Faith in the God-mystery: An interview with Catholic writer Alfred J. Garrotto
Most Recent Book: The Saint of Florenville: A Love Story
Education: Los Angeles College Preparatory Seminary–High School; St. John’s Seminary College (B.A. in Philosophy)/St. John’s Seminary Theologate, Brighton, Mass.
Current Employment: Lay Ecclesial Minister in a San Francisco Bay Area Catholic Parish
Profile: I am a person who has, in the terms of Soren Kierkegaard, lived forward and understood backwards. In the process, I have gained some wisdom as a result of my lived experience. I do my best to bring that experience – and wisdom, I hope – to my writing, both fiction and nonfiction.
List of Books Published:
The Saint of Florenville: A Love Story (novel)
The Wisdom of Les Miserables: Lessons From the Heart of Jean Valjean (nonfiction)
I’ll Paint a Sun (novel)
Down a Narrow Alley (novel)
Circles of Stone (novel)
Finding Isabella (novel)
A Love Forbidden (novel)
Christ in Our Lives (nonfiction)
Christians and Prayer (nonfiction)
Christians Reconciling (nonfiction)
Author Website: http://alfredjgarrotto.com
Author Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/alfred.j.garrotto
Author Blog: http://wisdomoflesmiserables.blogspot.com
Author Twitter Account: https://twitter.com/algarrotto
Favorite Novel: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Favorite Movie: The Tree of Life – Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain
Favorite Piece of Music: Turandot by Puccini
Favorite Meal: Pasta with meat sauce and Italian sausage
Last Book you read: The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Last Trip you took: Maui, Hawaii
Last non-literary feat you accomplished: Taking my 5-year-old grandson to Chuck E. Cheese’s during the Easter Break – and surviving.
Catholic Fiction.net: Why do you write?
Alfred J. Garrotto: I write because there is so much inside me that wants/needs to find expression. I’m not musically talented, but I do seem to be able to put sentences together that convey who I am and what it is that I want to express and offer to the world.
CF: What first inspired you to become a writer?
AG: I have always been an avid reader, so the written word has played a major role in my formation as a human being. I did not begin to write professionally, until I was in my forties. Prior to that, I had written some articles for school magazines. Then nothing for publication for the next 20 years. Then, it all started pouring out and it hasn’t stopped yet.
CF: If you were a critic writing about your own books, how would you describe the defining characteristic of your writing style?
AG: I’ve been told that I have a poetic voice and style, though I would not claim to be poet. I write compelling characters with whom readers can connect. I’m not long-winded. My novels are relatively short and easy to read. My aim is to tell the story and stop when it’s over, rather than drift off on tangents and carry on long after the story should have ended. My novels have been critically acclaimed as page-turners that keep readers up long past their bedtime.
CF: Is there a favorite place you have to write? Describe your usual workspace and writing routine.
AG: I do all my writing in my home office on a desktop computer. But I do my imagining while driving, in church, in sleep.
CF: What is your cure for writer’s block?
AG: I’ve never really experienced writer’s block. Having done a lot of writing for hire in my freelance career, I could not afford to stare at the screen waiting for inspiration.
CF: What is your cure for procrastination?
AG: Just do it. I’m a pretty disciplined writer once I am into a project.
CF: Describe in your own words what the “Catholic imagination” is – or alternative, what it means to be a “Catholic writer.”
AG: That’s a great question. I liked what Editor Joseph O’Brien wrote on this topic in his Introduction to “2012 Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction–Selected Short Stories.” He refers to the term, “Catholic fiction,” as being “a slippery affair.” The main characters in my books are usually Catholic in all ranges of the meaning of that word. Terrible things might happen to these characters in the course of the stories, but at the end there is always a resolution that empowers them to be more than they were before . . . on a path to becoming a better version of themselves.
CF: What three writers – alive or dead – would you like to invite to dinner? Why?
Victor Hugo – I want to ask him how he could write such an amazing Catholic novel that is, to me, the greatest novel ever written, when his personal life was anything but a model of virtue.
Ron Hansen – author of many fine Catholic novels, including Exiles and Atticus. I’ve met Ron and had lunch with him once at a California Writers Club event at which he was the guest speaker. He is also an ordained deacon for the Diocese of San Jose.
