposed to be.

And so, as we approach Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, I send out a heartfelt thank-you to my family and my readers and also to the greater forces that are not of this earth.

In the midst of that gratitude, it's true that, for me and millions of others, the election was shocking and disappointing. I worry about the future of democracy in a country where a candidate can win by two million votes and lose an election. And I worry even more about the reports of hate crimes.

I wonder if these people who spray-paint swastikas on cars and buildings really have any sense of the vicious history that symbol represents. For Italian practice, I'm reading Se Questo e' un Uomo, (SURVIVAL IN AUSCHWITZ) Primo Levi's account of being sent to Auschwitz as an Italian Jew. Maybe the swastika-painters and those who encourage and applaud them should spend a day, one day, in the conditions Levi experienced for almost a year — being starved, humiliated, brutalized and tormented by sadistic camp guards and an evil system, and see if they truly wish to stand behind that symbol and terrify others with it.

Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi

In my own smaller circle, I will try to be as kind and caring and sane as I can possibly be, to compensate, in a tiny way, for some of the violence and anger and near-insanity that stains our streets.

Other people of politics similar to my own, counsel anger and activism. I don't see much evidence that anger has ever played a positive role in human history. The most successful opponents of oppression and bigotry, it seems to me, were persistent and brave, not furious. Lech Walesa, Aung San Suu Ki, Vaclav Havel, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela in his later life, all may have been angry, but anger didn't rule them and hatred didn't rule them.

Activism is another story. I think we all have to decide, whatever our political views, how active we want to be, and for which causes. I would just like to see American activism without enmity.

One thing I'd like to write more about — I've done this already to a small extent — is the tendency in our society to label each other, to place each other into boxes, to reduce very complicated issues to a slogan on a bumper sticker. I have a lot of compassion for those people who belong to groups that have historically been oppressed, insulted, or ignored. I completely support and will stand up for their desire to be treated fairly.

And I think it's essential to speak up about evil and inequity.

But the way in which we conduct that conversation — on both sides — matters very much. Unless we're talking about hate-groups, you can't really know or judge a person by what segment of society he or she belongs to. I've met good and bad people from every group imaginable, Italian Americans, Russians, gays, African Americans, Mexicans, Micronesians, men, women, old, young, educated, uneducated, conservative, liberal, vegetarian, carnivore, atheist, believer; I've even known a few golfers I don't like.

What I try to do is to see each person as a human being first, and only secondarily as a figure in a certain category. I try to start from a place of giving that person respect, according to the most important moral guideline I've ever heard — do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

In the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron's latest book, LIVING BEAUTIFULLY, she talks about being a 'warrior', and defines that as someone who doesn't close himself or herself off to other people, who keeps trying, who criticizes when criticism is called for, and acts when action is called for, but doesn't reject the "Other" by some panicky self-protection reflex or because of a buried psychological trigger that has little to do with the actual moment. I see that kind of damaging behavior on both sides of the political spectrum, and feel the urge toward it in myself. Look where it's gotten us: to a bitterly divided nation.

Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chödrön

"Label me and you negate me," Martin Buber said in his great book I AND THOU. And yet it seems we are labeling each other more and more. So-and-so is a white male. So-and-so is a black lesbian. So-and-so is a liberal, a right-winger, a feminist, a member of the 1%, a welfare recipient, an addict. On one level those descriptions have some usefulness. But, too often, they fuel a righteous anger and lead to judgment and hatred.

I and Thou by Martin Buber

I want to operate below or beyond that level and have this as my first thought: so-and-so is a human being. I'm trying to resist the temptation to label, and all the judgments that immediately follow, because I've come to believe that therein lies the cause of most of our troubles.

That's my promise for the next four years and beyond. Try to see through the label to the human essence, try to see the similarities, not the differences. Start there. If I feel criticism or censure is due, I'll act accordingly. If something troubles me enough, I'll go out in the streets, or write about it as bravely as I can, or both.

But, I want to at least try to start from a place of hope, not fear; kindness, not hatred; understanding, not ridicule.

Mockery, it has always seemed to me, is the province of the insecure. Humor, it has always seemed to me, is the solace of the sane.

Writing helps, because when you make or describe characters you have to get beyond the surface, carry them past the cliche, and it dawns on you after a while that we are all tremendously complex beings, some evil, some good, some mixed, but each carrying his or her burden of difficulties, each marred by flaws and weaknesses.

