I write stories derived from my family’s history. Researching them fills in the foggy areas of my memory and the blank spaces of my family tree. Writing them is painstaking documentary and intimate connection with people four generations away. I discover patterns of emotions, attitudes, and behavior that help me understand myself. I explore grief, loss and anger, sibling rivalries, love and estrangement, and the various forms of love – of children, parents, spouse and friends. When I write, I try to put myself behind their eyes, to see and feel the world as they saw and felt theirs. By telling their stories, I hope my readers and listeners will better understand their own.

Thank you, Catherine and Sejal

Posted by Mark on October 20th, 2014

Comments from two of my wonderful readers:

I only read this style of novel occasionally and frequently I read reluctantly, but if I start, I make myself finish. With your story, I read eagerly, excitedly, and hungrily. The pacing of the narration borders on the masterful. — Catherine Linn, Bermuda Dunes, CA

Amedeo is just an absolutely gripping, stunning novel.  The hard work and care you put into developing this manuscript shows on every page.  Your decisions were all so deliberate, and you do a masterful job of weaving inner narrative with interpersonal conflict with historical context.  The novel works like a perfect telescope in that respect, with seamless motion between close shots and macro-societal views.  I was entertained and I learned – very hard to accomplish those two goals individually, let alone together. — Sejal Patel, San Francisco

 

The Last Demitasse

Posted by Mark on September 21st, 2014

Why is a 19th century demitasse important? The morning after he destroys all his family’s porcelain plateware, in a rage over going bankrupt because of his gambling, Giovanni stumbles into the kitchen for an espresso made by his daughter Anna, 10. His sons Umberto and Amedeo look on as Giovanni realizes he is drinking from the only surviving cup and saucer, an ornately gilded, brightly colored cup of translucent porcelain. What did that demitasse look like?

To me, it’s this kind of detail that adds richness and depth to a good story. So I went hunting for a suitable design to describe Giovanni’s demitasse, and I found this one. I promptly fell in love with it and bought it on eBay! In the story, I changed one detail: Three cherubs instead of two.

Happy Birthday, Andrew!

Posted by Mark on August 9th, 2014

29!  And I love that cake! Only 2.5 sticks of butter, 1.5 lbs of chocolate, 3 cups of sugar and 3 eggs. All organic, of course!

Contest: Love Note to a Nazi

Posted by Mark on June 25th, 2014

If you knew someone was going to rob your safe deposit box, and you could leave a little love note for the robber, what would you write?

In my novel, I have a scene in Nazi-occupied Trieste (1944)  involving the character Umberto opening the safe deposit boxes of Jews under orders of the Gestapo (my grandfather Umberto really did this).  I decided to have some fun with it, so when he opens a particular safe deposit box, he finds a short letter.   The owner of the box had a bookstore in Trieste and closed the store (and emptied his safe deposit box) before escaping to Argentina.  Suspecting that his safe deposit box would be robbed, he wrote a short message of condemnation.

This bookstore owner is a secular Jew, well educated, speaks and reads in multiple languages.  Put yourself in his position.  What would you write — short, pithy and elegant — that would deliver a powerful condemnation to the person who ordered the robbery of your safe deposit box?  But you can’t be too subtle.  Your target is a low-level Fascist bureaucrat or SS officer, anti-Semitic, a nationalist and greedy.  Neither Mussolini’s nor Hitler’s goons were particularly bright.  You are addressing a bully.  You have to rattle him.

Here’s one I adapted from comedian Bill Hicks:  “Kill yourself.  It’s the only way you can save your soul.”

Winner will be widely acknowledged here and listed in the Acknowledgments section of the published novel.  Have fun!

Bellevue Reading

Posted by Mark on June 5th, 2014

Great fun doing a reading last night at the Bellevue Arts Museum for the Italian Scientists and Scholars in North America Foundation.

Providing some background

Thank you Lorenzo Giancani for inviting me and providing these photos.  Wow does that profile make me look like my Nonno Berto!

