Sunday, September 29, 2013

My interview with Room of Tears author Linda Merlino

I’ve been a fan of Linda Merlino and her work since I first came across her novel, Belly of the Whale (2008). Reading that novel was, for me, a discovery of a fresh voice in literature that should be heard.
When Linda sent me the galleys for her newest novel, Room of Tears, published by Imajin Books in July 2013, I once again became immersed in the story she had created, and I wrote the book blurb for the novel:

"I've just put down Room of Tears, Linda Merlino's second novel, and I am still sitting in that pool of shimmering light that a good book tosses over us, a translucent mantle that momentarily suspends the reader in time and space and life as we know it. A little something like being caught in a drop of suddenly solidified amber, I imagine. Merlino's writing is that gorgeous, and her skill at telling a story that transports the reader from disbelief to a state of astounded belief is matched by few, perhaps not any. Room of Tears does all of these things to us, its readers. It requires courage and extraordinary skill to build a story on the backdrop of the nation's tragedy of 9/11, but Merlino has built an original story that moves us through the still-fresh pain to a place of hope in the future. She makes us believe. She makes us believe in miracles."  —Zinta Aistars, founder and editor-in-chief of The Smoking Poet

Description of Room of Tears:

Out of tragedies come heroes and miracles…

At 9:59 a.m. on September 11, 2001, Diane O’Connor’s life as a firefighter’s wife changes forever shattering her faith. She writes daily of her sadness and four decades later she still keeps a note she wrote on 9/11 to her husband, Billy, hanging on her kitchen cabinet in Queens, the paper yellowed with age.

In the summer of 2041, Diane invites Friar Antonio Ortiz to her home. He is a man destined to become counsel to the first American pope—her son, Peter. Antonio asks no questions and arrives in secret, promising to wait nineteen years until Peter’s papal election before passing Diane's journal to him. Only then will Billy’s story be told, along with answers to Peter’s questions about his father’s last days.

First Edition ebook ISBN:978-1-927792-08-7
First Edition trade paperback ISBN: 978-1-927792-10-0

Zinta: Linda, Room of Tears has been off the presses since July. What kind of reception has your newest work received? You’ve chosen to write about a topic that has been important in recent American history, and we just saw its anniversary date again just a short while ago. It’s not an easy subject to address, and sensitive to very many.

Linda Merlino
Linda: Room of Tears has been well received.  Most readers understand that the book is meant to be a stand-alone novel, despite being written on the delicate canvas of 9/11. Early reviews drew praise for honoring those lost in 9/11-calling Room of Tears a tribute book which was very flattering, but in doing this sidestepped the real story of the lost firefighter’s son becoming the first American pope. Most publishers and some agents backed off from anything that hinted of religion, even homogenized religion, preferring to focus on the tragedy of the World Trade Center. Ironically 9/11 sprung from a clash of ideologies and the beliefs of what awaits in the hereafter.  September 11, 2001 is indelible. Everyone remembers where they were – what they were doing.  I wanted to take that core knowing and push the buttons on it – try to raise the level of consciousness to a place where a reader could poke into the corners of the unknown and find solace – answers – miracles. Room of Tears takes readers on a journey spread across six decades where memories can grow dim and through a fictional future asks those same readers to never forget.

Zinta: How did you come up with the idea for this novel? Did you read other works about 9/11 to see how other authors had handled it?

Linda: One seed for the story came from reading suppressed articles about the people who escaped the burning towers by leaping from the buildings – especially the North Tower. People in the South Tower were told to stay at their desks but when they saw men and women falling past their windows they fled. The people who jumped were the unsung, first heroes – but their actions were misunderstood and their stories never told. A second seed came in 2005 when Pope John Paul II died leaving a hole in the religious world, particularly for Catholics. The pope is a universal, public figure whose power reaches across the abyss of politics and organized religion.  Pairing the two events and conceiving the idea of an American pope I reached into the spectral possibilities of a higher power’s plan arising from devastating loss. These two seeds and the chance encounter with a firefighter’s wife gave me the courage to pursue what often seemed like a daunting task.