Every single soul pushes a cart of invisible baggage through the world — addiction, physical pain, emotional duress, the scars of abuse or family dysfunction, the buzz of chronic anxiety, the pain of divorce or abandonment, a crippling overabundance of narcissism or self-love, the suffering or early loss of those close to us, the difficulties of old age, the shortcomings of the society in which we live.

Though we like to think so, it seems to me that we very rarely get everything right - including the sense that our political opponents get everything wrong.

This idea of seeing each person as a human being first is an idealistic approach to personal interaction, I know that. It's so much more fun to let go of that ideal, brand the other side as inferior or evil, and feel righteous all the time as we battle and scream.

When I write these words, when I think the thoughts behind them, a little voice inside mutters, "But you can't live up to this, you don't live up to this." True enough, I don't, but I'll never agree that I can't. Until I get to my last breath, I don't want to set up artificial limits on what I might learn in this life. I don't want to take my worst and most petty instincts and let them dictate how I behave.

As I may have said before in these notes, I like to remember something I heard at the Providence Zen Center when I made a brief retreat there years ago. The late, Zen master Seung Sahn happened to be visiting - more good luck for me (there is fair bit of him in the character Rinpoche) — and in response to someone who complained about the difficulty of meditating and leading a pure life, he said these three memorable words:

"Try, only try."

I do try. To a greater or less degree, most of the people I know are also trying. That, it seems to me, is why we are here.
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Published on November 26, 2019 19:17

November 20, 2019

Some Background To Once Night Falls



[This is taken from November's edition of our newsletter. Incidentally, Lake Union Publishing is sponsoring a GoodReads Giveaway for this novel which ends November 30th.]

In 2007, an editor at Simon and Schuster, Zachary Shisgal, gave me a generous advance for a book on golfing, eating, and family time at Lake Como. I hadn't written a word of the book, just showed him an outline and some ideas, and he took a chance on it. (Zach left S&S shortly after THE ITALIAN SUMMER was published; I hope my work had nothing to do with that.)

The girls were nine and six. A real estate genius named Harold Lubberdinck, who sold and rented houses in northern Italy, found us a small house—half a house, really—on a hill overlooking the lake's western shore. One of the great features of the place was a swimming pool shared with half a dozen neighbors, so we were able to make friends quickly, and there were even some young boys for our girls to play with.



One afternoon, with the girls safely occupied, Amanda and I took a stroll along the paved, unlined road that ran in front of the house and parallel to the lake. The views were otherworldly, the weather was perfect, our kids were healthy and happy, and we felt like the luckiest couple on earth. After we'd gone a few hundred yards, we came upon an elegant, two-story home to our left, a place called Villa Belmonte. It was surrounded by fruit trees and set back behind tall wrought-iron gates and a low stone wall.

When we turned around there, we happened to catch sight of a two-foot-high black cross on the wall to the left of the gates. On the cross was written:

BENITO MUSSOLINI 28 APRILE, 1945.

It made no sense to me at first. I thought Mussolini had been killed in Milan, an hour to the south. There's a famous picture of his mutilated body hanging by the heels near a gas station in Piazzale Loreto.

When we got back to the house I went online, did some research, and was surprised to discover that the cross-shaped plaque marked Mussolini's place of execution: he'd been killed right there, in front of Villa Belmonte.

I started to wonder how he'd ended up there, and, just out of curiosity, I did a little more research. I learned, among other things, that the first—and by certain measures, largest—Allied landing on European soil wasn't in France on D-Day in June, 1944, but in southern Sicily in July of 1943. That landing—the fact that il duce, as the Italians called him (The Leader) had brought the war to Italian soil—resulted in a vote of no-confidence by Mussolini's previously compliant Fascist Council. And that vote led King Vittorio Emmanuelle III—also previously cowed and obedient—to have Mussolini removed from power.

The king had him arrested, in fact, but then didn't know what to do with him. Everybody was after Benito—the Allies wanted to capture him; the Italian partisans wanted to kill him; his good pal Adolf wanted to rescue him. So the king and the Italian generals now in charge of Italy moved him around—first to the tiny island of Maddalena just off the northern Sardinian coast, and then back to the mainland, to a hotel high up in the central mountains.

By a kind of evil magic, one of Hitler's commandos figured out where he was, and put together a daring mission—crash-landing gliders on the mountaintop—that freed Mussolini from captivity and brought him to Germany for a meeting with Hitler. By then, the Allies were battling their way up the boot, the King had signed an armistice, and suddenly the Italians were officially fighting, not against the Allies, but with them. Some troops remained loyal to the Italian fascists and fought with the Germans. Some fought with the Allies. Some just left the army and went home.