 

Reading an excerpt

 

Italian Scientists and Scholars

Posted by Mark on May 28th, 2014

Next Wednesday, June 4, I will speak at a gathering of the Italian Scientists and Scholars in North America Foundation.  My topic will be the challenges of creating a historical novel set in Trieste.  Bellevue Art Museum, 5:30, all welcome.

Amedeo, Chapter 1

Posted by Mark on May 14th, 2014

May 6, 1945
Yugoslav-occupied Trieste, Italy
About 8 pm

The dark cellar stank of urine and rust, and Amedeo Nassutti knew enough butchers to know that wasn’t rust.  His back hurt where the young Partisan had prodded him with his rifle as he shoved him through the creaking iron door.     He wanted to sit, but there was no chair, and the floor felt strangely sticky on his shoes.

 

Through two small, narrow windows tucked under the vaulted brick ceiling, flickers of light came from a fire in a barrel in the courtyard outside.  Across from the villa above him, a wall of rough limestone blocks rose into the dark to a slope once terraced with vineyards, now a neighborhood of elegant homes with views of Trieste, neighboring Istria and the northern reaches of the Adriatic Sea.  Amedeo’s brother Umberto lived up there, and Umberto had enjoyed that view.  At least until he got arrested too.

 

Amedeo leaned against the wall opposite the windows.  He focused his mind on the Partisan commissar who had questioned him.  Every accusation. Every answer.  Every threat.  To calm himself, he walked.  Four steps this way, pivot, four steps back, each step a squish in the thick sticky substance covering the floor.

 

After half an hour, he heard a bang in the hallway and a shout that sounded like a curse.  Two sets of footsteps approached.  Are they coming for me, Amedeo wondered.

 

Keys clanged and the door swung open to reveal Umberto, prodded by the same rifle-toting Partisan.  The door swung shut and the lock clicked.

 

Amedeo studied his brother.  Umberto stared right back. Despite the hostility he could sense, Amedeo suddenly felt a quiet excitement and forgot his terror, at least for a few moments.  He desperately wanted to know Umberto, and be known by him, a result of one simple fact:  Umberto had refused to speak to him for 20 years.

 

Loud voices interrupted his thoughts.  As he looked up, five soldiers hustled two men out the villa’s front door and shoved them up against the courtyard wall.  There was a shout, a crash of rifle fire and the thumps of the bodies falling to the cobbles.

 

“We’re lucky,” Amedeo said. “The fact that they haven’t dragged us out there is very, very good news.”

 

Umberto looked tall and straight at 58, and without thinking, Amedeo squared himself.  Then Umberto, still looking out the window, broke his silence.  “The Americans will make them stop.”

 

Amedeo shook his head.  Porca miseria!  Your supposedly angelic Americans.  What,” he shouted, pointing at Umberto’s chest, “could possibly make them care about one stupid banker?  One really idiot banker, a flag-waving Fascist, an Italian nationalist, a Nazi collaborator, and too stupid to go into hiding even when warned!?”

 

Umberto looked at Amedeo with a sneer.  “My dealings with the Germans were strictly financial.  You’re the historian. When has a banker ever been held accountable for what his clients do with their money?”

“These people are Communists, Umberto!  Communists have no use for bankers!”  Amedeo shook his head, then his arms, trying to get control of himself, reminded of their angry debates before World War I, each of them firmly convinced that his point of view was the only rational one.

 

Amedeo had an inkling that their survival would depend on breaking that pattern. 

 

Two hours earlier, Umberto slammed his front door in Amedeo’s face without letting him speak. Amedeo had come to warn him, to direct him to safety. 

 

I was stupid, he thought. I risk my life and scare my wife for this stronzo, this jerk.  I’m finished.

 

As he walked away from Umberto’s door, Amedeo whispered a good luck wish: “In bocca al’lupo.” “In the mouth of the wolf.”  But there are two parts to that wish, and to work its magic, it needs two people.  The first person says, “In bocca al’lupo.”  The second replies, “Che crepi il lupo.”

 

As Amedeo stepped out Umberto’s gate, a Partisan patrol arrested him.  Then they arrested Umberto.

 

If you’re in the mouth of the wolf, may the wolf choke on you and die.

