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.

In the Mouth of the Wolf vs Amedeo

Posted by Mark on January 2nd, 2015

I’ve settled on a new title for the novel formerly known as “Amedeo.”  Too many readers leapt from “Amedeo” to “Amadeus” and thought of Mozart.  The new title comes from the use in the opening scene of an old Italian wolf hunter’s good luck wish:  In bocca al lupo –  crepi il lupo.  Roughly translated:  If you’re in the mouth of the wolf, may the wolf choke on you and die.  The tone is comparable to the American theater phrase “Break a leg!”  I think “In the Mouth of the Wolf” as a title communicates the high stakes involved in the story and the phrase will intrigue readers.  It definitely speaks of a predicament!  Here’s the opening scene:  In the Mouth of the Wolf  (Note re: photo, I found it on a search for “wolf eating” but was unable to locate a photo credit)

A Quick Look Back

Posted by Mark on January 2nd, 2015

As a writer, I began the year with what I thought was a finished novel, “Amedeo.”  Thanks to excellent feedback through a Tom Jenks workshop and subsequent work with a new writing group formed from participants in that workshop, I put novel number two (“Lidija”) on hold and embarked on a complete rewrite of “Amedeo.”  I tried at least five different time frames, eventually settling on a chronological structure spanning 1900-1945.  At Jenks’ suggestion, I read “Anna Karenina” and found ways to go deep into my characters in order to add richness to the story.  I still have a cinematic style, but added the ability to zoom way in and get into multiple characters’ heads and hearts in the same scene.

I finished on Halloween, exactly four years to the day from when I sat down to write the first draft of “Amedeo.”  The following week, I attended another workshop called “Write to Market.”  I left with a new title, “In the Mouth of the Wolf,” and four thumbs up from the four agents I pitched there.  However, all said it’s too long, at 168K words (roughly 672 pages).  They want about half that, 85K/340 pages, saying no debut novel longer than 85K can be sold.  One asked for the first 50 plus suggestions on how to divide this book into two or three books.  I sent those, but no response yet.

When I told my prior readers about the length issue, all were outraged.  Nevertheless, I went back to my earlier attempt to use a 7-day structure (May 1-7, 1945) with flashbacks and created a draft in Scrivener.  After just cutting and pasting to get the right order (including what I view as necessary flashbacks) I got it down to 89K, within striking range.  However, I worry that I’ve lost the ability to show how Amedeo and Umberto evolve.  The flashbacks feel jarring, and there are probably too many of them.  It’s not “Parallel Lives” revisited anymore.  It’s a different book, and I’m not sure I like it.  I finished that rough redraft 10 days ago and have just let it sit.

In addition to my readers’ outrage, one reason I’ve resisted making the radical cuts and changing the time frame is the feedback I received from Tobias Wolff.  He was gracious enough to take a meeting with me the day after the “Write to Market” conference and in our discussion told me that a long book isn’t a bad thing, that readers enjoy immersing themselves in a good story.  Then he read my first two chapters and pronounced my work “quite publishable.”

I now have two other agents who want to see my first 50.  I’ll send them out, and we’ll see what happens.

Fatto. Done. On with number two!

Posted by Mark on October 31st, 2014

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.