Hitler knew he was losing Italy, and he insisted that Mussolini return, to inspire his loyal troops. He installed il duce on a different northern lake, Lake Garda, where he remained, overseeing a puppet government called The Republic of Salo, until the Allies drew close, in the spring of 1945. Although he'd long boasted that he'd fight to the death, Benito gathered a million or so dollars in various currencies, sent his wife ahead, took his young mistress with him, and made a run for the Swiss border in a column of retreating Nazi soldiers.

He almost made it. The partisans caught him on the western shore of Como, a few miles from neutral Switzerland, held him and his mistress for a night in a house in the hills, then brought them to Villa Belmonte and machined-gunned them, along with a couple of loyal associates. They then took the bodies to Milan and dumped them on the stones of Piazzale Loreto, because the Germans had killed fifteen partisans there less than a year before. A mob of Italians did unspeakable things to the corpses, and then hung them up by their heels.

This strange saga intrigued me, and, over the next several visits to Italy, we made a point of visiting various places connected with it: Maddalena Island; Predappio, where Mussolini was born; the mountaintop hotel in the Abruzzo National Park, where he'd been held. I did this, not out of any affection for the Benito Mussolini, it should go without saying, but because I've been fascinated with WWII in Italy for as long as I can remember, and the twisted story of Mussolini's last years had been a chapter of history completely unknown to me.

At the time, I honestly had no notion of writing about it. But then I found a new agent, the wonderful Emma Sweeney. We met for the first time in Manhattan, went into a Morton's Steak House and had a drink, and, since I already had one of my quirky spiritual books in production (THE DELIGHT OF BEING ORDINARY), she asked if I had other interests, other things I wanted to write about.



"I've always had this strange fascination with World War II," I told her, "in Italy, especially."

"Why don't you write a novel about that?" she said.

I liked the idea. A quick look at my books will tell you that my interests are weirdly eclectic, and while the better-selling books have to do with spirituality and road-trips, I've also written about gambling addiction, cystic fibrosis, Russia, Revere, Cuba, badly treated young women in the woods of New Hampshire, golf, food, and Vietnam veterans living in the Micronesian Islands.

So I went home and started researching the partisans in Italy. I felt like a lot had been written about the French resistance, but not much about the Italian resistance, not here in the US at least. I had no interest in writing a whole book about Mussolini, but he fit naturally into the story of the brave Italians who fought against him and against the Nazi occupation. I tried to imagine the lives of ordinary people who lived through the terrors of World War II and the horror of Nazi rule.

After six months or so, I finished the book and sent it to Emma. She liked it, but had a lot of suggestions. I made those changes, according to my own vision, and sent it back to her. She still liked it, maybe even more, but offered another long list of changes. I went through it several more times, and sent it to her again, and at last she felt comfortable showing it to editors.

No one wanted it.

I did not have a readership for WWII suspense novels. I didn't have 'the numbers', which is what the marketing people at the big publishers care most about these days. How many editors rejected the book, I don't remember. A dozen, I'd guess. One by one, disappointing email by disappointing email, Emma gave me the bad news. After another couple of months, she felt she'd showed it to every major house in NY, and we agreed it was time to set it aside.

This was not a good moment for me, to put it mildly. I support my family by writing books. It looked like I'd worked for the better part of a year and would earn exactly nothing from it. At that point, thanks to my friend and former classmate, Joyce Maynard, I met up with the amazing Patricia McFarlane and she hired me to write the story of her life and business, Special Vacations, a company that hosts travel and recreation events for adults with intellectual and physical challenges. (I've written about that in an earlier newsletter.)



While I was on one of Pat's incredible trips, Emma called. "I was just contacted by someone at Amazon," she said. "They have a publishing arm called Lake Union Press and they're looking for historical fiction. Do you mind if I send your book to them?"

I didn't mind.

Lake Union bought the book right away. The advance was low, but I found their terms to be much fairer to writers than what I'd seen in the past, and since then, I've found their editors to be smart, thoughtful, and efficient: they actually answer emails within a day! The contract we agreed upon left me free to publish other kinds of books with other publishers (I have a new spiritual/road-trip book nearly done.)

There were several more rounds of re-working, but Lake Union's editors were respectful in the extreme, careful, attentive, offering good suggestions while giving me the last say in every instance.