 

(c) Copyright 2014, all rights reserved.

What’s on your nightstand?

Posted by Mark on May 8th, 2014

 What book(s) sit on your nightstand?  I’ve got a pile of six best sellers right now:  Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” Gabriele D’Annunzio’s “Pleasure,” Michael Ondaatje’s “The English Patient,” Plutarch’s “Parallel Lives, Vol 1.”  On my Kindle, I recently finished Andy Weir’s first novel “The Martian” and Daniel Brown’s nonfiction book, “The Boys in the Boat.”

OK, some of those are research for my own novel.

First Prize:  I started “The Martian” after bogging down on the others and totally blew through it, two nights in a row staying up well past midnight.  Many times I laughed out loud at the wry humor or shook my head in wonder at the hero’s creative problem solving.  Even more times I felt myself holding my breath wondering how the protagonist – Mark Watney, an astronaut left for dead after an accident on Mars – would survive the newest disaster.  Many kudos to first-time author Mr. Weir, and I highly recommend the book.

What’s on your nightstand?  I need another contemporary novel to read for fun.  What do you suggest?

As for the others:  D’Annunzio’s book is part of the research for my work-in-progress novel.  My novel’s antagonist appears incredibly strict and disciplined, but he uses that discipline to keep a lid on passions inflamed by D’Annunzio, channeling that passion primarily into politics aligned with D’Annunzio and occasional attempts at romantic poetry written for his wife.

I tried to read “Pleasure” in Italian (“Il Piacere”) a year ago and became exhausted.  While it’s much easier in English (and I think it’s a pretty faithful translation of D’Annunzio’s flowery and sensual style), I got bogged down just the same.  While there’s suspense in the romance, I can’t connect with the protagonist, Count Andrea Sperelli.  He comes across as an effete dilettante obsessed with the physical beauty of everything from his drapes to the presentation of his food to the women he courts.  He lives in the silk and brocade world of high Roman nobility of the late 19th century, completely disconnected from the real world.

Aside from his incredibly deep knowledge of Italian art, Count Sperelli offers no redeeming qualities – no knowledge, no skills, no education, and no ambition other than to surround himself with the most beautiful things (including people) and get the most pleasure possible out of every moment.

D’Annunzio gets lots of literary credit for radically reshaping how to write about life and passion (and sex).  In “Pleasure,” he writes beautifully, the style reflecting the thoughts and character of his protagonist.  While Sperelli exhibits many of D’Annunzio’s values and life experience, the author – agree or disagree with his politics – had far more substance and I’ve enjoyed his biography, poetry and short stories more than his novels.  From a craft standpoint, this book is masterful, especially in the context of its time and place.  But after 100 pages, I can’t go on.  Back to the shelf it goes.

Plutarch’s “Parallel Lives” is also part of my homework.  My novel’s protagonist, Amedeo, is a historian, with some exposure to the classics, and a rationalist.  Amedeo’s thoughts about contemporary politics and economics reflect a deep reading of history, even deeper than mine.  When I discovered “Parallel Lives,” I knew intuitively it would have been a big influence on Amedeo.  So I figured I’d better read it.  But it’s a history; it’s well written narrative, it is at times fascinating, but it doesn’t have the kind of drama of a novel, so I can only read it a little at a time.  But I’ll get through it.

The other non-fiction book I’ve just read is “The Boys in the Boat,” about a University of Washington crew team’s epic quest for Olympic Gold in 1936.  Author Daniel Brown builds his story around one of the young men, Joe Rantz, giving the book a strong narrative arc tracing Rantz’ early life, his experience as a nearly penniless student at UW, and his development as an oarsman.  All leads to a thrilling finish – even though we know the outcome before we even open the book – at the Berlin Olympics as the boys navigate through a series of setbacks and at least two examples of outright cheating.  A great read, and it just might inspire me to try rowing.

Now, “Anna Karenina.”  I listened to an audio version years ago, much of it on a long drive from San Diego to Seattle.  I would sometimes sit in the car at my daily destination just to listen to the rest of the chapter.  A fellow writer suggested I take another look.  The rationale:  I write historical fiction.  Tolstoy writes historical fiction.  Just do what Tolstoy does.  Hah!

