A medieval prayer book, an Irish saint’s prophecy of the last pope, and a forgery that changed the church—forever.
Father Romano has run afoul of the modern inquisitors before. This time, it leads to a medieval manuscript and murder. Was it an ordinary theft gone wrong or something more? The Carabinieri in Rome would like to know.
Michael Romano is an American priest working in the Vatican’s Secret Archives with a penchant for stepping over the line. Church Inquisitors have noticed — and aren’t happy. Nevertheless, Romano is also the Church’s senior paleographer, an expert in ancient manuscripts, and his expertise is needed to examine a ninth-century codex known as a Psalter. Father Romano’s examination leads him into the past as he uncovers an historical narrative of medieval forgeries, Saracen invasions and a legendary fight for the richest kingdom on earth. Yet he has unwittingly become a target for those who will stop at nothing to possess the secret of the Psalter.
1. When and why did you start writing?
I started writing in junior high school. My English teacher was encouraging and supportive. There was a small room adjoining the classroom, and she let me write during class with two other classmates. My mates were mainly into poetry, but I preferred prose. However, in high school, I had teachers who criticized my writing–not stylistically–but the things I wanted to write about. It planted seeds self-doubt, and I questioned whether I had it in me to write a novel. Perhaps my skin wasn’t thick enough. Besides, I’m a slow learner. After I sold a business, I took some time off. That hiatus gave me time to reflect, and it dawned on me that if I didn’t try to write, I would never know if I could.
2. Why did you choose to write in this genre?
I read the 300 Spartans by John Burke when I was in grade school and decided that I preferred historical fiction. Then I read The Egyptian by Mika Waltari. I loved how he adeptly wove an historical event into an Action/ Adventure fiction, filled with philosophical reflections. He wrote other historical fictions, but The Egyptian is his masterpiece. In the ninth grade, our English teacher took the class on a field trip to the Huntington Library in Southern California. They had photographs of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and I was hooked. I devoured the commentaries, as well as the Nag Hamadi discoveries.
3. Is anyone else in your family musical/artistic/writers? Describe your family members’ artistic interests and abilities.
My wife, Susan, is a beautiful abstract painter with a brilliant sense of color and composition. She was even part of a group exhibition at the Carousel du Louvre in Paris. If any of your readers are interested in abstract art, her website is susanwatsonstudio.com. Our eldest son is a video game producer and another son is an aspiring stand-up comic and comedy writer with a degree in English. The youngest teaches English in China and is a beautiful writer.
4. Which authors do you admire? Why?
Lots. I’ve already mentioned Mika Waltari, but I also admire J.R.R. Tolkein, Umberto Eco, and Harper Lee. I love Tolkein for the same reasons as Waltari: his genius at crafting an historical saga while inserting his philosophical reflections, with the precision, of course, that his history happens to be invented. But as Napoleon said: what is history but a fable agreed upon. I used that line in The Psalter. Of course, Umberto Eco is a brilliant historical fiction writer, philosopher and semiotician. Lastly, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has all of the elements I admire: brilliant prose and David versus Goliath themes, with diminutive heroes standing up for right against the insurmountable odds.
5. What are your fondest writing memories?
Whenever a scene brings me to tears it’s memorable, as though the truth of it strikes a chord of emotion. That happened a few times in The Psalter. I became quite invested in the characters, as though they were friends. Some of the tragic or emotional things that happened to them affected me personally.
6. What advice would you give to beginners who are nervous?
A writer and editor gave me some good advice, and I’ll pass it on: ‘give yourself permission to write crap.’ It’s liberating because you don’t have to hold yourself up to the standard of a finished product while you’re trying to create. The magic comes in the editing, anyway. Then edit, edit, edit until you’re satisfied the finished product is good enough to be judged. That said, there’s no way around the nervousness a writer experiences when its time to stand up and be judged. Expect it, anticipate it, but find the courage.
7. What inspires you to write?
I’m drawn to David versus Goliath stories—one person against a sea of opposition, where an ordinary person is driven to do extraordinary things. I look for those stories in historical events, where a single person or group is driven by conviction to stand against their foes. It’s one kind of courage when you fight for your beliefs and quite a greater one to fight losing battles.