My original title was 1943. The editors—and other friends—thought that sounded more like a non-fiction book, and wasn't particularly catchy. Emma suggested THOSE LEFT BEHIND, and, while the people at Lake Union liked that one, it sounded too negative to me. After a lot of back-and-forth, I decided on ONCE NIGHT FALLS, because there's a moment in the novel when one of the Italian mountain-fighters says to the Jewish girlfriend he's hiding:

"Once night falls, Italy belongs to the Italians."

We settled on that. They came up with a design (giving me, as few other publishers had done over the years) some say in it. They found someone to read the audio book (also giving me some say in choosing the reader). And so it turned out that the stroll Amanda and I took in August, 2007, was the mysterious seed of a novel that would be published twelve years later.

If you read the book, I hope you like it. Different as it is from most of my other novels (maybe not so different from FIDEL'S LAST DAYS) I think you'll encounter some of my usual obsessions: the struggle between good and evil; the challenge of finding meaning in life; a bit about food, a lot about place, a fair amount about belief or the lack of it.

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Published on November 20, 2019 08:07

November 18, 2019

Follow Up to Cystic Fibrosis & A Little Love Story

After my most recent post, a few readers have asked for some additional background to my novel A LITTLE LOVE STORY. It would be difficult to respond to all of your questions individually. What follows is a piece I wrote about 5 years ago for my monthly newsletter. I apologize for its length, but do appreciate those of you who took the time to express support and ask questions. I remain grateful for your interest. Thank you.

* * *

Fifteen years ago, when I first started playing a lot of golf, I resolved that for every time I played I would set aside a dollar for the local food bank. It was a small thing, a gesture to keep me from feeling too guilty about the many pleasures in my life, and the many hardships in the lives of others. This charitable impulse - we give more to other causes - resulted in less than a hundred dollars a year, but it felt right.

Long before I started playing golf, I started having back problems: I broke my upper back in a bad fall, had surgery on my lower back for a ruptured disc; all of this was, and is, complicated by a bad inherited arthritis. I saw - and see - chiropractors and massage therapists and yoga practitioners and rheumatologists, and I take pills and give myself shots. I'm fine, really. I can golf and lift weights and walk and bang nails and climb ladders, and I'm always grateful that the fall didn't cripple me and that the pain is small compared to that suffered by other relatives with even more serious types of arthritis.

During my weekly visits about twenty years ago, one of my chiropractors - a friend, really - would often tell me about his three daughters. They all sounded so bright and wonderful that I have to say, as someone who had not yet known the joys of fatherhood, I was sometimes jealous.

And then one week the story changed radically: he and his wife had discovered that their oldest girl, who'd been coughing for ten years, had been misdiagnosed all that time. Their new doctor had done some tests and discovered that the girl actually had, not allergies or sinus issues, but something called cystic fibrosis.

More tests revealed another terrible piece of news: the youngest girl had CF as well.

I'd heard of the disease, but only vaguely. My friend filled me in: it was caused by a genetic
glitch that resulted in dehydrated mucus. That seemed a small thing, but it turned out that sticky mucus led to bad lung infections, and often to reduced function of the pancreas, and that, at the time, the life expectancy for people with cystic fibrosis was in the high twenties. He and his wife, naturally, were in a state of shock. They'd begun researching the disease, taking their daughters to the nearest CF center - an hour away - doing a daily regimen of chest physical therapy that involved the parents drumming on the girls' chests, sides, and shoulders for 45 minutes at a time.

The girls started taking a number of medications, did what they could to avoid colds, changed their diets.

I felt so sad at this news that, in another tiny gesture, I started giving my "golf dollars" to the CYSTIC FIBROSIS FOUNDATION IN BETHESDA MARYLAND. (www.cff.org)



Not long after that our own first daughter, Alexandra, was born. She seemed healthy, although we noticed when she caught a cold it seemed to last an unusually long time and often produced a cough that went on and on and seemed better suited to an adult pair of lungs than to hers. Three years later, when Amanda was pregnant with our second child, a genetic counselor asked if our first had been checked for CF. We didn't know. To avoid having Alexandra go through the testing procedure, Amanda and I were first tested: unless both parents are carriers of the defective gene, their children can't have CF.

It turned out we were both carriers (carriers are mostly asymptomatic but can have some sinus and digestive troubles). It was too late in the pregnancy to test the child in Amanda's womb, but Alexandra was tested, and, after a very difficult waiting period, we learned that she did, indeed, have cystic fibrosis.