I read – well, actually, studied — the first chapter of this massive novel and then stopped.  I figured out I can’t read it in bed and get any craft learning out of it.  I have to study it at my desk. 

Finally, “The English Patient.”  I have very vivid memories of the movie, many of the scenes embedded in my brain and able to be called up instantly, in great detail and with intense emotion.  Perhaps that experience ruined the book for me.  I got in about 100 pages and became frustrated with Ondaatje’s structure.  It jumps around time and place in a way that made it hard for me to keep track.  Jess Walter’s “Beautiful Ruins” (covered in a previous post) does a fair amount of jumping around too, but I never felt lost or frustrated.  Was having seen the movie the difference?

Beautiful Ruins and The March

Posted by Mark on April 8th, 2014

 I’ve been sick for the past three weeks and, after the worst few days, when I could barely manage bare necessities, I was able to read.  Four books went through my hands:  “Beautiful Ruins,” by Jess Walter; “The March,” by E.L. Doctorow; “Unbroken,” by Lauren Hillenbrand; and “The Warmth of Other Suns,” by Isabel Wilkerson. Absolute must read:  “Beautiful Ruins.”

Runner up:  “The March.”

What do you suggest I read next?

I couldn’t finish “Unbroken” and “The Warmth of Other Suns.” Great writing, fascinating topics and periods, but ultimately exhausting.  Maybe if I’d been healthier, I’d have stuck with them, but even now, almost back to 80%, my hand just doesn’t want to go to them.

“Beautiful Ruins,” I loved.  Jess Walter is funny.  He brings to life a cast of diverse characters (including a hilarious and extended cameo by Richard Burton, the actor) and narrative threads that come together with both humor and heart.  Most impressive to me was how he came up with distinctive creative voices.  He did the first with a chapter of a novel written by one of the characters.  The second was a handful of songs, monologue and later a play written by another character.  Truly masterful.  Walter can also move backward and forward in time without losing momentum and narrative tension, an example hugely helpful to me as I work out a structure for my work-in-process novel.  Buy it.

In “The March,” E.L. Doctorow fictionalizes Sherman’s Civil War march through Georgia and the Carolinas.  It’s great Civil War history told through the experiences of a dozen or so characters that include freed slaves, more and less ethical Confederate and Union soldiers, a doctor, a photographer, fleeing civilians and Sherman himself.  Doctorow moves easily from story thread to story thread.  While none of the individual characters have a start-to-finish narrative arc, Doctorow manages to bring life to the march itself, meaning the 60,000 soldiers and tens of thousands of freed slaves that follow them.  Together they make a living entity, each human being like a cell in a vast, complex organism, the whole moving across the landscape at 15 to 20 miles per day, raising a cloud of dust, emanating a cacophonous roar and, like a tornado might, leaving a clear path of absolute devastation as it passes.  Buy this one too.

What have you read recently?  What should I read next?

Back to Work

Posted by Mark on December 12th, 2013

Since finishing my first complete draft of the manuscript for “Amedeo” back in the summer, I’ve received feedback from several sources that have led me to shelve book 2, “Lidija,” and begin another revision of “Amedeo.”  The feedback was very consistent:  beautiful, polished writing; terrific dialogue; great core story; too much exposition, slowing down the pace of the story; several instances of tension building and then not being resolved; sometimes not enough tension; some preaching.  In general, evidence of sticking too close to actual history, especially the family’s history, to the detriment of a good story.

Among the steps I’m taking is the creation of a detailed outline that includes what I call “tension analysis.”  I’m looking at each chapter and asking “What’s this chapter’s objective?”  I’m looking at each scene and asking “What’s the conflict, and the resulting question from the reader’s point of view?  What’s the action around that conflict?  How is the conflict resolved?  How does this scene contribute to the plot and/or the evolution of these characters?”

I’ve got a lot to learn.  Meanwhile, roll up the sleeves, sharpen the pencils, think everything through, and remember poetic license.