8. Describe your process for writing/completing a novel.
I write historical novels so research is key. I outline extensively using Excel spreadsheet to work out the chapters, plot, characters, etc. One column is dedicated to the historical event described in the chapter and the research material I used. But after about six or seven chapters, the story takes on a life of its own and the outline goes out the window. Nevertheless, after carefully outlining the story I’d like to create, I have the general plot in my head, even though it might take some unexpected turns.
With each chapter, I like to create a brief synopsis at the top of the page, like a goal line. Then I type until I reach the end.
9. What is the best part about writing?
When readers read the finished product, and say it was a good tale.
10. What is the hardest thing about writing?
The frustration of staring at a blank page and not being able to spit the words out, or the inability to translate the imagined scene into prose.
11. What is the most important thing you have learned about yourself through writing?
Trust your instincts. Critical readers offer ideas about how scenes should turn out or whether the plot or characters should be different. The writer passes them through a filter called judgment. It’s easy to doubt what you’ve created, but at the end of the day, the product has to be the writer’s message, and only he or she knows what it is. Believe in your message. Thomas Jefferson had a quote that plays in my mind while I’m reflecting on criticism: “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”
12. How do ideas come to you?
I’ve often pondered where ideas or inspiration come from. I can reflect on it, but I don’t know the answer. In writing The Psalter, I often wondered whether one day I would dip into the well only to find it dry. There were days when I couldn’t find any water, and my prescription was to go for a long walk or run. It always seemed that when I’d reached the point where the exertion cleared my head, it made room for something to seep in, as though an ethereal hand erased the blackboard to make way for more scribbling. That said, the very act of writing and reading inspires me to write more.
13. What is your favorite thing you have written? Why?
It’s hard to choose a favorite phrase or paragraph or scene. Lots are important to me for different reasons, but I’ll choose two if I may. The first that is an important theme in The Psalter and a sort of anthem for two main characters:
“Ardent believers hide within the safety of their absolutes, for much more courage is needed to abandon their cozy security for the questioning of ones own beliefs.”
The second just makes me laugh:
“Prince Ahmad crouched over the headless body, the scout at his side. “You say a mere priest bested you?”
“He wielded his sword like a master. I never saw such a display.”
The prince mocked the soldier. “Then let us pray we don’t meet the Pope.”
14. Who has been the biggest influence on your writing? Why?
Writers that most influenced me were surely Umberto Eco, Ken Follett, Wilbur Smith, and Mika Waltari. However, the greatest impact on my writing began, unknowingly, in Junior High School, sitting at lunch every day with a pretty girl, arguing about religion. She was a whiz at quoting scripture, much better than I. But even at that age, I was pretty knowledgeable about the history of the Bible and its place in a Pantheon of religions and Christian sects. I didn’t win many scriptural debates, but I didn’t lose any historical points. That experience was, without doubt, the genesis of my interest in the religious thriller genre, and the beginning of the idea for The Psalter. By the way, that pretty girl is my wife and we’ve discussed religions and philosophies for 34 years.
15. Who would you most like to thank for their involvement in your writing career?
My lifelong companion and muse: my wife.
16. What is the most fun thing about writing?
Writing is work, and writing well is hard work. I wouldn’t call any part of the process fun. But there’s great satisfaction in telling a good story that entertains and perhaps enlightens readers.
17. What is the most boring thing about writing?
Editing and proofreading; and proofreading and editing. It’s absolutely the most tedious task. Nevertheless, I’m always amazed that mediocre and even terrible scenes transform magically into quite good prose after an edit.
18. What is something (book, short story, poem, paragraph, sentence) that you wish YOU had written, and why?
Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven that was made into the movie Smoke Signals has so many lines I wish I had written. It’s a beautiful book and movie where Alexie parallels the divide between Indians on the reservation and the white man’s world with the distance between children and their parents. Here’s just one of my favorites and I wish I was sensitive and brave enough to have written it:
How do we forgive our fathers, maybe in a dream?
Do we forgive our fathers for leaving us too often, or forever, when we were little?
Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage, or making us nervous, because there never seemed to be any rage there at all.
Do we forgive our fathers for marrying, or not marrying our mothers, for divorcing, or not divorcing our mothers?
And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness?
Shall we forgive them for pushing or leaning, for shutting doors, for speaking through walls, or never speaking, or never being silent?
Do we forgive our fathers in our age or in theirs?
Or in their deaths, saying it to them, or not saying it?
If we forgive our fathers what is left?
Thank you, Galen for being a part of Featured Artist Fridays and for providing us with a little more insight into the world of writing.