Carlos Ruiz Zafon – author of the New York Times bestselling novel The Prisoner of Heaven. This Catalonian author (who divides his time between Barcelona and Los Angeles) is a marvelous writer and would be a fascinating dinner guest.
CF: What is the “best thing” about being a writer? And what do you enjoy most?
AG: There are two “best things” about being a writer. First, there is the pleasure of writing itself, the pleasure of storytelling, the pleasure of sharing my life and thoughts with readers and having them respond – for better or worse. Second, I really enjoy hanging out with other writers and do so mainly in the California Writers Club, Mount Diablo Branch (San Francisco East Bay Area). We encourage each other, commiserate, and share each other’s successes. I have enjoyed great friendships in my writing community (most members of whom are published). Best of all, I have found them to be generous in sharing what they know and without great self-inflating egos.
AG: The Saint of Florenville: A Love Story is a wedding of The Thorn Birds and Silence of the Lambs.
CF: What inspired you to write this story in the first place?
AG: I woke up on the morning of July 26, 2010, with this story almost fully formed in my mind. All I had to do was write it, which took a year. The personal historical basis is that I did spend a day sightseeing in Bruges, Belgium, with a Belgian nun that I had met in the United States. Then the ‘what-ifs’ took over. What if the male character were a priest? And, what if a psychopath kidnapped them and held them prisoner in his basement for a year?
CF: All fiction comes from a mix of past influences and impressions – things we’ve lived, seen, imagined, or read. Can you talk about some of the elements that came together to shape this particular fiction?
AG: Having been educated in a seminary setting and having worked among priests and nuns my whole adult life, I know the religious way of life quite intimately.
CF: What did you learn about yourself in writing this book?
AG: I learned something new about the sacrament of reconciliation and the Eucharist. Especially, I learned a lot about the priesthood of the laity (all Catholic Christians . . . all Christians, in fact). I learned that I need to be open to the evolution of theology and practice within my own faith community.
CF: What did you have to do to prepare for this book in terms of research?
AG: I am not an avid researcher. I used guide books to refresh my memory of Bruges, Belgium. I’m the kind of writer who stays within my own realm of knowledge and experience and tries to deepen my understanding of facts I already know – or think I do.
CF: How does this book differ from either a) previous books you’ve written or b) other writing work you’ve accomplished?
AG: The Saint of Florenville: A Love Story is the most intense and gripping of all my novels – spiritually, psychologically, and theologically. There is also more suspense in this story than in the others.
CF: What was the most challenging aspect – a character, a plot point, etc. – of writing this book?
AG: Most challenging was to take on and get inside the experience of two people who endured the most horrible of suffering. They had only each other to rely on for support – and love.
CF: Which characters in this book did you find most challenging to work with, and what was it like to write with them? Conversely, do you have any characters that came particularly easily to you?
AG: The most challenging was the nun, Sister Marie-Therese Du Chen. But, I’ve had many women ask me since the release of the book, “How can you write women characters so well?” I guess that’s an affirmation that I was on target there. The psychopath was difficult. How can one imagine a human being who is so capable of remorseless evil?
CF: Creating a work of fiction is a spiritual journey in itself. Can you talk about your own spiritual life – realizations, doubts, crises, calmings, etc. – that came during the writing of this work?
AG: Yes, The Saint of Florenville: A Love Story did take me on a spiritual journey. As my characters struggled to find God in the horror of their captivity experience, they challenged me to find God in the difficult problems in my own life and ministry (which are trivial by comparison with these characters’ problems).
CF: Name one good habit you do have as a writer and would like to continue to cultivate.
AG: I have an active imagination, nurtured by my faith in the God-mystery that challenges and supports my ‘Catholic imagination.’
CF: Name one bad habit you have as a writer that you would like to break.
AG: Lazy proofreading of my own text.
CF: What one book by another author do you wish you had written?
AG: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
CF: What one book by another author are you glad you hadn’t written?
AG: Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolve
CF: What is the most discouraging aspect of being a writer?
AG: Insufficient time to devote to my own writing. I still work almost full time in parish ministry.
CF: What one project do you daydream about accomplishing as a writer – your magnum opus?
AG: I just submitted a screenplay version of The Saint of Florenville: A Love Story to a Hollywood producer who is interested in the project.
CF: If you could no longer work with words, what medium would you work in to create art?
AG: I would love to be an operatic tenor (but I can’t sing very well).