There are only a few works of fiction that mention 9/11 – like my book they use 9/11 as the backdrop.  The most widely read books available are non-fiction.   I chose to read the non-fiction Firehouse  by David Halberstam and a few others suggested to me by my “angel” firefighter’s wife whose husband survived 9/11 because he had a doctor’s appointment that day.

Zinta: What kind of research did you do as you wrote the book? I recently visited the 9/11 Memorial in New York City and it is a very moving place to be. For all the material around us about that day, I learned things I didn’t know prior to my visit. If you’ve been there, what was that like for you?

Linda: The research was overwhelming at times bringing me to a halt for days.  I have not yet visited the 9/11 Memorial but I watched many documentaries and news features of its beginnings – its progress - and its completion.  My plan is to visit the memorial before the end of the year. 

Zinta: Was anyone close to you involved on that day?

Linda:  I know several people who lost loved ones – husbands-sons-brothers. The one person lost most significant to me was a wonderful woman I met in 1977 when I first moved to Connecticut. As a newcomer I became involved with a local museum and she became my mentor, guiding me in those early days with so much kindness.  In some ways she became an adopted mother as my own mother lived at a distance. On September 11, 2001 she and her husband were on board hijacked flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon killing all fifty-nine passengers, crew and terrorists as well as one hundred twenty-five people on the ground.  

Zinta: Once written, you were no doubt faced with selling the manuscript about a topic already addressed by many in many ways. What challenges did that present?

Linda: As I mentioned before many publishers and agents were uncomfortable with a manuscript that had any mention of the Vatican.  Considering the DaVinci Code is a hugely popular novel I wasn’t convinced not to argue the point.  My agent who read the manuscript gave me many solid pieces of advice.  She was not put off by the American pope idea but focused on the concept of being more genre specific – such as religious/paranormal.  I couldn’t bring myself to agree – the story is literary fiction not genre specific. 

Fortunately for me I have an incredible Indie publisher, Imajin Books, who loves my writing and re-released my first novel, now titled Hudson Catalina, and was thrilled to accept Room of Tears without questions.

Zinta: You’ve said that you are a fan of Joseph Campbell (so am I), and that he has inspired your work. How is that?

Linda: The Power of Myth and The Hero with a Thousands Faces are dog eared with my reading and re-reading. Mr. Campbell’s simple approach to life through mythology offers me the wisdom needed to tackle daily life.  Follow your bliss he said – and through my writing I do just that…

Zinta: Another inspiration you've often spoken of for your writing—your children. Did they inspire you for this novel, too?

Linda: My children, now grown with their own children, have always been my number one fans. Each supports me in their own way urging me to stay on my path and follow my dream. I dedicated Room of Tears to my grandchildren – how amazing is that?

Zinta: What do you hope your readers find in reading your work?

Linda:  If nothing else, may readers find hope within the pages of my work and the incentive to be whatever they dreamed they could be – no matter their age or circumstance.

Zinta: Are you planning special events, book tours and such, for Room of Tears?

Linda: As I answer these questions I am preparing for a midnight radio interview on WBZ 1030 Boston Radio.  I am also speaking at a writer’s conference this weekend and have library events stacking up in the months ahead.

Zinta: And, Linda, we fans want to know: what are you working on now?

Linda: My next project will veer off the literary fiction spectrum and venture into the young adult fiction world.  My family has asked that I write a story about Thanksmas.  Our invented every-other-year holiday that combines both Thanksgiving and Christmas created to allow adult children and their partners to have guilt free holidays.   We gather as a family and have the BEST time – so good that Thanksmas has become our favorite.  My story will be fiction – but Thanksmas is not.

Zinta: Thank you, Linda. Always a pleasure to have you visit, always a pleasure to learn about a good book.

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