It was almost as if the conversations with my chiropractor friend had been preparation for that harsh moment. I already knew a lot about the disease and immediately Amanda and I set out to learn more. We started doing nightly chest PT, we started keeping Alexandra away from kids with colds, we started doing the fundraising walk every spring, and our friends and relatives responded with a generosity that often brought us to tears.

I won't go into all the medical details here; there's plenty of information online for those who are interested. But I began to write about CF, both in an attempt to learn more about it and to increase awareness. I wanted more money to be raised for research, and I didn't want any more parents to be blind-sided the way my friend and his wife had been.

I published a piece in the PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER SUNDAY MAGAZINE, another in GOOD HOUSEKEEPING, and then a longer one in READERS DIGEST. I spoke to doctors and patients, interviewed family members and caregivers, and read whatever I could find on the subject.

Of all these interviews and articles, the one that hit me most powerfully was a phone conversation with a young professional woman with cystic fibrosis. Like most people with the disease, she was stoic about the sometimes grim and always inconvenient treatments, about the breathing troubles, the recurrent infections, the hospital visits to "clean out" the bad colonies of bacteria in her lungs, the digestive issues, the enzymes with every meal, the worry that she'd be infected with a virulent strain of B-Cepacia and her condition would quickly grow worse. She was even at peace with one particularly horrible aspect of cystic fibrosis - that sufferers should not be within an arm's length of each other for fear of passing along one of the long list of bacteria that present no danger to the rest of us, but can gradually destroy the lung tissue of someone with CF.

She was typically without complaint about those things, but what bothered her - and I could clearly hear the pain in her voice - was the social aspect of the disease, the fact that, as she put it, "I'm not a good long-term investment," so guys were happy to date her, but unwilling to enter into any kind of serious relationship.

I could not keep from imagining my own daughter in her situation.

My books always come from what I think of as "my center". I don't write at arm's length, don't decide to research subjects out of intellectual curiosity and then write books about them (not that there's anything wrong with that; it's just not how I operate). I write, almost always, about what I really care about, and since cystic fibrosis was continually on my mind, I decided to write a novel about it.

The article in Readers Digest had been about a young man in San Diego named Matt Joyce, a passionate and expert surfer, whose life had been saved - 'extended' is a better word - by the generosity of two men, one a complete stranger. Each of them donated a lobe of their lungs - one from the right lung, one from the left - so that this young man's ruined lungs could be removed and he could keep breathing. The surgery - it's called a 'living lobar transplant' and is performed only about fifteen times a year in the US - worked, and when I saw Matt he was at the beach, on his board, and looking fine, I used that surgery in A LITTLE LOVE STORY, and created a situation in which the woman had an advanced case of CF but the man was committed to her anyway.



I'll say no more about the plot, and certainly not about the ending, except that I didn't want to write some kind of Hallmark Card finish to the story. The first few pages of the novel are actually its ending. Some readers have been confused by that, some bothered; many like it. But I wouldn't change the last line of the book for anything.

During my tour for the novel, after a reading /talk at Baker's Books in South Dartmouth,
Massachusetts, a beautiful young woman came up to me and said she had CF and had driven an hour to thank me for writing the story.

Alexandra is 17 now. She's had three sinus surgeries and a myriad of other troubles, but she is leading a life that is very close to that of a healthy young woman. Her boyfriend, a young man from Italy, a first-class guy, seems, almost as if he stepped out of the pages of A LITTLE LOVE STORY, completely unbothered by her sometimes persistent cough and the various changes she's had to make in her life because of CF.

Juliana, tested shortly after birth, is a carrier, like her parents, and very healthy. My friend's
daughters - both of them with more serious manifestations - are doing well, but they have
suffered mightily over the intervening years, and the stress on the parents is not measurable.

The life expectancy of people with CF has jumped ten years since Alexandra's diagnosis, and new medications promise, if not a cure, then at least a treatment regimen that will make life much more bearable for the 70,000 people worldwide who suffer from what is truly a vicious disease.

My heart goes out to all the CF sufferers and to their families, and my thanks and thoughts to the researchers and doctors and respiratory therapists and social workers and dietitians, and everyone the disease has touched in any way. May its impact be reduced, even eliminated in some lives, by
the time another summer has given way to fall.

Thank you for reading.
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Published on November 18, 2019 07:26