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FAQ


I understand you lived in Austria for several years. What brought you there?

A: I should say I was lured there by a lifelong obsession with The Sound of Music, but the truth is I just couldn't stomach the idea of going straight to medical school after college—and my pre-med advisor suggested I take some time off. I was a little put off when he delivered the news, but it turned out to be a big favor. (Shout out to Dr. Michael McGrath!) It was his idea I move to Europe, and he even helped me find a job teaching chemistry at an international preparatory school in Salzburg. I had only planned on staying for a year, but I fell in love with Salzburg from the moment my train rolled into the Bahnhof and I gave serious consideration to making it home.

Parts of Absolution are set in Salzburg. Did you envision setting a book there when you were living in Austria?

A: Those of you lucky enough to have traveled to Salzburg will know that it is impossible to not envision setting a book there. It is the most dramatic city I have ever visited, with a 900-year old fortress perched on a rocky bluff above the city. The mountains can be seen from many points inside the city, rocky crags slashing open the alpine sky. (sorry, I got carried away.) There is a sense of history there that makes you take notice, and there is intrigue around every corner (as well as a bosna stand; I recommend the number 2, with extra wuerz.)

Absolution begins in Monterosso al Mare, in the Cinque Terre region of Italy. Why did you begin the story there?

A: There is a reason UNESCO made the Cinque Terre a World Heritage Site. From the minute I arrived there (on the local train from La Spezia, dragged there by my friend Bill Olsen who just kept saying, "Trust me on this one") I knew I had found the place that would haunt me forever. Time stops in the Cinque Terre; as Marco says in Absolution, "Nothing changes in Liguria, that's why I like it here." You don't have a sense that won't be stimulated by the environs; I can still smell the aroma of frying sardines. (Unfortunately, I can also smell my friend Bill's rank hiking shoes, which we would not allow inside the train.) The view of the aquamarine waters of the Ligurian Sea from the sentierro azzurro, the clifftop walkway that connects the five villages, is alone worth the price of admission. But it is the sounds that I remember the best, the rhythmic crashing of the waves against the rocks and the continual arguing of the gulls.

When did you start writing?

A: I have been writing stories since the first grade, and I received my first rejection (of many, many more) in the fourth grade, after submitting a story about a police dog to the New Yorker. I started my first novel in the eighth grade, but abandoned the effort after receiving bad reviews from my father. Ten years ago, I picked up the pencil again, and started scratching another novel in an old college notebook. Those pages ended up in the filter of my sister-in-law's pool, but it was too late for me: I needed to keep writing.

The main character in your novel is a Jesuit priest. What made you want to write about a Jesuit?

A: Ever since I picked up an old paperback copy of Fear is the Key by Alistair MacLean, (a must read) I have loved reading thrillers. I have read hundreds of them: political thrillers, medical thrillers, legal thrillers, military thrillers, and spy thrillers. After a few dozen, you start picking up on a few trends, like the main character who is an ex-CIA assassin battling a drinking problem, or the disgraced Navy Seal who is called upon to save the world and rescue his red-headed ex-girlfriend in the process. I wanted to put a different type of person in the mix—an entirely different type of person.

In my first attempt I slid a forty-year-old physician into this role, and forced him to take lives rather than save them, albeit in an effort to protect the woman he loves. There was a built-in tension I liked, a natural conflict (and conflict drives stories.) I thought it was pretty good, but I couldn't quite hook a literary agent—not with a lot of duct tape, anyway. So, I kept looking for that main character who would jump right off the page. In the process, I did a lot of reading and stumbled across Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon, an art restorer who also works (reluctantly) for the Mossad as an assassin. I was hooked from the word go.

And I was inspired. The concept of a priest/assassin popped into my head shortly thereafter. Not only was it novel, but there is a wonderful psychological tension that adds a second layer to everything that transpires. I loved the idea; it became only a question of how to make it happen in a plausible way, and that hit me a few weeks later as I climbed a local peak.

And there was never any question in my mind that Marco had to be a Jesuit. I had the great privilege of being educated by Jesuits at the College of the Holy Cross, and I have been a fan of the order ever since. If I can think even a little—please don't ask my family to comment—it is because of the Jesuit priests who I met on Mount Saint James in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Tell us about Marco Venetti, the Jesuit priest in ABSOLUTION. What's he like?

A: Marco is a parish priest, shepherding over a quiet parish overlooking the Ligurian Sea. (The Cinque Terre, the most beautiful spot on earth.) As the story begins, he is sitting in his confessional on a sultry July day, waiting for the penitents to come. But he isn't praying or reflecting as he waits, he is ruing the poor play of his favorite soccer team and thinking about Madellena, the woman who still occupies his heart. I wanted to set the tone in the first paragraph, establishing Marco as human and interesting.

Do you use an outline when you write?

A: I have tried, but I find outlines to be very restricting and detrimental to my writing. I work best when I have a general idea what I want to do, and let things develop from there. For example, with Absolution, I knew I wanted to make the main character a Jesuit priest, and put him in a situation for which he was totally unprepared—by both disposition and training. Once I discovered the way to do this, the book essentially wrote itself.

Do you listen to music as you write? Is there a particular sound track you like?

A: I do most of my writing in public places. Bars, eateries and coffee houses are my favorite settings; half of my book was written in Sugar and Spice, the world's best pancakery, in Mendon, VT. I find the vibrant atmosphere of these spots to be very stimulating—and I am a sucker for free Internet. When I do write at home I absolutely listen to music: Dave Matthews is my top choice, followed closely by U2 and The Counting Crows. When The Smiths come on I know it's time to take a run.

Do you know the conclusion when you begin writing?

A: No, definitely not. I think the not knowing lends suspense to the prose. And, in the few circumstances I have had to rewrite a scene to fit into a narrow plot window, I have had a hard time with the constraints. It is much easier for me to start with a basic premise or character and let things go from there. The problem with this approach is what I call floundering (name speaks for itself). But there is a cure for floundering, namely editing, and then more editing, followed by even more editing.

How do you know when a rough draft is no longer rough?

A: It is my experience that you cannot ever be truly done with a draft. No matter how many times you comb over it and remove the nits, there are always at least one or two more nits to remove. That said, at some point you have to pull the trigger and hit send—and there is no formula for this determination. I go with my gut: when the cymbal clashing of my intestines no longer sounds like The Flight of the Valkyries, I am ready.